21. The First Settlement
We had thus been in jail for a fortnight, when fresh arrivals brought the news that there were going on some negotiations about a compromise with the Government. After two or three days Mr. Albert Cartwright, editor of The Transvaal Leader, a Johannesburg daily, came to see me.
All the daily papers then conducted in Johannesburg were the property of one or the other of the European owners of the gold mines, but except in cases where the interests of these magnates were at stake, the editors were unfettered in the expression of their own views on all public questions. Only very able and well known men were selected as editors. For instance the editor of The Daily Star had formerly been Private Secretary to Lord Milner, and later went to England to take Mr. Buckle’s place as editor of The Times Mr.Albert Cartwright of the Transvaal leader was as broad-mined as he was able. He had almost always supported the Indian cause in his columns. He and I had become good friends. He saw General Smuts after I was sent to jail. General Smuts welcomed his mediation. Mr. Cartwright thereupon met the met the Indian leaders, who said, ‘We know nothing about legal technicalities, and cannot possibly talk about compromise so long as Gandhi is in prison. We desire settlement, but if Government wants it while our men are in jail, you should see Gandhi. We will ratify any arrangement which he accepts.’
Mr. Cartwright thus came to see me and brought with him terms of settlement drafted or approved of by General Smuts. I did not like the vague language of the document, but was all the same prepared myself to put my signature to it with one alteration. However, I informed Mr. Cartwright, that I could not sign without consulting my fellow-prisoners, even if I took the consent of the Indians outside prison for granted.
The substance of the proposed settlement was that the Indians should register voluntarily, and not under any law; that the details to be entered in the new certificates of registration should be settled by Government in consultation with the Indian community, and, that if the majority of the Indians underwent voluntary registration, Government should repeal the Black act, and take steps with a view to legalize the voluntary registration. The draft did not make quite clear the condition which required Government to repeal the Black act, I therefore suggested a change calculated to place this beyond all doubt from my own standpoint.
Mr. Cartwright did not like even this little addition and said, ‘General Smuts considers this draft to be final. I have approved of it myself, and I can assure you that if you all undergo re registration, the Black Act is bound to be repealed.’
I replied, ‘Whether or not there is a settlement, we shall always be grateful to you for your kindness and help. I should not like to suggest a single unnecessary alternation in the draft. I do not object to such language as would uphold the prestige go Government. But where I myself am doubtful about the meaning, I must certainly suggest a change of language, and if there is to be a settlement after all, both the parties must have the right to alter the draft.General Smuts need not confront us with an ultimatum, saying that these terms are final. He has already aimed one pistol in the shape of the Black Act at the Indians. What can he hope to gain by aiming a second?’
Mr. Cartwright had nothing to say against this argument, and he promised to place my suggestion for the change before General Smuts.
I consulted my fellow-prisoners. They too did not like the language, but agreed to the settlement if General Smuts would accept the draft with my amendment. New-comers to jail had brought a message from the leaders outside, that I should accept any suitable compromise without waiting for their consent. I got Messers Leuing Quinn and Thambi Naidoo to sign the draft along with myself and handed It to Mr. Cartwright.
The second or third day, on January 30, 1908, Mr. Vernon, the Superintendent of Police, Johannesburg, took me to Pretoria to meet General Smuts, with whom I had a good deal of talk. He told me what had passed between him and Mr. Cartwright. He congratulated me on the Indian community having remained firm even after my imprisonment, and said, ‘I could never entertain a dislike for your people. You know I too am a barrister. I had some Indian fellow students in my time. But I must do my duty. The Europeans want this law, and you will agree with me, that these are mostly not Boers also, as I assure you that I will repeal the Asiatic Act as soon as most of you have undergone voluntary registration. When the bill legalizing such registration is drafted, I will send you a copy for your criticism. I do not wish there should be any recurrence of the trouble and I wish to respect the feelings of your people.’
So saying General Smuts rose. I asked him, ‘Where am I to go? And what about the other prisoners?’
The General laughed and said, ‘You are free this very moment. I am ‘phoning to the prison officials to release the other prisoners tomorrow morning. But I must advise you not to go in for many meetings or demonstrations, as in that case Government will find itself in an awkward position.’
I replied, ‘You may rest assured, that there will not be a single meeting simply for the sake of it. But I will certainly have to hold meetings in order to explain to the community how the settlement was effected, what is its nature and scope, and how it has added tour responsibility.’
‘Of such meetings,’ said General Smuts, ‘you may have as many as you please. It is sufficient that you have understood what I desire in the matter.’
It was then seven o’clock in the evening. I had not a single farthing in my pocket. The Secretary of General Smuts gave me the railway fare to Johannesburg. There was no need to stop at Pretoria and announce the settlement to the Indians there. The leaders were all in Johannesburg, which was our headquarters. There was now only one more train for Johannesburg, and I was able to catch it.