THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. II - SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA > Deportations
31. Deportations
The obnoxious Acts provided for three kinds of punishment, viz., fine, imprisonment and deportation. The Courts were empowered simultaneously to award all the punishments, and all magistrates were given jurisdiction to impose the maximum penalties. At first deporting meant taking the ‘culprit’ into the limits of Natal, the Orange Free State or Portuguess East Africa beyond the Transvaal frontier and leaving him there. As for instance the Indians who crossed over from Natal were taken beyond the limits of Volksrust station and there left to their own devices. Deportation of this kind was a farce pure and simple, as it involved only a little inconvenience, and instead of disheartening them it only encouraged the Indians still further.
The local Government therefore had to find out fresh means of harassing the Indians. The jails were already overcrowded. The Government thought that the Indians would be thoroughly demoralized and would surrender at discretion if they could be deported to India. There was some ground for this belief of the Government who accordingly sent a large batch of Indians to India. These deportees suffered great hardships. They had nothing to eat except what Government chose to provide for them on the steamers, and all of them were sent as deck passengers. Again some of them had their landed as well as other property and their business in South Africa, many had their families there, while other s were, also in debt. Not many men would be ready to lose their all and turn into perfect bankrupts.
All this notwithstanding many Indians remained perfectly firm. Many more however weakened and ceased to court arrest, although they did not weaken to the extent of getting duplicates of the burnt certificates. Some few were even terrorized into registering afresh.
Still there was a considerable number of stalwarts who were so brave that some of them, I believe, would have mounted the gallows with a smile on their face. And if they cared little for life, they cared still less for property.
But many of those who were deported to India were poor and simple folk who had joined the movement from mere faith. That these should be oppressed so heavily was almost too much to bear. However it was difficult to see our way to assist them. Our funds were meagre, and then there was the danger of losing the fight altogether if we proceeded to give monetary help. Not a single person was permitted to join the movement from pecuniary inducements; for otherwise the movement would have been choked up by men coming in on the strength of such selfish hopes. We felt it was incumbent upon us, however, to help the deportees with our sympathies.
I have seen from experience that money cannot go as far as fellow-feeling, kind words and kind looks can. If a man, who is eager to get riches, gets the riches from another but without sympathy, he will give him up in the long run. On the other hand, one who has been conquered by love is ready to encounter no end of difficulties with him who has given him his love.
We therefore resolved to do for the deportees all that kindness could do. We comforted them with the promise that proper arrangements would be made for them in India. The reader must remember that many of them were ex-indentured laboures, and had no relations in India. Some were even born in South Africa, and to all India was something like a strange land. It would be sheer cruelty if these helpless people upon being landed in India were left to shift for themselves. We therefore assured them that all suitable arrangements would be made for them in India.
But this was not enough. The deportees could not be comforted so long as someone was not sent with them to be their companion and guide. This was the first batch of deportees, and their steamer was to start in a few hours. There was not much time for making a selection. I thought of P.K. Naidoo, one of my coworkers, and asked him :
‘Will you escort these poor brothers to India?’
‘Why not?’
‘But the steamer is starting just now.’
‘Let it.’
‘What about your clothes? And food?’
‘As for clothes, the suit I have on will suffice, and I will get the food from the steamer all right.’
This was almost agreeable surprise for me. The conversation took place at Parsi Rustomji’s. There and then I procured some clothes and blankets for Naidoo and sent him on.
‘Take care and look after these brothers on the way. See first to their comforts and then to your own. I am cabling to Shri Natesan at Madras, and you must follow his instructions.’
‘I will try to prove myself a true soldier.’ so saying P.K. Naidoo left for the pier. Victory must be certain with such valiant fighters, I said to myself. Naidoo was born in South Africa and had never been to India before. I gave him a letter of recommendation to Shri Natesan and also sent a cablegram.
In those days Shri Natesan perhaps stood alone in India as a student of the grievances of Indians abroad, their valued helper, and a systematic and well-informed exponent of their case. I had regular correspondence with him. When the deportees reached Madras, Shri Natesan rendered them full assistance. He found his task easier for the presence of an able man like Naidoo among the deportees. He made local collection and did not allow the deportees to feel for a moment that they had been deported.
These deportations by the Transvaal Government were as illegal as they were cruel. People are generally unaware that governments often deliberately violate their own laws. In face of emergency there is no time for undertaking fresh legislation. Governments therefore break the laws and do what they please. Afterwards they either enact new laws or else make the people forget their breach of the law.
The Indians started a powerful agitation against this lawlessness of the local government, which was adversely commented upon in India too so that the Government every day found it more and more difficult to deport poor Indians. The Indians took all possible legal steps and successfully appealed against the deportations, with the result that Government had to stop the practice of deporting to India.
But the policy of deportations was not without its effect upon the Satyagrahi ‘army’. Not all could overcome the fear of being deported to India. Many more fell away, and only the real fighters remained.
This was not the only step taken by the Government to break the spirit of the community. As I have started in the last chapter, Government had done their utmost to harass the Satyagrahi prisoners, who were put to all manner of tasks including breaking stones. But that was not all. At first all prisoners were kept together. Now the Government adopted the policy of separating them, and accorded harsh treatment to them in every jail. Winter in the Transvaal is very severe; the cold is so bitter that one’s hands are almost frozen while working in the morning. Winter therefore was a hard time for the prisoners, some of whom were kept in a road camp where no one could even go and see them. One of these prisoners was a young Satyagrahi eighteen years old of the name of Swami Nagappan, who observed the jail rules and did the task entrusted to him. Early in the mornings he was taken to work on the roads where he contracted double pneumonia of which he died after he was released (July 7, 1909). Nagappan’s companions say that he thought of the struggle and struggle alone till he breathed his last. He never repented of going to jail and embraced death for his country’s sake as he would embrace a friend. Nagappan was ‘illiterate’ according to our standards. He spoke English and Zulu from experience. Perhaps he also wrote broken English, but he was by no means an educated man. Still if we consider his fortitude, his patience, his patriotism, his firmness unto death, there is nothing left which we might desire him to possess. The Satyagraha movement went on successfully though it was not joined by any highly educated men, but where would it have been without soldiers like Nagappan?
As Nagappan died of ill-treatment in jail, the hardships of deportation proved to be the death of Narayanaswami (October 16, 1910). Still the community stood unmoved; only weaklings slipped away. But even the weaklings had done their best. Let us not despise them. Those who march forward are generally apt to look down upon those who fall back and to consider themselves very brave fellows, where as often the facts are just the reverse. If a man who can afford to contribute fifty rupees subscribes only twenty-five and if he who can afford to pay only five must be held to be a more generous donor than the other who gives five times as much. Yet very often he who contributes twenty-five is needlessly elated at the false notion of his superiority over the contributor of five rupees. In the same way, if a man who falls back through weakness has done his utmost, he is really superior to another who leaves him behind but has not put his whole soul into the march. Therefore even those, who slipped away when they found things too hot for them, did render service to the community. A time now came when greater calls were made on our patience and courage. But the Transvaal Indians were not found wanting even so. The stalwarts who held to their posts were equal to the service required of them.
Thus day by day the trial grew more and more severe for the Indians. Government became more and more violent in proportion to the strength put forth by the community. There are always special prisons where dangerous prisoners or prisoners whom Government wants to bend are kept, and so there were in the Transvaal. One of these was Diepkloof Convict Prison, where there was a harsh jailer, and where the labour exacted from prisoners was also hard. And yet there were Indians who successfully performed their allotted task. But though they were prepared to work, they would not put up with the insult offered to them by the jailer and therefore went on hunger strike. They solemnly declared that they would take no food until either the jailer was removed from the prison, or else they themselves were transferred to another prison. This was a perfectly legitimate strike. The strikers were quite honest and not likely to take food secretly. The reader must remember that there was not much room in the Transvaal for such public agitation as a case of this nature would evoke in India. Again jail regulations in the Transvaal were particularly drastic. Outsiders did not seek interviews with prisoners even on occasions of this nature. A Satyagrahi, when once he found himself in jail, had generally to shift for himself. The struggle was on behalf of the poor and was conducted as a poor men’s movement. And therefore the vow which these strikers took was fraught with great risk. However, they were firm and succeeded in getting themselves transferred to another prison after a seven days’ fast. As hunger strikes were a rarity in those days, these Satyagrahis are entitled to special credit as pioneers (November 1910).