THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. II - SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA > Ahmad Muhammad Kacchalia
16. Ahmad Muhammad Kacchalia
When the deputation was on its way to England, I happened to talk about the anti-Asiatic legislation in the Transvaal with the Englishman who had settled in South Africa, and when I informed him of the object of our visit to England, he exclaimed, ‘I see you are going to London in order to get rid of the dog’s collar.’ He thus compared the Transvaal permit to dog’s collar, but I did not quite understand then, and cannot exactly tell while recording that incident even now, whether he thus intended to express his contempt for the Indians and joy at their humiliation, or whether he only meant to show his strong feeling in the matter. According to the golden rule that a person’s words must not be interpreted so as to do him an injustice, I take it that the gentleman used this graphic language only in order to evince him strong feeling. However that may be, the Transvaal Government on the side was preparing to throw the dog’s collar on the Indians necks, while on the other side the Indians were getting ready to put up a fight against the wicked policy of that Government and were concerting measures calculated to strengthen them in their resolution never to were that collar. Of course, we were writing letters to friends in England as well as in India and trying thus to keep them in touch with the situation from day to day. But a Satyagraha struggle depends but little upon help from outside, and it is only internal remedies that are effective. The leaders’ time therefore was chiefly taken up with the endeavors to keep all the elements of the community up to the mark.
One important question before us was that agency we should use for carrying on the struggle. The Transvaal British Indian Association had a large membership. Satyagraha had not yet seen the light of the day when it was established. The Association has resisted in the past, and must resist in the future, not one obnoxious law, but quite a host of them. Besides organizing resistance to obnoxious legislation, it had many other functions of a political and social nature to perform. Again all the members of the Association were not pledged to resist the Black Act through Satyagraha. At the same time we must take account of external risks to which the Association would be exposed in the event of its being identified with the Satyagraha struggle. What if the Transvaal Government declared the struggle to be seditious and all institutions carrying it on as illegal bodies? What would, in such case, be the position of members who were not Satyagrahis? And what about the funds which were contributed at a time when Satyagraha was not so much as thought of? All these were weighty considerations. Lastly, the Satyagrahis were strongly of opinion that they not only must not entertain any ill-will against those who did not join the struggle whether for want of faith, for weakness or any other reason whatever, but must maintain their present friendly relations with them unimpaired and even work side by side with them in all other movements. Except the Satyagraha struggle.
For all these reasons the community came to the conclusion that the Satyagraha struggle should not be carried on through any of the existing organizations. They might render all help in their power and resist the Black Act in every way open to them except that of Satyagraha, for which a new body named the ‘Passive Resistance Association’ was started by the Satyagrahis. The reader will see from this English name that the word Satyagraha had not yet been invented when this new Association came into being. Time fully justified the wisdom of constituting a fresh body for the work, and the Satyagraha movement might perhaps have suffered a setback if any of the existing organizations had been mixed up with it. Numerous members joined this new Association, and the community furnished it funds too with a lavish hand.
My experience has taught me that no movement even stops or languishes for want of funds. This does not mean that any temporal movement can go on without money, but it does mean that wherever It has good men and true at its helm, it is bound to attract to itself the requisite funds. On the other hand, I have also observed that a movement takes its downward course from the time that it is afflicted with a plethora of funds. When therefore a public institution is managed from the interest of investments, I dare not call it a sin but I do say that it is a highly improper procedure. The public should be the bank for all public institutions, which should not last a day longer than the public wish. An institution run with the interest of accumulated capital ceases to be amenable to public opinion and becomes autocratic and self-righteous. This is not the place to dwell upon the corruption of many a social and religious institution managed with permanent funds. The phenomenon is so common that he who runs may read it.
But we must return to our narrative. Lawyers and English-educated persons do not by any means enjoy a monopoly of hair spitting. I saw that even the uneducated Indians in South Africa were quite capable of drawing minute distinctions and making fine arguments. Some argued that the pledge taken in the Old Empire Theatre had been fulfilled as the old Ordinance was disallowed, and those who had weakened since then took shelter under this plea. The argument was not quite devoid of force, yet it could not impress those whose resistance was not to the law as law but to the vicious principle underlying it. All the same it was found necessary to re-administer the oath of resistance for safety’s sake just to reinforce the awakening of the community and to probe the extent of its weakness of any. Meetings therefore were held in every place, where the situation was explained, the oath was administered afresh and the spirit of the community was found to be as high as ever.
Meanwhile the fateful month of July was gradually drawing to an end , and on the last day of that month we had resolved to call a mass meeting of the Indians at Pretoria the capital of the Transvaal. Delegates from other places besides were also invited to attend. The meeting was held in the open on the grounds of the Pretoria mosque. After the inauguration of Satyagraha our meetings were so largely attended that no building could accommodate them. The entire Indian population in the Transvaal did not exceed 13,000 souls, of whom over 10,000 lived in Johannesburg and Pretoria. An attendance at public meetings of two thousand from an aggregate population of ten thousand would be considered large and satisfactory in any part of the world. A movement of mass Satyagraha is impossible on any other condition. Where the struggle is wholly dependent upon internal strength, it cannot go on at all without mass discipline. The workers therefore did not consider such large attendance as anything surprising. From the very first they had decided to hold public meetings only in the open so that expense was nearly avoided and none had to go back from the place of meeting disappointed for want of accommodation. All these meetings, again, were mostly very quite. The audiences heard everything attentively. If those who were far away from the platform could not hear a speaker, they would ask him to speak louder. The reader scarcely needs to be told that there were no chairs at these meetings. Everyone sat on the ground. There was a very small platform designed to accommodate the chairman, the speaker and a couple of friends, and a small table and a few chairs or stools were placed upon it.
Mr. Yusuf Ismail Mian, acting chairman of the British Indian Association, presided over this meeting. As the time for issuing permits under the Black Act was drawing nearer, the Indians were naturally anxious in spite of all their enthusiasm; but no less anxious than they were General Botha and General Smuts, all the night of the Transvaal Government at their back notwithstanding. No one would like to bend a whole community to his will by sheer force. General Botha therefore had sent Mr. William Hosken to this meeting to admonish us. The reader has already made this gentleman’s acquaintance in a previous chapter. The meeting received him warmly, and he said, “You know I am your friend. I need scarcely say that my feelings in this matter are with you. If at all I could, I would gladly make your opponents accede to your demands. But you need hardly to be told about the general hostility of the Transvaal Europeans to your community. I am here at General Botha’s instance. He had asked me to be bearer of his message to this meeting. He entertains a feeling of respect for you and understand is your sentiments, but he says, ‘he is helpless. All the Europeans in the Transvaal unanimously ask for such law, and he himself is convinced of the necessity for it. The Indians know fully well how powerful the Transvaal Government is. The law has again been endorsed by the Imperial Government. The Indians have done all they could and have acquitted themselves like men. But now that their opposition has failed, and the law has been passed, the community must prove their loyalty and love of peace by submitting to it. General Smuts will carefully look into any representations you make suggesting minor changes in the regulations framed in virtue of the Registration Act.’ My own advice to you also is, that you should comply with the General’s message. I know that the Transvaal Government is firm regarding this law. To resist it will be to dash your head against a wall. I wish that your community may not be ruined in fruitless opposition or invite needless suffering on their heads.” I translated the speech to the meeting word by word, and further put them on their guard on my own behalf. Mr. Hosken retired amidst cheers.
It was now time for the Indian speakers to address the meeting. One of these speakers was the late Ahmad Muhammad Kachhalia, the hero, not to this chapter alone, but of the present volume. I knew him only as a client and as interpreter. He had never before now taken a leading part in public work. He had a working knowledge of English, which he had so far improved by practice that when he took his friends to English lawyers, he acted as interpreter himself. But imterpretership was not a profession with him; he worked as interpreter only as a friend. He at first used to hawk piece goods, and them to trade on a small scale in partnership with his brother. He was a Surti Meman and enjoyed great regulation in his class. His knowledge of Gujarati was also limited but in this too he had greatly advanced, being schooled by experience. He had such sharp intelligence that he very easily grasped anything that was put to him. He solved legal difficulties with such facility as often astonished me. He would not hesitate to argue law even with lawyers, and very often his arguments were worthy of consideration for them.
I have never, whether in South Africa or in India, come across a man who could surpass Mr Kachhalia in courage and steadfastness. He sacrificed his all for the community’s sake. He was always a man of his word. He was a strict orthodox Musalman, being one of the trustees of the Surti Meman mosque. But at the same time he looked upon Hindus and Musalmans with an equal eye. I do not remember that he ever fanatically or improperly sided with Musalmans as against Hindus. Perfectly fearless and impartial as he was, he never hesitated to point out their faults to Hindus as well as Musalmans whenever he found it necessary. His simplicity and humility were worthy of imitation. My close contact with him for years leads me to hold firmly to the opinion that a community can rarely boast of having in their midst a man of the stamp of Mr. Kachhialia.
Mr. Kachhalia was of the speakers at the meeting. He made a very short speech. He said: “Every Indian know s what the Black Act is and what it implies. I have heard Mr. Hosken attentively, and so have you. His speech has only confirmed me in my resolution. We know how powerful the Transvaal Government is. But it cannot do anything more than enact such a law. It will cast us into prison, confiscate our property, deport us or hand us. All this we will bear cheerfully, but we cannot simply put up with this law.” I observed that while saying this, Mr Kachhalia was being deeply moved. His face reddened, the veins on his neck and on the head were swollen with the blood coursing rapidly through them, his body was shaking, and moving the fingers of his right hand upon his throat, he thundered forth: “I swear in the name of God that I will be hanged but I will not submit to this law, and I hope that everyone present will do likewise.’ So saying he took his seat. As he moved his fingers on his throat, some of those seated on the platform smiled, and I remember that I joined them in their smile. I was rather doubtful whether Kachhalia Sheth would be able fully to translate his brave words into action. I am ashamed of this doubt now, and every time I think of it. Kachhalia always remained to the fore among the many Indians who literally observed their pledge in that great struggle without a moment’s flinching.
The meeting cheered his as he spoke. Others then knew him very much better than I did, as many of them were personally familiar with this obscure hero. They knew that Kachhalia only says what he means and means what the says. There were other spirited speeches too. But I have singled out Kachhalia Sheth’s for mention, as it proved to be a prophecy of his subsequent career. Not everyone of the spirited speakers stood the final test. This great man died in 1918, four years after the struggle was over, serving the community till the last.
I will close this chapter with a reminiscence of Kachhalia Sheth which may not find a place elsewhere. The reader later on will hear of Tolstoy Farm where a number of Satyagrahi families lived. The Sheth sent his ten or twelve year old son Ali to be educated there as an example to others and in order that the boy might be brought up a life of simplicity and service. It was due to the example he thus set that other Musalmans likewise sent their boys to the Farm. Ali was a modest, bright, truthful and straightforward boy. God took him unto Himself before his father. If it had been given to him to live, I doubt not he would have turned out to be the worthy son of an excellent father.