M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 18

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CHAPTER XVIII

THE GREAT STRUGGLE

Soon after Mr. Gandhi's return to Johannesburg, the Indian community decided that it was essential for a deputation to visit England for the purpose of preventing, if possible, the Royal Sanction being given to the new Asiatic measure, which the Provisional Government had framed and passed, and Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Ally were appointed to this duty. To some extent the deputation was successful. The delegates were courteously received by all sections of the British public. They interviewed the Secretary of State for the Colonies and other ministers, and the issue of their efforts was the delay of Imperial action until the Transvaal should have formed its Constitutional Gouvernment. This was as much as they could expect. During the stay of the deputation in London, a Committee was formed to watch their interests and to influence Parliament in any crisis. The deputation was particularly fortunate in securing Mr. L. W. Ritch as Secretary, and when Lord Ampthill accepted the office of President, with Sir Mancherji Bhavnagree as Chairman of the Executive Committee, the position and power of the organisation were assured. It has since abundantly justified its birth.

But Mr. Gandhi's mission to England delayed the evil day only for a while. So soon as the Provisional Government had give place to a Constitutional Government, the same Act, which had so stirred the Asiatic community, was passed by Parliament at a single sitting, and again submitted to the King.

The measure was passed so hurriedly, that its provisions were not discussed, and even the Colonial Secretary was not familiar with them. Three readings in one day concluded the matter, and in a short time the Royal sanction was given.

It was then that the movement, known as the "Passive Resistance Movement," took practical form. This was in July, 1907. At the same time, the resident Chinese, to the number of about one thousand, joined the Indians. Most of the Chinese were not British subjects, but as they were Asiatics, and involved in the new law, they felt the pressure of its provisions. They were splendidly organised at the time, and under the leadership of Mr. Leung Quinn, stood firm in the great struggle.

The leader's right hand during all these months of ceseless strain has been his brilliant English comrade, Mr. H. S. L. Polak, who, like Mr. Gandhi himself, is an attorney of the Supreme Court of the Transvaal. For weeks together, while the chief has been in prison, the burden of the struggle has fallen on Mr. Polak, who has borne it with un-wavering courage, the community having elected him as Assistant Secretary of the Transvaal British Indian Association. Knowing well all the twists and legal points in this strange business, he has been of invaluable assistance to the harassed Passive Resisters. In Court he has been their advocate, in the office their adviser, always their friend, at the same time he has devoted himself to the general interests of the British Indians, throughout South Africa, by pen and speech, with wonderful persistence. Like all great leaders of men, Mr. Gandhi has the magic power of attracting to himself the passionate devotion of such characters.

But the strain of this long resistance has told severely on the Indian community. Many of them have been practically ruined. Nevertheless, their splendid courage, determination, and self-restraint have won the admiration of all. The vegetable and fruit-sellers, the "hawkers," have entered into the spirit of the campaign with as great self-sacrifice and devotion as the wealthy men have shown. They have cheerfully gone in droves to prison. Some have suffered again and again. The justice of their cause has thrown a glamour even over the gloom of the cell and the degradation of their work. This is not, one would imagine, a good thing for the future effect of the prison-system, but it is the natural issue of the use which our rulers have made of it, in this controversy with men whom General Smuts described as "conscientious objectors." Their repeated imprisonment for such a cause has obliterated the criminal taint and the shame of such punishment, and they have taken "joyfully the spoiling of their goods."

No-one, however, can doubt that the personality of their great leader has been the supreme force in it all. His committal to prison is sufficient to arouse all their powers of self-sacrifice, and they embarass the police-officers in their efforts to be arrested too. Even when he is absent for weeks, his influence moves them with marvellous power. What he would do, or wish, or say, is the pivot on which the lives of many of them turn.

"What are you going to do?" I said the other day to our vegetable-hawker. He shrugged his shoulders, spread out his hands, smiled, showing his white teeth.

"Mr. Gandhi, he know," he replied, "if Mr. Gandhi say go to prison, we go."

I believe if Mr. Gandhi said "die," not a few would cheerfully obey him.

Some, of course, are untouched: they bitterly oppose him. But for most of his countrymen, he is what one called him, with reverent affection, "our true Karma Yogi."

The difficulty has now been whittled down to two disputed points, neither of them being of the least importance to the Colonists, both vitally affecting the Asiatics. The one point is the repeal of the Asiatic Law Amendment Act, which began the trouble. Its repeal was the objective of these men from the very beginning. It formed a verbal but an essential part of the compromise, to which they understood the Government to assent, and its retention on the Statute-book is the cause of unending dispute. It cannot remain and be inoperative. It is operative now, although an Act has been passed which is supposed to supersede it. In addition to this, it has been acknowledged officially to be unworkable. The repeal of that Act is one aim of this continued struggle.

The other point is the status of educated Indians. Mr. Gandhi and his compatriots have never attempted to "flood the country with Asiatics." They would naturally desire an "open door," but owing to the character of the country and the temper of the Colonists, they recognise and accept the necessity of imposing severe restrictions on such immigration. They claim, however, that, if they are to be so restricted, they shall be allowed the means of development along the lines of their own civilization, and under their own natural teachers. The present Immigration Restriction Act provides for the admission of such educated men as may be able to pass an education test, the severity of which is within the discretion of the immigration officer. The Asiatics claim that they come under the operation of that Act. This, the Government refuses to admit. Nothing will satisfy them but absolute prohibition of Asiatics not already domiciled there. In these circumstances, the Asiatics offer, of their own accord, to limit the entry of their culture men to a maximum of six in any one year; all Indians desiring to enter to be administratively subjected to whatever education test the Colonial Secretary may enforce, and admitted or rejected according to the result. If the door is closed on their countrymen, the Indians claim that it shall not be closed on the ground of colour or race.

Their claims are modest, reasonable and just. If they are to be become worthy members of the commonwealth, they should be permitted to secure the means of development. They are surely entitled to have their own doctors, lawyers, and religious teachers. At present, all sections of the community recognise the need of importing educated men from other countries. No religious denomination in South Africa can as yet afford to content itself with Colonial ministers, and least of all the Asiatics.

The Government offers, in its new Act, to grant "temporary permits" to meet their claim, but it demands no great keenness of perception to recognise the utter futility of this offer. A "permit," which might be cancelled at any moment at the caprice of an official, would be useless to a self-respecting man. No cultured Asiatic of any character would submit to accept such a "ticket-of-leave," and the Asiatic community refuses the proposal as a basis of settlement. The claim is for the possible admission of not more than six, as of right, not of grace, if they are able to pass the education test imposed. So far, these modest claims have been refused by Government, although, in their attempt to administer those objectionable laws, they have proved their worthlessness. Judges, magistrates, and police-officers have been alike perplexed over the meaning of these complicated measures, and the Supreme Court has been obliged to give its verdict against the Government.

To infer, however, that the Asiatics clamour for a change of Government, owing to these unjust and unfortunate actions, would be a great mistake. This is not a political agitation. A change of Government would bring no relief. General Botha is a kindly, fair-minded man, and the members of the Government, as a whole, would doubtless compare favourably with the members of any other Government. Moral questions find amongst them the response of conscience, and in many cases, conscience and religion; in this matter only, religion and conscience have been borne down by considerations of experience and popularity. As for the Progressive party, it has allied itself to Het Volk on this subject. A change of Government would bring no solution and no relief.

Two great sources of trouble have been, racial prejudice among the Colonists, and official incapacity in the Asiatic Department. The former cannot be changed at once; time will do much. The latter should be altered without delay. However able these officials may be in other respects, they are not fitted to deal with Indians. They do not understand them, and treat them as "coolies." If there had been a strict recognition of religious convictions, by those who are placed in charge of Asiatic affairs, we should probably have heard nothing of the trouble that is so perplexing to-day.

Justice and courtesy would go far to settle the whole Asiatic difficulty.