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

On 28 January 1908, Gandhi and two of his colleagues, Leuing Quinn and Thambi Naidoo, wrote from prison to the Transvaal Colonial Secretary, J. C. Smuts, agreeing to a compromise proposal brought by Albert Cartwright, the editor of the Transvaal Leader. Two days later, Gandhi was taken from the prison in Johannesburg to meet General Smuts in Pretoria, where a compromise solution was agreed. The essence of the compromise was that the Indians would register voluntarily, after which the Government would repeal Act 2 of 1907 which made registration compulsory. The compromise came in for some severe criticism, and in the make-believe dialogue reproduced below, Gandhi sought to explain his, action. The reader was asked to read the article 'carefully several times over'. Only a portion of the dialogue, which featured in the Gujarati section of Indian Opinion of 15 February 1908, appears here. Source: Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 8, pp. 77-81.


READER: I am still confused about the difference between voluntary and compulsory registration. And I know that there are also others who see no difference. Do please explain.

EDITOR:I am not surprised at your being unable to understand this. The law brought compulsion to bear on us to make us register; that was humiliating. So much for compulsory registration. But if we take out the same kind of register of our own free will, that will save us the dishonour and even show that we are magnanimous. To take an example. If, by way of service to a friend, I wash his feet or carry his bed-pan, that will strengthen our friendship, give me an inner satisfaction and win for me the good opinion of others. Another, although he dislikes such work and thinks it derogatory, may yet do the same thing either under duress or for the sake of money. We shall think him base [for that reason] and regard him as a slave. We shall call him mean. He will himself feel ashamed of his job. If anyone finds him engaged in that work he will try to hide himself. He is in reality a sinner and will never feel happy in himself. The difference between voluntary and compulsory registration is much the same.

READER: I see the point now, though only partly. For I still think that your analogy does not quite hold because it appears that the law will be enforced if we do not take out registers on our own. That is to say, we shall be taking out the registers voluntarily under an inducement. What you call voluntary therefore appears to me to be tainted both with compulsion and self-interest.

EDITOR: I think you are wrong. It is true that, if we do not take out registers voluntarily, we shall be subjected to the [process of the] law. But there is no compulsion here. If the Government were to say to us, 'Either you take out the registers, or we shall enforce the law', that would certainly be compulsion. But in this case it is we who offered to take out the registers and told the Government that they could enforce the law if we did not. We do not make this offer in fear of the sanction [of the law] but as an earnest of our sincerity and because we do not think there is any humiliation in voluntary registration. Moreover, being respectable people, we want, through voluntary registration, to dispel the suspicion that the Government harbours about us. There is thus no question here of any compulsion. If we had been moved at any time by fear, we could not have held out against the Government for 16 months as we have done. Afraid of our power ”” the power of our truth - the Government has accepted [our 'offer of] voluntary registration.

Furthermore, your view that our offer is tainted with self-interest is rather ill-considered. In fact, every act is motivated by some kind of self-interest. Even in my example, there is an element of self-interest in the service which I render to a friend. My self-interest lies in the inner happiness which I seek.It is the will of God that I should work for such happiness. Knowing this as I do, whatever I do to obey that command is in fact inspired by self-interest, if of the best kind. If I did it so that my friend might love me the more, that also would be self-interest, albeit of a lower kind. In voluntary registration, there is undoubtedly such an element of self-interest. If a man living as a servant of God devotes himself wholly to the service of men or of all living creatures, he is also impelled by self-interest in seeking to be in the presence of God, [that is] to work for nirvana. We revere such a man. If there were many such in this world, we should find in it holiness, prosperity, peace, happiness and unity instead of the wickedness, suffering, misery, starvation and disease which we see in it today.


READER: I think I now understand the difference between voluntary and compulsory registration. But I see that in any case we are condemned to give the ten finger-impressions. It appears that the educated and the rich have had their interests protected at the expense of the poor. If you accept [the system of] finger-impressions now, why did you earlier write so much against them?

EDITOR: This is indeed a good question, although, if you have really grasped the distinction, the answer to your question is contained in [an earlier] answer. However, let us consider your question afresh.

First, it is not true to say that finger-impressions have been retained. Under the law the finger-impressions were to be given by all the members of the community and that meant we were being stigmatized because of the colour of our skin. Now the finger-impressions remain only as marks of identification. Secondly, it is not true to say that the educated and the rich have got off easily. Educated persons and men of means and standing can be identified by the knowledge they possess and by their appearance. It is humiliating to them even to be asked to give finger-impressions. Looking at it thus, it does not appear wrong that illiterate persons who are not otherwise known should have give their finger-impressions. On the contrary these would ensure the fullest protection for them. For instance, not everyone in Durban has to takeout such certificates. But an illiterate person or one otherwise not known would come to grief by following their example. He would find it difficult to return. Thirdly, it was essential in the past to write all that much against the system finger-impressions. We were therefore very glad of it when, after nine months struggle, we had definite information in June about finger-impressions. We read everything available on the subject and placed it before the community. We were glad that the Satanic, death-like law that acquired a body ”” the regulations prescribing finger-impressions, etc. We knew then that people would be able to see the law for what it was, and that is exactly what happened. It was only after the regulations were published that the struggle became really exciting. We told the people that in India finger-prints were taken only of criminals.

We published rousing songs about them. Verses, such as

Of fingers ten,

Those who give impressions

Forsaking their pledge to God, still echo in our ears.

We do not withdraw anything we said then. We would still use these verses against those who agreed even to sign their names under the law, let alone give their finger-prints.

READER: Well, a thumb-impression is one thing, but you now advise that finger-impressions be given. What about that?

EDITOR: Because we were against finger-impressions only so long as they were a body inhabited by that Satanic law. Now that the Satanic soul has left the body, we have no particular quarrel with it, that is the finger-impression. We think it is honourable, not dishonourable, now to give our finger-impressions.

READER: I am afraid I am getting confused. It is too much to believe that finger-impressions, which were objectionable before, have suddenly been acceptable. I need more light.

EDITOR: It is only natural that you should feel confused. We have given great deal of thought to this question, so that everything appears quite simple to us. You are confronted with these ideas for the first time, and they are bound to sound abstruse. The illustration that we gave earlier of friendship, and slavery is relevant here also. Let us take another example. In this country we wear jackets, which is not thought undignified. But in India, it would be undignified if we wore short jackets leaving the lower part of the body covered by them. That means that there are things that may be proper at one place but improper at another. In India, it is under compulsion that criminals give their ten finger-impressions. Here, the same was true of all of us [law abiding Asiatics] under the outrageous law. Now we are to give them on our own and not under compulsion. This point should be carefully noted, for we have been advising people to do this [as a voluntary act] all the time, and will continue to do so in future. It will reflect credit on our judgment if we appreciate this distinction. When it was proposed in the Transvaal that people should be obliged to produce their photographs, the community did right in opposing the proposal. Hindus and Muslims do get themselves photographed [but that is] to please themselves or for other reasons. You will therefore see that many things are undignified or dignified according to the object in view...