The officers at the head of the new department were at a loss to know how I had entered the Transvaal. They inquired of the Indians who used to go to them, but these could say nothing definite.
The officers only ventured a guess that I might have succeeded in entering without a permit on the strength of my old connections.
If that was the case, I was liable to be arrested! It is a general practice, on the termination of a big war, to invest the Government of the day with special powers. This was the case in South Africa. The Government had passed a Peace Preservation Ordinance, which provided that anyone entering the Transvaal without a permit should be liable to arrest and imprisonment.
The question of arresting me under this provision was mooted, but no one could summon up courage enough to ask me to produce my permit. The officers had of course sent telegrams to Durban, and when they found that I had entered with a permit, they were disappointed.
But they were not the men to be defeated by such disappointment. Though I had succeeded in entering the Transvaal, they could still successfully prevent me from waiting on Mr Chamberlain. So the community was asked to submit the names of the representatives who were to form the Deputation.
Colour prejudice was of course in evidence everywhere in South Africa, but I was not prepared to find here the dirty and underhand dealing among officials that I was familiar with within India. In South Africa, the public departments were maintained for the good of the people and were responsible for public opinion.
Hence officials in charge had a certain courtesy of manner and humility about them, and coloured people also got the benefit of it more or less. With the coming of the officers from Asia, came also its autocracy, and the habits that the autocrats had imbibed there. In South Africa there was a kind of responsible government or democracy, whereas the commodity imported from Asia was autocracy pure and simple; for the Asiatics had no responsible government, there being a foreign power governing them.
In South Africa the Europeans were settled, emigrants. They had become South African citizens and had control over the departmental officers. But the autocrats from Asia now appeared on the scene, and the Indians, in consequence, found themselves between the devil and the deep sea.
I had a fair taste of this autocracy. I was first summoned to see the chief of the department, an officer from Ceylon. Lest I should appear to exaggerate when I say that I was ‘summoned to see the chief, I shall make myself clear.
No written order was sent to me. Indian leaders often had to visit the Asiatic officers. Among these was the late Sheth Tyeb Haji Khanmahomed. The chief of the office asked him who I was and why I had come there. ‘He is our adviser,’ said Tyeb Sheth, ‘and he has come here at our request.’ ‘Then what are we here for?
Have we not been appointed to protect you? What can Gandhi know of the conditions here?’ asked the autocrat. Tyeb Sheth answered the charge as best he could: ‘Of course, you are there. But Gandhi is our man. He knows our language and understands us. You are after all officials.’ The Sahib ordered Tyeb Sheth to fetch me before him.
I went to the Sahib in company with Tyeb Sheth and others. No seats were offered, we were all kept standing. ‘What brings you here?’ said the Sahib addressing me. ‘I have come here at the request of my fellow countrymen to help them with my advice,’ I replied. ‘But don’t you know that you have no right to come here?
The permit you hold was given to you by mistake. You must go back. You shall not wait on Mr Chamberlain. It is for the protection of the Indians here that the Asiatic Department had been specially created. Well, you may go.’
With this he bade me goodbye, giving me no opportunity for a reply. But he detained my companions. He gave them a sound scolding and advised them to send me away. They returned chagrined. We were now confronted with an unexpected situation.