Why India Celebrates the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on 9th January

The History of Mahatma Gandhi’s Struggle Against Unjust Laws in South Africa

- by Ambuj Tripathi

India celebrates 9th January every two years as the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (“Non-Resident Indians Day”). The day commemorates the return of Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest Pravasi, from South Africa in 1915. The first Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (“PBD”) Convention was organised on 9th January 2003 to mark the contribution of the Overseas Indian Community to the development of India. Since 2015, the PBD convention has been organised once every two years under a revised format.

Indians in South Africa

Indians had gone to South Africa as labourers and traders. South Africa comprised of four provinces viz. Natal, Transvaal, Orange Free State and Cape Colony. The first batch of indentured labourers reached Natal in November 1860. The indentured labourers were contracted to work in South Africa for five years, after which they were free to continue working or settle there. Their children, although not bound to labour, were affected by several stringent provisions of the colonial laws. Many of the indentured labourers, after the completion of their term, began to pursue agricultural trades. The European Planters, who had a monopoly on such trade, began to see this as competition.

Laws were therefore framed which would either force them to renew their indenture or leave. While on the one hand, they were harassing ex-indentured labourers, on the other hand they had an open immigration policy whereby they took as many labourers as they went from India. Similar agitations were made against the Indian Traders and Laws were framed to make it difficult for them to either obtain licences, engage in various business activities or immigrate. Europeans were fine with Indians as labourers but not with immigration of free Indians. Free Indians being Traders and Ex-indentured labourers.

Mahatma Gandhi went to South Africa in April 1893, where he came across the difficult state of Indians and how they were being subjected to unfair laws. Indian population, in Natal, at that time was approximately 15% of the total population. “The approximate population of Natal at the time was 400,000 Zulus and 40,000 Europeans as against 60,000 indentured, 10,000 ex-indentured and 10,000 free Indians”. (1)

In August 1896, Mahatma Gandhi published “The Green Pamphlet”. This dealt with the Grievances of British Indians in South Africa: An Appeal to the Indian Public”. The Pamphlet listed down the key grievances faced by the Indian Community in South Africa. It was noticed by almost all Indian newspapers and it passed through two editions. He clearly states, in the Pamphlet, that the Indian Community did not entertain any political ambitions but it is the degradation of the Indian Community, by means of unfair laws, which they resist.

Grievances of the Indian Community in South Africa

Some key grievances, apart from racial discrimination and disfranchisement, that Indians faced in South Africa were:

1. An annual tax of three pounds on every labourer and his family members equivalent to nearly six months’ earnings:

Agitators opposed to Free Ex-indentured labourers either demanded a levy of a heavy annual capitation tax or compulsory return unless they renewed their indentures. Both had the same objective to not allow free Ex-indentured labourers.

Accordingly, an annual tax of three pounds was levied on the labourer, his wife, his daughters aged thirteen years or upwards, and his sons aged sixteen years or upwards. This was equivalent to nearly six months’ earnings on the indenture scale.

2. Law on desertion/absconders: Deserters were those indentured labourers who had run away from their employers before completion of their indenture. Majority of them would leave because of ill treatment but were unable to establish their claims and would either be sent back to their abusive employers or would be jailed. Some of them preferred jail rather than be sent back to their employers. Indentured labourers leaving service without notice were liable to be proceeded against in the criminal court and not the civil court. (2)

3. High no. of suicides by indentured labourers: In the Green pamphlet, Gandhi mentions about the high mortality rates of the indentured labourers due to suicides and the fact that they are not satisfactorily accounted for. He further quotes a newspaper report, that states:

“Apparently, no inquiry of any kind is held into the cases with a view to ascertain whether the treatment meted out to unfortunate wretches, who prefer death to life, is such as to render existence an intolerable misery. The matter is one which is apt to pass unnoticed. It, however, ought not to do so.” (2)

4. Refusal of business licences:

Natal: In Natal, a law was passed which made it compulsory to obtain licenses to trade. While it was easy for Europeans to obtain licenses, Indians had to engage a lawyer and incur other expenditure. Those who could not afford it had to go without a licence.

Transvaal: In Johannesburg, the gold-mining laws prevented Indians from taking out mining licences. Also, it was criminal for them to sell or possess native gold.

Orange Free State: Indians could not hold fixed property or carry on mercantile or farming business or enjoy franchise rights. With special permission, an Indian could settle as a labourer or as a hotel waiter. But this was also granted on a case to case basis.

Cape Colony: Similar laws, as in other provinces, were also made in Cape Colony.

5. High Business Registration Costs: In Transvaal, Indians wanting to trade were required to pay a registration fee of 3 pounds. (Initially, the tax proposed was 25 pounds). Also, they could not hold any freehold land and could own fixed properties in only specific areas. These locations were selected in dirty places situated far away from the towns with no water, lighting or sanitary facilities. Indians could trade only exclusively in these locations.

6. Abrupt closure of business with eviction and no compensation: In the Green Pamphlet, Mahatma Gandhi quotes an incident from Orange Free State where Indians were driven out without any compensation. The loss incurred was around £9,000 (approximately Rs. 12 crores in today’s terms

7. Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act (“Black Act”): In addition to the above, the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act, 1907 was passed. As per the Act, every Indian (except women*), entitled to reside in Transvaal, must register his or her name with the Registrar of Asiatics and take out a Certificate of registration. They also had to get themselves finger-printed. Failure to apply would be held to be a legal offence for which the defaulter could be fined, sent to prison or even deported within the discretion of the Court. Failure to produce a certificate would invite a fine or prison term. Police officers could enter private houses in order to inspect certificates.

In the same year, the Transvaal Government also passed the Transvaal Immigrants Restriction Bill. The Act, although of general application, was indirectly aimed at preventing the entry of a single Indian newcomer. There were also restrictions imposed on Inter-provincial migration.

The Acts provided for three kinds of punishment viz., fine, imprisonment and deportations.

“A trader with assets running into lakhs could be deported and thus faced with utter ruin in virtue of the Ordinance. And the patient reader will see later on how persons were even deported for breaking some of its provisions” (1)

*In the initial ordinance, women were also included.

Resolution of Grievances

The Indian community saw the Black Act as striking at the very root of their existence and a first step to hound them out of the country. The Community decided not to submit to this Law.

A satyagraha struggle, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was launched in Sept 1906.. While the satyagraha struggle was on, Shri Gopalkrishna Gokhale visited South Africa in Oct, 1912. In his meeting with Union Govt ministers, it was agreed that the Black Act will be repealed, the racial bar would be removed from the Immigration Law and the 3 pound tax will be abolished. The South African govt however didn’t fulfil its promise.

In March 1913, the Cape Supreme Court passed a judgement that only marriages celebrated according to Christian rites and registered by the Registrar of Marriages were legal. Based on the above judgement, all non-Christian Marriages were not recognized and kids born out of such marriages couldn’t inherit their parent’s properties. This judgement only added fire to the existing Satyagraha Movement.

Following the Satyagraha struggle, in 1914 an agreement was reached: (3)

1. Annual Licence fee of three Pounds on Indentured Labourers was abolished.

2. Marriages celebrated according to the rites of Hinduism, Islam etc.were legalised.

3.The Black Act was repealed.

4. The Immigration Restriction Act was lightened.

On the Trade License Laws, the Gold licence Laws, Registration fee for businesses in Transvaal and full inter-provincial migration, Mahatma Gandhi writes in his book “Satyagraha in South Africa”: “Whilst, therefore, they have not been included in the programme of Satyagraha, it will not be denied that some day or other these matters will require further and sympathetic consideration by the Government. Complete satisfaction cannot be expected until full civic rights have been conceded to the resident Indian population.” (1)

Mahatma Gandhi returned to India on 9th January, 1915. He stayed there for a period of almost 21 years and successfully led the resident Indians’ struggle for their rights. The day is thus commemorated in India as the “Pravasi Bharatiya Divas”. In 1917, India stopped the exportation of labourers under the Indenture system.


  1. Mahatma Gandhi. Satyagraha in South Africa. 1928.
  2. Mahatma Gandhi. The Green Pamphlet. 1896.
  3. Indians in South Africa wage Satyagraha for their rights, 1906–1914 | Global Nonviolent Action Database (

Courtesy:, dt. 09.01.2023