The atmosphere was thus becoming favourable for a settlement. Sir Benjamin Robertson, who had been sent by Lord Hardinge in a special steamer, was to arrive about the same time that Mr. Andrews and I went to Pretoria. But we did not wait for him and set out as we had to reach Pretoria on the day fixed by General Smuts. There was no reason indeed to await his arrival, as the final result could only be commensurate with our strength.
Mr. Andrews and I reached Pretoria. But I alone was to interview General
Smuts. The General was preoccupied with the railway strike, which was
so serious in nature, that the Union Government had declared martial law.
The European workmen not only demanded higher wages, but aimed at taking
the reins of government into their hands. My first interview with the
General was very short, but I saw that he today did not ride the same
high horse as he did before, when the Great March began. At that time
the General would not so much as talk with me. The threat of Satyagraha
was the same then as it was now. Yet he had declined to enter into negotiations.
But now he was ready to confer with me.
The Indians had demanded that a member should be co-opted to the commission
to represent Indian interest. But on this point General Smuts would not
give in. ‘That cannot be done,’ said he, ‘as it would
be derogatory to Government’s prestige, and I would be unable to
carry out the desired reforms. You must understand that Mr. Esselen is
our man, and would fall in with, not oppose, the Government’s wished
as regards reform. Colonel Wylie is a man of position in Natal and might
even be considered anti-Indian. If therefore even he agrees to a repeal
of the three pound tax, the Government will have an easy task before them.
Our troubles are manyfold; we have not a moment to spare and therefore
wish to set the Indian question at rest. We have decided to grant your
demands, but for this we must have a recommendation from the commission.
I understand your position too. You have solemnly declared that you will
not lead evidence before it so long as there is no representative of the
Indians sitting on the commission. I do not mind if you do not tender
evidence, but you should not organize any active propaganda to prevent
anyone who wishes to give evidence from doing so, and should suspend Satyagraha
in the interval. I believe that by so doing you will be serving your own
interest as well as giving me a respite. As you will not tender evidence,
you will not be able to prove your allegations as regards ill-treatment
accorded to the Indian strikers. But that is for you to think over.’
Such were the suggestions of General Smuts, which on the whole I was inclined
to receive favourably. We had made many complaints about ill-treatment
of strikers by soldiers and warders, but the difficulty was that we were
precluded by a boycott of the commission from proving our allegations.
There was a difference of opinion among the Indians on this point. Some
held that the charges leveled by the Indians against the soldiers must
be proved, and therefore suggested that if the evidence could not be placed
before the commission, we must challenge libel proceedings by publishing
the authentic evidence in our possession. I disagreed with these friends.
There was little likelihood of the commission giving a decision unfavourable
to the Government. Challenging libel proceedings would land the community
in endless trouble, and the net result would be barren satisfaction of
having proved the charges of ill-treatment. As a barrister, I was well
aware of the difficulties of proving the truth of statements giving rise
to libel proceedings. But my weightiest argument was, that the Satyagrahi
is out to suffer. Even before Satyagraha was started, the Satyagrahis
knew that they would have to suffer even unto death, and they were ready
to undergo such suffering. Such being the case, there was no sense in
proving mow that they did suffer. A spirit of revenge being alien to Satyagraha,
it was best for a Satyagrahi to hold his peace when he encountered extraordinary
difficulties in proving the fact obnoxious laws should be repealed or
suitably amended, and when this was fairly within his grasp, he need not
bother himself with other things. Again a Satyagrahi’s silence would
at the time of settlement stand him in good stead in his resistance to
unjust laws. With such arguments I was able to win over most of these
friends who differed from me, and we decided to drop the idea of proving
our allegations of ill-treatment.