Thumbs, Fingers and Scientific Indentification: Gandhi, Smuts and the Origins of Satyagraha

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Seminar Date
October 22, 2008
On the 10th of February 1908 Gandhi was walking with friends north along Von Brandis Street in central Johannesburg, making his way to the Asiatic Registrar’s Office in the square which now bears his name. He was confronted by a group of ex-Indian Army veterans, Pashtuns who had remained in the Transvaal after Lord Roberts’ forces had decamped. One of them, Mir Alam Khan, asked Gandhi where he was going. “I propose to take out a registration certificate, giving the ten fingerprints,” Gandhi replied, “If you go with me, I will first get you a certificate, with an impression of only the two thumbs, and then I will take one for myself, giving the finger-prints.” In reply the Pashtuns began beating him with sticks and an iron bar. Gandhi’s supporters tried to protect him, carrying him away to the offices of a friend, and then to the home of a non-conformist minister where he refused to prosecute his assailants because they “thought I had sold the community by having agreed to finger-impressions with the Government.” Historians have tended to explain this assault - one of the key events of Gandhi’s life - by pointing to the difficulty he faced in explaining the ideas of his new political philosophy. “Many Indians, struggling unsuccessfully with Gandhi’s concept of honour,” Maureen Swan observed, “had taken hold of the idea that it was contained in resisting the regulations of Act 2 which called for a full set of fingerprints from applicants for registration certificates.”2 Yet there can be little doubt that risk to honour was behind the assault on Gandhi, and an identical attack on the Chairman of the British Indian Association in May. For Gandhi, and his allies, had worked assiduously for months before the assault to represent ten fingerprint registration as a mortal threat to the honour of Indians, in South Africa and globally. Key to this argument was the danger that fingerprinting posed to the respectability of Indian women and children. The “gendered discourse of national honour” that Radhika Mongia has recently traced in the successful mobilization of Satyagraha to defend Indian marriages in 1913 has roots in the fingerprinting campaign. Gandhi’s effort to redefine honour around the decontextualized issues of compulsion and dignity after the compromise with Smuts in January 1908 flew in the face of this gendered, and deeply emotional, doctrine.
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