When Gandhiji spoke to us

In his autobiography, Gandhiji talked of his visit to Calcutta as it then was in 1896, and the contrasting receptions he got from editors of the different newspapers he met to talk about his work in South Africa. One editor thought he was a wandering Jew while another after keeping him waiting for an hour told him, “You had better go. I am not disposed to listen to you.” Gandhiji writes: “…I met the Anglo-Indian editors also. The Statesman and The Englishman realised the importance of the (South African) question. I gave them long interviews and they published them in full.”

We publish these interviews here, among the first of Gandhiji published in India.

When Gandhiji spoke to us

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In his autobiography, Gandhiji talked of his visit to Calcutta as it then was in 1896, and the contrasting receptions he got from editors of the different newspapers he met to talk about his work in South Africa. One editor thought he was a wandering Jew while another after keeping him waiting for an hour told him, “You had better go. I am not disposed to listen to you.” Gandhiji writes: “…I met the Anglo-Indian editors also. The Statesman and The Englishman realised the importance of the (South African) question. I gave them long interviews and they published them in full.”

We publish these interviews here, among the first of Gandhiji published in India.

Interview to a reporter of The Statesman published on 12 November 1896.


The Statesman: Will you please tell me, Mr. Gandhi, in a few words something of the grievances of the Indians in South Africa.

Gandhi: There are Indians in many parts of South Africa ~ in the Colonies of Natal, the Cape of Good Hope, the South African republic, the Orange Free State and elsewhere, in all of which, more or less, they are denied the ordinary rights of citizenship. But I more particularly represent the Indians in Natal, who number about fifty thousand in a total population of some five hundred thousand. The first Indians were, of course, the coolies who were taken over under indentures from Madras and Bengal for the purpose of labouring in the various plantations. They were mostly Hindus, but a few of them were Mohammedans. They served their contract time, and on obtaining their freedom they elected to stay in the country, because they found that, as market gardeners or hawkers of vegetables, they could earn from three to four pounds sterling per month. In this way, there are, at present, about thirty thousand free Indians settled in the Colony, while some sixteen thousand others are serving their indentures. There is, however, another class of Indians, numbering about five thousand, Mohammedans from the Bombay side who have been attracted to the country by the prospects of trade. Some of the latter are doing well. Many are landowners in a large way, while two own ships. The Indians have been settled in the country for twenty years and more, and being prosperous, wee contented and happy.

The Statesman: What then, was the cause of all the present trouble, Mr. Gandhi?

Gandhi: Simply trade jealousy. The Colony was desirous of securing all possible benefit from the Indians as labourers, because the natives of the country do not work in the fields and the Europeans cannot. But the moment the Indian entered into competition with the European as a trader, he found himself thwarted, obstructed, and insulted by a system of organised persecution. And gradually, this feeling of hatred and oppression has been imported into the laws of the Colony. The Indians had been quietly enjoying the franchise for years, subject to certain property qualifications, and, in 1894, there were 251 Indian voters on the register against 9,309 European voters, But the Government suddenly thought, or pretended to think, that there was danger of the Asiatic vote swamping the European and they introduced into the Legislative Assembly a Bill disfranchising all Asiatics save those who were then rightly contained in any Voters’ List. Against this Bill, the Indians memorialised both the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council; but to no purpose, and the Bill was passed into law. The Indians then memorialised Lord Ripon, who was in those days at the Colonial Office. As a result, that Act has now been repealed and replaced by an Act which says: “The natives, or descendants in the male line of natives, of countries which have not hitherto possessed elective representative institutions founded on the parliamentary franchise shall not be placed on any Voters’ List unless they shall first obtain an order from the Governor-in-Council exempting them from the operation of the Act. It also exempts from its operation those persons who are rightly contained in any Voters’ List. This Bill was first submitted to Mr. ( Joseph) Chamberlain, who has practically approved of it. We have yet thought it advisable to oppose it, and with a view to secure its rejection, we have sent a memorial to Mr. Chamberlain, and hope to secure the same measure of support that has been extended to its hitherto.

The Statesman: Then are we to understand that the Indians in Natal ~ the great bulk of whom are coolies, who would never have aspired to free institutions in their own country ~ are desirous of wielding political power in Natal?

Gandhi: By no means. We are most careful to put out, in all our representations to the government and the public, that the object of our agitation is merely the removal of vexatious disabilities devised, as we believe, to degrade us as compared to the European population. With the object of still further discouraging Indian Colonization, the Natal Legislature has passed a Bill to keep indentures Indians under contract for the whole term of their stay in the Colony, and if they object to renew their contract at the end of their first term of five years, to send them back to India, or, if they declined to return, to compel them to pay an annual tax of 3 pound per head. Unfortunately for us, the Indian Government, on the ex parte representation of a commission that visited India from Natal in 1893, have accepted the principle of compulsory indenture; but we are memorialising both the Home and the Indian Governments against it.

The Statesman: We have heard much, Mr. Gandhi, of daily annoyances to which Indians in Natal are said to be subjected at the hands of the white colonists.

Gandhi: Oh yes! And the law supports the Europeans in this system of persecution, either openly or covertly. The law says that an Indian must not walk on the foot-paths but pass along the middle of the road; that he must not travel either first or second class on the railways; that he must not be out of his house with out a pass after 9 o’clock at night; that he must take out a pass if he wishes to drive cattle; and son on. Imagine the tyranny of these special laws! For the infraction of them, Indians ~ men of the highest respectability who might sit in your Legislative Councils ~ are daily insulted, assaulted, and taken up by the police. and in addition to the legal disabilities, there are social disqualifications. No Indian is permitted in the tramcars, in the public hotels, in public baths.

The Statesman: Well, but, Mr. Gandhi, suppose you succeed in having the legal disabilities removed, what about the social disqualifications? Will they not pinch and gall and fret you a hundred times oftener than the thought that you cannot return a member to the Legislative assembly?

Gandhi: We hope that when the legal disabilities are removed, the social persecution will gradually disappear.

* * *

Gandhiji notes in his autobiography that “Mr. Saunders, editor of The Englishman, claimed me as his own. He placed his office and paper at my disposal. He even allowed me the liberty of making whatever changes I liked in the leading article he had written on the situation, the proof of which he sent me in advance. It is no exaggeration to say that a friendship grew up between us. He promised to render me all the help he could, carried out the promise to the letter, and kept on his correspondence with me until the time when he was seriously ill.” (John Saunders took over management of The Englishman in 1878)

On 13 November 1896, Gandhiji gave an interview to a reporter of The Englishman. The interview appeared the next day.

Gandhi: There has always been a dislike of the Indian from the first days of their migration to Africa, but it was only when our people began to trade that the antipathy became marked and took shape in the imposition of disabilities.

The Englishman: Then all these grievances you speak of are the outcome of commercial jealousy and prompted by self-interest?

Gandhi: Precisely. That is just the root of the whole matter. The Colonists want us cleared out because they do not like our traders competing with them.

The Englishman: Is the competition a legitimate one? I mean, is it entered into and conducted on a fair and open basis?

Gandhi: The competition is an open one and conducted by the Indians in a perfectly fair and legitimate manner. Perhaps a word or two as to the general system of trading may make matters clear. The bulk of Indians engaged in trafficking are those who get their goods from the large European wholesale houses, and then go about the country hawking them. Why, I may say that the Colony of Natal, of which I speak particularly from knowledge and experience, is practically dependent for its supplies on these travelling traders. As you know, shops are scarce in those parts, at least away from the towns, and the Indian gets an honest livelihood by supplying the deficiency. It is said that the petty European trader has been displaced. This is true to a certain extent; but then it has been the fault of the European trader. He has been content to stop in his shop, and customers have been compelled to come to him. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that when the Indian, at no small trouble, takes the goods to the customers, he readily finds a sale. Moreover, the European trader, no matter in however small a way, will not hawk his goods about. Perhaps the strongest proof of the trading capabilities of the Indian and, generally speaking, of his integrity, is to be found in the fact that the great houses will give him credit, and, in fact, many of them do the bulk of their trade through his agency. It is no secret that the opposition to the Indian in Natal is but partial, and by no means represents the real feelings of a good portion of the European community.

The Englishman: What, briefly, are the legal and other disabilities placed upon the Indian residents in Natal?

Gandhi: Well, first there is the ‘curfew’ law which prohibits all ‘coloured’ persons being out after 9 o’clock at night without a permit from their master, if indentured servants, or unless they can give a good account of themselves. The great cause of complaint on this score is that this law may be used by the police as an engine of oppression. Respectable, welldressed, educated Indians are sometimes subjected to the humiliation of arrest by a policeman, being marched to the lock-up, incarcerated for the night, brought before the magistrate next morning and dismissed without a word of apology when their bona fides have been established. Such occurrences are by no means rare. Then there is the deprivation of the franchise, which was brought out in the article you published. The fact is the Colonists do not want the Indian to form part of the South African nation – hence the taking away from him of franchise rights. As a menial he can be tolerated, as a citizen never.

The Englishman: What has been the attitude of the Indians on this question of the exercise of political rights in an alien country?

Gandhi: Simply that of the person who claims to enjoy the same rights and privilege in a country as those who are not native to the country freely enjoy. Politically speaking, the Indian does not want the vote; it is only because he resents the indignity of being dispossessed of it that he is agitating for its restitution. Moreover, the classifying of all Indians in one category and the nonrecognition of the just place of the better class is felt to be a great injustice. We have been proposed the raising of the property qualifications and the introduction of the education test, which would surely give the hallmark of fitness to every Indian voter, but this has been contemptuously rejected, proving that the sole object is that of discrediting the Indian and depriving him of all political power, so that he will be forever helpless. Then there is the crippling imposition of the pound 3 poll tax per annum on all who remain in the country after fulfilling their indenture. Again, the Indian has no social status; in fact, he is regarded as a social leper ~ a pariah. Indignities of all kinds are heaped upon him. No matter what his station may be, an Indian throughout South Africa is a coolie, and as such he is treated. On the railway he is restricted to a certain class, and, although in Natal he is permitted to walk on the foot-path, this is refused to him in other states.

The Englishman: Will you tell me something about the treatment of Indians in these States?

Gandhi: In Zululand no Indians can buy landed property in the townships of Nondweni and Eshowe.

The Englishman: Why was the prohibition imposed?

Gandhi: Well, in the township of Melmoth, which was the first established in Zululand, there were no such regulations and the Natal Indians availed themselves of the right to buy landed property, which they did to the extent of over Pound 2,000 worth. Then the prohibition was passed and made to apply to townships subsequently founded. It was purely trade jealousy, the fear being that the Indians would enter Zululand for trade purposes as they had done in Natal. In the Orange River Free State, the purchase of any property by an Indian has been made impossible by simply classifying him with the Kaffir. It is not permitted him to hold immovable property, and every Indian settler in the State has to pay an annual tax of 10 shillings. The injustice of these arbitrary laws may be gauged from the fact that when they were promulgated, the Indians, mostly traders, were compelled to leave the State without the slightest compensation, causing loses to the extent of Pound 9,000. Matters in the Transvaal are hardly any better. Laws have been passed which prohibit the Indian from engaging in trade or residing otherwise than in specific localities. On the latter point, however, proceedings are pending in the lawcourts. A special registration fee of Pound 7 has to be paid, the 9 o’clock rule is operative, walking on the footpath is forbidden (at least this is so in Johannesburg), and travelling first and second class on the railways is not permitted. So you will see that the Indian’s life in the Transvaal is not altogether a pleasant one. And yet, in spite of all these disabilities, nay, unwarrantable indignities and insults, the Indian, unless Mr. (Joseph) Chamberlain interferes, will be liable to compulsory military service. According to the Commandeering Treaty, all British subjects wee exempted from this service, but, when the Transvaal Volksraad was considering the point, they added a resolution to the effect that the British subjects means ‘whites’ only. The Indians, however, memorialised the Home Government on this question. Cape Colony, following on the same lines, has recently empowered the East London Municipality to prohibit trading by Indians, walking on the foot-paths and limiting them to residence in certain locations. So you see almost everywhere in South Africa there is a dead set against the Indians. Yet we ask no special privileges, we only claim our just rights. Political power is not our ambition, but to be let alone to carry on our trading, for which we are eminently suited as a nation, is all we ask. This is, we think, a reasonable demand.

The Englishman: So much for these grievances, which seem to be general throughout South Africa. Now tell me, Mr. Gandhi, how do Indian advocates fare in the law-courts?

Gandhi: Oh, there is no distinction between advocates and attorneys of whatever race; in the courts, it is only a question of ability. There are many lawyers in the Colony, but, on the whole, forensic talent cannot be said to be of a very high order. A good many European pleaders are to be found, and it goes without saying that those with English training and degrees monopolise the practice of the courts. But I suppose it is the English degree, for those of us who have taken it, which places us more on a level footing. Those with an Indian degree only would be out of place. There is scope, I believe, for Indian lawyers in South Africa, if at all sympathetically disposed to their fellow countrymen.

(The Englishman, founded 1821, was incorporated with The Sunday Statesman in 1934)