M. K. Gandhi: Indian Patriot in South Africa/Introduction
The writer of this book is not known to me personally, but there is a bond of sympathy between him and me in the sentiments which we share in regard to the cause of which he is so courageous and devoted an advocate.
I commend his book to all who are willing to take my word that it is worth reading. I respectfully suggest that others who attach no value to my opinion would do well to avail of the information afforded by this book in regard to the question of which few, unfortunately, in this country have any knowledge, but which is nevertheless an Imperial question of the highest importance.
Mr. Doke does not pretend to give more than a short biography and character sketch of Mr. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the leader of the Indian Community in the Transvaal, but the importance of the book is due to the facts that men and matters are inseparably connected in all human affairs, and that the proper comprehension of political affairs in particular ever depends on a knowledge of the character and motives of those who direct them.
Although I am not in a position to criticize I do not doubt that in these pages the facts are accurately recorded, and I have sufficient reason to believe that the appreciation is just.
The subject of the sketch, Mr. Gandhi, has been denounced in this country, even by responsible persons, as an ordinary agitator; his acts have been misrepresented as mere vulgar defiance of the law; there have not even been wanting suggestions that his motives are those of self-interest and pecuniary profit.
A perusal of these pages ought to dispel any such notions from the mind of any fair man who has been misled into entertaining them. And with a better knowledge of the man there must come a better knowledge of the matter.
The Indian community in the Transvaal are struggling for the maintenance of a right and the removal of a degradation. Can we as Englishmen find fault with them for that? The only method of protest, except that of violence and disorder, which is open to them, who have neither votes nor representation, is that of passive resistance. Can we find fault with them for that? They are not selfishly resisting a tax or insidiously striving for new political privileges; they are merely trying to regain that which has been taken from them—the honour of their community. Let him who blames them say what he would do in similar circumstances. Is there one of us who, out of respect for the law, would submit meekly and without protest to deprivation of rights and social degradation?
The Colonial Government can remove both grievances without sacrificing an ounce of principle or losing a grain of dignity. Will the Colonial Government do so for the sake of the Empire at this moment of reconciliation, union, and new hope for the future? That is the question to which we are anxiously expecting an answer at the present moment—the question whether or not the Indians who, have their homes in the Transvaal and who have assisted as a community in the development of South Africa, who are British citizens and subjects of His Majesty the King, are to have any lot or share in the general rejoicing over the Union of South Africa.
The Colonial Government has but to repeal an Act, which has served its purpose, which is now useless and unworkable, and which they themselves declare to be a dead letter, and to make a slight amendment of another Act, so as to remove the explicit racial distinction imposed by these laws and in practice admit a maximum of six Indians annually to the Colony, on the old principle of right, and the question would be settled. The Indian would then have no further reason for persisting in a struggle which for them means suffering and ruin while for the Colony it means a scandal and disgrace. This does not imply that they have no further grievances. They would still labour under the disabilities imposed by the late Transvaal Republic—the incapacity to acquire the franchise and to own land, and the liability to segregation in locations.
It is not realised in this country that in the Transvaal, during the past three years, Indians have for the first time been deprived of a right which they have enjoyed, at any rate in theory, and still enjoy in every other part of the Empire, viz., the legal right of migration on the same terms as other civilised subjects of His Majesty. That is the simple but startling fact, and if this were understood, as it ought to be understood, surely there would be protest from men of all parties in both Houses of Parliament who have so solemnly expressed their disapproval and regret at the establishment of a "colour bar" under the new Constitution for South Africa. Undoubtedly this disfranchisement, under a Liberal administration, of men on account of their colour, this deprivation of an elementary right of British citizenship on racial grounds, constitutes a reactionary step in Imperial government almost without parallel, and perhaps there never has been so great or momentous a departure from the principles on which the Empire has been built up and by which we have been wont to justify its existence, the principles of that true Liberalism which has hitherto belonged to Englishmen of all parties. But the violation of the political ethics of our race is even greater in the case of the "colour bar" which has been established in the Transvaal than in that of the new South African Constitution. If the Houses of Parliament and the Press cannot see this and do not think it worth while to take account of so momentous a reaction, it would seem that our genius for the government of an Empire has commenced its decline.
What is to be the result in India if it should finally be proved that we cannot protect British subjects under the British Flag, and that we are powerless to abide by the pledges of our Sovereign and our Statesmen? Those who know about India will have no doubt as to the consequences. And what if India—irritated, mortified and humiliated—should become an unwilling and refractory partner in the great Imperial concern? Surely it would be the beginning of the end of the Empire.
These, briefly, are the reasons why this question of "the British indians in the Transvaal" is a great Imperial question and not one of mere internal administration of a self-governing Colony in which the Mother Country has neither right nor reason to interfere.
It is a matter which touches the honour of our race and affects the unity of the Empire as a whole: it therefore concerns every part of the Empire. Moreover, it is certain that any departure from principle, which may be sanctioned or ignored at the heart of the Empire, will operate as a mischievous example to other places inside and out, and then only by some rude shock to the whole system will the arrest of moral decay be possible.
The matter, therefore, concerns all who would "think Imperially," and it needs more "clear thinking" than it has hitherto received.
The question must be decided, not by methods of temporary expediency in which practice ignores theory, but on the fundamental principles of the ethics of our race. Theory can be modified in practice to suit the exigencies of time and place, but if theory is cast to the winds, there is no means of steering practice.
There is still hope that the danger may be realised and averted, for as I write I hear that negotiations for a settlement of the British India question in the Transvaal are still proceeding. I have no more earnest hope than that Mr. Gandhi and his fellow countrymen may see the accomplishment of that end, for which they have struggled so bravely and sacrificed so much, before this book is published.
Milton Ernest Hall,
26th August, 1909.