M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Chapter 17

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In 1906, just before the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance was passed by the Provisional Government, the Zulu rebellion began, and an offer was made by the Natal Indian Congress, at Mr. Gandhi's suggestion, to raise a Stretcher-bearer Corps for service with the troops, as had been done in the late Boer War. Difficulty was experienced, however, and the matter was delayed.

In June, owing to the uncertainty of the political situation, Mr. Gandhi broke up his home, and took his wife and family to Natal. Somewhat to his surprise, on reaching Durban, he found that the offer of a Bearer Corps had been accepted, and that the men were waiting for him to take command. The Corps numbered twenty free Indians. Mr. Gandhi was offered the rank of Sergeant-Major, with three Sergeants and one Corporal under him.

With his usual whole-heartedness, he threw himself into to the work, and during the month that followed, he and his men were present at nearly all the engagements. The supposed work of the Corps was to carry the wounded; but early in the campaign, other duties were pressed upon them.

Dr. Savage, who was in charge of the ambulance, asked if they objected to enlarge the the scope of their work. When they replied that they were willing to do all they could, he placed the sanitation of the camp in their hands, and employed them as nurses to those Zulus who had been lashed.

Mr. Gandhi speaks with great reserve of this experience. What he saw he will never divulge. I imagine it was not always creditable to British humanity. As a man of peace, hating the very thought of war, it was almost intolerable for him to be so closely in touch with this expedition. At times, he doubted whether his position was right. No-one besides his men, howevern was prepared to do the work, and sheer pity for the sufferers forbade them to relinquish it. Not infrequently, the condition of the lashed men, who were placed in their charge, was appaling, the wounds filthy, their lives hanging in the balance. Dr. Savage won the unstinted praise of all. To the native patients he was invariably humane. But among the Europeans, apparently, he was the exception. So these Indians toiled at their irksorne tasks day after day, cleansing wounds, binding up rents which the lash had made, carrying the helpless men behind the cavalry, up and down the hills for twenty and twenty-five miles at a stretch, or attending to the sanitation of the camp.

It was a month of hard, self-sacrificing toil. Nor was it a light thing for these Indians to do this work. They were members of a sensitive and cultured race, with the elements of an ancient civilization going to make up their characters-men from whose fathers the world has received portions of its finest literature, and examples of its greatest thought. It was no trifle for such men to become voluntary nurses to men not yet emerged from the most degraded state. But distinctions of this kind are rarely appreciated in South Africa. Indians are coloured, and are accordingly classed with aboriginal natives. In the Transvaal, they are not allowed to ride in the trams, and there are special compartments for them in the trains. In our prisons "N" is stitched to their collars, to denote the people with whom they are classed, and in food—though the food is wholly unsuitable—in clothing, in work, in the cells, to all intents and purposes they are "natives."

One of the greatest difficulties during this Passive Resistance struggle has been over the question of food. Natives have their particular diet—mealie-pap, chiefly, and crushed mealies mixed with an ounce of animal fat—a spare diet, but suited to native habits. When the inrush of Passive Resisters came, and hundreds of Indians, many of them cultured men, thronged the goals, they were put upon the same diet, with the exception that, in some of the prisons, ghee or clarified butter was made to replace the fat, and rice to replace the crushed mealies. A cast-iron system required that they should be classed as natives, and because they were so classed, they were forced to be content with native diet. Although they had never been accustomed to diet of this kind, and it caused, both additional hardships and illness, their friends were unable to obtain any change. The short-sentence prisoners were those who suffered most. Even a little bread would have been some relief.

But in Pretoria and in some of the other prisons, the disdvantage of being classed with native was even more intolerable. Because "animal fat" was placed in the regulations to be cooked with crushed mealies, animal fat was systematically given. This was an infringement of religious principle which fell heavily on the Indians. The Passive Resisters were divided into two classes—the Hindus, to most of whom all animal food is under religious proscription, and the Mohammedans, who are permitted to use it if it has been ritually killed. To both of these, the fat supplied by the prison authorities was an abomination, and since it was cooked with the crushed mealies, they preferred to content themselves with rice, which was served only at mid-day—and starve rather than take the food which had been defiled. Those who were responsible for this prison-diet were implored to substitute ghee for animal fat, as had been done in Johannesburg, but without success. Only after an interview with the Director of Prisons, and petitions and newpaper letters, was anything done, and then, as though in irony, the animal fat was withdrawn, without any ghee being supplied. And this is the position to-day.[1]

There is no perception of the immense distance which separate the Indian from the Kaffir in the scale of civilization. To the average Colonial, they are all "niggers" alike. But to those who think, this Ambulance Corps, tenderly ministering to the wounded or cruelly-lashed Zulus—with the son of an Indian Prime Ministcr at their head—is worthy of an artist's brush. Some day, perhaps, it will have its meed.

  1. This defect has since been modified by recent regulation. L. W. R.