17. SETTLED IN NATAL
Sheth Haji Muhammad Haji
Dada was regarded as the foremost leader of the Indian community in Natal
in 1893. Financially Sheth Abdulla Haji Adam was the chief among them,
but he and others always gave the first place to Sheth Haji Muhammad in
public affairs. A meeting was, therefore, held under his presidentship
at the house of Abdulla Sheth, at which it was resolved to offer opposition
to the Franchise Bill.
Volunteers were enrolled. Natal-born
Indians, that is, mostly Christian Indian youths, had been invited to attend
this meeting. Mr. Paul, the Durban court interpreter, and Mr. Subhan Godfrey,
headmaster of a mission school, were present, and it was they who were
responsible for bringing together at the meeting a good number of Christian
youths. All these enrolled themselves as volunteers.
Many of the local merchants
were of course enrolled, note-worthy among them being Sheths Dawud Muhammad,
Muhammad Kasam Kamruddin, Adamji Miyakhan, A. Kolandavellu Pillai, C. Lachhiram,
Rangasami Padiachi, and Amod Jiva. Parsi Rustomji was of course there.
From among the clerks were Messrs Manekji, Joshi, Narsinhram, and others,
employees of Dada Abdulla and Co. and other big firms. They were all agreeably
surprised to find themselves taking a share in public work. To be invited
thus to take part was a new experience in their lives. In face of the calamity
that had overtaken the community, all distinctions such as high and low,
small and great, master and servant, Hindus, Musalmans, Parsis, Christians,
Gujaratis, Madrasis, Sindhis, etc., were forgotten. All were alike the
children and servants of the motherland.
The Bill had already passed,
or was about to pass, its second reading. In the speeches on the occasion
the fact that Indians had expressed no opposition to the stringent Bill
was urged as proof of their unfitness for the franchise.
I explained the situation to
the meeting. The first thing we did was to despatch a telegram to the Speaker
of the Assembly requesting him to postpone further discussion of the bill.
A similar telegram was sent to the premier, Sir John Robinson, and another
to Mr. Escombe, as a friend of Dada Abdulla's. The Speaker promptly replied
that discussion of the bill would be postponed for two days. This gladdened
The petition to be presented
to the Legislative Assembly was drawn up. Three copies had to be prepared,
and one extra was needed for the press. It was also proposed to obtain
as many signatures to it as possible, and all this work had to be done
in the course of a night. The volunteers with a knowledge of English, and
several others, sat up the whole night. Mr. Arthur, an old man who was
known for his calligraphy, wrote the principal copy. The rest were written
by others to someone's dictation. Five copies were thus got ready simultaneously.
volunteers went out in their own carriages, or carriages whose hire they
had paid, to obtain signatures to the petition. This was accomplished in
quick time and the petition was despatched. The newspapers published it
with favourable comments. It likewise created an impression on the Assembly.
It was discussed in the House. Partisans of the Bill offered a defence--an
admittedly lame one--in reply to the arguments advanced in the petition.
The Bill, however, was passed.
We all knew that this was a
foregone conclusion, but the agitation had infused new life into the community,
and had brought home to them the conviction that the community was one
and indivisible, and that it was as much their duty to fight for its political
rights as for its trading rights.
Lord Ripon was at this time
Secretary of State for the Colonies. It was decided to submit to him a
monster petition. This was no small task and could not be done in a day.
Volunteers were enlisted, and all did their due share of the work.
I took considerable pains over
drawing up this petition. I read all the literature available on the subject.
My argument centred round a principle and on expedience. I argued that
we had a right to the franchise in Natal, as we had a kind of franchise
in India. I urged that it was expedient to retain it, as the Indian population
capable of using the franchise was very small.
Ten thousand signatures were
obtained in the course of a fortnight. To secure this number of signatures
from the whole of the province was no light task, especially when we consider
that the men were perfect strangers to the work. Specially competent volunteers
had to be selected for the work, as it had been decided not to take a single
signature without the signatory fully understanding the petition. The villages
were scattered at long distances. The work could be done promptly only
if a number of workers put their whole heart into it. And this they did.
All carried out their allotted task with enthusiasm. But as I am writing
these lines, the figures of Sheth Dawud Muhammad, Rustomji, Adamji Miyakhan,
and Amod Jiva rise clearly before my mind. They brought in the largest
number of signatures. Dawud Sheth kept going about in his carriage the
whole day. And it was all a labour of love, not one of them asking for
even his out-of-pocket expenses. Dada Abdulla's house became at once a
caravanserai and a public office. A number of educated friends who helped
me and many others had their food there. Thus every helper was put to considerable
The petition was at last submitted.
A thousand copies had been printed for circulation and distribution. It
acquainted the Indian public for the first time with conditions in Natal.
I sent copies to all the newspapers and publicists I knew.
The Times of India, in
a leading article on the petition, strongly supported the Indian demands.
Copies were sent to journals and publicists in England representing different
parties. The London Times supported our claims, and we began to
entertain hopes of the bill being vetoed.
It was now impossible for me
to leave Natal. The Indian friends surrounded me on all sides and importuned
me to remain there permanently. I expressed my difficulties. I had made
up my mind not to stay at public expense. I felt it necessary to set up
an independent household. I thought that the house should be good and situated
in a good locality. I also had the idea that I could not add to the credit
of the community, unless I lived in a style usual for barristers. And it
seemed to me to be impossible to run such a household with anything less
than £300 a year. I therefore decided that I could stay only if the
members of the community guaranteed legal work to the extent of that minimum,
and I communicated my decision to them.
'But,' said they, 'we should
like you to draw that amount for public work, and we can easily collect
it. Of course, this is apart from the fees you must charge for private
'No, I could not thus charge
you for public work,' said I. 'The work would not involve the exercise
on my part of much skill as barrister. My work would be mainly to make
you all work. And how could I charge you for that? And then I should have
to appeal to you frequently for funds for the work, and if I were to draw
my maintenance from you, I should find myself at a disadvantage in making
an appeal for large amounts, and we should ultimately find ourselves at
a standstill. Besides I want the community to find more than £300
annually for public work.'
'But we have now known you for
some time, and are sure you would not draw anything you do not need. And
if we wanted you to stay here, should we not find your expenses?'
'It is your love and present
enthusiasm that make you talk like this. How can we be sure that this love
and enthusiasm will endure for ever? And as your friend and servant, I
should occasionally have to say hard things to you. Heaven only knows whether
I should then retain your affection. But the fact is that I must not accept
any salary for public work. It is enough for me that you should all agree
to entrust me with your legal work. Even that may be hard for you. For
one thing I am not a white barrister. How can I be sure that the court
will respond to me? Nor can I be sure how I shall fare as a lawyer. So
even in giving me retainers you may be running some risk. I should regard
even the fact of your giving them to me as the reward of my public work.'
The upshot of this discussion
was that about twenty merchants gave me retainers for one year for their
legal work. Besides this, Dada Abdulla purchased me the necessary furniture,
in lieu of a purse he had intended to give me on my departure.
Thus I settled in Natal.