From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai

The Franchise Law Amendment Bill of 1894 sought to deprive Indians in Natal of the parliamentary franchise. Below, a petition, sent by Hajee Mohamed Hajee Dada (vice-president of the newly-formed Natal Indian Congress) and sixteen others to the Secretary of State for Colonies Lord Ripon, argues forcefully why the Bill should be disallowed, claiming it would be 'the proverbial thin edge if the wedge'. In the event, the Bill was disallowed. However, after Responsible Government was introduced in the Colony, the Natal Legislature was able to have its way. A new Bill was introduced in 1896, and passed into law as Act 8 of 1896. As a result Indians were disfranchised in Natal. The document is dated shortly before 14 July 1894. Source: Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol.1 pp. 147-57.

1. Your Lordship's petitioners are Indian British subjects, residing in the various districts of the Colony of Natal.

2. Some of Your Lordship's petitioners are traders, who have come to the Colony and settled therein. Some again are those who, in the first instance, came from India under indenture, and have now, for some time (even thirty years), become free. Some are Indians under indenture, and some are born and educated in the Colony, and engaged in various pursuits of life as attorneys clerks, compounders, compositors, photographers, schoolmasters, etc. Again, some of Your Lordship's petitioners have considerable landed property in the Colony, and are duly qualified to vote at the election of members for the Honourable the Legislative Assembly. And a few have got sufficient property qualifications, but have not been able to get their names on the voters roll from some cause or other,

3. Your Lordship's petitioners hereby approach Your Lordship with regard to the Franchise Law Amendment Bill, which was introduced last session by the Honourable Sir John Robinson, the Prime Minister of the Colony, which has passed the third reading in the Honourable Legislative Council, and received the assent of His Excellency the Governor, subject to its being disallowed by Her Majesty. :

4. The Bill above referred to has for its object the disqualification of all persons of Asiatic extraction, who have settled in the Colony, to vote at parliamentary elections. It, however, excepts those who are already rightly placed on the voters' lists.

5. Your Lordship's petitioners crave leave to give a short history of the movement carried on to obtain redress through the constituted authority in the Colony.

6. It was when the Franchise Law Amendment Bill had passed the second reading that Your Lordship's petitioners first approached the Honourable the Legislative Assembly. When Your Lordship's petitioners became aware that two days after the second reading, the Bill had passed the committee stage and a day after it would pass the third reading, it was impossible to present a petition to the Honourable the Legislative Assembly unless the third reading was postponed. Your Lordship's petitioners, therefore, sent a telegraphic petition to the Honourable the Legislative Assembly, requesting that a postponement should be granted. The postponement was very graciously granted for one day. In that one-day, about 500 Indians signed a petition which was the next day presented to the Honourable the Legislative Assembly. In Maritzburg, a deputation waited upon some honourable members of the Honourable House, including the Premier and the Attorney-General. The deputation was very courteously received and given a patient hearing. Most of the honourable members waited upon more or less admitted the justice of the prayer contained in the said petition, though all said that it was presented too late. The Honourable Prime Minister, in order that it might be studied, asked leave to postpone the third reading for four days. It might be mentioned also that telegraphic petitions were sent to the Honourable the Legislative Council from Verulam, Richmond Road and other places, endorsing the said petition. But they were ruled out of order on the ground they were not presented through a member of the House. Your Lordship's petitioners have not annexed hereto the various petitions referred to, as the Government will no doubt send these to Your Lordship.

7. Four days after the presentation of the petition, i.e. on the 2nd July 1894, Monday, the Bill was, contrary to your petitioners' expectations and much to their regret, read a third time.

8. On the Tuesday following, Your Lordship's petitioners thereupon sent a petition to the Honourable the Legislative Council, which was presented through the Honourable Mr. Campbell, but the petition was ruled not in order, because it contained references to the Honourable the Legislative Assembly, and the Bill was read a second time. Your Lordship's petitioners, as soon as they knew this, lost no time in addressing another petition to the Honourable Council, which was sent on the Thursday following, and was presented on Friday through the same honourable member. In the meanwhile, i.e. within one day after the second reading, the Bill had passed the committee stage. The Honourable Mr. Campbell moved the postponement of the third reading of the Bill, in order that the petition last mentioned might be considered. The motion, however, was not carried on the ground that the petition was presented too late.The Bill had been hardly four days before the Honourable Council, as Your Lordship will notice. Your Lordship's petitioners may also mention that a deputation was appointed by the leading members of the Indian community to wait upon His Excellency the Honourable Sir Walter F. Hely-Hutchinson, who very kindly and courteously received the deputation. In order to know the individual opinions of the honourable members of the two Houses, a committee of Indians sent a printed circular to the honourable members requesting them to answer certain questions. ... So far, only one honourable member has been good enough to send a reply, but he, too, has not answered the questions.

9. Before proceeding to criticize the Franchise Bill, Your Lordship's petitioners would beg to dispose of one point that has been used against Your Lordship's petitioners, namely that they approached the Honourable Assembly too late. As to this, your petitioners would simply state that they were not technically too late, and that the issues involved were, and are, so important, and the Bill so vitally affected and affects Her Majesty's Indian subjects, that the Government or the Honourable the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly might well have reconsidered their decision and thoroughly investigated Your Lordship's petitioners' case before allowing the Bill to pass the third reading.

10.During the debate it was stated, as also it is stated in the preamble of the Bill, that the Asiatic communities have never exercised the privilege of franchise, and it was stated further, during the debate, that the Asiatics were not fit to exercise the franchise. These were, then, the two chief reasons alleged for the exclusion of the Indians from the privilege of the franchise. Your petitioners venture to believe that the petition to the Honourable Assembly sufficiently disposes of the two contentions above mentioned.

11.Although it was not openly acknowledged that the two objections to the Asiatics exercising the franchise privilege had fallen through, it seemed to be tacitly recognized that such was the case, for it was more openly declared in the third reading of the Bill in the Honourable Assembly, that the exclusion was to be justified, not on moral and equitable grounds, as was contended at the time of the second reading, but on purely political grounds. It was said that, if the Indians were allowed to vote, their vote would swamp the European vote, and that there would be a government by the Asiatics instead by the Europeans.

12.Your Lordship's petitioners venture [to submit], with the greatest deference to both the Honourable Houses, that the above fears are entirely groundless. Even at the present moment there are very few Indian electors as compared with European electors. The Indians who come under indenture cannot possibly have the sufficient property qualifications to be qualified for voting during their term of indenture, and for many more years afterwards. It is, moreover, a notorious fact that those who come on their own means do not remain for good in the Colony, but after a certain number of years, return home and are replaced by other Indians. Thus, so far as the trading community is concerned, the number of votes would, as a rule always remain unchanged. Another fact, too, cannot be lost sight of, viz that the Indians do not take such an active interest in the political affairs of the Colony as the European section of the community. It seems that there are 45,000 Europeans, and the same number of Indians; that fact alone shows how material is the difference between the European and the Indian vote. And Your Lordship's petitioners submit that it is well nigh impossible that any Indian can hope to enter into the Natal Parliament for generations to come. This Your Lordship's petitioners humbly submit, hardly needs any proof to support it.

13.And if Your Lordship's petitioners are not unfit to exercise the privilege, should it matter that they have some voice in the government of tit Colony, and more especially the government of themselves?

14. Your Lordship's petitioners venture to submit that the Bill is admitted retrograde in character and that it is manifestly unjust.

15.The very fact that those who are rightly on the voters' list are to be allowed to remain there, at once, in your petitioners 'humble opinion, recognizes the ability of your petitioners to understand the privilege and the responsibility attached to the exercise of the franchise. Your Lordship's petitioners cannot believe that they are allowed to remain on the list even though they are not fit to vote, as was attempted to be shown in the course of the debate.

16.It has also been said that clause II of the Bill fully meets the ends of justice. Your petitioners submit that it does not. On the contrary, it injures the feelings of both those who are on the list and those who are not.

17.It is little comfort to those who are already on the list to know that they may vote, while their children never can, no matter how well educates and well qualified they may be. Indian parents who settle in the Colony will have, if the Bill becomes law, the best stimulus to give higher education to their children taken away from them. They would hardly like to see their sons pariahs of society, without a status or without any ambition in life. Even wealth becomes useless if it gives a man no place in society. The very aim with which men collect wealth is thus nipped in the bud.

18.And the second clause vexes those who have been in the Colony already to know that, while their brethren, who are in no way superior to them, by a chance retain the right to vote, they themselves cannot vote simply because perhaps, owing to circumstances entirely beyond their control, they have not been able to get their names on the voters' list. The Bill thus makes between Indian British subjects of the same class an invidious distinction based on accidental circumstances.

19.It has also been hinted that the justice done by the second clause is not gratefully acknowledged by your petitioners. But, with the greatest respect to the just intentions of the Government in introducing the second clause, Your Lordship's petitioners have failed to see the justice thereof. This was even admitted by some honourable members themselves, who did not care whether the second clause was 'in' or 'out', as those votes were bound to drop off before long. This seems to be self-evident.

20.Your Lordship's petitioners have noticed with shame and sorrow the zealous attempt made to compare your petitioners with the Natives of South Africa. Very often it was said that the Natives had a better claim to vote, if the Indians had any, simply because they were British subjects. Your Lordship's petitioners would not enter into a discussion of the comparison, but would draw Your Lordship's attention to the Royal Proclamation of 1858, as also to Your Lordship's own personal experience of the Indian nation. Your petitioners need hardly point out the marked difference that exists between the governments of Indian British subjects and Native British subjects.

21.There are, at the present moment, hundreds of educated Indians, signatures of some of who appear in the petition, who would not be able to vote at the parliamentary elections if the Bill became law. Your petitioners fully trust that Your Lordship will never advise Her Most Gracious Majesty to sanction a Bill that would cause such a grave injustice to any section of British subjects.

22. In the Natal Government Gazette of March 27, 1894, Your Lordship's petitioners find, from the Indian Immigrants School Board report for 1893 that there were 26 schools and 2,589 scholars studying in the schools that year. Your petitioners respectfully submit that these boys, who are many of them born in the Colony, are entirely brought up after the European style. They, in later life, come in contact chiefly with the European community, and therefore, in every respect, become as fit for the franchise privilege as any European, unless there is something radically wanting in them to compete with the Europeans in educational ability. That they are not incompetent, Your Lordship's petitioners submit, has been proved beyond doubt by the best authorities on such subjects. The results, alike in India as in England, of the competition between English and Indian students, furnish ample proof of the Indian's ability to successfully compete with the European. Your Lordship's petitioners purposely refrain from quoting extracts from the evidence given before the parliamentary committees, or from great writers on the above head, because that would almost look like carrying coals to Newcastle. If, then, your petitioners humbly venture to claim a vote for these boys when they come of age, is it not merely asking what any person in a civilized country would consider is his birthright and would very properly resent any interference with Your petitioners confidently trust that Your Lordship will not let these boy be subjected to the indignity of being deprived of the commonest right of a citizen in a country governed by parliamentary institutions.

23.Your Lordship's petitioners here have to note with gratitude that the Hon. Mr. Campbell and the Hon. Mr. Don saw and remarked about the injustice that would be done to those Indians who come to the Colony on their own means, but they, too, seem to think, with the other honourable members that those who come under indenture should neverget the vote. Your Lordship's petitioners, while they admit (although they cannot help remarking that poverty should be no crime if a man is otherwise fit) that the indentured Indians, while under indenture, may not have the right to vote, they respectfully submit that even these men should not for everbe deprived from voting if they acquire the sufficient qualifications in later life. Such men who come here are, as a rule, able-bodied and young; they come under European influences, and while they are under indenture, and especially after they become free, rapidly begin to assimilate themselves to the European civilization, and develop into full colonists. They are admitted to be very useful, in fact invaluable, people, who live quietly and peacefully. It may be remarked that most educated Indian youths, who are now in the civil service as clerks and prefers, or outside it as schoolmasters, teachers or attorneys' clerks, have come to the Colony under indenture. It is submitted that it would be cruel not to allow them, or their children, to vote and to have a voice in their own government at any rate. Your petitioners submit that the fact alone that a person of Asiatic extraction, or has once been under indenture, should not be at to political freedom and political privileges, if he is or becomes otherwise fit and qualified.

24. Your Lordship's petitioners beg to draw Your Lordship's attention the anomaly that the Bill would rank the Indian lower than the rawest Native. For while the rawest Native can become emancipated if he acquires the proper qualifications, the Indian British subject who is now entitled to vote would be so disenfranchised that he can never again become emancipated, no matter how capable he becomes in after life, or how capable he is at the time of enfranchisement.

25.The measure is so sweeping and so drastic that, Your Lordship's petitioners humbly submit, it is an insult to the whole Indian nation, inasmuch as if the most distinguished son of India came to Natal and settled, he would not be able to have the right to vote because, presumably, according to the colonial view, he is unfit for the privilege. The honourable members in both the Houses, and the Honourable recognized this hardship the Treasurer went-far as to say that special cases of hardship may in future be dealt with by the Parliament.

26.To illustrate the above argument more fully, your petitioners would draw Your Lordship's attention to the papers and Government Gazettes in connection with the Indian vote question that was raised and discussed in the late Honourable the Legislative Council of Natal. From a Blue-book containing the correspondence relating to the affairs of Natal (C-3796, 1883), your petitioners take the following from Mr. Saunders' letter to the Colonial Office (page 3):

The mere definition that these signatures must be in full, and in the elector's own handwriting, and written in European characters, would go a long way to check the extreme risk of the Asiatic mind swamping the English.

Thus Mr. Saunders, zealous advocate as he was of anti-Asiatic policy, could not go further than this. In the same letter, the honourable gentleman says further:

The better-class Indians feel and see there is a difference between the raw coolie and themselves.

Therefore, it seems that the Government of the day was quite willing to distinguish between Indians and Indians. Now, unfortunately, under free institutions, all Indians, indentured and freed and free, are attempted to be put in the same scale. Your petitioners cannot help respectfully expressing that Mr. Saunders' measure was comparatively very mild compared to theBill under discussion. But that measure, too, did not receive support from HerMajesty's benign Government; much less, therefore, your petitioners submit, should the Franchise Law Amendment Bill. In the same book above referred to, the then Protector of Immigrants, Mr. Graves, says, at page 7:

I am of the opinion that only those Indians who have abandoned all claims for themselves and their families for a free return passage to India are justlyentitled to the franchise.

He very justly pointed out also, that the signature test suggested by Mr. Saunders was not applied in practice to the European electors. At the same page, the then Attorney-General says in his report:

It will be noticed that the measure drafted by me contains certain clauses which have been adopted from the recommendations of the Select Committee, providing for the carrying out of the alternative plan mentioned in Mr. Saunders's letter, while the proposal for the specific disqualification of aliens has not been considered advisable of adoption.

Your Lordship's memorialists would beg to draw Your Lordship's attention to the same learned gentleman's report at page 91 of the same Blue-book. The temptation to quote again from another report by the same learned Attorney-General is irresistible. At page 14 he says:

As regards the proposal to exclude from the exercise of the franchise all persons of every nationality or race which is not in every respect under the common law of the Colony, this is a provision evidently aimed at the electoral rights at present enjoyed by the Indian and Creole population of this Colony. As I have already stated in my report on Bill no. 12, I cannot recognize the justice or expediency of such a measure.

27.Thus it happens that, under a freer constitution in the Colony that should include Your Lordship's petitioners also, the first Responsible Ministry, your petitioners regret to say, have attempted to make your petitioners less free, to disenfranchise them wholesale. In the face of the fact that, under the old regime, a far less bold attempt to restrict the rights of your petitioners did not receive countenance from the Home Government, your petitioners have every hope that the present attempt will meet with the same fate, and justice done to Your Lordship's petitioners.

28.The other pernicious consequences indirectly connected with the Franchise Bill are too numerous to mention; your petitioners would, however, crave leave to discuss a few.

29. It is a known fact that there is, in the Colony, a wide gulf between the European section of the community and the Indian. The Indian is hated and shunned by the European. He is often needlessly vexed and harassed. The Franchise Bill, your petitioners submit, will only accentuate such a feeling. The signs have already begun to appear. To verify this, your petitioners commend the newspapers of the current dates to Your Lordship's attention, and also the debates in both the Honourable Houses.

30.It was said, in the course of the debate on the second reading, that the qualification put upon the Indians would put a greater responsibility upon the legislators of the Colony and that the Indian interests would be better protected than if they were represented. This, Your Lordship's petitioners beg to submit, is contrary to all experience up to the present time.

31.Some honourable members thought that the Indians should not be allowed to vote at the municipal elections also. It was whispered, during the debate, among the responsible quarters, that that question would receive attention on a future, but early, date. The Franchise Bill is only the proverbial thin end of the wedge. Once driven a little, it would not be difficult to drive it through. That seemed to be the feeling.

32.Your Lordship is aware that it is intended to levy a residential tax on Indians coming under indenture, should they choose to settle in the Colony. The tax, it was said, should be sufficiently heavy not to make it possible for them to compete with the colonists. That is another indication of how your petitioners' interests would be better protected if they were disenfranchised!

33.During the debate on the Civil Service Bill, it was contended by some honourable members that, since the franchise was to be taken away from the Indians, it was as well that the Indians should be debarred from entering the civil service also. An amendment was moved to this effect, and was rejected only by the casting vote of the Honourable the Speaker of the Legislate Assembly, thanks to the forethought and tact of the Government who requested that the House should be divided. Your petitioners fully recognisethat, in this case, the Government took up a very sympathetic attitude towards the Indians; but still, the tendency and portents of these events areunmistakable. The Franchise Bill gave the opportunity for the amendment.

34.Your Lordship's petitioners understand that in the Cape Colony no such colour or race distinctions are made.

35.Your Lordship's petitioners respectfully venture to point out that effect of the Bill, if it became law, will be simply disastrous to the interests of the British Indian subjects in the other parts of South Africa. Down-trodden and hated as they already are in the Transvaal, things will be simply unbearable for them. If Indian British subjects in a British Colony are allowed to be treated at all on an unequal footing, your petitioners humbly submit that a time will soon come when it will be impossible for Indians, having any idea whatever of self-respect, to remain in the Colony and that such a thing would materially interfere with their business, and throw hundreds of Her Majesty's Indian subjects out of work.

36.In conclusion, your petitioners hope that the above facts and arguments will convince Your Lordship of the injustice of the Franchise Law Amendment Bill, and that Your Lordship will not allow an unwarranted interference with the rights of one section of Her Majesty's subjects by another.

And for this act of justice and mercy, Your Lordship's petitioners, as in duty bound, shall for ever pray, etc.