19. NATAL INDIAN CONGRESS
Practise as a lawyer was
and remained for me a subordinate occupation. It was necessary that I should
concentrate on public work to justify my stay in Natal. The despatch of
the petition regarding the disfranchising bill was not sufficient in itself.
Sustained agitation was essential for making an impression on the Secretary
of State for the Colonies. For this purpose it was thought necessary to
bring into being a permanent organization. So I consulted Sheth Abdulla
and other friends, and we all decided to have a public organization of
a permanent character.
To find out a name to be given
to the new organization perplexed me sorely. It was not to identify itself
with any particular party. The name 'Congress', I knew, was in bad odour
with the Conservatives in England, and yet the Congress was the very life
of India. I wanted to popularize it in Natal. It savoured of cowardice
to hesitate to adopt the name. Therefore, with full explanation of my reasons,
I recommended that the organization should be called the Natal Indian Congress,
and on the 22nd May the Natal Indian Congress came into being.
Dada Abdulla's spacious room
was packed to the full on that day. The Congress received the enthusiastic
approval of all present. Its constitution was simple, the subscription
was heavy. Only he who paid five shillings monthly could be a member. The
well-to-do classes were persuaded to subscribe as much as they could. Abdulla
Sheth headed the list with £2 per month. Two other friends also put
down the same. I thought I should not stint my subscription, and put down
a pound per month. This was for me no small amount. But I thought that
it would not be beyond my means, if I was to pay my way at all. And God
helped me. We thus got a considerable number of members who subscribed
£1 per month. The number of those who put down 10s. was even larger.
Besides this, there were donations, which were gratefully accepted.
Experience showed that no one
paid his subscription for the mere asking. It was impossible to call frequently
on members outside Durban. The enthusiasm of one moment seemed to wear
away the next. Even the members in Durban had to be considerably dunned
before they would pay in their subscriptions.
The task of collecting subscriptions
lay with me, I being the secretary. And we came to a stage when I had to
keep my clerk engaged all day long in the work of collection. The man got
tired of the job, and I felt that if the situation was to be improved,
the subscriptions should be made payable annually and not monthly, and
that too strictly in advance. So I called a meeting of the Congress. Everyone
welcomed the proposal for making the subscription annual instead of monthly
and for fixing the minimum at £3. Thus the work of collection was
I had learnt at the outset not
to carry on public work with borrowed money. One could rely on people's
promises in most matters, except in respect of money. I had never found
people quick to pay the amounts they had undertaken to subscribe, and the
Natal Indians were no exception to the rule. As, therefore, no work was
done unless there were funds on hand, the Natal Indian Congress had never
been in debt.
My co-workers evinced extraordinary
enthusiasm in canvassing members. It was work which interested them, and
was at the same time an invaluable experience. Large numbers of people
gladly came forward with cash subscriptions. Work in the distant villages
of the interior was rather difficult. People did not know the nature of
public work. And yet we had invitations to visit far away places, leading
merchants of every place extending their hospitality.
On one occasion during this
tour the situation was rather difficult. We expected our host to contribute
£6, but he refused to give anything more than £3. If we had
accepted that amount from him, others would have followed suit, and our
collections would have been spoiled. It was a late hour of the night, and
we were all hungry. But how could we dine without having first obtained
the amount we were bent on getting? All persuasion was useless. The host
seemed to be adamant. Other merchants in the town reasoned with him, and
we all sat up throughout the night, he as well as we determined not to
budge one inch. Most of my co-workers were burning with rage, but they
contained themselves. At last, when day was already breaking, the host
yielded, paid down £6, and feasted us. This happened at Tongaat,
but the repercussion of the incident was felt as far as Stanger on the
North Coast and Charlestown in the interior. It also hastened our work
But collecting funds was not
the only thing to do. In fact I had long learnt the principle of never
having more money at one's disposal than necessary.
Meetings used to be held once
a month, or even once a week if required. Minutes of the proceedings of
the preceding meeting would be read, and all sorts of questions would be
discussed. People had no experience of taking part in public discussions,
or of speaking briefly and to the point. Everyone hesitated to stand up
to speak. I explained to them the rules of procedure at meetings, and they
respected them. They realized that it was an education for them, and many
who had never been accustomed to speaking before an audience soon acquired
the habit of thinking and speaking publicly about matters of public interest.
Knowing that in public work
minor expenses at times absorbed large accounts, I had decided not to have
even the receipt books printed in the beginning. I had a cyclostyle machine
in my office, on which I took copies of receipts and reports. Such things
I began to get printed only when the Congress coffers were full, and when
the number of members, and work, had increased. Such economy is essential
for every organization, and yet I know that it is not always exercised.
That is why I have thought it proper to enter into these little details
of the beginnings of a small but growing organization.
People never cared to have receipts
for the amounts they paid, but we always insisted on the receipts being
given. Every pie was thus clearly accounted for, and I dare say the account
books for the year 1894 can be found intact even today in the records of
the Natal Indian Congress. Carefully kept accounts are a sine qua non
for any organization. Without them it falls into disrepute. Without properly
kept accounts, it is impossible to maintain truth in its pristine purity.
Another feature of the Congress
was service of colonial-born educated Indians. The Colonial-born Indian
Educational Association was founded under the auspices of the Congress.
The members consisted mostly of these educated youths. They had to pay
a nominal subscription. The Association served to ventilate their needs
and grievances, to stimulate thought amongst them, to bring them into touch
with Indian merchants, and also to afford them scope for service of the
community. It was a sort of debating society. The members met regularly
and spoke, or read papers on different subjects. A small library was also
opened in connection with the Association.
The third feature of the Congress
was propaganda. This consisted in acquainting the English in South Africa
and England and people in India with the real state of things in Natal.
With that end in view I wrote two pamphlets. The first was An Appeal
to Every Briton in South Africa. It contained a statement, supported
by evidence, of the general condition of Natal Indians. The other was entitled
Indian Franchise--An Appeal. It contained a brief history of the Indian
franchise in Natal with facts and figures. I had devoted considerable labour
and study to the preparation of these pamphlets, and the result was quite
commensurate with the trouble taken. They were widely circulated.
All this activity resulted in
winning the Indians numerous friends in South Africa, and in obtaining
the active sympathy of all parties in India. It also opened out and placed
before the South African Indians a definite line of action.