“Never forget.” These are the words that we see broadcast across television advertisements, billboards, and news programs across the American landscape whenever we approach today’s date, September 11. What exactly is it that they never want us to forget? That we responded to a violent act with greater violence and it made the world less safe for everyone? That we allowed ourselves to be misled into a hopeless state of war that few among us truly understood? Or do they mean, “never forget” as in “never forgive”? My sense is probably that it has to do with the latter; an invitation to a perpetual state of violence and insecurity. But then I hear Gandhiji whisper the same words, “Never forget.” What is he doing here, saying the same thing, you wonder?
Here’s a fun and extremely useful nonviolence fact: September 11 is the birthday of Satyagraha, soul-force, clinging to Truth, love in action, the method that Gandhi developed and made into a science over a long career spanning decades of direct practice and experimentation. It was September 11, 1906 and Gandhi and his colleagues had called a meeting to discuss resistance to the Indian Registration Act in South Africa, about which Gandhi said, “shocked him” and “expressed nothing in it but a hatred of Indians.” The ultimate aim of the act was to force Indians to either live as servants in South Africa or to return to India, and it was being watched as an example for other districts as to how they could “successfully” marginalize and discriminate against Indians. Something had to be done to strike such an example at its root, Gandhi was convinced.
At this historic meeting, Gandhi’s colleague Seth Haji Habib suggested that all of those present take a vow to resist the act with extreme dedication. Gandhi watched with interest as the entire room, packed to the brim, seemed to support this idea. But, he thought, if this resistance is really going to make an impact, this vow must be taken in all seriousness, in all consciousness of what it would entail. A vow, he told them, is not something that one simply gives up if it seems inconvenient, one takes on suffering for the sake of a vow, on principle.
While Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi dramatized this meeting and Gandhi’s momentous speech to the crowd on the meaning of their oath, here are his actual words, recalled by the Mahatma himself in his book, Satyagraha in South Africa. He describes in detail the consequences of taking the vow of nonviolence over violence, even if one is in a position to use violence:
“We might have to go to jail, where we might be insulted. We might have to go hungry and suffer extreme heat or cold. Hard labour might be imposed upon us. We might be flogged by rude warders. We might be fined heavily and our property might be attached and held up to auction if there are only a few resisters left. Opulent today we might be reduced to abject poverty tomorrow. We might be deported. Suffering from starvation and similar hardships in jail, some of us might fall ill and even die. In short, therefore, it is not at all impossible that we might have to endure every hardship that we can manage, and wisdom lies in pledging ourselves on the understanding that we shall have to suffer all that and worse. (…) But I can boldly declare, and with certainty, that so long as there is even a handful of men true to their pledge, there can only be one end to the struggle, and that is victory.”
With these words, nonviolent struggle took on a new life, a new force that would impact the world forever. He had issued a call to express and endure a love so great that it could end the threat of violence and terror. How about not forgetting that!? And if our media won’t do it, let us do the broadcasting ourselves: we have a choice to go beyond violence for good.
Share the story of Satyagraha’s birth today.
The Metta Center for Nonviolence, PO Box 98, Petaluma, California 94953 707-774-6299 firstname.lastname@example.org