‘Between Two Fires’: Racial Populism, Indian Resistance and the Beginnings of Satyagraha in the Transvaal, 1902–06

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© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.In revisiting the historical circumstances leading up to the birth of satyagraha in the Transvaal in September 1906, this article seeks to place white popular protests against Asians within the same frame of analysis as Indian active nonviolence. In doing so it makes two interrelated arguments. First, I suggest that the evolution of satyagraha is better understood when examined in tandem with racial populism. Indian resistance to Transvaal laws was forged in a hostile, violent and racially charged environment. Gandhi and his followers were well aware of the power of white populism and its political influence over the Transvaal administration, and came to realise that some form of mass action of their own would be needed to counter this influence and achieve their political objectives. Second, I argue that it was the express intention of both white racial populists and the Gandhian resistance movement to exploit the competing imperial priorities of the Transvaal and British governments. The widespread agitation led by the White League and other organisations threatened the stability and authority of the colonial state; and so governors Milner and Selborne sought to appease settler opinion by enacting discriminatory legislation. However, London’s and Calcutta’s sensitivity to prejudice directed against British Indians in southern Africa also opened the door to anti-colonial protest, with Gandhi and his supporters generating support and sympathy in Britain and India by agitating for the repeal of unjust laws. The Transvaal administration was therefore forced to pick its way between white populists, Indian protesters, and imperial oversight and censure; and its anti-Indian policies were shaped by these contradictory pressures.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)622-648
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Imperial and Commonwealth History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2016


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