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Gandhi returns home, meets Tilak, Gokhale

Gandhi was not just preoccupied with his law practice but also gave time to social issues, especially those relating to the way Indians were treated in South Africa. His first success as a lawyer was not a crushing victory over an opponent, but the triumph of good sense and humanity.

The Indians now realized what was at stake; but they were unable to decide what to do. They requested Gandhi to postpone his departure and help them. He agreed to stay on for another month and organize re-sistance to the new bill.
Late that night the Indians held a meeting ill Abdulla Seth’s house under the presi¬dentship of Seth Haji Muham¬mad, the most influential Indian merchant there. They resolved to oppose the Franchise Bill with all their strength.
Telegrams were sent to the Speaker of the Assembly and the Premier of Natal request¬ing them to postpone further discussion on the bill. The Speaker promptly replied that the discussion would be put off for two days.
The Natal Indians then drew up a petition to the Legislative Assembly pleading against the bill. This was followed up by another petition to Lord Ripon, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies. This was signed by more than ten thousand In¬dians. Copies of the petition were circulated in South Af¬rica, England, and India. There was much sympathy for the Natal Indians’ plight, but the campaign had started too late to stop the bill becoming law.
However, the campaign did do some good. For the first time, the people of India came to know of the conditions in Natal. An even more important result was the new spirit that now awakened the Indians in South Africa. The Natal Indians pressed Gandhi to remain and guide them for a little longer. Gandhi told them that he was prepared to stay on if the In¬dian community would provide him with sufficient legal work. They gladly agreed to do this. Twenty merchants turned over all their legal business to him.
When Gandhi applied for en¬rolment as an attorney to argue cases in court, the entire bar, composed of white lawyers, strongly opposed him. The Su¬preme Court of Natal overruled the objection, however, and he was allowed to practice.
Soon Gandhi became one of the busiest lawyers in Durban; but to him law was a subordi¬nate occupation. His main inter¬est was his public work. He felt that merely sending in petitions and protests would not help the Indians much. A sustained agi¬tation was necessary.
So he proposed the formation of a permanent organization to safeguard the interests of Indians. A meeting was called to discuss this matter. The spa¬cious hall in Dada Abdulla’s house was packed to the full. It was there, on that occasion, that the Natal Indian Con¬gress was formed. In 1894 the Natal Government sought to impose an annual polltax on the indentured Indians. These were laborers who had been recruited from India on a five-year contract, but on starvation wages. Under the contract they could not leave their employer. They were treated practically as slaves. These men had been taken to South Africa to help the white colonizers in agri¬cultural work. The Indians did more than had been expected of them. They worked hard, pur¬chased land, and started culti¬vating their own fields. Their enterprise did not end there. They soon built houses and raised themselves far above the status of laborers. The white people did not like this. They wanted the Indian workers to return to India at the end of the contract period.
To make things much harder for them, the Government now imposed an annual poll-tax of £25. The Natal Indian Con¬gress started a strong agitation against this. Later, at the in¬tervention of Lord Elgin, then Viceroy of India, the tax was reduced to £3. Still Gandhi considered it an atrocious tax, unknown anywhere else in the world. The Natal Indian Con¬gress continued its agitation, but it was 20 years before the poll-tax was finally withdrawn.
In three years in South Afri¬ca, Gandhi had become a well-known figure. And his practice was well established. He real¬ized that he was in for a long stay. He knew that the people there wanted him with them, so in 1896 he asked their per¬mission to go home and bring his wife and children to South Africa. Besides, a visit to In¬dia would be useful in gaining more support for the Indians in South Africa. He had arranged his work so well that he could look forward to six months’ leave.
In the middle of 1896 Gandhi sailed for India, and after twen¬tyfour days landed at Calcutta. From there he went to Rajkot. It was a happy family reunion when Kasturbai welcomed him with their two sons. But the plight of the Indians in South Africa was so much on his mind that he could not be content to enjoy domestic bliss in peace. He therefore launched a cam¬paign to acquaint the people of India with the real condition of the Indians in South Africa. He met the editors of influential newspapers and important Indi¬an leaders, including Lokaman¬ya B. G. Tilak, the hero of Ma¬harashtra, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale who, like Gandhi, was already famous at the age of 27. Wherever Gandhi went, he tried to make the people aware of the lot of their compatriots in South Africa. Many news¬papers published his views and strongly supported his case. Summaries of these newspaper reports and comments reached South Africa long before Gan¬dhi returned there.
Meanwhile, plague broke out in Bombay and threatened to spread to neighboring areas. In Rajkot Gandhi volunteered to join a group who tried to edu¬cate the people about the need for sanitation and other mea-sures to prevent the spread of the disease.
At the end of November, however, Gandhi received an urgent message from Natal ask¬ing him to return immediately. There were some develop¬ments which required his pres¬ence there. So Gandhi set sail for South Africa once more, taking with him Kasturbai and their two sons and also the only son of his widowed sister.
However, a message reached Gandhi advising him not to land with the others but to wait until evening, as there was an angry mob of whites at the dock. Kas¬turbai and the children were sent to the house of Gandhi’s Parsee friend, Rustomji.
Later, accompanied by Jason Laughton, the legal adviser of Dada, Abdulla & Co., Gandhi went ashore. The scene looked peaceful, but some youths recognized him and shouted, “Look, there goes Gandhi.”
Soon there was a rush and much shouting. As Gandhi and his friends proceeded, the crowd began to swell until it was impossible to go any fur¬ther. Suddenly Laughton was pushed aside and the mob set upon Gandhi. They pelted him with stones, sticks, bricks, and rotten eggs. Someone snatched away his turban, others kicked him until the frail figure col¬lapsed. He clung to the rail¬ing of a house. The fury of the white mob was unabated and they continued to beat him and kick him.
“Stop, you cowards,” cried a feminine voice. “Stop attacking the poor man.” It was the wife of the Superintendent of po¬lice. She came up and opened her parasol and held it between Gandhi and the crowd. This checked the mob. Soon the po¬lice arrived and dispersed the crowd.
— To be continued.

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