The jeweler rubs gold on the touchstone. If he is not still satisfied as to its purity, he puts it into the fire and hammers it so that the dross if any is removed and only pure gold remains. The Indians in South Africa passed through a similar test. They were hammered, and passed through fire and had the hall-mark attached to them only when they emerged unscathed through all the stages of examination.
The pilgrims were taken on special trains not for picnic but for baptism through fire. On the way the Government did not care to arrange even to feed them and when they reached Natal, they were prosecuted and sent to jail straightway. We expected and even desired as much. But the Government would have to played into the Indians’ hands if they kept thousands of labourers in prison. And the coal mines would close down in the interval. If such a state of things lasted for any length of time, the Government would be compelled to repeal the three-pound tax. They therefore struck out a new plan. Surrounding them with wire netting, the Government proclaimed the mine compounds as outstations to the Dundee and Newcastle jails and appointed the mine-owners’ European staffs as the warders. In this way they forced the labourers underground against their will and the mines began to work once more. There is this difference between the status of a servant and that of a slave, that if a servant leaves his post, only a civil suit can be filed against him, whereas the slave who leaves his master can be brought back to work by main force. The labourers therefore were now reduced to slavery pure and simple.
But that was not enough. The labourer were brave men, and they flatly declined to work on the mines with the result that they were brutally whipped. The insolent men dressed in a brief authority over them kicked and abused and heaped upon them other wrongs which have never been placed on record. But the poor labourers patiently put up with all their tribulations. Cablegrams regarding these outrages were sent to India addressed to Gokhale who would inquire in his turn if he did not even for a day receive a fully detailed message. Gokhale broadcast the news from his sickbed, as he was seriously ill at the time. In spite of his illness, however, he insisted upon attending to the Africa business himself and was at it at night no less than by day. Eventually all India was deeply stirred, and the South African question became the burning topic of the day.
It was then (December 1913) that Lord Hardinge in Madras made his famous speech which created a stir in South Africa as well as in England. The Viceroy may not publicly criticize other members of the Empire, but Lord Hardinge not only passed severe criticism upon the Union Government, but he also whole-heartedly defended the action of the Satyagrahis and supported their civil disobedience of unjust and invidious legislation. The conduct of Lord Hardinge came in for some adverse comment in England, but even then he did not repent but on the other hand asserted the perfect propriety of the step he had been driven to adopt. Lord Hardinge’s firmness created a good impression all round.
Let us leave for the moment these brave but unhappy labourers confined to their mines, and consider the situation in other parts of Natal. The mines were situated in the north-west of Natal, but the largest number of Indian labourers was to be found employed on the north and the south coasts. I was fairly intimate with the labourers on the north coast, that is, in about Phoenix, Verulam, Tongaat etc., many of whom served with me in the Boer War. I had not met labourers on the south coast from Durban to Isipingo and Umizinto at such close quarters, and I had but few co-workers in those parts. But the news of the strike and the arrests spread everywhere at lightning speed, and thousands of labourers unexpectedly and spontaneously came out on the south as well as on the north coast. Some of them sold their household chattels from an impression that it would be a long drawn out struggle and they could not expect to be fed by others. When I went to jail, I had warned no co-workers against allowing any more labourers to go on strike. I hoped that a victory could be achieved only with the help of the miners. If all the labourers, there were about sixty thousand of them all told, were called out it would be difficult to maintain them. We had not the means of taking so many on the march; we had neither the men to control them nor the money to feed them. Moreover, with such a large body of men it would be impossible to prevent a breach of the peace.
But when the floodgates are opened, there is no checking the universal deluge. The labourers everywhere struck work of their own accord, and volunteers also posted themselves in the various places to look after them.
Government now adopted a policy of blood and iron. They prevented the labourers from striking by sheer force. Mounted military policemen chased the strikers and brought them back to their work. The slightest disturbance on the part of the labourers was answered by rifle fire. A body of strikers resisted the attempt to take them back to work. Some of them even threw stones. Fire was opened upon them, wounding many and killing some. But the labourers refused to be cowed down. The volunteers prevented a strike near Verulam with great difficulty. But all the labourers did not return to work. Some hid themselves for fear and did not go back.
One incident deserves to be placed on record. Many labourers came out in Verulam and would not return in spite of all the efforts of the authorities. General Lukin was present on the scene with his soldiers and was about to late Parsi Rustomji then hardly 18 years of age, had reached here from Durban. He seized the reins of the of the General’s horse and exclaimed, ‘You must not order firing. I undertake to induce my people peacefully to return to work.’ General Lukin was charmed with the young man’s courage and gave him time to try his method of love. Sorabji reasoned with the labourers who came round and returned to their work. Thus a number of murders were prevented by the presence of mind, valour and loving kindness of one young man.
The reader must observe that this firing and the treatment accorded by the Government to the strikers on the coast were quite illegal. There was an appearance of legality about the Government’s procedure in respect of the miners who were arrested not for going on strike but for entering the Transvaal without proper credentials. On the north and the south coast, however, the very act of striking work was treated as an offence not in virtue of any law but of the authority of the Government. Authority takes the place of law in the last resort. There is a maximum in English law that the king can do no wrong. The convenience of the powers that be is the law in the final analysis. This objection is applicable to all governments alike. And as a matter of fact it is not always objectionable thus to lay the ordinary law on the shelf. Sometimes adherence to ordinary law is itself open to objection. When the authority charged with the pledged to the public good is threatened with destruction by the restraints imposed upon it, it is entitled in its discretion to disregard such retraints. But occasions of such a nature must always be rare. If the authority is in the habit of frequently exceeding the limits set upon it, it cannot be beneficial to the common weal. In the case under consideration the authority had no reason whatever to act arbitrarily. The labourer has enjoyed the right to strike from times immemorial. The Government had sufficient material before them to know that the strikers were not bent upon mischief. At the most the strike was to result only in the repeal of the three pound tax. Only peaceful methods can be properly adopted against men of peace. Again the authority in South Africa was not pledged to the public good but existed for the exclusive benefit of the Europeans, being generally hostile to the Indians. And therefore the breach of all restraints on the part of such a partisan authority could never be proper or excusable.
Thus in my view there was here a sheer abuse of authority, which could never achieve the ends which it proposed to itself. There is sometimes a momentary success, but a permanent solution cannot be reached by such questionable methods. In South Africa made itself heard everywhere. Indeed, I believe, that as every part has its place in a machine, every feature has its place in a movement of men, and as a machine is clogged by rust, dirt and the like, so is a movement hampered by a number of factors. We are merely the instruments of the Almighty Will and are therefore often ignorant of what helps us forward and what acts as an impediment. We must thus rest satisfied with a knowledge only of the means and if these are pure, we can fearlessly leave the end to take care of itself.
I observed in this struggle, that its end drew nearer as the distress of the fighters became more intense, and as the innocence of the distressed grew clearer. I also saw that in such a pure, unarmed and non-violent struggle, the very kind of material required for its prosecution, be it men, money or munitions, is forth coming at the right moment. Many volunteers rendered spontaneous help, whom I do not know even to this day. Such workers are generally selfless and put in a sort of invisible service even in spite of himself or herself. No one takes note of them, no one awards them a certificate of merit. Some of them do not even know that their nameless but priceless unremembered acts of love do not escape the sleepless vigilance of the recording angle.
The Indians of South Africa successfully passed the test to which they were subjected. They entered the fire and emerged out of it unscathed. The beginnings of the end of the struggle must be detailed in a separate chapter.