Chamberlain had come to get a gift of 35 million pounds from South Africa, and to win the hearts of Englishmen and Boers.
So he gave a cold shoulder to the Indian deputation. ‘You know,’ he said ‘that the Imperial Government has little control over self-governing Colonies. Your grievances seem to be genuine. I shall do what I can if you wish to live in their midst.’
The reply cast a chill over the members of the deputation. I was also disappointed. It was an eye-opener for us all, and I saw that we should start with our work de novo. I explained the situation to my colleagues. There was nothing wrong with Mr Chamberlain’s reply. It was well that he did not mince matters. He had brought home to us in a rather gentle way the rule of might being right or the law of the sword. But sword we had none. We scarcely had the nerve and the muscle even to receive sword cuts.
Mr Chamberlain had given only a short time to the sub-continent. If Shrinagar to Cape Comorin is 1,900 miles, Durban to Capetown is not less than 1,100 miles, and Mr Chamberlain had to cover the long-distance at hurricane speed. From Natal, he hastened to the Transvaal. I had to prepare the case for the Indians there as well and submit it to him.
But how was I get to Pretoria? Our people there were not in a position to procure the necessary legal facilities for my getting to them in time. The War had reduced the Transvaal to a howling wilderness. There were neither provisions nor clothing available.
Empty or closed shops were there, waiting to be replenished or opened, but that was a matter of time. Even refugees could not be allowed to return until the shops were ready with provisions. Every Transvaller had therefore to obtain a permit. The European had no difficulty in getting one, but the Indian found it very hard.
During the War, many officers and soldiers had come to South Africa from India and Ceylon, and it was considered to be the duty of the British authorities to provide for such of them as decided to settle there. They had in any event to appoint new officers, and these experienced men came in quite handy. The quick ingenuity of some of them created a new department.
It showed their resourcefulness. There was a special department for the Negroes. Why then should there not be one for the Asiatics? The argument seemed to be quite plausible. When I reached the Transvaal, this new department had already been opened and was gradually spreading its tentacles. The officers who issued permits to the returning refugees might issue them to all, but how could they do so in respect of the Asiatics without the intervention of the new department?
And if the permits were to be issued on the recommendation of the new department, some of the responsibility and burden of the permit officers could thus be lessened. This was how they had argued. The fact, however, was that the new department wanted some apology for work, and the men wanted money. If there had been no work, the department would have been unnecessary and would have been discontinued. So they found this work for themselves. The Indians had to apply to this department.
A reply would be vouchsafed many days after. And as large numbers were wishing to return to the Transvaal, there grew up an army of intermediaries or touts, who with the officers, looted the poor Indians to the tune of thousands.
I was told that no permit could be had without influence, pounds despite the influence which one might bring to bear. Thus seemed to be in no way open to me. I went to my old friend, the Police Superintendent of Durban, and said to him: ‘Please introduce me to the Permit Officer and help me to obtain a permit.
You know that I have been a resident of the Transvaal.’ He immediately put on his hat, came out and secured me a permit. There was hardly an hour left before my train was to start. I had kept my luggage ready. I thanked Superintendent Alexander and started for Pretoria.
I now had a fair idea of the difficulties ahead. On reaching Pretoria I drafted the memorial. In Durban, I do not recollect the Indians having been asked to submit in advance the names of their representatives, but here there was the new department and it asked to do so.
The Pretoria Indians had already come to know that the officers wanted to exclude me. But another chapter is necessary for this painful though amusing incident. ~