Al-Ahram: A Diwanof contemporary life (473)
Gandhi in Egypt
Mahatma Gandhi's visit to Egypt in 1931 was greeted with jubilation within Egyptian nationalist circles urging them to draw many comparisons between the struggles of India and Egypt for independence from British colonial rule. ProfessorYunan Labib Rizk* recovers Al-Ahram 's coverage of that historic visit and the lively political debate it spurred
The warmth that characterised Egyptian-Indian relations in the 1950s and 1960s and that was personified in the figures of Gamal Abdel- Nasser and Jawaharlal Nehru was not a purely fortuitous coincidence. Rather this close bond had roots that extended back through 20th century history and beyond.
We note, for example, that most of the British High Commissioners to Cairo were products of the British colonialist school in India. Prominent among these was Sir Evelyn Baring, later Lord Cromer, who ruled Egypt with his iron grip for nearly a quarter of a century (1883-1907). The same applied to most British officials occupying senior posts in the Egyptian army and sensitive ministries, such as the ministries of irrigation and finance.
It is also significant that, in the early 1920s, nationalist tensions were so rife in India that the British chose the Seychelles for Saad Zaghlul's second exile. Ceylon, where the nationalist leader had spent his first exile, was uncomfortably close to India, prompting the governor-general to caution London that if Zaghlul were sent there he would become a symbol for Indian revolutionaries.
With the same overlords and similar aspirations for independence it was only natural for Egyptians to take an interest in nationalist developments in India, which took a unique turn in the early 1930s. But they had many other reasons. Like Egypt, India too was suffering from the global depression, but the nationalists there exploited it in an unfamiliar way. In India, the maharajas were the counterpart to the sultans and kings of Abdin Palace, who, in the Sidqi era in particular, succeeded in securing considerable autocratic powers with British support. The Indians, however, handled a similar situation differently; through civil disobedience. Finally, there was that legendary figure who drew the attention of the whole world. Mahatma Gandhi had a special resonance among Egyptians as well, whom he reminded of Saad Zaghlul.
Al-Ahram reflected this interest in its coverage of the mounting acts of nonviolent resistance in India in the spring of 1930. On 4 March it reported that Gandhi asked village government officials to resign en masse and farmers to withdraw their relatives from government service as part of a campaign to boycott government services, governments and schools. "Lawyers will advise civil servants, should they be willing, on how to withhold their taxes," the report added.
The newspaper also depicts one of the first arenas of confrontation: the salt tax. The situation was reminiscent of the American opposition to British-imposed taxes. However, whereas Americans resorted to a violent form of resistance -- in their famous Boston Tea Party when they sunk British ships carrying tea -- the Indians adopted a different approach. In order to avoid paying the colonial authorities this tax, Indian conscientious objectors sought to obtain this vital substance anywhere but from the government stores that held the monopoly. Parties of volunteers headed off to areas where natural salt deposits could be mined and made the substance available to consumers at a token price. The Al-Ahram correspondent in Bombay relates that the volunteers included many women "who have begun to sell the smuggled salt, attractively packaged, in urban quarters for very reasonable prices". He adds that this act of resistance extended to Bengal where clashes erupted between volunteers and the police, who tried to confiscate the salt but without success.
When colonial authorities reduced the salt tax enough to lower the price of the commodity to little more than that with which it could be obtained from the volunteers, Gandhi declared that much more was involved than the price of salt. The Indian non-co-operation campaign sought to eliminate British presence, towards which end it would take advantage of Britain's economic crisis. In a speech in Mangalore, the nationalist leader predicted that the British would soon abolish the salt tax. However, there was another bastion to conquer: foreign textiles. "If India can rid itself of this evil, it would save 600 million rupees a year," he said. To drive his stand for domestic industry home, Gandhi made himself an example, purchasing a small spinning wheel and loom upon which he wove a light, humble loincloth and shawl, which became his trademark.
A third bastion to bring down was the trade in alcoholic beverages. "The country currently spends at least 250 million rupees on these substances -- a not insignificant sum that could strengthen the power of the people to fight in the battle of the national struggle." Gandhi urged his fellow countrymen to refrain from alcohol consumption and instigated another drive to recruit volunteers to post themselves outside bars and inns to persuade Indians against going in.
Frustrated at their inability to curb the momentum of the passive resistance movement, British authorities arrested Gandhi. Beneath the headline, "Dramatic details of Gandhi's arrest", Al-Ahram relates that, on 4 May 1930, a contingent of armed police cordoned off the compound of the ascetic Indian leader in Surat, after which the chief police inspector at the head of a twenty-member force approached. Inside the compound, Gandhi's supporters had been asleep, unaware of the impending danger. "Suddenly, they awoke to the glare of floodlights from every direction and the sound of the approaching feet. Gandhi, who had been sleeping in the open air outside his hut, opened his eyes to find that he was surrounded by police. He smiled and asked the police chief, 'Am I wanted?' The official answered in the affirmative and ordered Gandhi's arrest. Gandhi thanked him and asked if he might first be allowed to perform his prayers. Permission was granted. He then was taken away, taken aboard a separate car in a train and transported to a location approximately 130 miles south of Bombay."
Gandhi's arrest only intensified the campaign of passive resistance, a philosophy and tactic that succeeded as much in scoring nationalist gains as it did in demoralising British forces and winning international sympathy. The more police attacked, beat and dragged away unresisting sit-down strikers, the more reluctant they became to inflict such cruelties, especially when demonstrations were mounted in which hundreds of thousands of victims of violence took part. From Bombay, the Al-Ahram correspondent reports, "Police are disinclined to clash with the passive demonstrators who refuse all recourse to violence. In Peshawar, officials reproached two police regiments in that city for their actions against the passivists and issued orders relocating the regiments to another post."
When it appeared that nothing could forestall full-scale revolt, British authorities released Gandhi. This took place nearly nine months after his arrest, on 25 January 1931. Not the least to rejoice was the Egyptian press, which, in the words of Al-Ahram senior columnist Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed, hailed the event as "The day of Gandhi, the day of India, the day of freedom". Still, Egyptians had no idea that day that the famous Indian leader would soon be in their midst.
The success of Gandhi's civil disobedience drive and the similarities between the Indian and Egyptian independence movements inspired an Al-Ahram editorial on 10 March 1931 whose title asked, "India and Egypt: Does the India question affect the Egyptian question?" The writer had no doubt that it did. "At close inspection one finds that British policy in Egypt and India is one and the same. As a result, the events in Egypt in 1919 affected India and British reaction here is the same as there. Similarly, just as the British course of action was contingent upon our course of action, so too does the same apply to India." The editor was certain that the current situation in India would have an impact on the "Egyptian question", and more specifically "on the British treatment of Egypt, because they, and those like them, look at the Orient as a single entity, rather than a composite of individual parts towards each of which they should adopt a separate and distinct policy".
Against this background of common cause and mutual empathy between Egypt and India, the news arrived that Gandhi had left Bombay on 30 August on his way to London in order to resume negotiations with British authorities in the India Office. His steamer would be passing through Egyptian territory as it made its way through the Suez Canal.
Perceiving an occasion to affirm the relationship between the two nationalist movements, the Wafd Party organised a delegation, headed by the former parliamentary representative from Suez, to greet Gandhi upon his arrival in Suez. The Indian leader also received telegrams welcoming him to Egypt from Wafd Party leader Mustafa El- Nahhas and Safiyya Zaghlul, wife of the late Egyptian nationalist leader.
On the evening of Sunday, 6 September, the Mahatma's ship reached Port Said. Al-Ahram's correspondent describes the scene. There on board stood the Oxford graduate, "wearing nothing but a scrap of cloth worth five piastres, wire rim glasses worth three piastres and the simplest thong sandals worth a mere two piastres. These ten piastres of clothing tell Great Britain volumes. It tells it that its hundreds of millions of pounds of gold mean nothing to this prophet who, when sitting at the table of kings, refrains from partaking in the many diverse morsels of various descriptions as he only dines on a small repast of dates and goat milk."
The gifts the Egyptian reception committee presented to the Indian leader were most unusual for what was tantamount to a state visit. One was a vessel of honey inscribed with the Qur'anic verse: "From their bellies comes a variegated coloured syrup that contains a curative for people." A second gift was a large, grey, camel-wool shawl "to protect the leader from the cold during his stay in the British capital". Finally, Gandhi was presented with 20 litres of goat milk and a large quantity of dates -- Egyptian, not imported. Among these, a special package was prepared of the famous Egyptian red dates, known as zaghlul, "because of the significance of the name".
Not a newspaper to fail to make the most of such a unique occasion, Al-Ahram dispatched its most important correspondent to Port Said. The interview that Mahmoud Abul-Fath conducted with the Indian nationalist leader took up the entire front page of the Al-Ahram edition of 7 September and carried the headlines: "An hour with Gandhi on board the ship. Gandhi's message to Egyptian nationalists. Gandhi warns that the civil disobedience campaign will resume if conference fails."
That hour, the renowned journalist recalls, was one of the most memorable hours of his life, "an hour in which I sensed true heroism and the paragon of patriotism and self-sacrifice. How I wish that every Egyptian could spend an hour such as that. Indeed, many among us are in dire need of many such hours, not just one."
Like other Egyptians who had met Gandhi, Abul-Fath was struck by the humbleness of his attire: "bareheaded, naked above the waist, wrapped in a white cotton loincloth from which hung a metal chain connected to a watch with a phosphorescent dial, which could not have cost more than a few piastres. At times, however, the Mahatma covers the upper half of his body with a length of white fabric to protect himself from the cold." The Al-Ahram writer was also impressed by an individual in Gandhi's retinue, a certain Mrs Slade "who is so dedicated to the Mahatma's appeal that she has taken an Indian name, resided in his home for many years in order to tend to his health and propagates his call among the people of her race".
Abul-Fath asked Gandhi on the current situation in India, the relations between the Muslim and Hindu peoples, his expectations from the conference he was to attend in London and what the consequences would be if that conference failed. Lastly, he asked him to deliver a message to the Egyptian people, to which Gandhi responded, "You, like us, are an ancient people. I pray that you do not blindly imitate everything Western. If I have properly understood what has happened to your country you must persist in your endeavours to realise true freedom. And, if I may hazard a modest opinion, it is that Egypt will attain its liberty very quickly if India obtains its true freedom within the next 12 months. I firmly believe that if India gains its freedom through sincere perseverance and without violence this will have a great effect on the world and certainly for all the nations of the East."
Naturally, Al-Ahram was not the only newspaper to seize the occasion; on board Gandhi's ship with Abul-Fath were other top representatives of the Egyptian press. Writing for Misr, Abbas El-Aqqad described Gandhi as the "saint of humanitarianism". Al-Siyasa, the mouthpiece of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party wished the Indian leader success in his difficult mission to the British capital. Not surprisingly the Wafd Party newspapers were particularly fervent. Kawkab Al-Sharq remarked that Egypt, as India's "sister in captivity, feels, today, its throbbing pulse and racing heart". In the opinion of Al-Balagh, India was poor because the British thought of colonialism only in terms of money, which was why the Indian waged war on the British economy. Referring to Gandhi, the commentary continued, "He understood that they killed India's national economy, so he responded by purchasing a spinning wheel and spinning his own thread." Addressing the bond that united India and Egypt, Al-Diaa described India as "an ancient oriental nation, like Egypt and, like Egypt, struggling to free itself of the injustices of colonialism. It is only natural that the oppressed feels as friend and brother to the oppressed, in spite of the vast distance between them, differences in belief and different languages.
The next initiative came from Gandhi. In an article in Young India, which Al-Ahram translated and relayed to its readers, the Mahatma related his impressions as he was passing through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. With regard to that strategic waterway, he writes that upon its completion in 1869, "the British colonialists began to salivate greedily as they set their sights on that project which they determined was vital to their maritime communications with India. The perpetuity of British sovereignty over India, they realised, was contingent upon gaining control over the Suez Canal with which no one else must tamper." The British then devised what he described as a fiendish plot to drown Egypt in debts and "drain the khedive's coffers of gold until he was forced to sell his shares in the Suez Canal, enabling Lord Disraeli to purchase it for his country". With this purchase, the British government established a foothold in Egypt.
Gandhi went on to express his appreciation for the amicable letters he received from Saad Zaghlul's widow and Wafd leader Mustafa El- Nahhas. He was also grateful for the invitations extended to him to visit Cairo on his return trip, although he doubted that that would be possible. He had learned that the Egyptian government disapproved of the visits Egyptian delegations paid to him on board his ship and that only one representative of El-Nahhas was permitted to meet him and then only after much ado.
Turning to the "current situation in our friend, Egypt", Gandhi remarked that while Egypt was governed by an Egyptian king and an Egyptian prime minister, it was "no more independent than India". But he went further. Not only was British intransigence responsible for the failure of the last round of negotiations between El-Nahhas, then prime minister, and his British counterpart, Henderson, El- Nahhas's replacement -- Sidqi Pasha -- was "a dictator implementing the will of King Fouad, and both of these are subject to British control".
The nature of Sidqi's rule brought Gandhi to the subject of a prominent Egyptian journalist. Tawfiq Diab, he said, epitomised the persecution to which free expression was subjected under Sidqi. Diab owned and edited Al-Diaa, which was the 12th newspaper to be suspended within a single year of Sidqi's tyrannical rule. He concluded, "It is little wonder that Egypt grumbles under the British yoke, beneath which India, too, staggers." He hoped that to free themselves of this yoke the Egyptian people would, like the Indian people, adopt the course of "passive resistance".
The awe Gandhi inspired among Egyptians increased while he was in London. When asked why he persisted in wearing his light cotton coverings in spite of the cold, he replied, "Do the British remove their Western clothes when they come to India and don Indian clothing which is more appropriate to the climate of our country? No they do not. I am doing precisely the same as Englishmen; I do not remove the national dress that I am accustomed to wearing. This clothing is the emblem of the people who sent me. It must also be my emblem as I perform the tasks entrusted to me."
In mid-December, Gandhi embarked on his return trip to India. It was hoped that when he arrived in Port Said he would make a brief trip to Cairo, towards which end Mustafa El-Nahhas delegated a senior Wafd aide, Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi, to meet the Indian leader and escort him to the capital. A detailed programme was also drawn up for the visit. Upon arriving in Cairo, Gandhi would dine at the home of the head of the Indian expatriate community in Egypt. Following a light repast of goats milk, dates, honey and fruit, he would be presented with an "bag made of Indian cotton, shot with gold thread, containing the contributions donated by Indian expatriates in Egypt in support of the nationalist movement in their country". Ghandi was then scheduled to visit the mausoleum of Saad Zaghlul, the Pyramids at Giza and, lastly, the home of El-Nahhas who was to host a tea party in Gandhi's honour.
These plans, according to which Gandhi would have tacitly been demonstrating his support for the Wafd, did not please the Sidqi government. When the head of the Indian community applied for permission to host Gandhi in Cairo, the director of public security told him, "The government is only concerned with the preservation of public order and will prevent all disruption of that order. It hopes that it is not compelled to take any action of that nature." The threat was more than implicit.
On 18 December, at 10am, Gandhi's ship arrived in Port Said. It was now the captain of the liner who put the crowing impediment to the Mahatma's visit to Cairo. He was determined to set sail from Suez at 4am the following day and refused El-Nuqrashi's pleas to delay departure, even if only for a few hours. The Wafd was both "dismayed and surprised" at the captain's insistence, Al-Ahram reported.
The Indian leader had little choice but to remain on board and deliver another message to the Egyptian people. He prayed for their success in realising full independence, towards which end he urged that they would give careful study to the Indian cause in light of their own recent experiences. He also stressed that Egyptian women were an instrumental force in the struggle for independence and conveyed to women's rights activist Ceza Nabrawi, who had accompanied the Wafd delegation to Port Said, his hope that the role of Egyptian women would become more prominent.
Soon after this brief meeting with Egyptian nationalists in Port Said, Gandhi's ship departed for Suez and from there to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. His departure drew to a close an important, if little known, page in the history of Egyptian-Indian relations.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.