25. General Smuts' Breach of Faith (?)
The reader has seen something of the internal difficulties, in describing which I had to draw largely upon my own life story, but that could not be avoided, as my own difficulties regarding Satyagraha became equally the difficulties of the Satyagraha. We now return to the external situation.
I am ashamed of writing the caption of this chapter as well as the chapter itself, for it deals with the obliquity of human nature. Already in 1908 General Smuts ranked as the ablest leader in South Africa, and today he takes a high place among the politicians of the British Empire, and even of the world. I have no doubt about his great abilities. General Smuts is as able a general and administrator as he is a lawyer. Many other politicians have come and gone in South Africa, but from 1907 up to date the reins of Government have practically been held throughout by this gentleman, and even today he holds a unique position in the country. It is now nine years since I left South Africa I do not know what epithet the people of South Africa now bestow upon General Smuts. His Christian name is Jan, and South Africa used to call him ‘slim Janny’. Many English friends had asked me to beware of General Smuts, as he was a very clever man a trimmer whose words were intelligible only to himself and often of a kind that either party could interpret them in a sense favouable to himself. Indeed on a suitable occasion he would lay aside the interpretations of both the parties, put a fresh interpretation upon them, carry it out and support it by such clever arguments that the parties for the time would be led to imagine that they were wrong themselves and General Smuts was right in construing the words as he did. As regards the events, I am now going to describe, we believed and said, when they happened, that General Smuts had played us false. Even today, I look upon the incident as a breach of faith from the Indian community’s standpoint. However I have placed a mark of interrogation after the phrase, as in point of fact the General’s action did not perhaps amount to an intentional breach of faith. It could not be described as breach of faith if the intention was absent. My experience of General Smuts in 1913-14 did not then seem bitter and does not seem so theme today, when I can think of the past events with a greater sense of detachment. It is quite possible that in behaving to the Indians as he did in 1908 General Smuts was not guilty of a deliberate breach of faith.
These prefatory words were necessary in justice to General Smuts, as well as in defence of the use of the phrase ‘breach of faith’ in connection with his name and of what I am going to say in the present chapter.
We have seen in the last chapter how the Indians registered voluntarily to the satisfaction of the Transvaal Government. The Government must now repeal the Black act, and if they did, the Satyagraha struggle would come to an end. This did not mean the end of the entire mass of anti-Indian legislation in the country or the redress of all the Indian grievances, for which the Indians must still continue their constitutional agitation. Satyagraha was directed solely to the scattering of the new and ominous cloud on the horizon in the shape of the Black Act, which if accepted by the Indians, would have humiliated them and prepared the way for their final extinction first in the Transvaal and then throughout South Africa. But instead of repealing the Black Act, General Smuts took a fresh step forward. He maintained the Black Act on the statute book and introduced in the legislature measure, validating the voluntary registration effected and the certificated issued subsequent to the date fixed by the Government in terms of that Act. Taking the holders of the voluntary registration certificates out of its operation, and making further provision for the registration of Asiatics. Thus there came into force two concurrent pieces of legislation with one and the same object, and freshly arriving Indians as well as even later applications for registration were still subject to the Black Act.
I was astounded when I read the Bill. I did not know how I would face the community. Here was excellent food for the Pathan friend who had severely criticized me at the midnight meeting. But I must say that far from shaking it, this blow made my faith in Satyagraha stronger than ever. I called a meeting of our Committee and explained the new situation to them. Some of the members tauntingly said, ‘There you are. We have often been telling you that you are very credulous, and believe in everything that any one says. It would not matter much if you were so simple in your private affairs, but the community has to suffer for your credulity in public matters. It is very difficult now to rouse the same spirit as actuated our people before. You know what stuff we Indians are made of men whose momentary enthusiasm must be taken at the flood. If you neglect the temporary tide, you are done for.’
There was no bitterness in these taunting words. Such things had been addressed to me on other occasions. I replied with a smile: ‘Well, what you call my credulity is part and parcel of myself. It is not credulity but trust, and it is the duty of every one of us, yours as well as mine, to trust our fellowmen. And even granting that it is really a defect with me, you must take me as you find me with my defects no less than with my qualities. But I cannot concede that the enthusiasm of the community is a mere temporary effervescence. You must remember that you, as well as I, are members of the community. I should consider it an insult if you thus characterized my enthusiasm. I take it that you too regard yourselves as exceptions to the general rule you seek to formulate. But if you don’t, you do the community the injustice of imaging that others are as weak-kneed as yourselves. In great struggles like ours there is always a tide and ebb. However clear may be your understanding with the adversary what is there to prevent him from breaking faith? There are many among us who pass promissory notes to others. What can be clearer and more free from doubt than a man’s putting his signature to a document? Yet suits must be filed against them; they will oppose the suits and offer all kinds of defence. At last there are decrees and writs of attachment which take a long time and cost great trouble to execute. Who can guarantee against the petition of such flagrant behavior? I would therefore advise you patiently to deal with the problem before us. We have to consider what we can do in case the struggle has to be resumed, that is to say, what each Satyagrahi can do absolutely regardless of the conduct of others. Personally I am inclined to think, that if only we are true to ourselves, others will not be found wanting, and even if they are inclined to weakness, they will be strengthened by our example.’
I believe this was enough to conciliate the well-intentioned skeptics who were doubtful about the resumption of the struggle. About this time Mr. Kachhalia began to show his mettle and come to the front. On every point he would announce his considered opinion in the fewest words possible and then stick to it through thick and thin. I do not remember a single occasion on which he betrayed weakness or doubt about the final result. A time came when Yusuf Mian was not ready to continue at the helm in troubled waters. We all with one voice acclaimed Kachhalia as our captain and from that time forward to the end he held unflinchingly to his responsible post. He fearlessly put up with hardships which would have daunted almost any other man in his place. As the struggle advanced, there came a stage when going to jail was a perfectly easy task for some and a mean of getting well-earned rest, whereas it was infinitely more difficult to remain outside, minutely to look into all things, to make various arrangements and to deal with all sorts and conditions of men.
Later on the European creditors of Kachalia caught his as in a noose. Many Indian traders are entirely dependent in their trade on European firms which sell them lakhs of rupees worth of goods on credit on mere personal security. That Europeans should repose such trust in Indian traders is an excellent proof of the general honesty of Indian trade. kachhalia likewise owed large sums to many Europeans firms, which asked him at once to meet their dues, being instigated thereto directly or indirectly by the Government. The firms gave Kachhalia to understand that they would not press for immediate payment if he left the Satyagraha movement. But if he did not, they were afraid of losing their money as he might be arrested any time by the Government, and therefore demanded immediate satisfaction in cash. Kachhalia bravely replied, that his participation in the Indian struggle was his personal affair, which had religion, the honour of his community and his own self religion, the honour of his community and his self respect were bound up with the struggle. He thanked his creditors for the support they had extended to him, but refused to attach any undue importance to that support or indeed to his trade. Their money was perfectly safe with him, and as long as long as he was alive he would repay them in full at any cost. But if anything happened to him, his stock as well as the book debts owing to him were at their disposal. He therefore wished that his were at their disposal. He therefore wished that his creditors would continue to trust him as before. This was a perfectly fair argument, and Kachhalia’s firmness was an additional reason for his creditors to trust him, but on this occasion it failed to impress them. We can rouse from his slumbers a man who is really asleep, but not him who only makes a pretence of sleep all the while that he is awake, and so it was with these European traders, whose sole object was to bring undue pressure to bear upon Kachhalia. Otherwise their money was perfectly safe.
A meeting of the creditors was held in my office on January 22, 1909. I told them clearly that the pressure to which they were subjecting Kachhalia was purely political and unworthy of merchants, and they were incensed at my remark. I showed they Kachhalia Sheth’s balance sheet and proved that they could have their 20s. in the pound. Again if the creditors wanted to sell the business to someone else, Kachhalia was ready to hand over the goods and the book debts to the purchaser. If this did not suit them, the creditors could take over the stock in Kachhalia’s shop at cost price, and if any part of their dues still remained unsatisfied, they were free to take over book debts due to him sufficient to cover the deficit. The reader can see that in agreeing to this arrangement the European merchants had nothing to lose. I had on may previous occasions effected such arrangements with the creditors of some of my clients who were hard pressed. But the merchants at this juncture did not seek justice. They were out to bend Kachhalia. Kachhalia would not bend, bankruptcy proceedings were instituted against him, and he was declared an insolvent, though his estate showed a large excess of assets over liabilities.
Far from being a blot upon his escutcheon this insolvency was perfectly honourable to him. It enhanced his prestige among the community and all congratulated him upon his firmness and courage. But such heroism is rarely found. The man in the street cannot understand how insolvency can cease to be insolvency, cease to be a disgrace and become an honour and an ornament, but Kachhalia realized it at once. Many traders had submitted to the Black Act merely from a fear of insolvency. Kachhalia could have warded off the insolvency if he had wished, not by leaving the struggle, that was out of the question, but by borrowing from his many Indian friends who would gladly have helped him over the crisis. But it would not have been becoming in him to have saved his trade by such means. The danger of being any day clapped into goal he shared in common with all Satyagrahis. It would therefore be hardly proper for him to borrow from a fellow Satyagrahi to pay his European creditors. But among his friends there were ‘blacklegs’ also whose help was available. Indeed one or two of them actually offered assistance. But to accept their offer would have been tantamount to an admission that there was wisdom in submitting to the obnoxious Act. He therefore decided to decline their proffered aid.
Again we thought that if Kachhalia allowed himself to be declared an insolvent, his insolvency would serve as a shield for others, for if not in all, at least in an overwhelmingly large majority of cases of insolvency, the creditor stands to lose something. He is quite pleased if he realized 10s. in the pound, and considers 15s.quite as good as 20s. in the pound. For big traders in South Africa generally reap a profit not of 6. ¼ but of 25 percent. They therefore consider 15s. as good as full payment. But as 20s. in the pound is hardly ever realized from a bankrupt’s estate, creditors are not anxious to reduce their debtor to a state of insolvency. As soon, therefore, as Kachhalia was declared an insolvent, there was every likelihood that the European traders would cease to threaten other Satyagrahi traders who were their debtors. And that was exactly what happened. The Europeans wanted to compel Kachhalia either to give up the struggle or else to pay them in full in cash. They failed to achieve any of these two objects, and the actual result was the reserve of what they had expected. They were dumb founded by this first case of a respectable Indian trader welcoming insolvency and were quite ever afterwards. In a year’s time the creditors realized 20s. in the pound from Kachhalia Sheth’s stock in trade, and this was the first case in South Africa to my knowledge in which creditors were paid in full form the insolvent debtor’s estate. Thus even while the struggle was in progress, Kachhalia commanded great espect among the European merchans, who showed their readiness to advance to him any amount of goods in spite of his leading the movement. But Kachhalia was every day gaining in strength and in an intelligent appreciation of the struggle. No one could now tell how long the struggle would last. We had therefore resolved after the insolvency proceedings that the Sheth should not make any large commitments in trade during the continuance of the movement, but confine his operations within such moderate limits as would suffice to provide him with his daily bread. He therefore did not avail himself of the European merchants’ offer.
I need scarcely say that all these incidents in the life of Kachhalia Sheth did not happen soon after the Committee meeting referred to above, but I have found place for them here in the shape of a connected narrative. Chronologically, Kachhalia became Chairman some item after the resumption of the struggle 9September 10, 1908) and his insolvency came about five months later.
But to return to the Committee meeting. When the meeting was over, I wrote a letter to General Smuts, saying that his new bill constituted a breach of the compromise, and drawing his attention to the following passage in his Richmond speech delivered within a week of the settlement: ‘The Indians’ second contention was that they would never register until the law had been repealed. He had told them that the law would not be repealed so long as there was an Asiatic in the country who had not registered. Until every Indian in the country had not registered the law would not be repealed.’ Politicians do not reply at all to questions which land them in difficulty, or if they do, they resort to circumlocution. General Smuts was a past master of this art. You may write to him as often as you please, you make any number of speeches that you do can draw him out. The law of courtesy which requires a gentleman to reply to letters received, could not bind General Smuts, and I did not receive any satisfactory reply to my letters.
I met Albert Cartwright who had been our mediators. He was deeply shocked and explained, ‘Really I cannot understand this man at all. I perfectly remember that he promised to repeal the Asiatic Act, I will do my best, but you know that nothing can move General Smuts when he has once taken up a stand. Newspaper articles are as nothing to him. So I am afraid I may not be of much help to you.’ I also met Mr. Hosken who wrote to General Smuts but who received only a very unsatisfactory reply. I wrote articles in Indian Opinion under the captain of ‘Foul Play’, but what was that to the redoubtable General? One may apply any bitter epithets one likes to a philosopher or a heartless man but in vain. They will follow the even tenor of their way. I do not know which of these two appelations would fit General Smuts. I must admit that there is a sort of philosophy about his attitude. When I was corresponding with him and writing in the paper against him, I remember I had taken General Smuts to be a heartless man. But this was only the beginning of the struggle, only its second year, while it was to last as long as eight years, in course of which I had many occasions of meeting him. From our subsequent talks I often felt that the general belief in South Africa about General Smuts’ cunning did him perhaps less than justice. I am however sure of two things. First, he has some principles in politics, which are not quite immoral. Secondly, there is room in his politics for cunning and on occasions for perversion of truth.