13. WHAT IT IS TO BE A 'COOLIE'
It would be out of place
here to describe fully the condition of Indians in the Transvaal and the
Orange Free State. I would suggest that those who wish to have a full idea
of it may turn to my History of Satyagraha in South Africa. It is,
however, necessary to give here a brief outline.
In the Orange Free State the
Indians were deprived of all their rights by a special law enacted in 1888
or even earlier. If they chose to stay there, they could do so only to
serve as waiters in hotels or to pursue some other such menial calling.
The traders were driven away, with a nominal compensation. They made representations
and petitions, but in vain.
A very stringent enactment was
passed in the Transvaal in 1885. It was slightly amended in 1886, and it
was provided under the amended law that all Indians should pay a poll tax
of £3 as fee for entry into the Transvaal. They might not own land
except in locations set apart for them, and in practice even that was not
to be ownership. They had no franchise. All this was under the special
law for Asiatics, to whom the laws for the coloured people were also applied.
Under these latter, Indians might not walk on public footpaths, and might
not move out of doors after 9 p.m. without a permit. The enforcement of
this last regulation was elastic so far as the Indians were concerned.
Those who passed as 'Arabs' were, as a matter of favour, exempted from
it. The exemption thus naturally depended on the sweet will of the police.
I had to experience the effect
of both these regulations. I often went out at night for a walk with Mr.
Coates, and we rarely got back home much before ten o'clock. What if the
police arrested me? Mr. Coates was more concerned about this than I. He
had to issue passes to his Negro servants. But how could he give one to
me? Only a master might issue a permit to a servant. If I had wanted one,
and even if Mr. Coates had been ready to give it, he could not have done
so, for it would have been fraud.
So Mr. Coates or some friend
of his took me to the State Attorney, Dr. Krause. We turned out to be barristers
of the same Inn. The fact that I needed a pass to enable me to be out of
doors after 9 p.m. was too much for him. He expressed sympathy for me.
Instead of ordering for me a pass, he gave me a letter authorizing me to
be out of doors at all hours without police interference. I always kept
this letter on me whenever I went out. The fact that I never had to make
use of it was a mere accident.
Dr. Krause invited me to his
place, and we may be said to have become friends. I occasionally called
on him, and it was through him that I was introduced to his more famous
brother, who was Public Prosecutor in Johannesburg. During the Boer War
he was court-martialled for conspiring to murder an English officer, and
was sentenced to imprisonment for seven years. He was also disbarred by
the Benchers. On the termination of hostilities he was released, and being
honourably re-admitted to the Transvaal bar, resumed practice.
These connections were useful
to me later on in my public life, and simplified much of my work.
The consequences of the regulation
regarding the use of foot-paths were rather serious for me. I always went
out for a walk through President Street to an open plain. President Kruger's
house was in this street--a very modest, unostentatious building, without
a garden, and not distinguishable from other houses in its neighbourhood.
The houses of many of the millionaires in Pretoria were far more pretentious,
and were surrounded by gardens. Indeed President Kruger's simplicity was
proverbial. Only the presence of a police patrol before the house indicated
that it belonged to some official. I nearly always went along the footpath
past this patrol without the slightest hitch or hindrance.
Now the man on duty used to
be changed from time to time. Once one of these men, without giving me
the slightest warning, without even asking me to leave the footpath, pushed
and kicked me into the street. I was dismayed. Before I could question
him as to his behaviour, Mr. Coates, who happened to be passing the spot
on horseback, hailed me and said:
'Gandhi, I have seen everything.
I shall gladly be your witness in court if you proceed against the man.
I am very sorry you have been so rudely assaulted.'
'You need not be sorry,' I said.
'What does the poor man know? All coloured people are the same to him.
He no doubt treats Negroes just as he has treated me. I have made it a
rule not to go to court in respect of any personal grievance. So I do not
intend to proceed against him.'
'That is just like you,' said
Mr Coates, 'but do think it over again. We must teach such men a lesson.'
He then spoke to the policeman and reprimanded him. I could not follow
their talk, as it was in Dutch, the policeman being a Boer. But he apologized
to me, for which there was no need. I had already forgiven him.
But I never again went through
this street. There would be other men coming in this man's place and, ignorant
of the incident, they would behave likewise. Why should I unnecessarily
court another kick? I therefore selected a different walk.
The incident deepened my feeling
for the Indian settlers. I discussed with them the advisability of making
a test case, if it were found necessary to do so, after having seen the
British Agent in the matter of these regulations.
I thus made an intimate study
of the hard condition of the Indian settlers, not only by reading and hearing
about it, but by personal experience. I saw that South Africa was no country
for a self-respecting Indian, and my mind became more and more occupied
with the question as to how this state of thing might be improved.
But my principal duty for the
moment was to attend to the case of Dada Abdulla.