Sheth Haji Muhammad Haji Dada was regarded as the foremost leader of the Indian community in Natal in 1893. Financially Sheth Abdulla Haji Adam was the chief among them, but he and others always gave the first place to Sheth Haji Muhammad in public affairs. A meeting was, therefore, held under his presidentship at the house of Abdulla Sheth, at which it was resolved to offer opposition to the Franchise Bill.
Volunteers were enrolled. Natal-born Indians, that is, mostly
Christian Indian youths, had been invited to attend this meeting. Mr.
Paul, the Durban court interpreter, and Mr. Subhan Godfrey,
headmaster of a mission school, were present, and it was they who
were responsible for bringing together at the meeting a good number
of Christian youths. All these enrolled themselves as volunteers.
Many of the local merchants were of course enrolled, noteworthy
among them Sheths Dawud Muhammad, Muhammad Kasam Kamruddin, Adamji
Miyakhan, A. Kolandavellu Pillai, C. Lachhiram, Rangasami Padiachi,
and Amod Jiva. Parsi Rustomji was of course there. From among the
clerks were Messrs Manekji, Joshi, Narsinhram and others, employees
of Dada Abdulla and Co. and other big firms. They were all agreeably
surprised to find themselves taking a share in public work. To be
invited thus to take part was a new experience in their lives. In
face of the calamity that had overtaken the community, all
distinctions such as high and low, small and great, master and
servant, Hindus, Musalmans, Parsis, Christians, Gujaratis, Madrasis,
Sindhis, etc., were forgotten. All were alike the children and
servants of the motherland.
The bill had already passed, or was about to pass, its second
reading. In the speeches on the occasion the fact that Indians had
expressed no opposition the stringent bill was urged as proof of
their unfitness for the franchise.
I explained the situation to the meeting. The first thing we did was
to despatch a telegram to the Speaker of the Assembly requesting him
to postpone further discussion of the bill. A similar telegram was
sent to the premier, Sir John Robinson, and another to Mr. Escombe,
as a friend of Dada Abdulla's. The Speaker promptly replied that
discussion of the bill would be postponed for two days. This
gladdened our hearts.
The petition to be presented to the Legislative Assembly was drawn
up. Three copies had to be prepared and one extra was needed for the
press. It was also proposed to obtain as many signatures to it as
possible, and all this work had to be done in the course of a night.
The volunteers with a knowledge of English and several others sat up
the whole night. Mr. Arthur, an old man, who was known for his
calligraphy, wrote the principal copy. The rest were written by others
to someone's dictation. Five copies were thus got ready
simultaneously. Merchant volunteers went out in their own carriages,
or carriages whose hire they had paid, to obtain signatures to the
petition. This was accomplished in quick time and the petition was despatched. The newspapers published it with favourable
comments. It likewise created an impression on the Assembly. It was
discussed in the House. Partisans of the Bill offered a
defence – an admittedly lame one – in reply to the arguments advanced in the
petition. The ill, however, was passed.
We all knew that this was a foregone conclusion, but the agitation had infused new life into the
community and had brought home to them the conviction that the
community was one and indivisible, and that it was as much their
duty to fight for its political rights as for its trading rights.
Lord Ripon was at this time Secretary of State for the Colonies. It
was decided to submit to him a monster petition. This was no small
task and could not be done in a day. Volunteers were enlisted, and
all did their due share of the work.
I took considerable pains over drawing up this petition. I read all
the literature available on the subject. My argument centred round a
principle and on expedience. I argued that we had a right to the
franchise in Natal, as we had a kind of franchise in India. I urged
that it was expedient to retain it, as the Indian population capable
of using the franchise was very small.
Ten thousand signatures were obtained in the course of a fortnight.
To secure this number of signatures from the whole of the province
was no light task, especially when we consider that the men were
perfect strangers to the work. Specially competent volunteers had to
be selected for the work, as it had been decided not to take a
single signature without the signatory fully understanding the
petition. The villages were scattered at long distances. The work
could be done promptly only if a number of workers put their whole
heart into it. And this they did. All carried out their allotted
task with enthusiasm. But as I am writing these lines, figures of
Sheth Dawud Muhammad, Rustomji, Adamji Miyakhan, and
Amod Jiva rise clearly before my mind. They brought in the largest
number of signatures. Dawud Sheth kept going about in his carriage
the whole day. And it was all a labour of love, not one of them
asking for even his out-of-pocket expenses. Dada Abdulla's house
became at once a caravanserai and a public office. A number of
educated fiends who helped me and many others had their food there.
Thus every helper was put to considerable expense.
The petition was at last submitted. A thousand copies had been
printed for circulation and distribution. It acquainted the Indian
public for the first time with conditions in Natal. I sent copies to
all the newspapers and publicists I knew.
The Times of India,
in a leading article on the petition, strongly supported the Indian
demands. Copies were sent to journals and publicists in England
representing different parties. The London Times
supported our claims, and we began to entertain hopes of the bill
It was now impossible for me to leave Natal. The Indian friends
surrounded me on all sides and importuned me to remain there
permanently. I expressed my difficulties. I had made up my mind not
to stay at public expense. I felt it necessary to set up an
independent household. I thought that the house should be good and
situated in a good locality. I also had the idea that I could not
add to the credit of the community, unless I lived in a
style usual for barristers. And it seemed to me to be impossible to
run such a household with anything less than £300 a year. I therefore
decided that I could stay only if the members of the community
guaranteed legal work to the extent of that minimum, and I
communicated my decision to them.
'But,' said they, 'we should like you to draw that amount for public
work, and we can easily collect it. Of course, this is apart from the
fees you must charge for private legal work.'
'No, I could not thus charge you for public work,' said I. 'The work
would not involve the exercise on my part of much skill as
barrister. My work would be mainly to make you all work. And how
could I charge you for that? And then I should have to appeal to you
frequently for funds for the work, and if I were to draw my
maintenance from you, I should find myself at a disadvantage in
making an appeal for large amounts, and we should ultimately find
ourselves at a standstill. Besides I want the community to find more
than £300 annually for public work.'
'But we have now known you for
some time, and are sure you would not draw anything you do not need.
And if we wanted you to stay here, should we not find your
'It is your love and present enthusiasm that make you talk like
this. How can we be sure that this love and enthusiasm will endure
for ever? And as your friend and servant, I should occasionally have
to say hard things to you. Heaven only knows whether I should then
retain your affection. But the fact is that I must not accept any
salary for public work. It is enough for me that you should all
agree to entrust me with your legal work. Even that may be hard for
you. For one thing I am not a white barrister. How can I be sure
that the court will respond to me? Nor can I be sure how I shall
fare as a lawyer. So even in giving me retainers you may be running
some risk. I should regard even the fact of your giving them to me
as the reward of my public work.'
The upshot of this discussion was that about twenty merchants gave
me retainers for one year for their legal work. Besides this, Dada
Abdulla purchased me the necessary furniture in lieu of a purse he
had intended to give me on my departure.
Thus I settled in Natal.