Mahatma Gandhi and The Polaks

- Prabha Ravi Shankar*


South Africa was the crucible that forged Gandhi's identity as a political activist. it was an important prelude to his return to his motherland in 1915 where he dominated the national movement for more than two decades. Amongst the early and closest friends of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, now largely forgotten, were an English couple named Henry Polak and Millie Polak. Henry zoos a radical English Jew, Millie was a Christian feminist. Polak was Gandhi's closest political aide and fellow-seeker. Even after their return to England in 1916, the Polaks continued to take much interest in India's future and kept a close association with Gandhi until the latter's death in 1948. Despite his yeomen services to India and close relationship with Gandhi, there is no in-depth study on Gandhi and Polak. This paper is an attempt to fill this gap.

Amongst THE EARLY European associates of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, Henry Solomon Leon Polak, an English Jew, attained prominence as his closest political aide and fellow-seeker. He was born in 1882 at Dover in England to an English-Jewish family and was educated in Britain where he qualified for the graduate examination of the London University and later in Switzerland where he studied Commerce.1 He arrived in South Africa in early 1903 at the age of twenty-two to seek health and better fortune. He was a lover of justice, a vegetarian with an abiding interest in the writings of Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin and led a simple life. The South African society comprised at the end of the nineteenth, a majority of whites and a vast majority of Indians, Malays, Chinese, Jews and natives. Racialism was the single most defining factor in the South African politics - a parliamentary democracy for its white resident and a white oligarchy for all others, Polak was engaged as an assistant editor with the Transvaal Critic, a weekly publication, dealing mainly with Transvaal polities, and saw the social and colour prejudices that prevailed around him as 'not merely a physical defect' feat 'a moral and an economic crime'.2 Gandhi, who had arrived in South Africa in the year 1893, had already encountered worst forms of racialism that created in him a strong desire to seek justice for his fellow countrymen.3 Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress to represent Indian interest. Members included Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Christians and the Congress conducted regular meetings and propaganda in acquainting the English in South Africa and England and the people of India with the real state of affairs in Natal.4 Gandhi exhibited leadership qualities and Polak observed 'there was a quality of character within him which marked him out amongst his followers'.5

Early in 1904 Johannesburg was badly affected with the plague epidemic. The Indians living in crowded and insanitary conditions suffered most. Gandhi, concerned with the insanitary conditions, wrote a scathing letter in his paper holding the municipal authorities responsible for negligence and in not providing facilities for Indian labourers.6 He set up an emergency hospital recruiting several volunteers and nursed the sick patients. The letter caught the attention of Polak, the journalist, and left a deep impression on him and he decided to meet Gandhi.7 His visit to Ziegler's vegetarian restaurant run by an Austrian gave him an opportunity to see Gandhi from a distance. A few days later Polak found out that Gandhi would be at the house of Miss Ada Bissicks, the owner of a vegetarian restaurant. When Gandhi arrived in the restaurant Polak took a look at him and recorded his first impression:8

He was a pleasant-looking man, sitting alone. Apart from his black lawyer's turban and his rather dark complexion, there was nothing specially to mark him out. I could not guess that I was then gazing at the man who was to become the best-known Oriental of his time

Soon they met and discussed Adolf Just's Return to Nature and the writings of Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi's education and profession as well as his upright character impressed Polak and their common interests naturally brought them closer, In his Autobiography, Gandhi recalled his first meeting with Polak as follows:9

Mr. Polak's candour drew me to him. The same evening we got to know each other. We seemed to hold closely similar views on the essential things of life. He liked simple life. He had a wonderful faculty of translating into practice anything that appealed to his intellect. Some of the changes that he had made in his life were as prompt as they were radical.

In September 1904 when Gandhi heard about the financial plight of his newspaper Indian Opinion from his associate Albert West, he at once decided to travel to Durban to study the situation first hand.10 Polak saw him off at the Johannesburg station and lent him for his twenty-four hour train journey, John Ruskin's book Unto This Last. The reading of this book, in Gandhi's own words, 'brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in [his] life'.11 'I could not', wrote Gandhi, 'get any sleep that night. I was determined to change my life in accordance with the ideal of that book'.12 He soon reached the conclusion that the basis of human society was not 'wealth' but 'human relationship'. After reading Unto This Last, he felt that having a small farm based on self- help could be a reality.13

Gandhi changed his life soon by establishing an agriculture settlement on hundred acres, fourteen miles from Durban, Natal's largest city and its principal port. This settlement became known as Phoenix. Phoenix 'marked an important stage in Gandhi's progressive self-disentanglement from city life and from the ordinary circumstances of secular life'. Gandhi needed Polak in his Johannesburg law office and desiring to realize his aims and ideals, Polak too left a lucrative career and joined Gandhi.14

The Indian settlers in the Transvaal found that their position had worsened after the British victory in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. The new British officials revived anti-Indian laws with a vengeance, as a result of which Indians could not own fixed property, had to live outside segregated locations, or trade outside designated bazaars. Realizing the gravity of the situation Gandhi settled in Johannesburg, the town with the largest Indian population. The weekly Indian Opinion, was first issue of which was published in June 1903 in four languages- English, Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil. This paper was an important political weapon with a mission.15 It's aim was to forge cultural unity among the Indian settlers in South Africa, and inculcate in them the virtues of patriotism and service to motherland. In 1909 Polak wrote:16

So far as the Indian community itself is concerned, Mr. Gandhi has appointed for himself one supreme task—to bring Hindus and Mohommedans together and to make them realize that they are one brotherhood and sons of the same motherland.

Polak became the third editor of this paper in the initial stages Polak's articles were generally aggressive and flamboyant but he learnt the principles of moderation and objectivity in writing from Gandhi and found it important for an editor to follow.

Gandhi led the first deputation to England along with Hajee Ojer Ally, the president of the Hamidia Islamic Society, to plead with the British government to prevent the Asiatic Ordinance becoming a law.17 They both arrived at Southampton on 20 October 1906. It was Polak's father, J.H.Polak, along with L.W.Ritch and some others, who received Gandhi at the station. In a letter to Polak dated 26 October 1906 Gandhi wrote about his impression of his visit to Polak's home in England with a touch of humour: 'I passed last Sunday with your people. Nothing surprised me, as you had prepared me for everything; otherwise to meet your sisters and your brilliant father would have been a most agreeable surprise. Both the sisters are really most lovable, and if I was unmarried, or young, or believed in mixed marriage, you know what I would have done!18 Gandhi had meals with the Polaks and came close to the entire household. Polak's father helped Gandhi by providing him a typist to render service to his official and private correspondence and also gave him many useful contacts.

The Transvaal passed another piece of repressive legislation— The Transvaal Immigration Restrictions Act of 1907 which restricted the entry of Indians into the Transvaal.

Deeply disappointed with the turn of events Gandhi returned to South Africa and decided to launch the passive resistance movement against anti-Indian laws, based on non-violence and self sacrifice. The passive resistance movement had acquired a new name 'Satyagraha', which means 'truth or soul force', a philosophy of non­violent non-cooperation which calls for purity, self-sacrifice and willingness to undergo suffering under severe provocation. Gandhi launched large scale passive resistance on 11 September 1906. Many Indians were arrested and tortured and Gandhi himself had to undergo imprisonment three times. As an Attorney of the Supreme Court of the Transvaal, Polak defended those who had been charged with offenses for participation in Gandhi's 'passive resistance'. Polak wrote a strong letter in the Indian Opinion on 26 October 1906 protesting against the treatment meted out to Gandhi in marching him from Volksrust to Johannesburg in convict garb and marching him from Park Station to the Fort publically, He asked '...and do you not marvel how, in spite of all these injuries and insults, they (the Indian Community) remain content to be passive resisters, suffering themselves rather than imposing suffering upon their European fellow-colonists?19

Gandhi realized that this was a truly momentous struggle. He believed that they were fighting India's battle in a manner that should be a lesson to their countryman back home.

The Transvaal Government refused to remove the racial bar. Gandhi felt that the Indian National Congress 'should pay much more attention to the Indian problem in South Africa than has been paid hitherto and public meetings should be held all ovecjndia, protesting against the ill-treatment' of Indians in South Africa.20


In 1909 the Transvaal Indian Association unanimously nominated Polak to travel to India as their representative. Gandhi gave much attention to the visit to India by Polak. Before Polak began his journey to India, Gandhi introduced his lieutenant to the readers of the Indian Opinion which read:21

During the last three years, Mr. Polak knew no rest. He has, besides using his able pen freely for the cause, travelled throughout South Africa, either making collections in aid of the passive resistance struggle, or addressing public meetings and enlightening Indians in different parts of the sub-continent as to the nature of the struggle. His knowledge of the different questions affecting British Indian settlers and Asiatic legislations in South Africa is almost unrivalled.

Polak arrived in Bombay early in August 1909. He had been advised by Gandhi through many letters addressed to him from London about whom to see and the places to visit. His general instructions to Polak were to seek the guidance of G.K. Gokhale, the eminent Moderate leader, who had planned an itinerary for him in Bombay and Madras. He met newspaper editors, leading industrialists and lawyers as well as nationalists. Polak later visited many Indian cities, held many meetings, drafted petitions, collected funds for Gandhi's campaign and established contact with prominent nationalists all over India. He gave wide publicity to the idea of non-violent resistance that Gandhi was practicing in South Africa which was fundamentally different from the policies of both the Moderates and the Extremists. In Bombay, he met eminent leaders of the Congress such as Sir Dinsha Wacha, Pherozeshah Mehta, B.M. Malabari, the social reformer and editor of the Indian Spectator, and impressed on the public about the need to provide more support. Meetings were also held in other Indian cities. He met Gokhale personally and convinced him about the need to visit South Africa. He then proceeded to Madras where Gokhale, through the Madras branch of the Servants of India Society, and, especially Srinivasa Sastri, introduced him to public men in Madras, and in particular, G.A. Natesan, the pioneer Madras publisher and an ardent Congressman. Polak found the latter to be the only Indian thoroughly involved in the Indian affairs of South Africa. Natesan was his host in Madras and helped Polak to conduct meetings not only in the city of Madras but in other towns such as Tiruchi, Tuticorin and Madurai from where many indentured Tamils hailed.

Polak had carried with him a manuscript on the Indian conditions in South Africa. It is remarkable that Natesan published Polak's pamphlet on the Transvaal situation under the title The Indians of South Africa: Helots within the Empire and How They are Treated, free of cost.22 It was a succinct account on the treatment meted out to Indian immigrants in South Africa. Part I of Polak's book carried information about almost all the laws in South Africa, beginning with Natal by citing examples. Part | named Pie Tragedy of the Empire, gave the history of the passive resistance organized by South African Indians against repressive measures and Part III contained extracts from the speeches of distinguished statesmen on the Indian problems. The Transvaal campaign was covered in about 45 pages. In addition statements made by a number of public men were also included. There was also information about laws in the Cape, Rhodesia and Delogao Bay. This became a very valuable book and was cheaply-priced at priced Re. 1/- by Natesan & company. Polak concluded his interesting pamphlet with a passionate message of awakening the national consciousness of the Indian people:

The Transvaal Indians have understood that upon their efforts depended whether or not this race-virus should infect the rest of South Africa and the rest of the Empire, whether India herself would not have to suffer and drink deep of the cup of humiliation. What of all this has India realized? Have the bitter cries from the Transvaal Indians penetrated to the ears of their brethren in the Motherland?23

However, before it was published, Polak had to undergo considerable trouble. During his stay at a hotel in Madras, Polak found that he was under constant police surveillance as a 'suspicious character'. On the advice of Natesan and his close associate and lawyer V. Krishnaswami Iyer, Polak informed the police commissioner that he had nothing to conceal. The vigilance then stopped. It was chiefly due to Natesan that Polak could meet prominent public men from the Madras Presidency including distinguished British and Indian editors; It was in Madras that Polak learnt more about Dravidian culture.

In his meetings Polak had encouraged the Indians to form a national body with branches all over the country to send powerful representations to the Government regarding the treatment of Indians in South Africa. Accordingly Natesan took the initiative to form the Indian South Africa League on 10 October 1909 and also became the chief organizer of the first public meeting in Madras in which Polak spoke to the audience on Indian position in South Africa. The meeting was presided over by S. Subramania Aiyar, an eminent lawyer. Polak proposed a plan for stopping recruitment of indentured labour for Natal and for establishing an organization to conduct propaganda on behalf of the Indian campaign in South Africa.


At this time Natesan requested Gandhi to give a message for the forthcoming session of the Indian National Congress. In his message, Gandhi attempted to relate the Indian struggle in the Transvaal to India's struggle for national freedom, and how he considered passive resistance as an 'infallible panacea' for ills.24 In his letter to Polak dated 14 October 1909 Gandhi enumerated the 'definite conclusions' he had already reached and gave the gist of Hind Swaraj.25 He further wrote: 'Polak was capable—with his great imagination, sound common sense, and varied experience—of coming to the ^conclusions to which he [Gandhi] had come independently of him'.26

Taking advantage of Polak's presence in India and his close association with Gandhi, Natesan requested and obtained from him a monograph on Gandhi. This was the first book published in India on Gandhi. It was titled as M.K. Gandhi: A Sketch of His Life and Work. When the book was in print, Polak, in a letter to Gandhi dated 19 October 1909 wrote:

I have revealed to the Indian leaders what sort of a man you are. Do you know, I have not met one man to equal you in meekness, spirituality, devotion, and practical energy. I don't believe any other country could have given you birth. Even Mr. Gokhale does not equal you, though he is, I believe, your superior along the plane of mental culture.27

These were not only Polak's words of wisdom but remarkable insight and understanding of the character and personality of a man who was to take the world by storm. He was in short saying that Gandhi would be the future liberator of India. The book described Gandhi's early days, his mission and work in South Africa, his character and strivings. More significantly, Polak wrote in his book on Gandhi: 'Perhaps, in this generation, India has not produced such a noble man—saint, patriot, statesman in one.'28 In his book Polak noted that if there was one characteristic more than another 'that stamps Mr. Gandhi as a man amongst men, it is his extraordinary love of truth' and that' his search for it was the one passion of his life, and every action of his indicates the devotee of this usually distant shrine'.29

This book was sold out in no time at a cheap price of four annas and the publishers issued as many as nine editions, with additions as and when the occasion demanded. The book not merely served as a biography but also provided a rapid review of the social and political history of modem India. Polak had made Gandhi well known in India through his speeches and writings?

Polak conducted campaigns in the latter half of 1909 almost throughout India including Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon and many other places.

In the second half of 1911 Polak made his second trip to India. The Indian National Congress at its Calcutta session held in December 1911 passed a resolution condemning the system of indentured labour and urged the Government of India to introduce legislation wholly abolishing it. Polak addressed the Calcutta session of the Indian National Congress in the same year and his speech was received with great ovation. Through a letter dated 8 December 1911, Gandhi had invited Gokhale to visit South Africa along with the Polaks.30 The Congress passed a resolution asking the Government of India to terminate supply of indentured labour to Natal.31 Gandhi wrote that Polak shared with Gokhale the credit of bringing about a termination of the supply of indentured labour to Natal. Gandhi was so deeply concerned about Polak, especially for his health, that he advised him to avoid certain foods, and follow a 'careful dietary' and 'stick to vows' during his travels in India.

Speaking of the campaign of passive resistance, Polak traced three events which had a profound impact on Gandhi. One was the essay entitled On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by the American pacifist Henry David Thoreau.32 The second was when Gandhi visited England in 1909 and observed the methods used by the British suffragettes, involving imprisonment, in furtherance of their cause. The third was the powerful influence of Leo Tolstoy in confirming Gandhi's views and calling passive resistance a question of the greatest importance not only for India but also for the whole humanity.33

Polak visited England in the middle of 1911. He met a number of prominent liberals and spoke at many meetings such as the one arranged by the All-India Muslim League. He became involved with the South Africa British Committee, and wrote a powerful letter on behalf of the Committee to the under secretary of the colonial office warning of an impending Indian agitation if the situation did not improve.34 Gandhi wrote on Polak: 'He [Polak] has no other interests apart from the problem of South African Indians. Surely, this is no small matter. For only when a person loses himself in duty will he be capable of dedication. Mr.Polak has a profound understanding of this maxim and remains imbued with it. If the Indian community produced a number of persons like him, India would be free soon. In doing his own duty, Mr. Polak has served to remind us of our'.35

Dr. Pranjivandas Mehta, Gandhi's lifelong friend, a Doctor and barrister and a diamond trader by profession, had settled in Rangoon in Burma. He had intimate contact with Gandhi and kept in touch with him even from Burma.36 He was the first person to call Gandhi as a 'Mahatma', albeit in a private letter to his friend Gokhale as early as 8 November 1909.37 Polak had visited him in Rangoon in late 1909 and later met him in England in the summer of 1911. He seems to have written to Gandhi some reservations about Polak, and Gandhi in turn wrote to Mehta on 25 August 1911:38

I do not think that Polak will become an Anglo-Indian out and out. You are right in what you say about his nature. He is hot-tempered. But he is a milch cow {of generous disposition}. His heart is absolutely frank and he is unswerving in his duty Praise is everyone's enemy; how, then, can it be otherwise with him? But I do not so much as suspect that he would be corrupted by praise. He is as honest as he is frank. Maybe the words honest and frank are synonymous. How can we believe that such men can go astray? Even supposing that the thing does happen, I for one have no fear. He has done us (good) service. If, after this, he breaks away, he will sacrifice the bond (of friendship). We, on our part, shall have nothing to lose, for the basis {of relationship! is one-sided. We have dealings with a person so long as he seems truthful in speech and conduct. Such association cannot but be profitable to us. If he changes subsequently, the loss will be his, not ours.

When the 'Great March' of Satyagrahis into the Transvaal under Gandhi's leadership took place in November, 1913, Gandhi wanted to keep Polak out of the struggle because he wanted him to go to India and conduct propaganda work there. However, when Gandhi was arrested, Polak had no choice but to step into his place and soon both he and Hermannn Kaltenbach were arrested. Polak suffered imprisonment for three months. In July 1914, Gandhi reached an agreement with the government ending the eight years of struggle, but there were many issues that needed his lieutenants to address when he left for his motherland. Such was his faith in Polak that he wished the latter to be his successor in conducting Indian affairs. However, Polak declined the offer for two reasons. One was that he wanted to settle down with his family and practice law in England. Secondly, he wanted his children to have proper education back home in England. In a letter addressed to the Indians in South Africa dated 15 July 1914, Gandhi wrote:39

I appeal to all Indians to help Mr. Polak and seek his help. No one is well informed about our question as he. He has regard for the community, is honest, has ability and is full of enthusiasm. It is my earnest request to Indians in all provinces that they utilize Mr. Polak's services and follow his advice. Others will not be able to draft petitions as well as he can. He will not accept money for public work, which means that he will remain in South Africa only if he can pay his way by professional work.

Gandhi left for India via London in July 1914. True to their conscience the Polaks with their family stayed on to ensure the implementation of the agreement. In 1916 they went to India and stayed in India until 1917. Polak also wrote an appendix to a collection of speeches and writings of Gandhi, the first of such book published by the enterprising Madras publisher Natesan in the year 1918.40 After three decades, exactly a year after the death of Gandhi, Polak wrote another book along with H.L. Brailsord and Lord Pethick-Lawrence entitled Mahatma Gandhi.41

Polak as the editor of the journal India

The role of Polak as the editor of India, the journal of the British Committee of the Indian National Congress, is not well-known and deserves mention. After his return to England in 1916, Polak continued to take much interest in Indian affairs not only in South Africa and other overseas countries but also in the progress of the Indian national movement. In 1918 he became the editor of India founded in 1889 in London.42 After the Montagu-Chelrnsford reform proposals were made public. The Congress declared it to be 'inadequate, disappointing and unsatisfactory' and passed resolutions demanding alterations in the proposal.43 It also demanded the introduction of diarchy in the central government; the transfer of all subjects, except law, police and justice to the government responsible in the provinces; the declaration of the rights of the people of India as British citizens and the same measures of fiscal autonomy for India which the self- governing Dominions of the Empire possessed. It demanded a guarantee that a full, responsible government would be established in the whole of British India within a period not exceeding fifteen years.44

Polak believed that the divisions that had developed within the Congress would spell deadly peril to India's political progress, and that such a development could be used for the purpose of playing up one party against the other. He wrote some confidential and private letters to Natesan, the pioneer Madras publisher and an ardent Moderate. In these letters Polak pleaded with Natesan to use his influence and see that the Moderates did not secede from the Congress.

If the Congress is captured by those who are responsible for rejecting the scheme, the British Committee will either resign or retain its existence as the representative of what will generally be regarded here as the sober element tan public life. If the Congress splits on this question, as is very likely in my opinion, if your left wing procures the refection of the scheme—I am throughout not discussing the question of opposition to any of its details—this is bound to happen, and men like Lord Bryce, Lord Haldane, and others of influence whose sympathies with India are well known, will be alienated.45

He cautioned Natesan again:

The action of the Moderates in cutting themselves off from the Congress is most shortsighted... As it is, it seems likely that a deep split will occur in your ranks at the very moment when they ought to be closer than before, as the need is so much more urgent... a little less vanity, a little more patriotism, a little more perspicacity might have saved the situation.... what is to be our position here? In proportion as the Indian nationalists are weakened by dissention, so we shall be. In the old days when the Moderates were still in control of the Congress organization it did not so much matter. Committee and Congress were more or less in accord. But to-day with the probable capture of the machine by the Extremists, there is bound to be divergence in our sympathies, and we may find ourselves cut off from financial support.46

'No matter what happened', Polak warned Natesan, that the Congress would not make any attempt 'to dictate its policy to the British Committee or that of the newspaper India'.47 Polak also cautioned Natesan to see that the British Committee was not adversely interfered with and that it was 'not starved of funds for the work of the paper [India], or its other activities'.48  Bal Gangadhar Tilak who was in England at this time and the other Extremists were unhappy that with Polak as editor of India, the British Committee acted as if the visiting Indians were ignorant of the prevailing situation in England.

The Congress deputation that arrived in London in April 1919 to participate in the proceedings of the Joint Parliamentary Committee saw that the journal was 'too mild and moderate', and was not projecting the Congress views properly; It found that the journal under Polak had not even published the views of the Congress after the Moderates had completely separated. They considered this to be an anomaly that the British Committee, funded by the Congress and existing as an organ of the Congress body in India, did not adopt the Congress methods and policy. Soon there was an open quarrel between the Congress and the British Committee Over the conduct of India and the 'independent status' claimed by the Committee, In July 1919, mainly due to Tilak and Vithalbhai Patel, the leader of the Congress deputation, the British Committee was brought under the complete control of the Congress through a new constitution which made the British Committee, an executive body of the Congress. Polak was forced to resign from the British Committee as well as from the editorship of India. Nevertheless, he continued to take interest in Indian politics and often wrote articles for Gandhi's Young India.

Gandhi and Millie Polak

Millie Graham Downs or Millie Polak was born in London and since the age of eighteen, she began to work in connection with the Christian Socialist Movement. Young and vivacious Millie Downs was a Christian Scots woman and a fiancée of Henry Polak. They met at the London Ethical Society. Gandhi began to know her soon after his first meeting with Polak. Though Millie was engaged to Polak, Polak's father had discouraged the marriage citing her physical weakness as unsuitable to the strenuous life of the Colonies and had pleaded with Gandhi to use his influence and postpone the marriage between Polak and Millie. Gandhi, on the contrary, totally disagreed and wrote a persuasive letter to the senior Polak that: 'If the young lady in question was not at that time in robust health in London, all the more reason for her to hasten her departure from it, so that in South Africa/ amidst loving care, a beautiful climate and a simple life, she could gain the physical strength she evidently needed.'49 In his first letter to Millie dated 3 July 1905, Gandhi advised her to pay respects to Dadabhai Naoroji, who 'represents the highest ideal of an Indian patriot'; to visit tile Lady Margarat Hospital in Kent managed by Dr. Josiah Oldfield under hygienic principles and to learn everything about it; to make acquaintance of Miss Nicholson of the Vegetarian Society and study the working of Tolstoy farm somewhere in London.50 Gandhi also hinted that Millie would do well to take up some service activities in South Africa. 'Any experience you may gain there in such matters' he wrote 'will be most valuable'.51 He also assured Millie that she would be welcomed into the family where Polak was already a family member. Millie recollected later that the Ietter 'set the tone to the whole of my relationship with him, establishing him in my life as a loving and understanding elder brother' who showed human tenderness of man.52 She anxiously awaited her personal meeting with Gandhi after the exchange of few letters.

Millie arrived in Johannesburg station by train in December in the end of 1905 and found Gandhi and Polak waiting at the station. This was her first impression of Gandhi:

a medium-sized man, rather slenderly built, skin not very dark, mouth rather heavy lipped, a small dark moustache, and the kindest eyes in die world, that seemed to light up from within when he spoke. His eyes were always his most remarkable feature and were in reality the lamps of the soul; one could read so much from them. His voice was soft, rather musical, and almost boyish fresh.53

Soon Henry and Millie went with him to the Court (with Gandhi as their witness) to be married by the Registrar of European Marriages and the marriage was duly registered" in December 1905. The Polaks then moved into the lawyer's home on Albermarle Street, where Gandhi lived with his wife, Kasturba, and their four sons. The two women became friends, with the newcomer's buoyant nature overcoming Kasturba's natural reserve and her lack of familiarity with the English language. Between 1906 and 1908, Gandhi, Polak and his wife shared a house that was small and based on simple living. Millie Polak was unprepared for the stark and spartan conditions. She voluntarily began to give lessons to them for three hours every morning in simple English, reading and writing, arithmetic, composition and elementary grammar. Like Polak, Millie began to admire Gandhi for his simplicity and kindness and joined Gandhi's experiment in community living at the Phoenix complex, in a simplified and frugal life of public service. The newspaper Indian Opinion that Gandhi began in 1903 was also moved to Phoenix and everyone was expected to work for the paper in their spare time. Millie found that the entire household had been experimenting with Gandhi's dietary restrictions and experiments, novel educational practices and frugal way of living. She found it amusing that all were busy since early morning grinding wheat for baking bread.

Gandhi continued to make laws for the Phoenix settlement. Millie questioned him on his several health experiments such as earth poultices, cabinet steam bath, cold tub water bath, diet of acid fruits and the need for fasting. When Gandhi prohibited tea because he considered it as a stimulant and also milk for the same reason, Millie challenged him, especially, when she became a young mother, and argued that in which case all children would be brutes. In fact, there were hardly any issues on which Millie and Gandhi did not debate or disagree— diet, disciplining children, child marriage, widowhood, women's position, particularly, in the East, role of women in the society, religion and so forth. Gandhi was keenly aware of the social evils such as caste system, child marriage and enforced widowhood that had turned the life of women into a misery in India. For instance, when a middle-aged follower of Gandhi returned to the settlement with a child-wife, Millie was aghast and questioned Gandhi on this disgraceful social custom. The latter accepted the charge but felt that women must rouse themselves to do their share in the work of reform, that they must set the standard of life. It is their privilege and their duty that they refuse to be a part of this evil practice. She argued that in India the so-called glorification of women was only in theory and not in practice, and that Indian women had always been subordinate. Such contrary opinions did not affect their relationship. Millie felt that Gandhi appreciated her independent views spoken vigorously and without fear. Recalling the events in Johannesburg, she pointed out how Gandhi, at times, proved to be a bundle of inconsistencies but would never waver in his belief, and would only smile or shrug his shoulders if she argued that such and such a situation might become unjust or absurd.

Gandhi had proved beyond dispute the theory that the best men and the best women combine in themselves the best qualities of each other. Millie made a very significant observation on this aspect of Gandhi. She wrote:

Most women love men for such attributes as are usually considered masculine. Yet Mahatma Gandhi has been given the love of many women for his womanliness; for all those qualities that are associated with women—great faith, great fortitude, great devotion, great patience, great tenderness, and great sympathy.54

She further remarked in an interview held on 2 May 1860 by John C. Vine: 'He was himself rather womanly, having the qualities of loyalty, trust, devotion, faith and purity'.55

At times when Millie terribly missed Polak who was away on duty for Indian cause, particularly in the years after her marriage, Gandhi soothed her with comforting words signing himself as 'brother': 'You are Henry's better half. No path can be considered right for him along which that he cannot carry you. Will you not have sufficient faith in him for certain that he is incapable of creating a gulf between you and himself? I ask you to trust me...A gift given or a sacrifice made grudgingly and not cheerfully is no gift or sacrifice'.56 In another letter Gandhi advised Millie to be a perfect wife and praised her for being duty-conscious.57

At the time of passive resistance movement when Gandhi and other leaders were arrested, Millie played an important role in organizing women together under the banner of Transvaal Indian women's Association', and gave them lessons on Indian self-respect movement in Africa. Gandhi wrote:58

Polak could have done little but for the zealous support ungrudgingly given to him by Mrs. Polak. Nor has Mrs. Polak's work been of a neutral character. She herself moved freely among our womenfolk and enlightened them on our position. Mrs. Polak believes, and rightly, that no reform or movement can succeed completely which does not command the attention of the other half of humanity. She, therefore, lost no opportunity, whether by speaking or writing, of helping her husband in his work. And we know, too, that she did not consider it beneath her dignity to do for Mr. Polak much of his clerical work. Well may the community honour such workers and friends.

Many women from Natal who travelled up to Volksrust were arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment, and were the first of the hundreds to go to prison. They endured physical hardship and sorrow but kept their spirits high. Millie Polak wrote that India has many things to be proud of, but of none more than the part the Indian women of South Africa took in the uplifting and recognition of a people here despised'.59

Millie Polak was thus the earliest among western women to be associated with Gandhi. She was the first woman to write a biography on Gandhi as early as 1931.60 The older son of the Polaks—Waldo, had a special place in the heart of Gandhi. Later, after their return to England when Waldo died suddenly in the 1920s, Millie found much consolation in the messages of condolence especially sent by Gandhi and also from many other Indians who had known them for many years."61

In India; meanwhile, Gandhi organized the first major countrywide Satyagraha campaign in 1919 and called it a 'struggle for liberty worthy of single legislation'. Gandhi had totally lost faith in the British sense of justice and completely turned into a non- co-operator. Polak did not agree with Gandhi's support to the Khilafat question and found the non-co-operation movement 'ill- advised and dangerous'.62 Though Gandhi addressed Polak as 'Chota Bhai' (younger brother), their political ideology began to show increasing differences of opinion, particularly over Gandhian non-co­operation and civil disobedience movements. Polak could not understand how Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence, acted as a recruiting agent for the British during the Great War. In a long letter dated 23 November 1932 to Gandhi, Polak frankly questioned the tenacity of his faith in non-violent non-co-operation.63 Polak did not support his civil disobedience movement and accused Gandhi of taking up this movement to save Congress from disintegration and questioned the tenacity of Gandhiji's faith in non-violence. Gandhi was hurt and replied to Polak that he undertook it only to preserve the doctrine of non-violence. He further explained: 'I have not changed at all. I have grown and am still growing'.64 Gandhi wrote: 'I can't misunderstand you. But I see quite clearly that we see things differently'65 Gandhi attributed Polak's disagreement to the fact that he was unable 'to feel the foul stench that modern Europe is filling the world with' and living as he did in the midst of the inferno' he could not view things otherwise'.66 Despite differences of. opinion, both Gandhi and Polak shared mutual regard and affection.

An Appraisal

The association between Gandhi and the Polaks was indeed unique. Gandhi was a strange combination of liberalism and patriotism, saint and statesman, visionary and realist and nationalist and Universalist. With a passionate love of justice and tenderness and charity for the fragilities of mankind there was in Gandhi an inflexible will to suffer. Polak pertinently recorded:

It was my own high fortune and privilege to be closely associated with Gandhiji when the Mahatmaship was less insisted upon, and its glamour did not partly hide him from us, when he was allowed to be among us as a man among men; and then it was that we, who were close to him as he really is—tender, affectionate, humorous, generous, always eager to serve, never hasty to condemn.67

After his return to India in early 1915, Gandhi seems to have missed the company of his European associates in South Africa very badly. He wrote a letter to Sonja Schlesign dated 2 June 1919: ‘It often makes me sad when I think of all my helpers of South Africa. I have no [Rev.] Doke here. I have no Kallenbach. {Henry] Polak is in England... I feel lonelier here than in South Africa'.68 This was just four years after he had returned to India.

The findings of this inquiry lead us to the conclusion that Polak was Gandhi's closest colleague and lieutenant in the long Passive Resistance struggle in South Africa. Unfortunately modem historians and biographers have not given adequate attention to the close association between Gandhi and Polak in South Africa. Yet it was in South Africa that Gandhi developed his ideas of religious pluralism, commitment to maintain a just social order based on justice and equality and more importantly, the technique of non-violent resistance. The study also reveals how Polak was not merely a disciple or a hagiographer of Gandhi. He plainly observed that Gandhi was too even-tempered who remained indifferent to calumny against him in the press; not much interested in economic theories and remained over-absorbed in religious questions. Both Polak and his wife questioned Gandhi's attitude towards English language training, although he himself had received one in London and his insistence that education for his children should be in vernacular.

It is remarkable that at a time when racialism was so rampant an Indian Gujarati couple with their family and the Polaks, an English Jew and his Christian wife, lived together in the same house in South Africa. It showed great bravery on the part of Gandhi and defiance on the part of Polaks. Together the Polaks had rendered yeomen services to Gandhi Henry Polak had taken a leading part in keeping afloat the Indian opinion during 1904-1916. His one aim as editor as well as public worker had been to educate Indians and Europeans regarding the problem of racialism, and to create a better understanding between the two races. His was a labour of love, and for that reason his writings were sincere, unaffected by praise or blame, and all he did in this direction was of utmost value. During Satyagraha, Polak, essentially a socialist and a humanist, even suffered imprisonment. Millie Polak conducted the women's campaign in the passive resistance struggle and being one of the earliest woman western disciples of Gandhi, did not flinch to state her independent views on several issues. It is also remarkable that at a time when the British establishment in general had contempt for India and no sympathy for Indian aspirations, Englishmen such as the Polaks not only assailed British colonialism but also fought against it. The Gandhi-Polak correspondence69 reveals a certain new world of Gandhi, his intense kindness, humanism and friendship. He had an immense brotherly love for Polak and regarded him as a 'gem of the purest ray serene' who 'can reflect those he loves', In February 1959 Polak died in England. But he and his family's connection with Gandhi, South Africa and India will remain fresh in the Gandhian annals.

Notes and References

  1. The family of the Polaks included J.H. Polak his father, his mother, his two sisters Maud and Sally, his wife Millie Graham Polak, their two sons, and Millie's sisters. The sisters of Polak frequently visited Gandhi in South Africa and served him. There were two other Jewish friends of Gandhi in South Africa, one was Hermann Kallenbach, (1871-1945); from Poland and brought up in Germany who settled in South Africa at an early age and was an architect by profession who spared enough time and money with Gandhi, practicing architecture in Durban; met Gandhi for the first time in 1903; owner and master builder of Tolstoy Farm at Phoenix, South Africa and supported Gandhi during his Satyagraha campaign; gave his one thousand one hundred acre property near Johannesburg for the maintenance of satyagrahis' families and the other was Sonja Schlesin (1887-1956), a Russian Jew, an ardent suffragist and heart and soul of the Transvaal Indian women's Association, who assisted Gandhi as his private secretary for many years. She made herself useful to Indian Opinion and was ardently devoted to Indian cause. Albert H. West was another European who offered Gandhi voluntary service at the Phoenix printing press.
  2. There is no detailed study on Gandhi and the Polaks. For a brief information on the Polaks, see See Homer A. Jack,, "Henry S.L.Polak", Gandlii Marg, Vol. 3, 1959, pp.289-293. Also see Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi and his Jewish Friends (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 1992), pp.39- 9. In a recent historiography Thomas Weber is the only one to have made a brief and interesting analysis of the relationship between Gandhi and the Polaks in his book Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor ( London: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 59-69. Ramachandra Guha in his recent biography has paid rich tribute to Polak in his latest book Gandhi Before India (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2013).
  3. For a description of the Indian grievances see Gandhi's 'Indian Grievances in South Africa', Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, hereafter CWMG, Vol. II, p. 1-52.
  4. M.K.Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1929), pp.73-76.
  5. See H.S.L. Polak, 'South African Reminiscences', Indian Review, October 1926, pp.621-30.
  6. Letter to Dr. Porter, Indian Opinion, 11 February 1904.
  7. H.S.L.'South African Reminiscences', Indian Review, October 1926, pp.621-30. According to Prabhudas Gandhi, Polak was known as 'Keshavlal', meaning long-haired. See his book My Childhood with Gandhi (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1957), p.56
  8. H.S.L Polak, 'Some South African Reminiscences', in Chandrashankar Shukla, (ed.). Incidents in of Gandhi's Life, by Fifty-Four Contributors (Bombay: Vora & Company, 1949), p.238.
  9. M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or My Experiments with Truth (Ahmadabad: Navajivan Press, 1929), p.219.
  10. Albert West was a Theosophist and printer who became a settler at Phoenix settlement along with his family and played an active role in managing the International Printing Press and in the 1913.
  11. Quoted in Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1959), p.69. John Ruskin (1819-1900); a Scotsman and author of many books on social and industrial problem; wrote on workers' education and co-operative settlements. Gandhi describes Ruskin as 'one of the three modems.. .who made a deep impress on me', the other two being Leo Tolstoy and Srimad Rajchand, his spiritual master. After reading Unto This Last, Gandhi felt he should reduce his principles to practice. CWMG, Vol.VIII, p.240
  12. See 'The Magic Spell of a Book', Chapter 95, M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments With Truth (Ahmedabad, 1929).
  13. Albert West, "In the Early Days with Gandhi", The Illustrated Weekly of India, 3 October 1965, p.31.
  14. One of the objects of a newspaper according to Gandhi was to understand and express popular feeling; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is to fearlessly expose popular defects. Indian Opinion, 24 December 1904. Polak, an English Jew, shared many values with Gandhi and had a hand in establishing his first ashram at phoenix in 1904. See Margaret Chatterjee, Gandhi and his Jewish Friends, p.29 and 158.
  15. Madanji Vyayaharik, the man who brought up the South African question before the Indian Congress, set up the International Printing Press in Durban in 1898 at Gandhi's instruction. In 1903 Indian Opinion was founded in four languages, namely English, Gujarati, Tamil and Telugu under Gandhi's sponsorship and with financial help from him. Its first editor was Mansuklal .H. Nazar, 1862-1906, a Gujarati who arrived in England as a businessman and moved to Durban in 1896; became Gandhi's close friend; met all those with whom Gandhi kept in contact such as William W. Hunter, Macherjee Bhownagre, and Dadabhai Naorojii. Hunter boldly supported the Indian cause thro ugh his columns in The Times When shortly afterwards, the paper was in danger of financial collapse Gandhi saved it. Upon Nazar's resignation, for a short time, Herbert Kitchen became editor. In 1906 Polak succeeded him and served in that office for over ten years. During this time Gandhi contributed occasional editorials. During Polak's absence in India, Rev.Joseph J.Doke, a Baptist Minister, with the help of Gandhi conducted the paper. When Polak left Africa in 1916, Gandhi's second son, Manilal became the editor. See also M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography My Experiments with Truth, (1958), pp.210-11.
  16. The first book on Gandhi was written by J.J.Doke, See Reverend Joseph J.Doke, M.K Gandhi: An Indian Patriot in South Africa ,The London Indian Chronicle, London, 1909. Also see Henry Polak, M.K.Gandhi: A Sketch of His Life and YVork (Madras: Natesan & Company, n.d), p.32.
  17. Earlier in June 1897 Gandhi sent Mnnsukhtal ilNazar (1862-1906). On articulate man to London for about six months during which time he established contact with influential men such as Sir William Hunter, Sir Muncherjee 'Bhownagree and Dadabhai Naoroji, who had generally supported the cause of Indians in South Africa. This deputation may be considered as a precursor of Gandhi's deputation in 1906 to London.
  18. CWMG, VoLVLp.19
  19. See CWMG. Vol. IX, Appendix VIII, pp. 560-1
  20. CWMG, Vol. IV, pp 62-3. AIso see his communication to the Bombay Gujarati, in Vol. IX, p. 516.
  21. "Mr Polak and His Work', Indian Opinhn, 3 July 1909, It is noteworthy that Gandhi addressed most of his letters to Polak as 'My dear Henry' or Chottabal (younger brother)
  22. G,A. Natesan (1873-1949); pioneer Madras publisher and an ardent Congressman until 1918 when he joined the Liberal party; Gandhi's admirer and close friend; founded the Indian Review 1900; gave wide publicity through his press and journal to the Gandhian struggle In South Africa; Gandhi maintained regular correspondence with him, Whenever Polak visited Madras he .stayed in the house of Natesan, For a recent and detailed study on Natesan see Prabha Ravi Shankar, G.A. Natesan and National Awakening (New Delhi: Bibliophile South Asia, 2015).
  23. The Indians of South Africa: Helots Within the Empire and How They Are Treated (Madras: Natesan & Company, n.d.)
  24. Indian Review, December 1909, pp.887-8.
  25. See Indian Home Rule, by M.K.Gandhi. Being a translation of 'Hind Swaraj' (Indian Home Rule) and published in the Gujarati columns of Indian Opinion, 11 and 18 December 1909, the International Printing Press, Phoenix, Natal, 1910.
  26. Indian Review, December 1909, p. 888.
  27. Polak to Gandhi, 190ctober 1909,Gandhi Papers, Sabarmati Sangrahalay.
  28. Polak, M.K.Gandhi: A Sketch of His Life and Work (Madras: Natesan & Co., 1909), p.39.
  29. See an extract of this monograph in the Indian Review, March 1910, p.186..
  30. Gandhi to Gokhale, 8 December 1911, CWMG, Vol. XI, p.195.
  31. On 29 December 1909, the Congress passed a resolution urging the prohibition of recruitment of indentured labour. On 25 February 1910 Gokhale tabled a resolution in the Indian Legislative Council to that effect, and it was unanimously passed. The Indian Emigration Act of 1908 was amended to admit Gokhale's resolution, and on 1 April 1911, the Government of India issued notification prohibiting the emigration of labour to Natal from I July 1911. See CWMG, Vol. X, pp.170-1,172-3, 201 and 221.
  32. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862); American philosopher, naturalist, writer and author; Gandhi was familiar with Thoreau in 1907, see CWMG, Vol. VII, pp.211-212,21 7,228-30.
  33. Appendix III, Tolstoy's 'Letter to Gandhiji' 8 May 1910, CWMG, Vol.X, p. 505,
  34. For the full text of the letter see Appendix VIII, CWMG, Vol.XI, PP.527-31.
  35. Indian Opinion, 1 July 1911
  36. Dr.Pranjivandas Jagjivandas Mehta (1864-1932), doctor and barrister, met Gandhi for the first time in London in 1888 and became his lifelong friend. He had settled in Rangoon as a diamond merchant. He gave much financial assistance to Gandhi both in South Africa and India. For a detailed study of his association with Gandhi, see S.R. Mehrotra, The Mahatma & the Doctor The Untold Story of Dr Pranjivan Mehta Gandhi's Greatest Friend and Benefactor 1864-1932, Vakils & Sons Ltd, Mumbai, 2014.
  37. Mehta to Gokhale 8 November 1909, Servants of India Society Papers, N MML. Interestingly, Mehta also wrote a book called M.K.Gandhi and the South African Indian Problem which was also published by Natesan & Company in 1911. With his intimate association with Gandhi, Mehta described him as a yogi (ascetic) and a great patriot with his simple and ascetic life'.
  38. Gandhi to Mehta, 25 August 1911, CWMG, Vol. XI, pp. 151-2.
  39. CWMG, Vol.XII, pp.481-6.
  40. H.S.L. Polak, 'Appendix II' in M.K.Gandhi, Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Madras, 1918 and 1922).
  41. See H.S.L. Polak,'Early Years (1869-1914)', in H.S.L. Polak, H.N. Brailsord and Lord Pethick- Lawrence, Mahatma Gandhi (London Oldhams Press, 1949).
  42. For details see Prabha Ravi Shankar, British Committee of the Indian National Congress, 1889-1921, (New Delhi, 2011).
  43. Report of the Special Session of the INC. 11918, Appendix p.ii. This special session was boycotted by the Moderates who held a separate meeting, presided over by Surendranath Bannerjea, on 1 November 1918.
  44. Ibid. pp. i-iv.
  45. Polak to Natesan, I August 1918, Natesan Papers.
  46. Ibid., 15 August 1918
  47. Ibid., 23 August 1918
  48. Ibid., 2 October 1918
  49. Millie Polak, Mr. Gandhi: The Man, p.ll
  50. Gandhi to Millie Polak, 3 July 1905, CWMG, Vol. XCVI, p. 1. Dr Josiah Oldfield (1863-1953), editor of the Vegetarian, a journal of the London Vegetarian Society, who remained a steadfast friend of Gandhi.
  51. Ibid, Gandhi to Millie Polak, pp.1-2.
  52. Gandhi to Millie Polak, 3 July 1905, CWMG, Vol. XCVI, p. 1. Also see Millie Polak, Mr. Gandhi:The Man, p. 11.
  53. Ibid.,
  54. Millie Graham Polak, 'Gandhi, The Man', The Indian Review, October 1929, p.655. Also see Millie Polak, 'In the South African Days', Chandrashankar Shukla (ed.), Incidents of Gandhi's Life, Bombay, 1949, pp. 247-51
  55. See John C. Vine, 'Interview with Mrs. Millie Graham Polak', 2 Mayl960, in Durai Raja Sangam, 'They were Ready to Talk About Gandhi', unpublished manuscript, pl8.1 am indebted to Professor Thomas Weber for lending me a typed copy of the same.
  56. CWMG, Vol XVI, p.41.
  57. Gandhi to Millie Polak, CWMG, Vol. XCVI, p.41. Gandhi considered Millie as his sister and signed his letters to her as 'brother' and demanded brotherly trust and faith from her.
  58. Indian Opinion, 7 September 1912.
  59. Millie Polak 'Women and the Struggle', in Golden Number of Indian Opinion Souvenir of the Passive Resistance Movement, published by the office of the Indian Opinion, South Africa, 1914, pp. 23-4.
  60. For an insight into Gandhi's personality see Millie Polak, Mr. Gandhi The Man, (Bombay, 1949).
  61. See Gandhi's writings on women in Women and Social Injustice (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1942),
  62. In his account of Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi noted: 'The Polaks did not see eye to eye with us in the Non-cooperation movement, but they are still serving India to the best of their ability*, see M.K. Gandhi Satyagraha in South Africa, (Madras, 1928), p. 271
  63. CWMG, Appendix IV, dated 23 November 1932.
  64. Ibid, Gandhi to Polak, 30 August 1941, pp.1-2.
  65. Ibid, 12 December 1939. p.301.
  66. See Gandhi's letter to Henry and Millie Polak dated 17 October 1919 and to Polak, 17 March 1920, CWMG, Vol. XCVI, p.271and 273. Gandhi failed to convert Polak to his views despite his best efforts.
  67. H.S.L Polak, 'Gandhi, the Man', Indian Review, October 1929, p.653. For Gandhi's appreciation of Polak and his work see CWMG, Vol. IX, pp 274- 75.
  68. CNMG, Vol. III, pp.80-1.
  69. The Gandhi- Polak Correspondence available in three parts in the National Archives of India has been studied and used by this writer.

Courtesy: This article has been reproduced from Gandhi Marg, Vol. 38, Number 1, April-June 2016.

* PRABHA RAVI SHANKAR is Associate Professor in the Department of History, S.N.D.T. Women's University, Mumbai. She has been the Recipient of Pandit Sethu Madhavrao Pagdi Fellowship (2003), ICHR Senior Research Fellowship (2008), and the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla Associateship (2014).. She is the author of British Committee of the Indian National Congress, 1889-1921 (Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi, 2011), a monograph jointly authored with Professor J.V.Naik entitled The Jervis Brothers: Founders and Guardians of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai (Mumbai, 2014) and a recent publication entitled G.A. Natesan and National Awakening published by Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi, 2015. She is currently working on a book entitled 'Gandhi and the Polaks.'