If on the one hand we were trying to induce General Smuts to fulfill his part of the settlement, we were on the other hand enthusiastically engaged in ‘educating’ the community. We found the people everywhere ready to resume the struggle and to go to jail. Meetings were held in every place, where we explained the correspondence which was being carried on with the Government. The weekly diary in Indian Opinion kept the Indians fully abreast of current events, and they were warned of the impending failure of the voluntary registration, and asked to hold themselves in readiness to burn the certificates if the Black Act was not repealed after all, and thus let the Government note that the community was fearless and firm and ready to go to prison. Certificates were collected from every place with a view to making a bonfire of them.
The Government bill we have referred to in the previous chapter was about to pass through the Legislature, to which a petition was presented on behalf of the Indians but in vain. At last an ‘ultimatum’ was sent to the government by the Satyagrahis. The word was not the Satyagrahis’ but of General Smuts who thus chose to style the letter they had addressed to him signifying the determination of the community. The General said, ‘The people who have offered such a threat to the Government have no idea of its power. I am only sorry that some agitators are trying to inflame poor Indians who will be ruined if they succumb to their blandishments.’ As the newspaper reporters wrote on this occasion, many members of the Transvaal Assembly reddened with rage at this ‘ultimatum’ and unanimously and enthusiastically passed the bill introduced by General Smuts.
The so-called ultimatum may be thus summarized: ‘The point of the agreement between the Indians and General Smuts clearly was that if the Indians registered voluntarily, he on his part should bring forward in the Legislature a bill to validate such registration and to repeal the Asiatic Act. It is well known that the Indians have registered voluntarily to the satisfaction of the Government, and therefore the Asiatic Act must be repealed. The community has sent many communications to General Smuts and taken all possible legal steps to obtain redress but thus far to no purpose. At a time when the bill is passing through the Legislature, it is up to the leaders to apprise the Government of the discontent and strong feeling prevalent in the community. We regret to state, that if the Asiatic Act is not repealed in terms of the settlement, and if the Asiatic Act is not repealed in terms of the settlement, and if Government, decision to that effect is not communicated to the Indians before a specific date, the certificates collected by the Indians would be burnt, and they would humbly but firmly take the consequences.’
One reason why this letter was held to be an ultimatum was that it prescribed a time limit for reply. Another reason was that the Europeans looked upon the Indians as savages. If the Europeans had considered the Indians to be their equals, they would have found this letter perfectly courteous and would have found this letter perfectly courteous and would have given it most serious consideration. But the fact that the Europeans thought Indians to write such a letter. The fact that the Europeans thought Indians to be barbarians was a sufficient reason for the Indians to write such a letter. The Indians must either confess to their being barbarians and consent to be suppressed as such, or else they must take active steps in repudiation of the charge of barbarism. This letter was the first so such steps. If there had not been behind the letter and iron determination to act up to it, it would have been held impertinence, and the Indians would have proved themselves to be a thoughtless and foolish race.
The reader will perhaps point out that the charge of barbarism was repudiated in 1906 when the Satyagraha pledge was taken. And if so, there was nothing new about this letter which might warrant my giving it so much importance and dating the denial of the charge from it. This is true so far as it goes; but on thinking a little more deeply, it will appear that the repudiation really began with this letter. It should be remembered that the Satyagraha pledge came in almost by accident, and the subsequent imprisonments followed as an inevitable corollary. The community then gained largely in stature but unconsciously. But when this letter was written, there was a deliberate intention of claiming full knowledge and high prestige. Now as well as before the object aimed at was the repeal of the Black Act. But there was change in the style of language used, in the methods of work selected and in other things besides. When a slave salutes a master and a friend salutes a friend, the form is the same in either case, but there is a world of difference between the two, which enables detached observer to recognize the slave and the friend at once.
There was much discussion among ourselves when the ultimatum was forwarded. World not the demand for reply within a stated period be considered impudent? Might it not be that it would stiffen the Government and lead them to reject our terms which otherwise they might have accepted? Would it not the sufficient indirectly to announce the community’s decision to the Government? After giving due weight to all these considerations we unanimously came to the conclusion that we must do what we thought to be right and proper for us to do. We must run the risk of government refusing in a huff what otherwise they might have granted. If we do not admit our inferiority as human beings in any sense whatever and if we believe that we possess the capacity for unlimited suffering for any length of time, we must adopt a straightforward course without hesitation.
The reader will perhaps see that there was some novelty and distinction about the step now taken, which had its reverberation in the Legislature and in European circles outside. Some congratulated the Indians on their courage while others got very angry, and asked for condign punishment to be awarded to the Indians for their insolence. Either section acknowledged the novelty of the Indians’ fresh move by its conduct. This letter created greater stir than even the commencement of the Satyagraha movement, which too was a novelty when it was started. The reason is obvious. When Satyagraha was started, no one knew what the Indians were capable of, and therefore neither such a letter nor the language in which it was couched would have been fitting for that initial stage. But now the community had had its baptism of fire. Everyone had seen that the Indians had the capacity of suffering the hardships incidental to an attempt to get their wrong righted, and therefore the language of the ‘ultimatum’ appeared in the light of a natural growth and not at all inappropriate in the circumstances.