In 1894 the Natal Legislative Assembly introduced the Indian Immigration Law Amendment Bill. It sought to amend the 1891 Immigration Act in two respects: firstly, by stipulating that at the end of his five-year term of indenture the Indian must return to India, or else be re-indentured for a term of two years; secondly, if he did not re-indenture, or return to his home country, he would be required to pay £3 tax annually. Abdoolla Hajee Adam, Parsee Rustomjee, Doroosamy Pillay and others addressed a petition to the Natal Governor on 8 August 1894. This lengthy document can be referred to in the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. I, pp. 232-42. What is reproduced below is a short petition submitted to the Legislative Council, and attached to that sent to the Governor. The Bill became law in 1895. Source: C.S.O., 1437, 3989/1895, Natal Archives.
That your petitioners, as representing the Indian community in the Colony, venture hereby to petition your honourable Council with regard to the Indian Immigration Law Amendment Bill, so far as it affects the present term of indenture and proposes a yearly licence of £3 to be taken out by every immigrant wishing to stop in the Colony as a free Indians after finishing his term of indenture.
Your petitioners respectfully submit that both the clauses above referred to are entirely unjust and uncalled for.
Your petitioners humbly draw the attention of this honourable House to the following, from the report of the delegates, Messrs. Binns and Mason, who were commissioned to go to India in connection with this matter:
So far no second term of indenture has been agreed to in the case of any country to which Coolies emigrated, although the consent of the Government of India had frequently been asked for, and in no instance had the condition of compulsory return at the end of the indentures been sanctioned.
Thus the clauses in the Bill are a total departure, your petitioners submit for the worse, from the practice prevalent throughout the British Colonies.
Assuming that the average age of an indentured Indian at the time of his entering into the contract of indenture is 25, under the clause which expects the Indian to work for 10 years, the best part of the life of the indentured Indian would be simply spent away in a state of bondage.
For an Indian to return to India after a continuous 10-years' stay in the Colony would be pure fatuity. All the old cords and ties will have been broken up. Such an Indian will be comparatively a stranger in his mother land. To find work in India would be almost impossible. The market is already overcrowded, and he will not have amassed sufficient fortune to enable him to live on the interest on his capital.
The total of the wages for 10 years would amount to £87. If the indentured Indian saves £50, allowing only £37 for clothing and other expenses during the whole 10 years, that capital will not give him interest sufficient to keep body and soul together, even in a poor country like India. Such an Indian, therefore, even if he ventured to return to India, would be compelled to return under indenture, and thus his whole life would be spent in bondage. Moreover, during the 10 years the indentured Indian would be entirely neglecting his family, should he have any. And a family man will not be able to save even £50. Your petitioners know several instances of indentured Indians with families, having saved nothing.
As to the 2nd Clause, about the £3 licence, your petitioners submit that it is calculated to create wide discontent and oppression. Why one class of Her Majesty's subjects, and this the most useful to the Colony, should be singled out for such taxation, it is in the humble opinion of your petitioners difficult to understand.
Your petitioners most respectfully venture to submit that it is not in accordance with the principles of simple justice and equity to make a man pay heavily for being allowed to remain free in the Colony after he has already lived under bondage for 10 years.
The fact that the clauses will apply only to those Indians who would come to the Colony after the Bill has become law, and that they would know the terms under which they may come, does not free the clauses from the objections sought to be raised against them. For both the contracting parties, your petitioners submit, will not have the same freedom of action. An Indian hard pressed by pangs of poverty and finding it impossible to support his family, can scarcely be called a free agent when he signs the contract of indenture. Men have been known to consent to do far worse things in order to be free from immediately pressing difficulties. Your petitioners, therefore, humbly hope and pray that the clauses above referred to will not meet with the approval of this honourable House, and for this act of justice and mercy your petitioners shall for ever pray.