A hundred years this week, a new weekly made its appearance in Johannesburg. Its raison d’etre, as expressed in the inaugural issue, was that ‘the Indian community in South Africa is a recognized factor in the body politic, and a newspaper, voicing its feelings, and specially devoted to its cause, would hardly be considered out of place; indeed, we think, it would supply a longfelt want’.
The journal was called Indian Opinion, and its prime mover was a thirty-three-year-old lawyer named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The weekly aimed, in the first instance, to represent the grievances of South African Indians to the rulers: and especially to urge the removal of barriers to settlement and employment considered ‘undeserved and unjust’. A second aim was to unite the diverse elements among the diaspora; as the journal wrote, ‘we are not, and ought not to be, Tamils or Calcutta men, Mohamedans or Hindus, Brahmans or Banyas, but simply and solely British Indians, and as such we must sink or swim together’. To this end, Indian Opinion was published in as many as four languages: English, Hindi, Tamil, and Gujarati.
To make the white man sensitive to coloured needs and aspirations, and to unite the diaspora, were the two principal objectives. But there was also a third: to make Indians more sensitive to their own frailties. As a note in the first issue put it: ‘We are far from assuming that the Indians here are free from all the faults that are ascribed to them. Wherever we find them to be at fault, we will unhesitatingly point it out and suggest means for their removal’. To turn the torch inwards was typical of Gandhi; as was the desire, also expressed in the first issue itself, to invite contributions from ‘competent writers’ of all races and nationalities.
The early years of Indian Opinion are the subject of a fascinating essay by the Cape Town-based historian Uma Mesthrie. She points out that Gandhi’s journal was not in fact the first Indian newspaper in South Africa. That honour goes to the Indian World, a periodical started in 1898 by an expatriate from Madras named P. S. Aiyar. This paper soon folded up, but in 1901 Aiyar launched another called Colonial Indian News. However, he operated in the province of Natal, thus leaving the Transvaal, where Gandhi lived, open for a journal of its own.
Mesthrie also pays due attention to the men who helped Gandhi run Indian Opinion in its formative years. They included Madanjit Viyavaharik, a former Bombay schoolteacher who was the periodical’s first proprietor and printer; and M. H. Nazar, originally from Surat, who was its first editor. Two Westerners played a critical role in its financing and production. These were Henry Polak and Albert West, both of whom, appropriately enough, Gandhi first met in a vegetarian restaurant. Also indispensable in the making of Indian Opinion was Gandhi’s nephew Chhaganlal, who was assigned a bania’s duties of keeping the accounts and collecting the advertisements.
Some later historians of a Marxist bent have seen Indian Opinion as reflecting the class bias of the merchants who financed it. The journal did indeed take up questions of taxation and trade that affected the merchants. But it also vigorously polemicized on behalf of Indian indentured labourers. And on occasion it took up the cause of the Africans, writing of their dispossession by European farmers, and of the ‘anomaly’ whereby they could not get to represent themselves in Parliament.
Gandhi once said of Indian Opinion that ‘week after week I poured out my soul in columns expounding my principles and practices of Satyagraha… The journal became for me a training in self-restraint, and for friends a medium through which to keep in touch with my thoughts’. After Gandhi’s departure from South Africa in 1914, the journal carried on its fight on behalf of the Indian community. From 1918 to 1956 Indian Opinion was edited by his son Manilal Gandhi, whose own devotion to the task has been recorded by his daughter Ela: ‘I recall my father wading through stacks of newspapers and [agency] reports selecting items for publication and writing suitable titles, [and] arranging the stories and writing the editorial in the early parts of the morning. It was his habit to rise at 2 a. m. and work until 5 a. m. Then he would go for a long walk passing through Ohlange and Shembe villages on his way home’.
So long as he was in South Africa, Indian Opinion was both a mirror to Gandhi’s ideas and a voice for his movement. In his Autobiography, he claimed that ‘satyagraha would probably have been impossible without Indian Opinion’. It was this belief that inspired him to begin a journal of his own in India. Thus in 1919 he started the weekly Young India, to promote his views on politics and religion and a hundred other topics besides. Fourteen years later the periodical changed its name, to Harijan, but its aims were unchanged: to serve as a vehicle for the thoughts and struggles of India’s most influential man.
The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, that run to almost a hundred volumes, draw massively from his writings in the three journals he founded and edited. To dip into these volumes at random, or with focused intent, is to be acquainted not only with the originality of Gandhi the thinker, but also with the persuasiveness of Gandhi the writer. As Sunil Khilnani observes, like Jawaharlal Nehru Gandhi wrote English well enough to have made, if he had so wished, a living through journalism. One reason he wrote the foreign tongue as well as he did was that he ‘ruthlessly excised’ from his own work the exaggeration and melodrama so characteristic of Indian writing. Thus Gandhi’s prose came to be marked, in Khilnani’s words, by ‘the clarity of its argumentation and the directness of its expression’.
No one knew Gandhi’s prose style better than Krishnaswami Swaminathan. This Chief Editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi was himself a retired Professor of English Literature. Now in his school-leaving examination the young Mohandas had obtained a mere 44. 5 % in English. But residence in London, wide reading, and diligent practice made him a decent practitioner of written English by the time he had turned thirty. Reading and re-reading his vast output, Professor Swaminathan came to marvel at the transparent simplicity of his literary style. Gandhi’s prose, remarked Swaminathan, ‘is a natural expression of his democratic temper. There is no conscious ornamentation, no obtrusive trick of style calling attention to itself. The style is a blend of the modern manner of an individual sharing his ideas and experiences with his readers, and the impersonal manner of the Indian tradition in which the thought is more important than the person expounding it. The sense of equality with the common man is the mark of Gandhi’s style and the burden of his teaching. To feel and appreciate this essence of Gandhi the man, in his writings and speeches, is the best education for true democracy’.