The Significance of Indian Opinion by Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie
Department of History, University of the Western Cape
Address to Conference on the Alternate Media to Commemorate the Centenary of the Founding of Indian Opinion, 4 June 2003, Durban
On 4 June 1903 a very tired but fired up young man worked till 3am in the morning in the central business district of Durban. He then walked to his home in Sydenham as the last tramcar had long departed. On 5 June again he worked till 11pm - there was an urgency with which he worked. His goal was to get a new newspaper before the public. The first issue of Indian Opinion was dated 4 June but it was only on 6 June that it could be released. The young man was relieved but he could not relax. He had the next issue to think about and it was due in five days time. He wrote `I am now anxious about the second number. With a small staff, and lack of materials - types, etc., and facilities, we have to keep the paper up to the mark!'
This man was M.H. Nazar, a secretary of the Natal Indian Congress. His letters for this early period indicate that there were two other key individuals involved in the production of this new journal. Madanjit Viyavaharik, the owner of the International Printing Press and Mohandas Gandhi, the Johannesburg lawyer. Nazar and Madanjit saw to the practicalities of producing the newspaper - this was no mean task for the paper was to be produced in four languages - English, Hindi, Gujerati and Tamil. The translation of the articles was difficult as individuals proficient in two languages were required. Nazar would report `The translators are not particularly clever, and they will not work at day time'. Some translations were simply `shocking'. Then there was a shortage of types. Virji Damodar Mehta (who would one day found his own printing press, Universal Printing Press) asked Nazar not to use too many of the Gujerati letter `a'. The editor himself did not know Tamil and had to explain the spirit of articles to translators whose English was not too good. Madanjit in the meanwhile had been running around getting the licence, advertisers and subscribers. The first issue which was some two months in the planning was finally out.
I start deliberately with Nazar, the first editor, and Madanjit the actual owner, to illustrate the point that there were many dedicated workers who made Indian Opinion a possibility. It was Nazar, in fact, who would set a high standard for those who would succeed him in the editor's chair. There was no question of taking money for his work, it was all for a `cause'. However there is no doubt that the main figure in the production of the paper was the thirty-four year old lawyer whose office was based in Rissik Street in Johannesburg. Nazar would suggest various lead articles but lest Gandhi should not understand he clarified the position. He expected these to be written by Gandhi. Over the years, Gandhi would direct the policy of Indian Opinion from Johannesburg, write articles, give direction and above all divert his earnings from his prospering practice to help sustain the paper. And over the years there were many dedicated workers and editors.
My task this evening is to explain what is the significance of this journal which by its second year had 887 subscribers. Over its entire 58 years existence its subscribers averaged at about 2000. The highest number in any one year was 3500. Compare this with the Guardian which in the 1930s began with a circulation of 1000 but grew rapidly over the years to top 50 000 by the mid-1940s. When Indian Opinion was reaching its dying days in 1961, the Guardian now published as New Age had a circulation of 20 000. The significance of Indian Opinion lies not in its size (which may be explained only partly in terms of the size of the Indian population) but in its content.
Indian Opinion was also not the first Indian newspaper in Natal. It had been preceded by a short-lived Indian World in 1898 and in May 1901 P.S Aiyar a Tamil journalist began a Tamil-English weekly Colonial Indian News. Aiyar's ventures reflected the precariousness of such undertakings as this too lasted for just a few years. Africans in colonial Natal had also been publishing newspapers for some time. There had been Inkanyiso yase Natal, Ipepa lo Hlanga and in April 1903 John Dube began his Ilanga lase Natal. In the eastern Cape where black journalism had an even longer history there was Imvo Zabantsundu run by John Tengo Jabavu and the more radical paper Izwi Labantu published by Walter Rubusana and Alan Soga from East London. Indian Opinion was launched at a time when just after the South African War all blacks felt disappointed with British rule and were concerned about the failure of the new order to bring about improvements in their political, social and economic status. The years after the war were marked by a proliferation of papers. Sol Plaatje . one of our most talented elites of the time began a Tswana-English weekly that served the northern Cape and Free State. Later, in 1909, in Cape Town Dr Abduraham would start the APO. These were just a few of the many papers emerging. The important point I would like to make is that Gandhi belongs to this generation of rising black journalists and editors who were all committed to improving the position of black people especially at a time when whites were moving towards forming a Union of South Africa within which blacks had such limited rights. Indian Opinion marked Gandhi's apprenticeship as a journalist. In India he would go on to publishing many other journals, Young India, Navajivan, Harijan and his experience with Indian Opinion would prove crucial.
Indian Opinion began its life by adopting a very moderate tone. The editor proclaimed `we have unfailing faith in British justice' . It was by `well-sustained continuous and temperate constitutional effort that Indians would seek redress'. That is how the paper began and in colonial Natal there was reason to be cautious. The owners of Ipepa lo Hlanga chose to close down after it offended the Natal government with an article urging people Vukani Bantu! Rise Up you people'. For the time being Gandhi was anxious not to offend white officialdom but to secure their support to improve the position of Indians. The pages of Indian Opinion provide a valuable historical record of the disabilities that Indians suffered under. It also provides an invaluable record of the life of the political life of the Indian community. It represents an alternate voice to that of newspapers such as the Natal Mercury which were often hostile to Indian interests. Soon Gandhi would move from political petitioning to active resistance and his paper changed too.
One significant moment in the paper's history came in 1904 when Gandhi relocated it to a one hundred acre farm named Phoenix just 24 kms from Durban. This reflected the influence of Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin on Gandhi. Gandhi drew on Tolstoy's distaste for city life, his praise of agricultural labour and his renunciation of wealth. From Ruskin he drew the idea that all labour whether that of the professional or the manual labourer was equal but also that `the life of a tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.' At Phoenix the press workers were governed by a new work ethic - they would all have a share in the land, in the profits if there were any, they would grow crops to sustain themselves and they would work jointly to produce Indian Opinion. Thus the history of Indian Opinion becomes intertwined with Phoenix, Gandhi's first communal settlement. While at Phoenix the rhythm of life was dictated by the production of the paper, in India it was the spinning wheel which was the centre of ashram activity.
Indian Opinion played a very significant role in the early years of the twentieth century by fostering the idea of one united Indian community and a national identity. This was no mean task for Indians were divided by religion, caste, class, and even Indian regional affiliations. `we are not, and ought not to be, Tamils or Calcutta men, Mohammedans or Hindus, Brahmins or Banyas, but simply and solely British Indians'. Indian Opinion especially highlighted the poor conditions under which indentured labourers worked. Editorials asked `Is all well on the Estates', cases of harsh treatment by employers were publicised and the astoundingly high rate of suicide was pointed out. A campaign to end the system was launched and editor Henry Polak, a friend of Gandhi's went to India to mobilise support. Indian Opinion was a means of bringing news about Indians in the colonies before the public in India.
Indian Opinion and political activism on the part of its editors became an established tradition. This is what would, throughout the 20th century distinguish Indian Opinion from other newspapers that would arrive on the scene during the 20th century. All but one of its editors spent some time in jail. This tradition began during the satyagraha campaign between 1906 and 1913 which began because of attempts to impose passes on Indians in the Transvaal. The newspaper came into its own. In 1904 its aims had simply been to educate whites in South Africa about Indian needs and wants. From 1906 onwards it became a vehicle for challenging state laws and urging defiance of these when these were clearly unjust. It is this that elevates this tiny newspaper produced from a farm to one of world significance for it became linked with Gandhi's transformation to a mass movement leader and his philosophy of satyagraha which can be interpreted as active non-violent resistance. The law was translated into Gujerati, readers were urged to defy the law, from Johannesburg Gandhi wrote a regular Johannesburg Letter explaining to anxious Indians what steps they should take and what the reaction of the authorities would be. Inspirational stories of resistance were published such as the life of Socrates who chose death rather than bow to the Athenian officials. The paper played a fundamental role on defeating the registration drive of officials. Its pages paid tribute to local resisters and Brian Gabriel, one of Natal's earliest Indian photographers, provided visual coverage. Gandhi who by 1909 had spent 177 days in jail - and there would be more to come - extolled the virtues of prison life, a life of poverty, and urged readers not to pursue wealth at a time when there was higher moral calling.
According to Gandhi `Satyagraha would have been impossible without Indian Opinion'. Gandhi recalled `the paper generally reached Johannesburg on Sunday morning. I know of many, whose first occupation after they received the paper would be to read the Gujerati section through from beginning to end. One of the company would read it, and the rest would surround him and listen. ' So as we acknowledge the importance of satyagraha as a weapon that evolved on South African soil, that inspired many anti-colonial, anti-imperial, anti-apartheid movements and movements in a quest for justice, a weapon that would ultimately bring the mighty British Empire to its heels in India, so we should acknowledge Indian Opinion. It was a key mobilising device. Gandhi also had a bigger campaign in mind - he had his eyes on India and in the pages of Indian Opinion he published his book Hind Swaraj which set out his vision for an independent India. Indian Opinion faced its first banning order - these issues were prohibited in India.
Although Indian Opinion began by advocating Indian rights it also focussed on the disabilities of other blacks in South Africa - the devastating provisions of the Land Act of 1913, the pass struggles of Africans were publicised and African achievements too were celebrated. In the 1950s especially under the editorship of Manilal Gandhi, Gandhi's second son, the newspaper became more focussed on human rights rather than the rights of Indians only. It became a central medium for disseminating the meaning of satyagraha and of propagating Gandhism. In a significant move in 1957 the English section of IO was renamed Opinion. In the words of Sushila Gandhi who took on the editorship after Manilal's death, the name change was to reflect the "Oneness of Man", the belief in `a new sense of nationhood &http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/artsmediaculture/arts/media/#8230; [that] transcends cultural and racial barriers and holds before all the ideal of a unified nation whose various people shall be bound together by their love of their country and their belief in the ideals on which their freedom should be founded. Gandhi she asserted belonged to not just "India and Indians only &http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/artsmediaculture/arts/media/#8230; the greatest teachers of humanity do not belong to their tribes or national groups they belong to humanity'. And this is what we commemorate today that great belief in fundamental human rights and the constant striving and vigilance to ensure its attainment.
Gandhi left behind a tough legacy for his successors at Indian Opinion to follow. This was not a commercial undertaking, it was a paper for political, social and moral education. It would be very remiss of me to not pay tribute to those who helped Gandhi shape his legacy in those early years and those who continued that legacy for several decades thereafter. There were the trustees of Phoenix Settlement and all those who on a regular basis who saved Indian Opinion from its dire financial straits. These names would be too numerous to mention. We need to recognise though in a roll call of honour at least the family of Parsee Rustomjee. There were many editors - Nazar, Hebert Kitchin, Henry Polak, Albert West, Manilal Gandhi who was the paper's longest serving editor for 36 years and Sushila Gandhi. There were many contributors, assistants and acting editors too - Gandhi's nephews, Chhaganlal and Maganlal Gandhi, Lewis Walter Ritch, Albert Christopher, Pragji Desai, Surendra Medh, Shantilal Gandhi, P.R. Pather, Jordan Ngubane, Christopher Gell, Homer Jack, Arun Gandhi, Sita Gandhi-Dhupelia, Ranjith Nowbath , Pat Poovalingam and Natoo Babenia. When Indian Opinion published its last issue on 4 August 1961, Alpha Ngcobo had served for 41 years after coming to the press as a young man of twenty years. Perumalsamy Rajoo served for 27 years, D. Gangabissoon sixteen , S. Ramdhar and R. Baijnath thirteen years each. They made up the small staff that daily gathered in the International Printing Press.
Sushila Gandhi above all ended a 34 year old link with the paper. She had come as a young bride of 20 years in 1927 and began in the press by composing types - each letter had to be handset - for over 58 years advances in printing technology were deliberately avoided. Time stood still and manual labour was favoured over machines. Sushila soon progressed to writing and editing the Gujerati sections and then took over after her husband's death. A photograph shows a lone woman in the printing press working amongst the handful of men. Indian Opinion provided a place where women could work as equals and be freed of cultural and traditional restraints and that was Gandhi's doing and teaching. And that too is what we celebrate and commemorate today. I thank you.