42. The Conference and After
At their invitation, I saw the mine-owners in Durban. I observed that they were somewhat impressed by the strike, but I did not expect anything big to come out of the conference. The humility of a Satyagrahi however knows no bounds. He does not let slip a single opportunity, for settlement, and he does not mind if anyone therefore looks upon him as timid. The man who has faith in him and the strength, which flows from faith, does not care if others look him down upon. He relies solely upon his internal strength. He is therefore courteous to all, and thus cultivates and enlists world opinion in favour of his own cause.
I therefore welcomed the coal-owners’ invitation and when I met them, I saw that the atmosphere was surcharged with the heat and passion of the moment. Instead of hearing me explain the situation, their representative proceeded to cross-examine me. I gave him suitable answers.
‘It is in your hands to bring the strike to an end,’ I said.
‘We are not officials,’ was the reply.
‘You can do a deal though you are not officials,’ I said. ‘You can fight the labourers’ battle from them. If you ask the Government to take off the three-pound tax, I do not think they will refuse to repeal it. You can also educate European opinion on the question.
‘But what has the three pound tax to do with the strike? If the labourers have any grievance against the coal-owners, you approach them for redress in due form.’
‘I do not see that the labourers have any other weapon except a strike in their hands. The three-pound tax too has been imposed in the interest of the mine-owners who went the labourers to work for them but do not wish that they should work as free men. If therefore the labourers strike work in order to secure a repeal of the three-pound tax, I do not see that it involves and impropriety or injustice to the mine-owners.
‘You will not them advice the labourers to return to work?’
‘I am sorry I can’t.’
‘Do you know what will be the consequences?’
‘I know, I have a full sense of my responsibility.’
‘Yes, indeed. You have nothing to lose. But will you compensate the misguided labourers for the damage you will cause them?’
‘The labourers have gone on strike after due deliberation, and with a full consciousness of the losses which would accrue to them. I cannot conceive a greater loss to a man than the loss of his self-respect, and if is a matter of deep satisfaction to me that the labourers have realized this fundamental principle.’
And so on. I cannot now remember the whole of the conversation. I have put down in brief the points, which I do remember. I saw that the mine-owners understood the weakness of their case, for they had already put themselves in communication with the Government.
During my journey to Durban and back I saw that the strike and the strike and the peaceful behavior of the strikers had produced an excellent impression upon the railway guards and others. I travelled in third class as usual, but even there the guard and other officers would surround me, make diligent inquiries and wish me success. They would provide me with various minor facilities. I scrupulously maintained the spotless purity of my relations with them. I did not hold out any inducement to the4m for a single amenity. I was delighted if they were courteous of their own free will, but no attempt was made to purchase courtesy. These officers were astonished to find that poor, illiterate and ignorant labourers made such a splendid display of firmness. Firmness and courage are qualities, which are bound to leave their impress even upon the adversary.
I returned to Newcastle. Labourers were still pouring in from all directions. I clearly explained the whole situation to the ‘army’. I said they were still free to return to work if they wished. I told them about the threats held out by the coal-owners and pictured before them the risks of the future. I pointed out that no one could tell them when the struggle would end. I described to the men the hardships of jail, and yet they would not flinch. They fearlessly replied, that they would never be down-hearted so long as I was fighting by their side, and they asked me not to be anxious about them as they were inured to hardships.
It was now only left for us to march. The labourers were informed one evening that they were to commence the march early next morning (October 28, 1913), and the rules to be observed on the march were read to them. It was no joke to control a multitude of five or six thousand men. I had no idea of the exact number, nor did I know their names or places of residence. I was merely content with as many of them as chose to remain. I could not afford to give anything on the road beyond a daily ration of one pound and a half of bread and an ounce of sugar to each ‘soldier’ .I planned to get something more from the Indian traders on the way. But if I failed they must rest content with bread and sugar. My experience of the Boer War and the Zulu ‘rebellion’ stood me in good stead on the present occasion. None of the ‘invaders’ was to keep with him any more clothes than necessary. None was to touch anyone’s property on the way. They were to bear it patiently if any official or nor-official European met them and abused or even flogged them. They were to allow themselves to be arrested if the police offered to arrest them. The march must continue even if I was arrested. All these points were explained to the men and I also announced the names of those who should successively lead the ‘army’ in my place.
The men understood the instructions issued to them, and our caravan safely reached Charlestown where the traders rendered us great help. They gave us the use of their houses, and permitted us to make our cooking arrangements on the ground of the mosque. The ration supplied on the march would be exhausted when camp was reached and therefore we were in need of cooking pots, which were cheerfully supplied by the traders. We had with us a plentiful store of rice, etc. to which also the traders contributed their share.
Charlestown was a small village with a population of hardly 1,000 souls, and could never accommodate the several thousands of pilgrims. Only women and children were lodged in houses. All the rest camped in the open.
There are many sweet and some bitter reminiscences of our stay in Charlestown. The pleasant memories are connected with the sanitary department and the District Health Officer, Dr. Briscoe, who was rather alarmed at the phenomenal increase in the population, but who, instead of adopting any stringent measures, met me, made some suggestions and offered to help me. Europeans are careful and we are careless about three things, the purity of the water supply, and keeping roads and sanitary conveniences clean. Dr. Briscoe asked me to see that no water was thrown on the roads and to prevent our men from dirtying the place or throwing away refuse promiscuously. He further suggested that the men should be confined to the area he assigned to us and that I should hold myself responsible for keeping that area clean. I thankfully accepted his suggestions and was then at perfect ease.
It was very difficult to have our people observed these rules. But the pilgrims and co-workers lightened my task. It has been my constant experience that much can be done if the servant actually serves and does not dictate to the people. If the servant puts in body-labour himself, others will follow in his wake. And such was my experience on the present occasion. My co-workers and I never hesitated to do sweeping, scavenging and similar work, with the result that others also took it up enthusiastically. In the absence of such sensible procedure, it is no good issuing orders to others. All would assume leadership and dictate to others and there would be nothing done in the end. But where the leader himself becomes a servant, there are no rival claimants for leadership.
Of co-workers Kallenbach was already in Charlsetown. And so was Miss Schlesin, whose industry, accuracy and honesty were beyond all praise. Of the Indians I now remember the late Shri P. K. Naidoo and Shri Albert Christopher. There were others besides who worked hard and rendered valuable help.
The ration consisted of rice and dal. We had a large stock vegetable, which could not be cooked, separately for want of time and cooking pots and was therefore mixed with dal. The kitchen was active all the twenty-four hours, as hungry men would arrive at any time of the day or night. No labourers were to stop at Newcastle. All knew what way to go and therefore they would make for Charlestown directly they left the mines.
As I think of the patience and endurance of the men, I am overpowered by a sense of the greatness of God. I was the leader among the cooks. Sometimes there was too much water in the dal, at other times it was insufficiently cooked. The vegetable and even the rice was sometimes ill-cooked. I have not seen many people in the world who would cheerfully gulp down such food. On the other hand, I have observed in the South African jails that even those who pass as well-educated men lose their temper if they are given food somewhat less than sufficient or oil-cooked, or even if they get it a little late.
Serving the food was if possible even more difficult than cooking it, and was in my sole charge. I shouldered the responsibility for the food being well or ill-cooked. Even so, it rested with me to satisfy all present by cutting down the individual ration when there was too little food and more than the expected number of diners. I can never forget the angry look which the sisters gave me for a moment when I gave them too little food and which was at once transformed into a smile as they understood the thanklessness of my self-chosen tasks. ‘I am helpless,’ I would say. ‘The quantity cooked is small, and as I have to feed many, I must divide it equally between them.’ Upon this, they would grasp the situation and go away smiling, saying that they were content.
Thus far, I have dealt with the pleasant memories. As for the unpleasant, I found that when the men had a little leisure, they occupied it with internal squabbles. What was worse, there were cases of adultery. There was terrible overcrowding and men and women had to be kept together. Animal passion knows no shame. As soon as the cases occurred, I arrived on the scene. The guilty parties were abashed and they were segregated. But who can say how many such cases occurred which never came to my knowledge? It is no use dwelling any further upon this topic, which I have brought in the order to show that everything was not in perfect order that even when someone did go wrong there was no exhibition of insolence. On many similar occasions, I have seen how well-behaved people become in a good atmosphere even when they are originally semi-barbarous and not over-observant of the dictates of morality, and it is more essential and profitable to realize this truth.