Written by : Ravindra Varma
First Edition : 1,000 copies, October 2001
Total Copies : 3,000 copies
Price : Rs. 60/-
ISBN : 81-7229-291-6
Printed and Published by :
Navajivan Publishing House
Gandhi got to work that very evening. He drafted a petition to the Legislature and submitted it with the signature of 500 Indians. The Bill was passed in spite of the petition. But the Indian cause and the Indian action in support of it, drew public attention. Gandhi was not overwhelmed by the failure of the petition to secure redress. He drafted another petition, this time to the Secretary of State for Colonies in Britain. He secured 10,000 signatures within a fortnight. Copies were distributed in England as well. Sections of the British press took sympathetic note of the case that Gandhi presented in the petition. Gandhi left no stone unturned. He tried to create public opinion in South Africa, in England, in the Parliament, in the press, among public personages. He wrote to Dadabhai Naoroji, who was a member of the British Parliament. He had met Dadabhai once when he was in London. Now he wrote to Dadabhai asking him to use his great influence to seek redress for the Indian community in South Africa. He told the doyen of Indian leaders why he was praying for his help. "I am yet inexperienced and young, and therefore, quite liable to make mistakes. The responsibility undertaken is quite out of proportion to my ability. I may mention that I am doing this without any remuneration. So you will see that I have not taken the matter up, which is beyond my ability, to enrich myself at the expense of the Indians. I am the only available person who can handle the question. You will, therefore, oblige me very greatly if you will kindly direct and guide me and make necessary suggestions which shall be received as from a father to his child."
Gandhi's campaign had its effect. The British government vetoed the Bill passed by the Natal Legislature. But Natal got round the veto with another Bill. What more, the Government of Natal decided to impose a poll tax of 3 pounds on all indentured labourers who wanted to stay back in South Africa without renewing their indenture agreement.
This was an inhuman measure, and was meant only to bring pressure on the poor labourer who earned only 14 shillings a month. Many other restrictions were imposed on Indians.
Gandhi saw that the fight would be long and hard. He formed an organization of Indians, and called it 'The Natal Indian Congress'. He built up the organization with members who paid a subscription, and with branches and rules for the conduct of business. He plunged into the task of creating opinion with frequent articles and letters in journals, memorials, petitions, and meetings of the Indian community.
But all this took many months. Gandhi had refused to take remuneration for his public work. But he had to find money to meet his own expenses. He decided to accept fees for the legal work for which Indian friends might use his services. To enable him to practise in the courts, he had to enroll himself. He applied for registration. His application was opposed by the Law Society, but upheld by the Supreme Court of Natal. He enrolled himself as an advocate.
The month for which Gandhi had agreed to stay on had stretched to years, and it looked as though he would have to spend many more years fighting discrimination in South Africa. He decided to take leave for six months to go to India and bring his family with him. He also wanted to use the opportunity to inform the people and leaders in India about the near slavery that Indian labourers were reduced to in South Africa, and the indignities that were heaped on all Indians. He visited the main cities, -Bombay, Poona and Madras. His visit to Calcutta was cut short by urgent summons from his colleagues in South Africa. At Bombay, Poona and Madras he met the tallest leaders of the time, and addressed meetings of opinion makers. Among those whose support he secured were Sir Pheroze Shah Mehta, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and others.
He received sympathy and supports everywhere. He described the humiliation of Indians and said that submission to insults was reconciling with one's own degradation. He urged public opinion in India to bring pressure on the Indian Government to protect the honour and dignity of Indian citizens. He urged the Government of British India to suspend the recruitment of indentured labour if it could not protect Indian citizens or ameliorate their conditions. He also wrote and published a booklet on the conditions of Indians in South Africa. He had stated facts, and that too with his customary moderation ...
When Gandhi received the urgent summons, he decided to cut short his stay in India and return to South Africa with his family. He and his family boarded the s.s. Courland, a ship that belonged to Dada Abdullah. Another ship of Abdullah's, the Naderi, was also sailing at the same time. There were 800 indentured labourers travelling by these ships. Meanwhile, the white population of Natal was in a state of mad fury. They had been infuriated by a news agency report that Gandhi had published a scurrilous and hateful leaflet against the whites of South Africa, and was bringing shiploads of Indian labourers to flood South Africa. Whites held meetings and declared that they would teach Gandhi a lesson. The flames of fury were fanned by leaders and officials. Thus, when the ships arrived at the port, they were not allowed to dock.
They were kept at sea. Even when they were allowed to dock, the ships were quarantined, and passengers were not allowed to disembark. Agents of the white infuriated men were waiting at the dock to deal with Gandhi. After 23 days of quarantine, on the 13th of May, 1897, the passengers were allowed to disembark. There were fears about Gandhi and his family. The family managed to leave and reach the house of Parsi Rustomji safely. Gandhi received a message from Mr.Escombe, the Attorney General, warning him about the mood of the whites. He asked Gandhi to wait till night-fall, and leave the ship after darkness had fallen. Gandhi had nearly decided to accept Escombe's advice when he received a message from Mr. Laughton, the advocate of Dada Abdullah advising him against accepting Escombe's suggestion, and informing him that he himself was going over to the ship to accompany Gandhi.
Gandhi left the ship and walked down with Laughton, with the intention of walking to the house of his colleague, Parsi Rustomji. Kasturba and the family had already reached the house. Soon after Gandhi and Laughton set out, those who were holding vigil spotted Gandhi by his turban. Alerted by them, a crowd collected and moved menacingly towards Gandhi. Laughton tried to hail a rickshaw to take them to the house. The rickshaw puller was scared away. The crowd started closing in on Gandhi. In the pushing and pulling, Laughton got separated from Gandhi. Now the crowd began to rain blows, and throw stones. They were intent on lynching Gandhi. Gandhi walked on. He was hit by a rain of stones. He was injured, and started bleeding profusely. Swathed in blood, he was still hauling himself forward when he got dizzy and swooned. The crowd of lynchers and persecutors was in hot pursuit. Gandhi held on to the railings on the side of the road and kept crawling while more stones landed on his bleeding body. It is difficult to say what would have happened if, at that crucial moment, Mrs. Alexander, the wife of the Police Superintendent had not chanced to come from the opposite direction. She was a white woman, and much respected in the community. Seeing Gandhi bleeding and crawling with tormentors in hot pursuit, she went to Gandhi, opened her parasol to protect him from the stones, and chastised the crowd. In the meanwhile, Alexander, the Police Superintendent himself arrived on the scene with a posse of Police and rescued Gandhi, and escorted him to Parsi Rustomji's house.
Hearing that Gandhi had reached Rustomji's house, a crowd collected there, asking that Gandhi be handed over to them. They threatened to burn the house down, along with all the inmates, if Gandhi was not handed over. The Police Superintendent acted with great tact in holding the crowd at bay, and meanwhile persuading Gandhi to leave through the back door dressed as a policeman, and go to the safety of the police station.
When the news that white crowds had attempted to lynch Gandhi and had inflicted injuries on his body reached London and other capitals of the world, there was widespread revulsion and sorrow. The Secretary of State for Colonies sent a telegram to the Government of South Africa asking them to track down and punish the culprits. The Police Superintendent informed Gandhi of these orders and asked for his co-operation in identifying the culprits and punishing them. Gandhi had no bitterness whatsoever. He told the Government that he did not want the Government to prosecute any of his assailants.
He could perhaps identify many. But he did not believe in retaliation. It was against his Dharma. They were the victim's of prejudice, and had to be weaned. There was neither bitterness nor anger nor hatred in his heart. Moreover, it would serve no purpose if small fries were prosecuted while those who incited them went scot free.