Gandhi with his Indian corps
Gandhi with his Indian corps

In 1906, the Zulus of South Africa rebelled against the colonial British government. Protesting a new poll-tax, Zulus confronted and killed two British tax collectors in 1906. In retaliation, the British declared war on the Zulus. They hung, shot, and severely flogged thousands of Zulus. Around four thousand Zulus were killed during the rebellion. This war was called the Bambatha Uprising. Gandhi was irrepressibly eager to support the war effort in every manner possible; his agitations in favor of colonial British violence against the black Zulus are summarized here.

Gandhi cheered the British war effort, urging Indians to send care packages to the soldiers “in order to express their sympathy.” He suggested these packages include “fruits, tobacco, warm clothing and other things that they might need.” In his words: “It is our duty.” [Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 5, p. 259, June 9, 1906]

Gandhi, though reputedly a pacifist, berated the British for not raising an Indian regiment to help fight the black Zulus. He wrote: “If the Government only realized what reserve force is being wasted, they would make use of it and give Indians the opportunity of a thorough training for actual warfare.” [CWMG, Vol. 5, p. 11] He again pleaded for for an Indian regiment in early 1906, writing: “There is a population of over one hundred thousand Indians in Natal. It has been proved that they can do very efficient work in time of war… Is it prudent for the Government to allow a source of strength, which always lies at its disposal, to run to waste?” [CWMG, Vol. V, p. 124]

British Sergeant Major Gandhi
British Sergeant Major Gandhi

Finally, he convinced the British to allow an Indian stretcher-bearer corps. But he seemed disappointed at the non-combatant status of the corps, writing: “The pity of it is that the Government…have not taken the elementary precaution of giving the necessary discipline and instruction to the Indians. It is, therefore, a matter of physical impossibility to expect Indians to do any work with the rifle; or, for that matter, to do any work in connection with war with much efficiency.” [CWMG, Vol. 5, p. 211]

Gandhi was appointed a Sergeant-Major, taking an oath to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King Edward” and “faithfully serve in the supernumerary list of the Active Militia Force.” [CWMG, Vol. 5, p. 262]

Before heading to the battlefield, Gandhi published an article titled “Should Indians Volunteer Or Not?” In it he argued for a religious reason to fight the black Africans, saying: “For the Indian community, going to the battle-field should be an easy matter; for, whether Muslims or Hindus, we are men with profound faith in God. We have a greater sense of duty, and it should therefore be easier for us to volunteer.” He also urged Indians to volunteer: “There is hardly any family from which someone has not gone to fight the Kaffir rebels. Following their example, we should steel our hearts and take courage. Now is the time when the leading whites want us to take this step; if we let go this opportunity, we shall repent later.” [CWMG, Vol. 5, pp. 273-274]

To make matters worse, Gandhi lied about his participation in the war in his 1920s autobiography. He wrote: “I bore no grudge against the Zulus, they had harmed no Indian. I had doubts about the ‘rebellion’ itself.” He also claimed, “My heart was with the Zulus.” Yet in 1906, he vehemently advocated Indians be allowed to “[take] their share in the defence of the Colony,” demanded the Indian community help fund the suppression of the Zulu rebellion, and cheered the chance to train for “actual warfare.”