Article 6-Gandhi’s Work in South Africa

The Franchise  Amendment Bill which prevented most of the Indians in South Africa to participate in the election process was passed by the white dominated legislature of Natal .  This was a great setback for Gandhi in particular and Indian community in general .

Gandhi was now clear that it would take time to settle the issues being faced by the Indians  . He was  in a dilemma whether to continue or return to India . By this time Indian community was  more than convinced that protests do give results &  that Gandhi was the fittest  man to lead them  for this  purpose . Seth Abdullah and others urged  Gandhi to stay  and continue the  struggle for them . Gandhi was assured a regular income from the legal cases of Indians ,  enough to  support his  family . He could  also bring his family to South Africa , fare  will be paid  by them . Gandhi was also given a house Beachgrove Vila  in Beachgrove area very near to  the residence  of Attorney General of Natal ; in other words , it was a VIP area . In addition ,  all the  expenses required for political activity for Indian cause will be taken care of by the community .

Gandhi wrote to Kasturba and narrated the developments and his decision to continue in SA for some more time . “In any case , I am serving the Indian community . They need me here more  than in India” concluded  Gandhi .

Since he was to handle legal cases of Indians –hitherto dealt by white lawyers –  it was necessary to seek  registration to  practice as an advocate . He filed an application in  the Supreme Court of Natal to register him as an advocate . He was the first black person in whole of South Africa to seek admission to the bar . Natal Law Society   decided to oppose his registration .Gandhi’s registration would not only hit their business but would also impact their hold on the black community  .

Matter came up for hearing in the  Supreme Court . Natal Law Society had raised two objections through their counsel viz

1.“That Gandhi has not attached the original degree of Barrister , only a copy has been enclosed .(The original was in Bombay high court ) .

  1. That he was non white . The black people have never been admitted to practice in court of Natal . These people are uncivilized and indulge in nepotism which would result  in the flooding of black lawyers in the legal system there by diminishing the importance of legal profession .  It would have  far reaching impact on the   finances of the white society  etc .”

To the utter surprise of every person present in the Court ,  white or black , the Judge  pronounced judgement in favour of Gandhi . Dismissing the argument of Law Society , the Honourable Chief Justice  observed  : “ Mr Gandhi has not enclosed  his Original degree for an understandable reason . Assuming that degree turns  out to be false , in that case ,  he could  always be tried in the court for forgery and cheating and barred from practice . On the second point the court observed “  we cannot indefinitely  keep away the blacks from the bar ; time has come to  give them  due recognition  . Law does not discriminate between whites and blacks . A person is entitled to pursue a profession of his choice and capability”  .

After the judgement was pronounced and initial voices , reactions , discussions among the audience were over , the Chief Justice addressed  Gandhi to remove his turban (as per the rules  of the court)  because  now he was a member of the bar . This was a moment of Truth for Gandhi. All eyes turned on him .  Gandhi decided to obey the law in the larger interest of  work ahead  for the Indian community . He slowly removed his turban and placed on the table . The white members of bar were praying  he might be denied registration on this issue  but an  alert Gandhi dismissed their hopes and expectations .

A 25 year old Gujrati Bania ,  from a small town in India ,  barrister at  law from London ,  had stirred the white community in South Africa  and became a big challenge towards their policy of governance in a matter of one year .

Having secured membership of Natal law Society and practice as an advocate ,Gandhi decided to revert back to the Franchise  Amendment Bill . That was the immediate task in hand of far reaching consequences for the Indian diaspora . First and foremost , Gandhi and few others met Prime Minister of Natal, Mr Robinson  and sought his help in the matter . Mr Robinson , however ,dismissed the plea  of Gandhi . “ You have come   too late . The  bill has already been passed by Natal Parliament .  I have  personally spoken in the legislator to ignore the plea of Indian community  and had  requested the assembly to pass the bill .” The group came back empty handed but that Gandhi had the courage  to even meet the PM of Natal was a feeling of great achievement for the Indian Coolies .

The bill was yet to be sent  to the Queen of England ( Victoria ) for her approval . It was decided to write to Lord Ripon , Secretary of Colonies in Her Majesty’s govt in London and apprise him of the views of Indian community to advice the Queen appropriately .  Simultaneously a letter was written to  Governor requesting him to enclose the representation of the Indian community also along with the bill . It was assured that Indian petition would reach  him very shortly .

Gandhi again prepared a detailed representation giving the history , rich cultural background of Indian people ;  the ancient civilization of India ;  the common sense and maturity of Indian people in understanding the matters of state and importance of vote in democratic set up; that  the Indians in South Africa were  the subject of the Queen like  any other person in Britain , India or  else where .   The denial of voting rights to the Indian community would be a gross injustice , would  widen the gap between the masters and the Coolies thereby disturbing  the peace and harmony among people .   The text of the petition was discussed among Indians . After lot of discussion , it emerged  that since the bill had already  been passed by the Natal Legislator ,   the British govt might  not agree to allow the entire Indian blacks including the indentured labour (Girmitias )  for exercising voting rights .  Therefore to begin with  voting rights to those Indians who were  already free may be sought and  as and when a Girmitia would come  out of the bondage of  Agreement ,  he would be entitled to vote. The draft document was accordingly  modified . It was further decided to collect signature of as many persons as possible to make a strong and compelling representation  Party of excited persons fanned out across Natal to collect the signatures . Details like village , district , caste , religion , education , date of arrival etc were to be filled . Some were afraid to sign , lest they should lose their job . Many did not understand the meaning and purpose of document ;  each of such persons was explained the implications and in what way his signatures were important to him and his future generations .  Gandhi himself went with the parties to meet the people and see their quality of lfe .  He was appalled to see their living conditions . One thought came repeatedly to his mind that such  obnoxious conditions  of living  (equivalent to that of  pigs )  that too in a distant land , only for bread and butter , was definitely  an unpardonable injustice .

The signature exercise was a great success . Nearly ten thousand signatures /  thumb impressions were collected in a matter of few days . The main text was in 16 pages and signatures were in  nearly 100 pages . It appeared  as if entire India was pleading for  justice .  The voluminous  document was sent to  Governor  for onward submission to Lord Ripon for consideration of Her Majesty , The Queen of England .

It was a long struggle before Indians could get voting rights in South Africa  which will be suitably covered in subsequent articles as events unfold there .


K C Gupta

Jyotish Acharya


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