From the book: A Documentary History of Indian South Africans edited by Surendra Bhana and Bridglal Pachai
On 16 August 1908, a crowd of Indians, as well as a few Chinese numbering about 3 000 in all gathered at the Hamidia Mosque in Johannesburg to witness a dramatic gesture of defiance. The registration certificates were thrown in a cauldron and burned. The Satyagraha campaign was thus resumed. Gandhi's speech at the meeting is reported here. The meeting was held under the chairmanship of the president of the British Indian Association, Essop Ismail Mia. Source: Indian Opinion, 22 August 1908.
The responsibility that devolves upon me this afternoon is a very serious responsibility. I have been taken to task, in connection with the advice that I have been giving to my fellow-countrymen for some length of time, by friends. I have been ridiculed by those who do not profess to be friends, and yet, after due consideration and, shall I say, prayer also, the advice that I ventured to give to my fellow-countrymen I am going to repeat this afternoon, and that advice is that, as events have taken the turn that you know in connection with our struggle, we must burn our certificates. [Applause] l am told that I may be instrumental in imposing on my countrymen untold suffering of the advice that I have given, if they follow that advice. I know that well, but I do know this also, that, if the burning of the certificates will impose untold suffering on you, the keeping of these certificates and submission to the Asiatic Act or to the Validation Bill that is to be read a second time tomorrow will impose on my countrymen untold indignity, and say with the greatest emphasis at my command that I would far rather that my countrymen suffered all they have to suffer than that they imposed on themselves indignity. Further, my countrymen here in the Transvaal have taken a solemn oath not submit to the Asiatic Act. The solemn oath was taken not merely to be filled to the letter but in spirit also, and if you were so ill-advised by me, or by anybody else, that you may accept the Voluntary Asiatic Registration Validation Bill and flatter yourselves with the belief that you have escaped the Asiatic Act, I should call myself a traitor to my countrymen, a traitor to God, a traitor to my oath. I shall do no such thing, no matter what suffering may be imposed on you by reason of burning your certificates, but, if you do burn your certificates, please bear in mind that you are not to take advantage of the certificates at any time whatsoever until a proper and just and honourable settlement has been arrived at. It is open to you to take copies tomorrow of the certificates that may be burned to ashes today by paying 5 shillings, I dare say that the Government will give you copies of these certificates even free of charge because the Bill has not yet become law, but, if there is any Indian in this vast assemblage who wants to take out a copy of that certificate and today wishes to burn the certificate either out of shame or false modesty or any other reason of a similar nature, then I say emphatically, let him step forward and say he does not want his certificate to be burned, but if it is your solemn resolution that you will not go to the Government to ask for a copy of the certificate, then I say, you have done well. Before this resolution was arrived at the committee meeting of the British Indian Association, you had already sent to gaol several Indians. Mr. Sorabjee, all honour to him, came from Charlestown to fight your battle. [Hear, hear] Several Indians, humble folks amongst us, went to Johannesburg Fort in order that they might serve their countrymen, in order that their suffering might appeal to the Government, in order that we might be able to live in this Colony with self respect and dignity. Does it behove any of us to keep the voluntary registration certificates, to sit tight on those certificates, and allow our poorer countrymen or those of our countrymen who happened to enter the country after the expiry of the three months, to go to gaol or to expect them to accept the Asiatic Act? I say emphatically, no. I did not come out of the gaol before my time was up in order that I might leave the hardships that I was suffering there personally, I was not undergoing any hardships whatever. It would be a far rather hardship to me to have to submit to indignity or to see fellow country-men trampled underfoot or his bread, to which he is justly entitled, taken away from him. I would pass the whole of my lifetime in gaol, and I say that in the House of God, in the House of Prayer, and I repeat it that I would far rather pass the whole of my lifetime in gaol and be perfectly happy than see my fellow-countrymen subjected to indignity and I should come out of the gaol. No, gentlemen, the servant who stands before you this afternoon is not made of that stuff, and it is because I ask you to suffer everything that may be necessary than break your oath, it is because I expect this of my countrymen, that they will be, above all, true to their God, that I ask you this afternoon to bum all these certificates. [Cries of, 'We are ready to burn them.']
I have been told that the statement I have made lately with reference to the position of British Indians in this Colony has been misconstrued. I have read some remarks that have been passed upon that statement, and it is this: that I claim that this country belongs to British Indians just as much as it belongs to the Europeans ”” and I claim that claim, but what does that claim mean? I do not, therefore, mean that it is open to us to have an unchecked influx of Asiatics into this country. No, I claim to be a colonist, I claim to have passed a fair measure of my life in this country, and if this country, the welfare of this country, demands that Asiatic immigration should not proceed unchecked, then I should be the first man to say, let that be so. If the majority of the inhabitants of this country demand that Asiatic immigration should cease ”” mind, I lay stress upon the term immigration – if Asiatic immigration should be under well-ordered control, then I say that I should claim accept that position, but having accepted that position, I should claim that this country is just as much mine as any other colonist's, and it is in that sense that I put forward that claim on behalf of my countrymen and I say also that it behoves the colonists to recognize that claim. It cannot benefit the colonists to have British Indians in the Transvaal who are not men but who may be treated as cattle even though it may be show-cattle. It will not do the colonists any good; it will not do British Indians any good, and if that is the position that the colonists or the British Indians take in this Colony, it will be far better that Indians are hunted out of this Colony and sent to India rather than that they should remain in this Colony in the most humiliating position. It is in that sense that I claim that this country is just as much the British Indian's as it is the European's. What is this fight that we are engaged upon? What is its significance?
To my mind, its significance did not commence with a demand for the repeal of the Asiatic Act, nor does it end with the repeal of the Asiatic Act. I know full well that it is open to the Government of the Colony to give repeal of this legislation today, to throw dust into our eyes and then embark upon other legislation, far harsher, far more humiliating, but the lesson that I wanted to learn myself, the lesson I would have my countrymen to learn from this struggle is this: that unenfranchised though we are, unrepresented though we are in the Transvaal, it is open to us to clothe ourselves with undying franchise, and this consists in recognizing our humanity, in recognizingthat we are part and parcel of the great universal whole, that there is the Maker of us all ruling over the destinies of mankind and that our trust should be in Him rather than in earthly kings, and if my countrymen recognize that position I say that no matter what legislation is passed over our heads, if that legislation is in conflict with our ideas of right and wrong, if it is in conflict with our conscience, if it is in conflict with our religion, then we can say we shall not submit to that legislation. We use no physical force, but we accept the sanction that the legislature provides, we accept the penalties that the legislature provides. I refuse to call this defiance, but I consider it is a perfectly respectful attitude, for a man, for a human being who calls himself man. And it is because it was necessary that British Indians should learn that lesson that the heads of the community gathered together and assembled together and said to themselves that this is the struggle, this is the method of struggle that they would place before their countrymen. It can do no harm whatsoever to the Government of the Colony, it can do no harm to those who are engaged in this struggle; it simply tests them and, if they are true, then they can only win; if they are not true, then they simply get they deserve.
One thing more and I shall soon ask you whether you propose that Essop Mia, your chairman, should set fire to these registration certificates; and it is this: I have been hitherto refraining from making any personal attack whatsoever. I did make a slight attack at the time of the trial of Ram Sundar, and that was in connection with the head of the Registration Department, Mr. Chamney. I feel bound in the interests of the colonists, in the interests of the Indian community, and for the honour of the Colony, to make this remark that, so long as Mr. Chamney reigns supreme in the Registration Department, there will be no peace so far as the Asiatics are concerned. I accused Mr. Chamney of hopeless incompetence and ignorance after so much experience. Again, after the charge was made, I repeat it. When I come to contrast what he has been doing with what Captain Hamilton Fowle did I can only say that, had Captain Hamilton Fowle been at the helm of affairs, we would not be face to face with a difficulty of this nature which not only stares the Indian community in the face but which stares the Government also in the face. Mr. Chamney is an estimable man, as I have often stated. He is above suspicion, but that is not all that is required in the head of a department. The head of a department has to know his work, he has to know the law that he wishes to administer, or the administration of which is given to him, and he has also to keep a cool head, and he has to be competent in the proper discharge of his duties. Mr. Chamney has been tried, and has been found wanting, and no matter how much attached General Smuts may be to Mr. Chamney, this is the charge that I can bring against him after very close acquaintance with the working of his department. I cannot go into the illustration of the proposition that I lay down, but I do say that, unless Mr. Chamney is removed from that department ”” I have no desire that anybody's bread should be taken away from his mouth – but, unless he is removed from this department, there will be no peace.
But what is more, Mr. Chamney has been less than a man in putting his signature before a justice of the peace to an affidavit that was made on oath to the effect that he was present at the interview on the 3rd day of February and General Smuts never promised repeal of the Act. I say that that affidavit is untrue. He not only listened to the promise made by General Smuts as to the repeal of the Act, but he repeated that promise to me; he mentioned that promise to me, if once, twelve times, and each time he said that General Smuts was going to play the game, that he was going to repeal the Act. There was once an occasion when I believe there was a fellow-countryman of mine in my company and he said, 'But remember that General Smuts also said that so long as there is a single Asiatic in the Colony who has not made a voluntary registration application, that Act will be enforced against him.’ Today the position is that there is no Asiatic, so far as I know, none to talk of, who has not made his application for voluntary registration. I now ask for a fulfilment of that promise, and if Mr. Chamney has made that affidavit, as he has made it, why, he has added some other disqualification to the disqualifications I have lined, and I say again that unless Mr. Chamney is removed from that department there cannot be any peace whatsoever. [Applause]