11. ABOLITION OF INDENTURED EMIGRATION
We shall, for a moment, take
leave of the Ashram, which in the very beginning had to weather internal
and external storms, and briefly advert to a matter that engaged my attention.
Indentured labourers were those
who had emigrated from India to labour under an indenture for five years
or less. Under the Smuts-Gandhi Settlement of 1914, the £3 tax in
respect of the indentured emigrants to Natal had been abolished, but the
general emigration from India still needed treatment.
In March 1916 Pandit Madan
Mohan Malaviyaji moved a resolution in the Imperial Legislative Council
for the abolition of the indenture system. In accepting the motion, Lord
Hardinge announced that he had 'obtained from His Majesty's Government
the promise of the abolition in due course' of the system. I felt, however,
that India could not be satisfied with so very vague an assurance, but
ought to agitate for immediate abolition. India had tolerated the system
through sheer negligence, and I believed the time had come when people
could successfully agitate for this redress. I met some of the leaders,
wrote in the press, and saw that public opinion was solidly in favour of
immediate abolition. Might this be a fit subject for Satyagraha? I had
no doubt that it was, but I did not know the modus operandi.
In the meantime the Viceroy
had made no secret of the meaning of the 'eventual abolition,' which, as
he said, was abolition 'within such reasonable time as will allow of alternative
arrangements being introduced.'
So in February 1917, Pandit
Malaviyaji asked for leave to introduce a bill for the immediate abolition
of the system. Lord Chelmsford refused permission. It was time for me to
tour the country for an all-India agitation.
Before I started the agitation
I thought it proper to wait upon the Viceroy. So I applied for an interview.
He immediately granted it. Mr. Maffey, now Sir John Maffey, was his private
secretary. I came in close contact with him. I had a satisfactory talk
with Lord Chelmsford who, without being definite, promised to be helpful.
I began my tour from Bombay.
Mr Jehangir Petit undertook to convene the meeting under the auspices of
the Imperial Citizenship Association. The Executive Committee of the Association
met first for framing the resolutions to be moved at the meeting. Dr. Stanley
Reed, Sjt. (now Sir) Lallubhai Samaldas, Sjt. Natarajan, and Mr. Petit
were present at the Committee meeting. The discussion centred round the
fixing of the period within which the Government was to be asked to abolish
the system. There were three proposals, viz., for abolition 'as
soon as possible,' abolition 'by the 31st July,' and 'immediate abolition.'
I was for a definite date, as we could then decide what to do if the Government
failed to accede to our request within the time limit. Sjt. Lallubhai was
for 'immediate' abolition. He said 'immediate' indicated a shorter period
than the 31st July. I explained that the people would not understand the
word 'immediate.' If we wanted to get them to do something, they must have
a more definite word. Everyone would interpret 'immediate' in his own way--Government
one way, the people another way. There was no question of misunderstanding
'the 31st July,' and if nothing was done by that date, we could proceed
further. Dr. Reed saw the force of the argument, and ultimately Sjt. Lallubhai
also agreed. We adopted the 31st July as the latest date by which the abolition
should be announced, a resolution to that effect was passed at the public
meeting, and meetings throughout India resolved accordingly.
Mrs. Jaiji Petit put all
her energies into the organization of a ladies' deputation to the Viceroy.
Amongst the ladies from Bombay who formed the deputation, I remember the
names of Lady Tata and the late Dilshad Begam. The deputation had a great
effect. The Viceroy gave an encouraging reply.
I visited Karachi, Calcutta,
and various other places. There were fine meetings everywhere, and there
was unbounded enthusiasm. I had not expected anything like it when the
agitation was launched.
In those days I used to travel
alone, and had therefore wonderful experiences. The C.I.D. men were always
after me. But as I had nothing to conceal, they did not molest me, nor
did I cause them any trouble. Fortunately I had not then received the stamp
of Mahatmaship, though the shout of that name was quite common where people
On one occasion the detectives
disturbed me at several stations, asked for my ticket, and took down the
number. I, of course, readily replied to all the questions they asked.
My fellow passengers had taken me to be a 'sadhu' or a 'fakir'. When they
saw that I was being molested at every station, they were exasperated and
swore at the detectives. 'Why are you worrying the poor sadhu for nothing?'
they protested. 'Don't you show these scoundrels your ticket,' they said,
I said to them gently: 'It is
no trouble to show them my ticket. They are doing their duty.' The passengers
were not satisfied, they evinced more and more sympathy and strongly objected
to this sort of ill-treatment of innocent men.
But the detectives were
nothing. The real hardship was the third class travelling. My bitterest
experience was from Lahore to Delhi. I was going to Calcutta from Karachi
Lahore, where I had to change trains. It was impossible to find a place
in the train. It was full, and those who could get in did so by sheer force,
often sneaking through windows if the doors were locked. I had to reach
Calcutta on the date fixed for the meeting, and if I missed this train
I could not arrive in time. I had almost given up of getting in. No one
was willing to accept me, when a porter, discovering my plight, came to
me and said, 'Give me twelve annas and I'll get you a seat.' 'Yes,' said
I, 'you shall have twelve annas if you do procure me a seat.' The young
man went from carriage to carriage entreating passengers but no one heeded
him. As the train was about to start, some passengers said, 'There is no
room here, but you can shove him in if you like. He will have to stand.'
'Well?' asked the young porter. I readily agreed, and he shoved me in bodily
through the window. Thus I got in and the porter earned his twelve annas.
The night was a trial. The other
passengers were sitting somehow. I stood two hours, holding the chain of
the upper bunk. Meanwhile some of the passengers kept worrying me incessantly.
'Why will you not sit down?' they asked. I tried to reason with them, saying
there was no room, but they could not tolerate my standing, though they
were lying full length on the upper bunks. They did not tire of worrying
me, neither did I tire of gently replying to them. This at last mollified
them. Some of them asked me my name, and when I gave it they felt ashamed.
They apologised and made room for me. Patience was thus rewarded. I was
dead tired, and my head was reeling. God sent help when it was most needed.
In that way I somehow reached
Delhi, and thence Calcutta. The Maharaja of Cassimbazaar, the president
of the Calcutta meeting, was my host. Just as in Karachi, here also there
was unbounded enthusiasm. The meeting was attended by several Englishmen.
Before the 31st July, the Government
announced that indentured emigration from India was stopped. It was in
1894 that I drafted the first petition protesting against the system, and
I had then hoped that this 'semi-slavery', as Sir W. W. Hunter used to
call the system, would some day be brought to an end.
There were many who aided in
the agitation which was started in 1894, but I cannot help saying that
potential Satyagraha hastened the end.
For further details of
that agitation and of those who took part in it, I refer the reader to
my Satyagraha in South Africa.