THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. II - SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA > Sorabji Shapurji Adajania
29. Sorabji Shapurji Adajania
Now as Satyagraha was made to embrace the Immigration act as well, Satyagrahis had to test the right of educated Indians to enter the Transvaal. The Committee decided that the test should not be made through any ordinary Indian. The idea was that some Indian, who did not come within the four corners of the definition of a prohibited immigrant in the new Act in so far as the definition was acceptable to the community, should enter the Transvaal and go to jail. We had thus to show that Satyagraha is a force containing within itself seeds of progressive self-restraint. There was a section in the Act to the effect that any person who was not conversant with a European language should be treated as a prohibited immigrant. The Committee therefore proposed that some Indian, who knew English but who had not been to the Transvaal before should enter the country. Several young Indians volunteered for the purpose, out of whom Sorabji Shapurji Adajania was selected.
Sorabji was a Parsi. There were not perhaps more than a hundred Parsis in the whole of South Africa. I held in South Africa the same views about Parsis as I have expressed in India. There are not more than a hundred thousand Parses in the world, and this alone speaks volumes for their high character that such a small community has long preserved its prestige, clung to its religion and proved itself second to none in the world in point of charity. But Sorabji turned out to be pure gold. I was but slightly acquainted with him when he joined the struggle. His letters as regards participation in Satyagraha left a good impression on me. As I am a lover of the great qualities of the Parsis, I was not and I am not unaware of some of their defects as a community. I was therefore doubtful whether Sorabji would be able to stand to his guns in critical times. But it was a rule with me not to attach any weight to my own doubts where the party concerned himself asserted the contrary. I therefore recommended to the Committee that they should take Sorabji at his word, and eventually Sorabji proved himself a first class Satyagrahi. He not only was one of the Satyagrahis who suffered the longest terms of imprisonment, but also made such deep study of the struggle that his views commanded respectful hearing from all. His advise always betrayed firmness, wisdom, charity and deliberation. He was slow to form an opinion as well as to change an opinion once formed. He was as much of an Indian as of a Parsi, and was quite free from the ban of narrow communalism. After the struggle was over Doctor Mehta offered a scholarship in order to enable some good Satyagrahi to proceed to England for bar. I was charged with the selection. There were two or three deserving candidates, but all the friends felt that there was none who could approach Sorabji in maturity of judgement and ripeness of wisdom, and he was selected accordingly. The idea was, that on his return to South Africa he should take my place and serve the community. Sorabji went to England with the blessings of the community, and was duly called to the bar. He had already come in contact with Gokhale in South Africa, and his relations with him became closer in England. Sorabji captivated Gokhale who asked him to join the Servants of India Society when he returned to India. Sorabji became extremely popular among the students. He would share the sorrows of all, and his soul was not tarnished by the luxury and the artificiality in England. When he went to England, he was above thirty, and he had only a working knowledge of English. But difficulties vanish at the touch of man’s perseverance. Sorabji lived the pure life of a student and passed his examinations. The bar examinations in my time were easy. Barristers nowadays have to study comparatively very much harder. But Sorabji knew not what it was to be defeated. When the ambulance corps was established in England, he was one of the pioneers as also one of those who remained in it till the last. This corps too had to offer Satyagraha in which many members fell back but Sorabji was at the head of those who would not give in. Let me state in passing that this Satyagraha of the ambulance corps was also crowned with victory.
After being called to the bar in England Sorabji returned to Johannesburg where he began to practice law as well as to serve the community. Every letter I received from South Africa was full of praise for Sorabji: ‘He is as simple in habits as ever, and free from the slightest trace of vanity. He mixes with all, rich as well as poor.’ But God seems to be as cruel as He is merciful Sorabji caught galloping phthisis and died in a few months, leaving the Indians whose love he had freshly acquired to mourn his loss. Thus within a very short period God bereft the community of two outstanding personalities, Kachhalia and Sorabji. If I were asked to choose between the two, I would be at a loss to decide. In fact, each was supreme in his own field. And Sorabji was as good an Indian as he was a good Parsi, even as Kachhalia was as good an Indian as he was a good Musalman.
Thus Sorabji entered the Transvaal, having previously informed the Government of his intention to test his right to remain in the country under the Immigrants Registration Act. The Government were not at all prepared for this and could not at once decide what to do with Sorabji, who publicly crossed the border and entered the country. The Immigration Restriction Officer knew him. Sorabji told him that he was deliberately entering the Transvaal for a test case and asked him to examine him in English or to arrest him just as he pleased. The officer replied that there was no question of examining him as he was aware of his knowledge of English. He had no orders to arrest him. Sorabji might enter the country and the Government, if they wished, would arrest him where he went.
Thus contrary to our expectation Sorabji reached Johannesburg and we welcomed him in our midst. No one had hoped that the Government would permit him to proceed even an inch beyond the frontier station of to Volksrust. Very often, it so happens that when we take our steps deliberately and fearlessly, the government is not ready to oppose us. The reason for this lies in the very nature of government. A government officer does not ordinarily make his department so much his own as to arrange his ideas on every subject beforehand and make preparations accordingly. Again, the officer has not one but many things to attend to, and his mind is divided between them. Thirdly, the official suffers from the intoxication of power, is thus apt to be careless and believes that it is child’s play for the authorities to deal with any movement whatever. On the other hand, the public worker knows his ideal as well as the means to achieve his end, and if he has definite plans, he is perfectly ready to carry them out, and his work is the only subject of his thoughts day and night. If therefore he takes the right steps with decision, he is always in advance of the government. Many movements fail, not because governments are endowed with extraordinary power but because the leaders are lacking in the qualities just referred to.
In short, whether through the negligence or the set design of the Government Sorabji reached as far as Johannesburg, and the local officer had neither any idea of his duty in a case like this nor any instructions from his duty in a case like this nor any instructions from his superiors on the point. Sorabji’s arrival increased our enthusiasm, and some young men thought that the government were defeated and would soon come to terms. They saw their mistake very soon, however. They even realized that a settlement could perhaps be purchased only by the self-devotion of many a young man.
Sorabji informed the Police Superintendent, Johnnesburg, about his arrival and let him know that he believed himself entitled to remain in the Transvaal in terms of the new Immigration Act, as he had ordinary knowledge of English, in respect of which he was ready to submit to an examination by the officer if he so desired. No reply to this letter was received, or rather the reply came after some days in the form of summons.
Sorabji’s case came before the Court on July 8, 1908. The court house was packed full of Indian spectators. Before the case began, we held meeting of the Indians present on the grounds of the Court and Sorabji made a fighting speech, in which he announced his readiness to go to jail as often as necessary for victory and to brave all dangers and risks. In the meanwhile, I had got fairly familiar with Sorabji and assured myself that he would do credit to the community. The Magistrate took up the case in due course. I defended Sorabji, and at once asked for his discharge on the ground of the summons being defective. The public Prosecutor also made an argument, but on the 9th the Court upheld my contention and discharged Sorabji who, however, immediately received warning to appear before the Court next day, Friday, July 10, 1908.
On the 10th, the Magistrate ordered Sorabji to leave the ordered Sorabji to leave the Transvaal within seven days. After the Court’s order was served upon him, Sorabji informed Superintendent J. A. G. Vernon that it was not his desire to leave. He was accordingly brought to the Court once more, on the 20th, charged with failing to obey the Magistrate’s order, and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment with hard labour. The Government, however, did not arrest the local Indians as they saw that the more arrests were the higher did the Indians’ spirit rise. Again Indians were sometimes discharged thanks to legal technicalities in the cases instituted against them and this also served to redouble the ardour of the community. Government had carried through the Legislature all the laws they wanted. Many Indians had indeed burnt the certificates but they had proved their right to remain in the country by their registration. Government therefore saw no sense in prosecuting them simply to send them to jail, and thought that the workers would cool down finding no outlet for their energies in view of the masterly inactivity of the Government. But they were reckoning without their host. The Indians took fresh steps to test the Government’s patience, which was soon exhausted.