16. MAN PROPOSES, GOD DISPOSES
The case having been concluded,
I had no reason for staying in Pretoria. So I went back to Durban and began
to make preparations for my return home. But Abdulla Sheth was not the
man to let me sail without a send-off. He gave a farewell party in my honour
It was proposed to spend the
whole day there. Whilst I was turning over the sheets of some of the newspapers
I found there, I chanced to see a paragraph in a corner of one of them
under the caption, 'Indian Franchise'. It was with reference to the bill
then before the House of Legislature, which sought to deprive the Indians
of their right to elect members of the Natal Legislative Assembly. I was
ignorant of the bill, and so were the rest of the guests who had assembled
I inquired of Abdulla Sheth
about it. He said: 'What can we understand in these matters? We can only
understand things that affect our trade. As you know, all our trade in
the Orange Free State has been swept away. We agitated about it, but in
vain. We are after all lame men, being unlettered. We generally take in
newspapers simply to ascertain the daily market rates, etc. What can we
know of legislation? Our eyes and ears are the European attorneys here.'
'But,' said I, 'there are so
many young Indians born and educated here. Do they not help you?'
'They!' exclaimed Abdulla Sheth
in despair. 'They never care to come to us, and to tell you the truth,
we care less to recognize them. Being Christians, they are under the thumb
of the white clergymen, who in their turn are subject to the Government.'
This opened my eyes. I felt
that this class should be claimed as our own. Was this the meaning of Christianity?
Did they cease to be Indians because they had become Christians?
But I was on the point of returning
home and hesitated to express what was passing through my mind in this
matter. I simply said to Abdulla Sheth: 'This bill, if it passes into law,
will make our lot extremely difficult. It is the first nail into our coffin.
It strikes at the root of our self-respect.'
'It may,' echoed Sheth Abdulla.
'I will tell you the genesis of the franchise question. We knew nothing
about it. But Mr. Escombe, one of our best attorneys, whom you know, put
the idea into our heads. It happened thus. He is a great fighter, and there
being no love lost between him and the Wharf Engineer, he feared that the
Engineer might deprive him of his votes and defeat him at the election.
So he acquainted us with our position, and at his instance we all registered
ourselves as voters, and voted for him. You will now see how the franchise
has not for us the value that you attach to it. But we understand what
you say. Well, then, what is your advice?'
The other guests were listening
to this conversation with attention. One of them said: 'Shall I tell you
what should be done? You cancel your passage by this boat, stay here a
month longer, and we will fight as you direct us.'
All the others chimed in: 'Indeed,
indeed. Abdulla Sheth, you must detain Gandhibhai.'
The Sheth was a shrewd man.
He said: 'I may not detain him now. Or rather, you have as much right as
I to do so. But you are quite right. Let us all persuade him to stay on.
But you should remember that he is a barrister. What about his fees?'
The mention of fees pained me,
and I broke in: 'Abdulla Sheth, fees are out of the question. There can
be no fees for public work. I can stay, if at all, as a servant. And as
you know, I am not acquainted with all these friends. But if you believe
that they will co-operate, I am prepared to stay a month longer. There
is one thing, however. Though you need not pay me anything, work of the
nature we contemplate cannot be done without some funds to start with.
Thus we may have to send telegrams, we may have to print some literature,
some touring may have to be done, the local attorneys may have to be consulted,
and as I am ignorant of your laws, I may need some law-books for reference.
All this cannot be done without money. And it is clear that one man is
not enough for this work. Many must come forward to help him.'
And a chorus of voices was heard:
'Allah is great and merciful. Money will come in. Men there are, as many
as you may need. You please consent to stay, and all will be well.'
The farewell party was thus
turned into a working committee. I suggested finishing dinner etc. quickly,
and getting back home. I worked out in my own mind an outline of the campaign.
I ascertained the names of those who were on the list of voters, and made
up my mind to stay on for a month.
Thus God laid the foundations
of my life in South Africa, and sowed the seed of the fight for national