M. K. Gandhi founded Indian Opinionin June 1903 to assist Indians in fighting for their civil liberties. It played a vital role in keeping Indians informed about all matters that affected their interests, and much else besides. The following article, which appeared on 7 January 1904, reviewed the previous year.Source: Indian Opinion, 7 January 1904.
Last year at this time, the British Indians in the Transvaal were full of hope because Mr. Chamberlain had been assuring them that at any rate those who were settled in the country, and those who might be allowed under a general immigration law to enter the Colony, were entitled to fair and honourable treatment. The position was at the time very uncertain. Notices were issued to the traders that their licences would not be renewed. Law 3 of 1885 was still upon the statute-book of the Colony. In some parts of the Transvaal, even footpath regulations were being enforced. The fate of the inhabitants of the Johannesburg Indian location was trembling in the balance. Dr. Porter's fanciful report about the sanitary condition of the location hung over them like the sword of Damocles. The White Leagues throughout the Colony were holding meetings, calling on the Government to impose further restrictions on the British Indians who were already settled in the Colony. The working of the Asiatic Offices was causing a great deal of mischief. Corruption was rampant in the Johannesburg Office and refugees were unable to enter the Colony unless they paid through the nose for getting permit, which on many occasions were worthless documents. Mr. Chamberlain's emphatic statement to the deputation, which waited on him at Pretoria, was the only ray of light piercing this thick cloud of difficulties, although unfortunately it has not been found to be strong enough to dispel it. Later in the year, that is in the month of April last, the Government, in reply to the Indians' request for a clear definition of their status and an assurance regarding the existing licences, sprang upon the community Notice 356, known as the Bazaar Notice, and appointed Captain Hamilton Fowle the Registrar of Asiatics for the collection of the £3 registration tax in terms of Law 3 of 1885, which had remained dormant for many years past. The British Indian Association of Johannesburg approached Lord Milner, but beyond lip sympathy, it was unable to get anything more from His Lordship. He strongly advised the community not to resist payment of the £3 tax, and promised to go carefully into the question of licences and other matters that were brought to his notice. His Excellency also made the important statement that the Bazaar Notice was only a temporary measure, and that, in the near future, probably during the then session of the Legislative Council, a Bill would be introduced replacing Law 3 of 1885.
Today the situation is not very much better, although in some respects there is decidedly progress to be reported. The Bazaar Notice is still in force, and it has taxed all the resources of the British Indian Association to prevent it from causing utter ruin. In practical working, it has been found to be full of ambiguity. Licensing officers have not always been able to give definite rulings on its interpretation, with the result that, in order to protect vested interests, Herculean efforts had to be made by the community. And yet today no one can say whether all the existing licences are to be respected or not. The Transvaal Colonial Secretary's attempt to amend the Notice, so as to protect the interests of those Indians who traded without licences before the warning to the British intervention, has ended in a compromise. The Government has accepted Sir George Farrar's amendment for appointment of a commission to investigate the claims of such British Indians and requesting the government to bring in legislation along the lines of the Cape Immigration Act. It is impossible to say at this stage what the effect of this amendment will be. We have accepted it as an earnest of good intentions, and as such we have put upon it the only construction that is possible and that is consistent with the declarations even of the present Government, namely that all those who were trading before the war will have licences granted to them to trade outside bazaars, and that the passing of an Act similar to the Cape Act would mean a total repeal of the existing anti-Asiatic laws, and not an addition to the burden the Indians are already labouring under. One thing should be quite clear, namely that under the British Government the position ought not to made more intolerable than it was during the old regime, if only because one of the ostensible reasons given for the war was the disabilities of the British Indians in the Transvaal. There have been two decisive reforms during the year. The Permit Department has been re-transferred to the Chief Secretary Permits and, from the reports we have received, we feel thankful to say the corruption has entirely disappeared and bona-fide refugees are able get their permits without unreasonable delay. The Asiatic Offices still remain for what reason we know not, but, in Mr. Chamney, the 'Protector of Asiatics', the Indian community has, we understand, a friend and sympathiser.
The Johannesburg location is lost to the Indians. It would not be a very serious calamity, if it were not for the fact that it was in Johannesburg alone that the Indians had been given the right to hold ninety-nine years' leases within that small area, and that the inhabitants are not only now uncertain as to whether they will have the same facilities given to them, but they are also uncertain as to where the new site will be appointed. In any case, it will never be so advantageous as the present one.
Such in brief is the state of affairs in the Transvaal. The threatened introduction of Asiatic indentured labour makes confusion worse confounded, and the presence of so many indentured men will be used as an excuse for tightening the cord that binds the Indians. Lord Milner, however, is the one strong man in South Africa. When, rightly or wrongly, he was convinced that war was necessary, he went through it against all the opposition. We will, therefore, continue to hope that His Excellency will be able to fulfil the promises he has already made and clearly lay down the principles of Government policy regarding British Indians. The prejudice against the Indians on the part of the interested traders is undoubtedly strong, but that, in our opinion, is all the greater reason why His Excellency should remain firm and protect the weak against the opposition of the strong.
ORANGE RIVER COLONY
Turning to the Colony, there is nothing but despondency. The present Government has jealously guarded the anti-Indian legislation of the late Republic and prevented any encroachment upon it. As these columns have shown, it has even gone further and passed legislation in anticipation. It has given extra ordinary powers to municipalities for the control of all Coloured people. Mr. Chamberlain promised to look into the matter carefully and grant redress at an early date. Nothing, however, has come out of it, and in spite of nearly two years of British rule, the Orange River Colony remains closed against British Indians, no matter what position they may occupy. Not even those who were trading in that Colony some years ago are allowed to return: indeed, we hear that only last month some Indians, who having undergone all the preliminaries were living in the Colony as servants, were arrested and fined because they appeared to be doing some other service than that for which they were first engaged. Mr. Lyttelton is credited with possessing the spirit of broad Imperialism. He is in a position where he has the power to put his Imperialism to the test. Will he rise to the occasion and open the Colony to British Indians? Not, of course, without restriction, for we have yielded the point that legislation of a general character regulating immigration might be passed in view of the colour prejudice existing in South Africa, but we do contend that anyone who pass the test imposed by an Immigration Act ought to be free to enter any British Colony irrespective of class, creed, or colour, and engage in any enterprise he chooses.
Coming nearer home, there is not much to say. The same words of encouragement, which Mr. Chamberlain uttered, when meeting the British Indian deputation at Pretoria, were the words spoken by him when he met similar dictations in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The Immigration Restriction Act has become more stringent. The educational clause has been amended so as to make it very difficult for anyone to pass the test if the immigration officer is so inclined. That, however, is not a matter of very great moment. It is the Dealers' Licenses Act which causes the most serious trouble. The activity shown by the Durban Town Council and several local boards in Natal gives good grounds for the fear that it may be enforced with harshness. So long as the Supreme Court remains deprived of its jurisdiction over the decisions of the town councils sitting in appeal over those of their licensing officers, so long will the Act remain a potent cause of trouble. The licensing officer at Ladysmith has given notices to the Indians that unless they are prepared observe the usual closing hours they will not have their licences renewed. We have more than once expressed the hope that the British Indian merchants in Ladysmith will be able to arrive at an understanding with the officer in this matter, for we hold that it is one of extreme delicacy, and one in which, if they commit any error of judgment, it will be very difficult to get redress.
Mr. Ellis Brown’s proposal regarding locations or bazaars in Durban, though it appears to be as dead as Queen Anne, has left a bad taste in the mouth, and one never knows when an attempt may be made to revive it. It followed close upon the publication of the Transvaal Bazaar Notice, and as we then shewed, the proposal was made by the worthy mayor in indecent haste. Hardly had the ink become dry on the minute paper when the news was received from the Transvaal that the Bazaar Notice was merely a temporary regulation, and that it was not intended to become part of the permanent laws of the Colony.
The question of Indian education is a serious matter in Natal, seeing that there are so many thousands of Indians living with their families and having children to bring up. No matter how willing the Government may be to give a fairly good education to the Indians, the closing of the public schools of the Colony against Indian candidates has placed the Indian community at a very great disadvantage. The last three Indian girls who were receiving education in the government school in Durban have passed out with credit to themselves, and now there is no chance of such education being received by their less fortunate sisters. All these three girls belong to typical Indian families, are well brought up and, we understand, were very well liked by their school mistresses. They were always in the front rank, and bore a very high character for industry, honesty and gentleness. It is a sad reflection that other Indian girls who, if given the same facilities, would be able to repeat the performance, should have the opportunity taken away from them merely because of the colour of their skin.
Comparative freedom from unrest has enabled the Indian community in Natal to undertake educational reform. The Habibi Madressa is an instance in point. It is a flourishing institution, and ably managed under the supervision of the Sufi Saheb. We can only wish that we had more institutions of the kind dotting the Colony. The Rev. Mr. Smith has just founded a training college for Indian teachers. Properly managed and well encouraged, it ought to be a centre of very great moral and educational influence in the Colony.
There are many other reforms that may well be undertaken by the Indian community: let us hope that last year's depression will give place to prosperity this year, and that some of our generous-minded Indian merchants will be able to carry out some of them.
In the oldest Colony, there is not much to report upon. The Immigration Act came into force in January last. We understand that it is not being enforced with any special harshness. Some difficulties are inevitable in the working of an Act of that nature, but, on the whole, the authorities appear to be anxious to soften its harshness.
In East London, the Location Law and the Foot-path Law that were passed in anticipation at one time bade fair to create much irritation. We understand, however, that well-dressed British Indians are not molested while walking on the foot-path, even though they may not have taken out the exemption certificate. Satisfactory as this appears to be at present, such a bye-law is, in our opinion, a blot on the municipality, and the sooner it is repealed, the better it will be for its credit. It is an anomaly that in the Cape Colony, where anti-Indian legislation is the least irksome, such a law should ever have receiving the assent of His Majesty's Government. It, however, ought to serve as a lesson to the British Indians, namely, that, under the British Government no community can thrive unless it is vigilant in looking after its own interests.
In closing this brief review of the status of the British Indians in South Africa, we may be pardoned for making some reference to ourselves. Indian Opinion has been in existence hardly seven months, but we venture to think that within that short period it has carved out for itself a position. Whatever influence it may have gained it has been our endeavour to use for the benefit of the community and the Empire, to which it is our pride to belong. The programme that we have mapped out is an ambitious one. It has not been possible to carry it out in its entirety, nor did the authors of it ever expect that it would be realised all at once; it is rather the goal that we would reach with the least possible delay. One thing we have endeavoured to observe most scrupulously, namely, never to depart from the strictest facts and, in dealing with the difficult questions that have arisen during the year, we hope that we have used the utmost moderation possible under the circumstances. Our duty is very simple and plain. We want to serve the community, and in our own humble way to serve the Empire. We believe in the righteousness of the cause, which it is our privilege to espouse. We have an abiding faith in the mercy of the Almighty God, and we have firm faith in the British Constitution. That being so, we should fail in our duty if we wrote anything with a view to hurt. Facts we would always place before our readers whether they be palatable or not, and it is by placing them constantly before the public in their nakedness that the misunderstanding now existing between the two communities in South Africa can be removed. And if we can assist in hastening the removal to any extent whatsoever, we shall have been amply rewarded.