While considering the position of Indians in the previous chapters, we have seen to some extent how they withstood the attacks made upon them. In order, however, to give an adequate idea of the origin of Satyagraha, it is necessary to devote special space to the endeavours made with a view to defend Indian interests in the pre-Satyagraha days.
Up till 1893 there were hardly any free and well educated Indians in South Africa capable of espousing the Indian cause. English-knowing Indians were mostly clerks whose knowledge of English was only commensurate with the needs of their occupation and not adequate to drafting representations, and who, again, must give all their time to their employers. A second group of English-educated Indians was composed of such of them as were born in South Africa. They were mostly the descendants of indentured labourers, and if at all qualified for the work, were in Government service as interpreters in law courts. Thus, they were not in a position to help the Indian cause beyond expressing their fellow-feelings.
Again, indentured and ex-indentured labourers hailed mainly from Uttar Pradesh and Madras State, while, as we have already seen, the Musalmans mostly traders and the Hindus mostly clerks, who chiefly represented the class of free Indians, belonged Gujarat. Besides there were a few Parsi traders and clerks, but the total population of Parsis in South Africa did not probably exceed thirty or forty souls. A fourth group among free Indians was composed of Sindhi traders. There were two hundreds or more Sindihisin South Africa. Wherever the Sindhi has settled outside India he deals in ‘fancy goods’, namely, silks and brocades, carved boxes and other furniture made of ebony, sandalwood and ivory and similar goods. His customers are mainly Europeans.
Indentured labourers were called ‘coolies’ by Europeans. A ‘coolie’ means a porter. The expression was used so extensively that the indentured labourers began to describe themselves as ‘coolies’. Hundreds of Europeans called Indian lawyers and Indian traders ‘coolie’ lawyers and ‘coolie’ traders. There were some Europeans who were unable to perceive or believe that the name implied an insult, but many used it as a term of deliberate contempt. Free Indians, therefore, tried to differentiate themselves from the indentured labourers. For this and other reasons peculiar to conditions in India, a distinction was sought to be drawn in South Africa between indentured and freed labourers on the one hand and free Indians on the other.
Free Indians and especially the Musalman traders undertook to resist the wrongs detailed above, but no direct attempt was made to seek the co-operation of the indentured and ex-indentured labouers. Probably it did not occur to anyone to enlist their support; if the idea did suggest itself to some, there was in their opinion the risk of making matters worse by allowing them to join the movement. And as it was considered that the free traders were the chief target of attack, the measures for defence were limited to that class. It can be truly said that free Indians fought well against difficulties, seeing that they were thus seriously handicapped, that they were ignorant of English, and that they had no experience of public work in India. They sought the help of European barristers, had petitions prepared, waited upon the authorities on some occasions in deputations, and did what they could to mend matters. This was the state of things up till 1893.
It will be helpful to the reader to bear some important dates in mind. Before 1893 Indians had been hounded out of the Orange Free State. In the Transvaal, Law 3 of 1885 was in force. In Natal, measures, calculated to enable only indentured labourers to live in the colony and to turn out the rest, were under contemplation, and responsible government had been achieved to that end.
I left India for South Africa in April, 1893. I had no idea of the previous history of the Indian emigrants. I went there on a purely professional visit. A well-known firm of Porbandar Memans then carried on trade in Durban under the name and style of Dada Abdulla. An equally well-known and rival firm traded at Pretoria under the designation of Taib Haji Khanmamad. Unfortunately, an important law-suit was pending between the rivals. A partner of the firm of Dada Abdulla who was in Porbandar thought that it would help their case if they engaged me and sent me to South Africa. I had been just called to the bar and was quite a novice in the profession, but he had no fear of my mishandling their case, as he did not want me to conduct the case in the court but only to instruct the able South African lawyers they had retained. I was fond of novel experiences. I loved to see fresh fields and pastures new. It was disgusting to have to give commission to those who brought me work. The atmosphere of intrigue in Saurashtra was choking me. The engagement was only for one year. I did not see any objection to my accepting it. I had nothing to lose as Messers Dada Abdulla expressed their willingness to pay my travelling expenses as well as the expenses that would be incurred in South Africa and a fee of one hundred and five pounds. This arrangement had been made through my elder brother, now deceased, who was as father to me. For me his will was a command. He liked the idea of my going to South Africa. So I reached Durban in May 1893.
Being a barrister-at-law, I was well dressed according to my lights and landed at Durban with a due sense of my importance. But I was soon disillusioned. The partner of Dada Abdulla who had engaged me had given me an account of what things were like in Natal. But what I saw there with my own eyes absolutely belied his misleading picture. My informant was, however, not to blame. He was a frank, simple man, ignorant of the real state of affairs. He had no idea of the hardships to which Indians were subjected in Natal. Conditions which implied grave insult had not appeared to him in that light. I observed on the very first day that the Europeans meted out most insulting treatment to Indians.
I will not describe my bitter experience in the courts within a fortnight of my arrival, the hardships I encountered on railway trains, the thrashings I received on the way and the difficulty in and the practical impossibility of securing accommodation in hotels. Suffice it to say, that all these experiences sank in me. I had gone there only for a single case prompted by self-interest and curiosity. During the first year, therefore, I was merely the witness and the victim of these wrongs. I then awoke to a sense of my duty. I saw that from the standpoint of self-interest South Africa was no good to me. Not only did I not desire but I had a positive aversion to earning money or sojourning in a country where I was insulted. I was on the horns of a dilemma. Two courses were open to me. I might either free myself from the contrast with Messrs Dada Abdulla on the ground that circumstances had come to my knowledge which had not been disclosed to me before, and run back to India. Or I might bear all hardships and fulfill my engagement. I was pushed out of the train by a police constable at Maritzburg, and the train having left, was sitting in the waiting room, shivering in the bitter cold. I did not know where my luggage was, nor did I dare to inquire of anybody, lest I might be insulted and assaulted once again. Sleep was out of the question. Doubt took possession of my mind. Late at night, I came to the conclusion that to run back to India would be cowardly. I must accomplish what I had undertaken. I must reach Pretoria, without minding insults and even assaults. Pretoria was my goal. The case being fought out there. I made up my mind to take some steps, if that was possible, side by side with my work. This resolution somewhat pacified and strengthened me but I did not get any sleep.
Next morning I wired to the firm of Dada Abdulla and to the General Manager of the Railway. Replies were received from both. Dada Abdulla and his partner Sheth Abdulla Haji Adam Jhaveri who was then in Natal took strong measures. They wired to their Indian agents in various places to look after me. They likewise saw the General Manager. The Indian traders of Maritzburg came to see me in response to the telegram received by the local agent. They tried to comfort me and told me that all of them had had the same bitter experiences as myself, but they did not mind such things, being habituated to them. Trade and sensitiveness could ill go together. They had therefore made it a principle to pocket insults as they might pocket cash. They told me how Indians could not enter the railway station by the main gate and how difficult it was for them to purchase tickets. I left for Pretoria the same night. The Almighty Searcher of all hearts put my determination to a full test. I suffered further insults and received more beatings on my way to Pretoria. But all this only confirmed me in my determination.
Thus in 1893, I obtained full experience of the condition of Indians in South Africa. But I did nothing beyond occasionally talking with the Indians in Pretoria on the subject. It appeared to me that to look after the firm’s case and to take up the question of the Indian grievances in South Africa at the same time was impossible. I could see that trying to do both would be to ruin both. 1894 was thus already upon us. I returned to Durban and prepared to return to India. At the farewell entertainment held by Dada Abdulla, someone put a copy of the Natal Mercury in my hands. I read it and found that the detailed report of the proceedings of the Natal Legislative Assembly contained a few lines under the caption ‘Indian Franchise’. The local Government was about to introduce a Bill to disfranchise Indians, which could only be the beginning of the end of what little rights they were then enjoying. The speeches made at the time left no doubt about the intention of the Government. I read the report to the traders and others present and explained the situation to them as best I could. I was not in possession of all the facts. I suggested that the Indians should strenuously resist this attack on their rights. They agreed but declared their inability to fight the battle themselves and urged me to stay on. I consented to stay a month or so longer by which time the struggle would be fought out. The same night I drew up a petition to be presented to the Legislative Assembly. A telegram was sent to the Government requesting a delay of proceedings. A committee was appointed at once with Sheth Haji Adam as Chairman and the telegram was sent in his name. The further reading of the Bill was postponed for two days. That petition was the first ever sent by the Indians to a South African Legislature. It did create an impression although it failed to defeat the Bill, the later history of which I have narrated in Chapter Four. This was the South African Indians’ first experience of such agitation, and a new thrill of enthusiasm passed through the community. Meetings were held every day and more and more persons attended them. The requisite funds were oversubscribed. Many volunteers helped in preparing copies, securing signatures and similar work without any remuneration. There were others who both worked and subscribed to the funds. The descendants of the ex-indentured Indians joined the movement with alacrity. They knew English and wrote a fine hand. They did copying and other work ungrudgingly day and night. Within a month, a memorial with ten thousand signatures was forwarded to lord Ripon, and the immediate task I had set before myself was done.
I asked for leave to return home. But the agitation had aroused such keen interest among the Indians that they would not let me go. They said: “You yourself have explained to us that this is the first step taken with a view to our ultimate extinction. Who knows whether the Colonial Secretary will return a favourable reply to our memorial? You have witnessed our enthusiasm. We are willing and ready to work. We have funds too. But for want of a guide, what little has been done will go for nothing. We therefore think it is your duty to stay on.” I also felt that it would be well if a permanent organization was formed to watch Indian interests. But where was I to live and how? They offered me a regular salary, but I expressly declined. One may not receive a large salary for public work. Besides, I was a pioneer. According to my notions at the time, I thought I should live in a style usual for barristers and reflecting credit on the community, and that would mean great expense. It would be improper to depend for my maintenance upon a body whose activities would necessitate a public appeal for funds, and my power of work would be thereby crippled. For this and similar reasons I flatly refused to accept remuneration for public work. But I suggested that I was prepared to stay if the principal traders among them could see their way to give me legal work and give me retainers for it beforehand. The retainers might be for a year. We might deal with each other for that period, examine the results, and then continue the arrangement if both parties were agreeable. This suggestion was cordially accepted by all.
I applied for admission as an advocate of the Supreme Court at Natal. The Natal Law Society opposed my application on the sole ground that the law did not contemplate that coloured barristers should be placed on the roll. The late Mr. Escombe, the famous advocate, who was Attorney-General and afterwards also Premier of Natal, was my counsel. The prevailing practice for a long time was that the leading barrister should present such applications without any fees, and Mr. Escombe advocated my cause accordingly. He was also Senior Counsel for my employers. The Senior Court over-ruled the Law Society’s objection, and granted my application. Thus, the Law Society’s opposition brought me into further prominence without their wishing it. The newspapers of South Africa ridiculed the Law Society and some of them even congratulated me.
The temporary committee was placed on a permanent footing. I had never attended a session of the Indian National Congress, but had read about it. I had seen Dadabhai, the Grand Old Man of India and admired him. I was therefore a Congress devotee, and wished to popularize the name. Inexperienced as I was, I did not try to find out a new name. I was also afraid of committing a mistake. So I advised the Indians to call their organization the Natal Indian Congress. I laid before them very imperfectly what meager knowledge I had of the Indian National Congress. Anyhow the Natal Indian Congress was founded about May 1894. There was this difference between the Indian and the Natal Congress, that the latter organization worked throughout the year and those who paid an annual subscription of at least three pounds were admitted to membership. Amounts exceeding that sum were gratefully received. Endeavors were made to obtain the maximum amount from each member. There were about half a dozen members who paid twenty-four pounds a year. There was a considerable number of those paying twelve pounds. About three hundred members were enrolled in a month. They included Hindus, Musalmans, Parsis and Christians, and came from all Indian States that were represented in Natal. The work proceeded with great vigour throughout the first year. The well-to-do traders went about far off villages in their own conveyances, enrolling new members and collecting subscriptions. Everybody did not pay for the mere asking. Some required to be persuaded. This persuasion was a sort of political training, and made people acquainted with the facts of the situation. Again, a meeting of the Congress was held at least once a month, when detailed accounts were presented and adopted. Current events were explained and recorded in the minute-book. Members asked various questions. Fresh subjects were considered. The advantage of all this was that those who never spoke at such meetings got accustomed to do so. The speeches again must be in proper form. All this was a novel experience. The community was deeply interested. In the meanwhile the welcome news came that Lord Ripon had disallowed the Disfranchising Bill, and this redoubled their zeal and self-confidence.
Side by side with external agitation, the question of internal improvement was also taken up. The Europeans throughout South Africa had been agitating against Indians on the ground of their ways of life. They always argued that the Indians were very dirty and close-fisted. They lived in the same place where they traded. Their houses were mere shanties. They would not spend money even on their own comforts. How could cleanly open-handed Europeans with their multifarious wants compete in trade with such parsimonious and dirty people? Lectures were therefore delivered, debates held, and suggestions made at Congress meetings on subjects such as domestic sanitation, personal hygiene, the necessity of having separate buildings for houses and shops and for well-to-do traders of living in a style befitting their position. The proceedings were conducted in Gujarati.
The reader can see what an amount of practical and political education the Indians thus received. Under the auspices of the Congress, the Natal Indian Educational Association was formed for the benefit of the young Indians, who, being the children of ex-indentured labouers, were born in Natal and spoke English. Its members paid a nominal fee. The chief objects of the Association were to provide a meeting place for those youths, to create in them a love for the mother country and to give them general information about it. It was also intended to impress upon them that free Indians considered them as their own kith and kin, and to create respect for the latter in the minds of the former. The funds of the Congress were large enough to leave a surplus after defraying its expenses. This was devoted to the purchase of land which yields an income to the present day.
I have deliberately entered into all these details, for without them the reader cannot realize how Satyagraha spontaneously sprang into existence and how the Indians went through a natural course of preparation for it. I am compelled to omit the remarkable subsequent history of the Congress, how it was confronted with difficulties, how Government officials attacked it and how it escaped scatheless from their attacks. But one fact must be placed on record. Steps were taken to save the community from the habit of exaggeration. Attempts were always made the draw their attention to their own shortcomings. Whatever force there was in the arguments of the Europeans was duly acknowledged. Every occasion, when it was possible to co-operate with the Europeans on terms of equality and consistent with self-respect, was heartily availed of. The newspapers were supplied with as much information about the Indian movement as they could publish, and whenever Indians were unfairly attacked in the Press replies were sent to the newspapers concerned.
There was an organization in the Transvaal similar to the Natal Indian Congress but quite independent of it. There were likewise differences in the constitutions of the two bodies into which we need to enter. There was a similar body in the Cape Town as well with a constitution different from that of the Natal Congress and the Transvaal Association. Still the activities of all the three bodies were nearby identical.
The Natal Congress completed its first year in the middle of 1895. My work as an advocate met with the approval of my clients, and my stay in Natal was prolonged. In 1896 I went to India for six months with the leave of the community. I had hardly completed that period in India, when I received a cablegram from Natal asking me to return at once, and so did I. The events of 1896-97 demand a fresh chapter for their treatment.