File photo of Manilal Gandhi |
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New Delhi: History is generally unfair to great people’s progeny. No matter what they achieve, they are always judged on the basis of the high standards set by their famous parents.

The problem gets compounded if that famous parent happens to be Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi. His two sons — Harilal and Manilal — not only had some big shoes to fill, but were also expected to do so by operating within some peculiar constraints set by their father.

American journalist Louis Fischer notes in his biography of Gandhi — Mahatma Gandhi His Life and Times — his sons were resentful of their father’s reluctance to give them a formal education, something they considered necessary. Any account of Gandhi’s sons, thus, needs to start with an understanding of their unique position.

Gandhi’s second son, Manilal, always endeavoured hard to stay as true to the Gandhian ethos as possible. Former South African President Nelson Mandela had once recalled that Manilal’s “gentle demeanour seemed the personification of non-violence”.

Manilal was the editor of Indian Opinion from 1918 onwards. Indian Opinion was a newspaper started by Gandhi in 1903 in South Africa. Manilal also played an important role in the struggle of Indians and Africans against the oppressive regime in South Africa, courting arrest multiple times.

ThePrint remembers Manilal Gandhi on his 63rd death anniversary that falls on 5 April.

Early life

Manilal was born on 28 October 1892, and made his first trip to South Africa in 1896 — a country where he spent the most part of his life. From an early age, his father’s philosophy shaped Manilal’s own worldview. Though Manilal would err occasionally, but he never quite left the path charted by his father.

Louis Fischer recounts in his book that when Gandhi in 1901 decided to return to India, he was felicitated and showered with expensive gifts. He decided to return them, but faced stiff opposition from his wife Kasturba. He, however, won over his sons with his arguments.

Gandhi returned to South Africa the next year (1902), and subsequently, so did the family. In June 1906, the family shifted to a communal farm named Phoenix.

Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, Manilal’s granddaughter, in her book ‘Gandhi’s Prisoner? The Life of Gandhi’s Son Manilal’ provides a detailed account of the impact of Phoenix on Manilal’s evolution.

While discussing the family’s imminent shift, Uma writes, “Phoenix and Manilal’s life would become intertwined in ways he could hardly imagine”. Therein, he undertook laborious tasks, worked on the land, spent time in the press assisting in the publication process, and tended to the elderly and sick. He also understood the value of a communal life, and came of age when he voluntary courted arrest for the first time.

Uma writes that Manilal was arrested on 14 January 1910 for illegally hawking on the streets of Johannesburg. Given a choice between a 10-day imprisonment and a 30-shilling fine, Manilal chose the former. In prison, Manilal raised the demand for a drinking water cup. For this, Manilal was put under solitary confinement. Without relenting, Manilal continued the demand, which resulted in a separate bucket of water and cup for Indian prisoners, and lifting of his solitary confinement. These actions seemed natural from  Gandhi’s son.

Also read: H. N. Bahuguna, ‘Natwarlal’ who refused to take Indira Gandhi’s ‘son’ across Uttar Pradesh

Suppressed dreams

While Manilal always tried to remain steadfast on the path shown by his father, there were moments when he faltered, or simply suppressed his desires.

Uma discusses one such incident in her book. In July 1913, Gandhi received the news that he described as “came upon me like a thunderbolt”. It was learnt that Manilal was in a secret relationship with Jeki, a married girl living at Phoenix and daughter of his father’s friend Pranjivan Mehta.

Upset by the news, Gandhi decided to fast for seven days without food or water, and rely on just one meal a day for the next four-and-half months. Deeply disturbed by his father’s decision and perhaps as a sort of repentance, Manilal decided to join his father in fasting.

On various other occasions, Manilal, without quite understanding his father’s reasoning, simply accepted his decision. For instance, despite Manilal’s desire to acquire a formal education, Gandhi didn’t allow it. But unlike his older brother Harilal, Manilal, in the words of former BBC journalist Mark Tully, “never revolted against his father’s advice on his education, or the career he should pursue”.

Similarly, as Uma writes in Writing the life of Manilal Mohandas Gandhi that Gandhi didn’t allow Manilal to marry a Muslim girl. Without clearly refusing to approve the marriage, Gandhi told Manilal that if he marries the Muslim girl, he can neither edit Indian Opinion nor can he return to India. Manilal decided to acquiesce to his father’s wishes. Later, in 1927, Manilal married a Hindu woman, Sushila, with whom he had three children — two daughters and one son.

On road to Satyagraha

In Gandhi and Indian Nationalism in South Africa, Uma provides an account of Manilal’s satyagraha journey. In 1919 in Durban, Indian passengers were required to take seats either at the rear or on top of a tramcar. Manilal, on one instance, refused to take up a particular seat and then told the court, “One had a right to refuse to do what one’s conscience said was wrong.”

Manilal, who returned to India in 1929 for a brief period, was also one of the 78 people who accompanied Gandhi on his famous 1930 Dandi March. He also served a 10-month prison term for his involvement in the march to Dharasana Salt works that followed soon after Dandi.

After his release from jail, Manilal returned to South Africa. American writer and activist Homer A. Jack discusses some of Manilal’s resistance campaigns there. In 1946, Manilal was imprisoned for a month for participating in a satyagraha in Durban. In 1948, he led a march of Indians to protest against a law that forbade Indians from crossing provincial boundaries.

In June 1952, Defiance Campaign was launched in South Africa. It was a large-scale non-violent movement against the apartheid regime and included people from all racial groups under the leadership of African National Congress and South African Indian Congress.

Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie notes that Manilal feared the campaign might turn violent, and thus, initially didn’t participate in it. However, when that didn’t happen, and the campaign retained “some closeness to core principles of satyagraha”, Manilal joined it. For that, he was imprisoned for 50 days when he entered an area dominated by “black” population without permission.

As editor of Indian Opinion, Manilal also shifted its focus from the rights of Indians to the larger issue of human rights. He continued to be its editor till his death on 5 April 1956.

On his death, India’s then President Rajendra Prasad wrote, “Indians in South Africa have lost a prominent leader…The whole Indian community…needed the help, cooperation and guidance of men of his type”.

Also read: The two family members of Mahatma Gandhi who dared to disagree with him


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