M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 14

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When Mr. Gandhi returned from a brief visit to India after the War, he realised, perhaps, for the first time, the greatness of the work to which he had put his hand. He reached Pretoria on the 1st January, 1903. All was changed. The new, and unapproachable. An Asiatic Department had been created, and those in charge of it had, apparently, little sympathy with the Indians. He attempted to get into touch with Mr. Davidson, who was then Colonial Secretary, but failed. The local Indians had failed before him. Only after repeated efforts was he able to see this gentleman, and then he was courteously referred to the Assistant. The Assistant Colonial Secretary was not even courteous. He sent for the resident Indians, and censured them for inviting their leader to the Transvaal, saying that he (the Assistant Colonial Secretary) was there to look after their interests, and that he did not wish to see them in Mr. Gandhi's company. Then he sent for Mr. Gandhi, and rated him soundly for coming to the Colony, and said that he had no business there, and repeated his assertion, that he alone should be consulted by the Indians. No effort was made by him to understand the position of affairs. "I do not wish to see you, nor to discuss these matters with you," he said.

Subsequently, at every turn, the same spirit was shown. In Natal, the Right Hon. Joseph Chamberlain, who was then visiting South Africa, had received a deputation of Indians introduced by their leader. Mr. Gandhi's recall from India had, in fact, been partly in view of this function. In Pretoria, he was officially excluded from a similar deputation. When the Municipal Council of Johannesburg desired to see the principal Indians, with regard to a new location or "bazaar," Mr. Gandhi's name was again struck off the list proposed by his people. In this case, however, the Indians absolutely refused to send any deputation in which their chief adviser was not included, and their decision was respected. Still, the uneasy conviction was awakened in the Indian mind, that the Government officials had resolved to fight remorselessly with Mr. Gandhi, and, if possible, eliminate his influence from Asiatic politics in the Transvaal. This was, in the view of the Indian community, a natural course for officialdom to take. It appeared to them that one clear legal mind in the community, coupled with a spotless character and wide experience, could make it impossible for them to be driven like cattle, or to be treated with contempt. It would also render impossible the continuance of that system of official corruption which had already commenced. The officials were afraid of Mr. Gandhi. They were all weaker, smaller men than he, and they knew it. It was natural that should resent his appearance upon the scene. But whether this was a true inference or not, the line of conduct which the officials pursued was unwise in the extreme.

The Indians trusted their counsellor implicitly, as they do still. They knew his value, and loved him. Any attempt to ignore or insult their leader made them the more suspicious of the officials: more determined to retain him in their midst. The result might easily have been foreseen. Hostility and folly on the one side, suspicion and dogged determination on the other, have developed slowly but surely into the state of civil war which humiliates the country to-day. If the government had been represented by gentlemen of courtesy and discrimination, who could appreciate the delicate work of dealing with Orientals, and would take pains to understand their mode of thought, refusing to treat them as "coolies," the whole of this trouble might have been avoided. As it was, official ignorance, race prejudice, and pride spoiled everything.

It became increasingly clear to the Indians that Mr. Gandhi must remain in the Transvaal and fight the battle through. It would have to be fought out chiefly in the Law Courts; therefore he must be admitted to practise in the Transvaal. This was the first step. Application for admission was accordingly made, and in April, 1903, Mr. Gandhi was enrolled as a duly qualified attorney of the Supreme Court.

The Indian objective was now defined. The policy which had formed an Asiatic Department they regarded as alien to the spirit of British citizenship, and subversive of just government. It must be opposed strenuously. Although, under the old Dutch rule, the Indians had suffered many hardships, there had been no such department. Under the British flag, the pre-war policy was developed, with the object of making the Asiatics a class apart, to be dealt with separately, and legislated against as aliens to the Empire. We can see, now, that the Asiatic Law Amendment Act of 1907 was the logical issue of this principle of segregation, with its imposition of degrading restrictions and its brand of the criminal. In 1903, the policy was already there.

Mr. Gandhi's aim was the incorporation of the Indian community as a useful part of the Transvaal Colony, and the recognition of its members as true citizens of the Empire. Everything that tended to segregate, to separate, to stigmatise them as unworthy of the rights of citizens, was to his mind an insult to their character, a national injury, and a travesty of British justice. He was prepared to resist this policy to the uttermost.

These British Indians were nearly all pre-war residents of the Transvaal. They held permits the Dutch Government, for which they had paid a statutory fee of £3 to £25, or else they were recognised as having a right to reside here by virtue of possessing Peace Preservation Ordinance permits. Many of them had large financial interests in the country. Not a few had been born here. It was to win justice and citizenship for these that Mr. Gandhi directed all his energy.

Since then, no doubt, suspicion on either side been the cause of many mistakes. The Indians have sometimes arrived at untrue conclusions, imagining wrongs and slights when these were not intended. On the other hand, the initial treatment of Mr. Gandhi by the Asiatic Department had been their experience ever since. From such sowing, no harvest but one of suspicion and resentment could spring, and the end is not yet. The British Government in the Transvaal has given these men no reason to be other than suspicious and resentful.

Lord Milner's promise to them has been broken. His formal announcement, made while High Commissioner, speaking with all the authority with which his office invested him, was in the following terms:—

"I think that registration is a protection to them. To that registration there is attached a £3 tax. It is only asked for once; those who have paid it to the old Government have only to prove that they have done so, and they have not to pay it again. Again, once on the register, their position is established, and no further registration is necessary, nor is a fresh permit required. That registration gives them a right to be here and a right to come and go."

The recent prosecutions and imprisonment of numbers who relied on the word of the then High Commissioner, and re-registered voluntarily at that time, is a strange commentary on British honour. The promise has been shamefully broken.

The promise which the Asiatics understood General Smuts to have made at a time when the leaders were in prison, they also regard as broken. It formed the chief inducement to the Asiatics to re-register a second time voluntarily, in accordance with the compromise. The Colonial Secretary's own statement, made in a speech at Richmond, on February 5th of this year, is significant:—"The Indians' second contention was," he said, "that they would never register until the law had been repealed, that the law was an indignity and disgrace. I told them that the law would not be repealed so long as there was an Asiatic in country who had not been registered, and, like wise men, the leaders of the Indian community had waived the question of repeal. Until every Indian in the country has registered, the law will not be repealed." Relying on this inducement, and a verbal promise that a Bill would be introduced at the next session of Parliament by Government, with the object of repealing that law, they waived the "contention" that repeal must come before registration, and they registered, loyally adhering to the comprise They did even more than the compromise required of them, in order to help the Government, the leaders giving their digit impressions to encourage the rank and file to do the same. When, however, the registration was complete, and the aim of the Government was reached, the Colonial Secretary repudiated his part of the contract. General Smuts has said in Parliament: "It may have been a misunderstanding." The Asiatics say: "It was a broken promise."

Lord Selborne counselled the Royal sanction to a measure which stamped them as a nation of criminals. By its administration they have been illegally deported, fined, and imprisoned, until their confidence in British justice is in ruins. It will need a generation of wise and good rule to restore it.