Mahatma Gandhi, his life, writings and speeches/Indian Colonial Emigration

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INDIAN COLONIAL EMIGRATION

I have carefully read the resolution issued at Simla by the Government of India on the 1st instant (September 1917) embodying the report of the Inter-Departmental Conference recently held in London. It will be remembered that this was the Conference referred to in the Viceregal speech of last year at the opening of the sessions of the Viceregal Legislative Council. It will be remembered, too, that this was the Conference which Sir James Meston and Sir S. P. Simla were to have attended, but were unable to attend owing to their having returned to India before the date of the meeting of the Conference. It is stated in the report under discussion that these gentlemen were able to discuss the question of emigration to certain English Colonies informally with the two Secretaries of State, i.e., the Secretary of State for India and the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Lord Islington, Sir A. Steel Maitland, and Messrs. Seton, Grindle, Green and Macnaughton constituted the Conference. To take the wording of the resolution, this Conference sat "to consider the proposals for a new assisted system of emigration to British Guiana, Trinidad, Jamaica and Fiji." The public should, therefore, note that this assisted emigration is to be confined only to the four Crown Colonies mentioned and not to the Self-Governing Colonies of South Africa, Canada or Australia, or the Crown Colony of Mauritius. What follows will show the importance of this distinction. It is something to be thankful for that "the Government of India have not yet considered the report and reserved, judgment on all the points raised in it." This is as it should be on a matter so serious as this and one which only last year fairly convulsed the whole of India and which as in one shape or another agitated the country since 1895. The declaration too that "His Majesty's Government in agreement with the Government of India have decided that indentured emigration shall not be re-opened" is welcome as is also the one that "no free emigrants can be introduced into any Colony until all Indian emigrants already there have been released from existing indentures." In spite, however, of so much in the report that fills one with gladness, the substantive part of it which sets forth the scheme which is to replace indentured emigration is, so far as one can judge, to say the least of it, disappointing. Stripped of all the phraseology under which the scheme has been veiled, it is nothing less than a system of indentured emigration no doubt on a more humane basis and safeguarded with some conditions beneficial to the emigrants taking advantage of it.

The main point that should be borne in mind is that the Conference sat designedly to consider a scheme of emigration not in the interests of the Indian labourer, but in those of the colonial employer. The new system, therefore, is devised to help the Colonies concerned. India needs no outlet, at any rate for the present moment, for emigration outside the country. It is debateable whether in any event the four Colonies will be the most suitable for Indian Colonisation. The best thing, therefore, that can happen from an Indian standpoint is that there should be no assisted emigration from India of any type whatsoever. In the absence of any such assistance, emigration will have to be entirely free and at the risk and expense of the emigrant himself. Past experience shows that in that event there will be very little voluntary emigration to distant Colonies. In the report, assisted emigration means, to use a mild expression, stimulated emigration ; and surely with the industries of India crying out for labour and with her legitimate resources yet undeveloped, it is madness to think of providing a stimulus for the stay-at-home Indian to go out of India. Neither the Government nor any voluntary agency has been found capable of protecting from ill usage the Indian who emigrates either to Burma or Ceylon, much less can any such protection avail in far off Fiji or the three other Colonies. I hope that leaders of public opinion in India will, therefore; take their stand on the one impregnable rock of not wanting any emigration whatsoever to the Colonies. It might be argued that we, as a component part of the Empire, are bound to consider the wants of our partners, but this would not be a fair plea to advance so long as India stands in need of all the labour she can produce, if, therefore India does not assist the Colonies, it is not because of want of will, but it is due to want of ability. An additional reason a politician would be justified in using is that, so long as India does not in reality occupy the position. of an equal partner with the Colonies and so long as her sons continue to be regarded by Englishmen in the Colonies and English employers even nearer home to be fit only as hewers of wood and drawers of water, no scheme of emigration to the Colonies can be morally advantageous to Indian emigrants. If the badge of inferiority is always to be worn by them, they can never rise to their full status, and any material advantage they will gain by emigrating can, therefore, be of no consideration.

But let us for the moment consider the new system. "The system," it is stated, to be followed in future will be one of aided emigration, and its object will be to encourage the settlement of Indians in certain Colonies after a probationary period of employment in those Colonies, to train and fit them for life and work there and at the same time to acquire a supply of the labour essential to the well-being of the colonists themselves." So the re-settlement is to be conditional on previous employment under contract, and it will be seen in the course of our examination that this contract is to be just as binding as the contracts used to be under indenture. The report has the following humorous passage in it : "He will be in no way restricted to service under any particular employer except that for his own protection, a selected employer will be chosen for him for the first six months." This has a flavour of the old indentured system. One of the evils complained of about that system was that the labourer was assigned to an employer. He was not free to choose one himself. Under the new system, the employer is to be selected for the protection of the labourer. It is hardly necessary for me to point out that the would be labourer will never be able to feel the protection devised for him. The labourer is further "to be encouraged to work for his first three years in agricultural industries, by the offer, should he do so, of numerous and important benefits subsequently as a colonist." This is another indicement to indenture, and I know enough of such schemes to be able to assure both the Government and public that these so-called inducements in the hands of clever manipulations become nothing short of methods of compulsion in respect of innocent and ignorant Indian labourers. It is due to the framers of the scheme that I should draw attention to the fact that they have avoided all criminal penalties for breach of contract. In India, itself, if the scheme is adopted, we are promised a revival of the much dreaded depots and Emigration Agents, all no doubt on a more respectable basis, but still of the same type and capable of untold mischief.

The rest of the report is not likely to interest the public but those who wish to study it will, I doubt not, come to the conclusion to which I have been driven, that the framers have done their best to strip the old system of many of the abuses which had crept into it, but they have not succeeded in placing before the Indian public an acceptable scheme. I hold that it was an impossible task. The system of indenture was one of temporary slavery ; it was incapable of being amended ; it should only be ended and it is to be hoped that India will never consent to its revival in any shape or form. — (Indian Review).