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 ) .
- 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