We shall, for a moment, take leave of the Ashram, which in the very beginning had to weather internal and external storms, and briefly advert to a matter that engaged my attention.
Indentured labourers were those who had emigrated from India to
labour under an indenture for five years or less. Under the
Smuts-Gandhi settlement of 1914, the £3 tax in respect of the
indentured emigrants to Natal had been abolished, but the general
emigration from India still needed treatment.
In March 1916 Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviyaji moved a resolution in
the Imperial Legislative Council for the abolition of the indenture
system. In accepting the motion Lord Hardinge announced that he had
'obtained from His Majesty's Government the promise of the abolition
in due course' of the system. I felt, however, that India could not
be satisfied with so very vague an assurance, but ought to agitate
for immediate abolition. India had tolerated the system through
sheer negligence, and I believed the time had come when people could
successfully agitate for this redress. I met some of the leaders,
wrote in the press, and saw that public opinion was solidly in favour of
immediate abolition. Might this be a fit subject for
Satyagraha? I had no doubt that it was, but I did not know the
In the meantime the Viceroy had made no secret of the meaning of
'the eventual abolition', which, as he said, was abolition 'within
such reasonable time as will allow of alternative arrangements
So in February 1917, Pandit Malaviyaji asked for leave to introduce
a bill for the immediate abolition of the system. Lord Chelmsford
refused permission. It was time for me to tour the country for an
Before I started the agitation I thought it proper to wait upon the
Viceroy. So I applied for an interview. He immediately granted it.
Mr. Maffey, now Sir John Maffey, was his private secretary. I came
in close contact with him. I had a satisfactory talk with Lord
Chelmsford who, without being definite, promised to be a helpful.
I began my tour from Bombay. Mr. Jehangir Petit undertook to convene
the meeting under the auspices of the Imperial Citizenship
Association. The Executive Committee of the Association met first
for framing the resolutions to be moved at the meeting. Dr. Stanley
Reed, Sjt. (now Sir) Lallubhai Samaldas, Sjt. Natarajan and Mr.
Petit were present at the Committee meeting. The discussion centred
round the fixing of the period within which the Government was to be
asked to abolish the system. There were three proposals, viz, for
abolition 'as soon as possible', abolition 'by the 31st July', and
'immediate abolition'. I was for a definite date, as we could then
decide what to do if the Government failed to accede to our request
within the time limit. Sjt. Lallubhai was for 'immediate' abolition.
He said 'immediate' indicated a shorter period than the 31st July. I
explained that the people would not understand the word 'immediate'.
If we wanted to get them to do something, they must have a more
definite word. Everyone would interpret 'immediate' in his own way -
Government one way, the people another way. There was no question of
misunderstanding 'the 31st of July', and if nothing was done by that
date, we could proceed further. Dr. Reed saw the force of the
argument, and ultimately Sjt. Lallubhai also agreed. We adopted the
31st July as the latest date by which the abolition should be
announced, a resolution to that effect was passed at the public
meeting, and meetings throughout India resolved accordingly.
Mrs. Jaiji Petit put all her energies into the organization of a
ladies' deputation to the Viceroy. Amongst the ladies from Bombay
who formed the deputation, I remember the names of Lady Tata and the
late Dilshad Begam. The deputation had a great effect. The Viceroy
gave an encouraging reply.
I visited Karachi, Calcutta and various other places. There were
fine meetings everywhere, and there was unbounded enthusiasm. I had
not expected anything like it when the agitation was launched.
In those days I used to travel alone, and had therefore wonderful
experiences. The C.I.D. men were always after me. But as I had nothing
to conceal, they did not molest me, nor did I cause them any
trouble. Fortunately I had not then received the stamp of Mahatmaship,
though the shout of that name was quite common where people knew me.
On one occasion the detectives disturbed me at several stations,
asked for my ticket and took down the number. I, of course, readily
replied to all questions they asked. My fellow passengers had taken
me to be a sadhu or a fakir. When they saw that I was being
molested at every station, they were exasperated and swore at the
detectives. 'Why are you worrying the poor sadhu for nothing?' they
protested. 'Don't you show these scoundrels your ticket,' they said,
I said to them gently: 'It is no trouble to show them my ticket.
They are doing their duty.' The passengers were not satisfied, they
evinced more and more sympathy, and strongly objected to this sort
of ill- treatment of innocent men.
But the detectives were nothing. The real hardship was the third
class travelling. My bitterest experience was from Lahore to Delhi.
I was going to Calcutta from Karachi via
Lahore where I had to change trains. It was impossible to find a
place in the train. It was full, and those who
could get in did so by sheer force, often sneaking through windows
if the doors were locked. I had to reach Calcutta on the date fixed
for the meeting, and if I missed this train I could not arrive in
time. I had almost given up hope of getting in. No one was willing
to accept me, when a porter discovering my plight came to me and said,
'Give me twelve annas and I'll get you a seat.' 'Yes,' said I, 'you
shall have twelve annas if you do procure me a seat.' The young man
went from carriage to carriage entreating passengers but no one
heeded him. As the train was about to start, some passengers said,
'There is no room here, but you can shove him in if you like. He
will have to stand.' 'Well?' asked the young porter. I readily
agreed, and he shoved me in bodily through the window. Thus I got
in and the porter earned his twelve annas.
The night was a trial. The other passengers were sitting somehow. I
stood two hours, holding the chain of the upper bunk. Meanwhile some
of the passengers kept worrying me incessantly. 'Why will you not
sit down?' they asked. I tried to reason with them saying there was
no room, but they could not tolerate my standing, though they were
lying full length on the upper bunks. They did not tire of worrying
me, neither did I tire of gently replying to them. This at last
mollified them. Some of them asked me my name, and made room for me.
Patience was thus rewarded. I was dead tired, and my head was
reeling. God sent help when it was most needed.
In that way I somehow reached Delhi and thence Calcutta. The
Maharaja of Cassimbazar, the president of the Calcutta meeting, was
my host. Just as in Karachi, here also there was unbounded
enthusiasm. The meeting was attended by several Englishmen.
Before the 31st July the Government announced that indentured
emigration from India was stopped.
It was in 1894 that I drafted the first petition protesting against
the system, and I had then hoped that this 'semi-slavery,' as Sir W.
W. Hunter used to call the system, would some day be brought to an
There were many who aided in the agitation which was started in
1894, but I cannot help saying that potential Satyagraha hastened
For further details of that agitation and of those who took part in
it, I refer the reader to my Satyagraha in South Africa.