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Mass meeting at the Empire Theatre, Johannesburg, 1906

On 11 September 1906, a mass meeting of Indians took place at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg. These two newspaper articles appeared in the Gujarati sections of the Indian Opinion (on 15 and 22 September 1906). Source: Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 5, pp. 424-6, 439-43.

Indian Opinion, 15 September 1906:

A mammoth meeting was held under the presidentship of Mr. Abdul Gani, at two o'clock on Tuesday afternoon at the Empire Theatre, in connection with the agitation at present going on in the Transvaal against the Asiatic Law. About three thousand Indians attended. An invitation was sent to the Colonial Secretary, who sent Mr. Chamney. In the course of his speech, Mr. Abdul Gani made the following points:

We in the Transvaal have never had to face such critical times before. On this occasion, we have to put in a mighty effort. I do not want to make a long speech; there is much work for us to do. At the time of the Boer War, Lord Shelborne said that the need to protect the rights of Indians was one of the causes of the war. For, under the Union Jack, no one should suffer any disability; all must have equal rights.

Again, at a meeting of Jews held a few days ago, he said that it was the duty of the British Government to redress the grievances of alien peoples as well. There should be no restrictions, he said, on living, no prohibition of acquisition of land in the British Empire. We have a right to ask how such speeches of Lord Shelborne can be reconciled with the oppressive law directed against us.

We have already represented to the Government how drastic and offensive the law is. But today I want to read out to you Mr. Gregorowski's opinion on the subject. He writes:

The Act is far more severe than the Dutch Law. There is not a single provision in it that is favourable to the Indians. The Act makes the position of the Indian worse than that of the Kaffir. Not every Kaffir is required to carry a pass on him; but now every Indian will have to do so. Educated Kaffirs are exempt from such restrictive laws. But the Indian, whatever his education and standing, will have to carry a pass. The pass, it seems to us, will be like the one carried by prisoners, etc. Whatever loop-holes there existed in the Law [3] of 1885 have been closed in this Act. While Kaffirs can own land, Indians cannot. It does not seem probable that the Liberal Government will approve such law.
What we have been saying is by no means more strongly worded than what Mr. Gregorowski has said.

Now that a serious situation has arisen, we should think about what we ought to do if the Imperial Government does not heed our grievances. Today some resolutions will be placed before you. According to one of them, we shall resolve to send a deputation to England, of which I need say, no more. But there is only one very important resolution for today. What shall we do if we fail to secure relief? We have patiently endured the hardships, which have continued unmitigated. But the further disability proposed by this law is insufferable. We therefore want to resolve that, if the Imperial Government intends to heap more oppressions on us, we will rather go to gaol than put up with it. It always happens that one hits upon the true remedy only when one goes through extreme suffering, and it is our duty firmly to resolve to defy the law and go to gaol. There is nothing to be ashamed of in going to gaol. And pray to God to give us the strength and the good sense to adhere to our determination. This is for us the time for deeds, not words. We have to act boldly; and in doing so, we have to be humble and non-violent. We should not speak or listen to any bitter words.

After the president's speech, the following resolutions were passed.

RESOLUTION I

    This mass meeting respectfully urges the Legislative Council not to pass the Asiatic Ordinance in view of the fact that
    1. it is, according to the Indian community, a highly objectionable measure;
    2. it subjects the Indian community to degradation and insult without any cause whatever;
    3. if it is supposed that Indians enter the Transvaal without permits, there is adequate provision in the existing law to prevent them from so doing;
    4. the Indian community denies the allegation that there is any large influx of permitless Indians into the Transvaal;
    5. if the Legislative Council disbelieves these statements, the Indian community demands that a judicial inquiry, which accords with British practice, be held.

RESOLUTION II

    This mass meeting respectfully protests against the Asiatic Ordinance and humbly requests the local and the Imperial Governments to withdraw that Draft Ordinance for the following reasons:
    1. it is manifestly in conflict with the past declarations of His Majesty;
    2. it recognises no distinction between British Indians and other Asiatics;
    3. it reduces British Indians to a status lower than that of the Kaffirs and other coloured persons;
    4. it renders the position of Indians much worse than it was under the Boer regime;
    5. it sets up a system of passes unknown in any other Colony;
    6. in effect, it brands all persons of the Indian community as criminals;
    7. the Indian community denies the alleged influx of unauthorized Indians into the Transvaal;
    8. if this denial is unacceptable, the Indian community demands that a judicial inquiry which is in conformity with the British system be held;
    9. the measure is otherwise unjust, restricts the liberty of the Indian community and is calculated to oust the community through ill-treatment.
    10. Furthermore, this meeting requests in particular the Right Honourable the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Right Honourable the Secretary of State for India to recommend the withholding of royal sanction (until after the Indian deputation has waited upon them).

RESOLUTION III

    This meeting hereby authorizes the British Indian Association to send a deputation to England in order to put the grievances of the Indian community before the Imperial Government.
RESOLUTION IV
    Should the Legislative Council, the local and the Imperial Governments reject the humble prayer of the Indian community against the Asiatic Ordinance, every Indian present at this meeting solemnly and sincerely resolves that, rather than submit to this tyrannical law and abide by its un-British provisions, he will prefer to go to gaol and will continue to do so until it pleases His Majesty the King-Emperor to grant relief.
RESOLUTION V
    This meeting authorizes the chairman to forward the first resolution to the Legislative Council and all the other resolutions to His Excellency the High Commissioner and through him to the Imperial Government by cable.
POSITION OF THE LAW TILL TUESDAY EVENING

I am unable to send reports of the other speakers or their speeches for the current issue. To be brief, the meeting was attended by representatives from Pietersburg, Klerksdorp, Krugersdorp, Pretoria and all other important places. The fear was widely shared that the law might have already received the approval of the Imperial Government. On this point, however, Sir Richard Solomon assures us that the law will not be enforced as long as it has not been sent to England and approved. There is thus still scope for the deputation to visit England, and for sending petitions, etc. Moreover, the law has been so amended that it will not apply to children under sixteen. That is to say, such children entering the Transvaal will not be prosecuted. Another amending clause has, however, been added, according to which anyone who smuggles in a child of another as his own will be prosecuted and sentenced. Not only that, but also his permit and registration certificate will be cancelled, and he will be deported.

Indian Opinion, 22 September 1906:

The Rand Daily Mail says that no meeting has ever taken place in the Transvaal like the one held by the Indians in the Empire Theatre. The theatre was packed, at least three thousand persons attending. Many people could not get in for want of room. The shopkeepers and hawkers had all closed business at ten in the morning. Though the theatre gates were due to be opened at two, people began collecting from eleven onwards and the theatre had to be opened at twelve. By 1.30 there was no room for anyone to enter the spacious theatre. Though such a large number of persons had assembled, there was no untoward incident, and quiet prevailed everywhere. The people sat or stood patiently, waiting for the proceedings to start. Such a meeting and such enthusiasm have never before been seen among Indians.

Though all this shows the extent of oppression to which Indians are subjected, it must be admitted that much of the credit for holding such a meeting goes to the Hamidiya Islamic Society. The Society's hall was thrown open to all, Hindus and Muslims alike. For a week past, meetings had been held during which all the leading Indians held consultations. Very often, the meetings continued till midnight. Younger associations in South Africa would do well to follow well to follow the example of the Hamidiya Society.

Representatives attended the meeting from a number of places. Telegrams or letters expressing sympathy and agreement with the aims of the meeting were received from Middelburg, Standerton, Klerksdorp and other places. Both the Colonial Secretary and Mr. Chamney were invited. Mr. Chamney attended and sat to the right of the president. In addition, white gentlemen like Mr. Littmann, a lawyer from Pretoria, Mr. Israelstram, Mr. Littmann Landsberg and Mr. Stuart Campbell's manager were present. Reporters from all the three newspapers also came.

The president, Mr. Abdul Gani, began his speech exactly at three o'clock. Everyone felt that Mr. Abdul Gani was at his best. His speech in excellent Hindustani was brief and eloquent. His narration of the facts was quite moderate, yet forceful. His voice was loud and so audible everywhere. His speech was received with acclamation. When he spoke of gaol-going, the audience shouted in one voice, 'we shall go to gaol, but will not register ourselves again.'

Dr. Godfrey read out the English version of Mr. Gani's speech.

The task of moving the first resolution was entrusted to Mr. Nanalal Valji Shah, who spoke in English. We summarize his speech below:

We have met today for very serious business. Mr. Duncan has said that the new law is necessary, because the registers [registration certificates] already issued are such as can be sold, and with these, others who do not have the right come in. Now let us take the example of a bank. Suppose a bank finds that some forged notes bearing its name have passed into currency, will it cancel all the notes? Mr. Duncan tells us that because our registers are faked, he will give fresh ones in exchange. What a law this is! But I assert that the registers as not counterfeit.

Producing his own register Mr. Shah declared, ";This register contains my name, my wife's name, my caste, my profession, my height, my age," and slamming the paper on the table, he added:

It bears even my thumb-impression. Is all this not enough? How can anyone else use this register? Does the Government want now to brand us on our foreheads? I will never return my register. Neither will I be registered again. I prefer going to gaol, and I will go there. [Applause]

Mr. C. K. T. Naidoo seconded Mr. Shah and explained the matter to the Tamil-speaking people in their language. Mr. Abdul Rahman rose to move the second resolution. In his brief speed he said that we suffered greater oppression under the British regime than under the Boers. As Sir Henry Cotton had put it, while the Boer Government flogged us, the British Government was scourging us with scorpion stings.

Supporting Mr. Abdul Rahman, Dr. Godfrey said: The tall promises made to us by Lord Milner, Lord Roberts and Mr. Chamberlain has proved worthless.
[Shame!]
The doctor produced a photograph of the late Queen-Empress that had been distributed by the Indian community among its schoolboys in Durban, and said:

We worship this Queen, whose Proclamation has been set at naught by the Transvaal Government. Whereas under the Union Jack we should get equal rights, liberty and justice, we have instead slavery, injustice and denial of our rights. I do not at all agree that there has been an influx of Indians without permits or with false ones. I defy Mr. Loveday and his company to contradict me if they have the courage. We are not going to submit to such oppression. We shall go to gaol rather than do so. Let no one imagine that we shall run away in fear. If the bill is passed, we will storm the courts and say, 'Arrest us.'
[Applause]

Mr. Getta of Potchefstroom spoke in Gujarati and supported the second resolution.

The task of moving the third resolution fell to Mr. Essop Mian, who said:

British rule in the Transvaal is worse than the regime in Russia. I myself went to Pretoria to wait on Mr. Duncan, who made many promises, but has fulfilled none of them and has betrayed us. It is necessary for us to send a deputation to England. We shall raise an outcry there, but if the Imperial Government does not listen to us, we shall go to gaol. I have been in the Transvaal for nineteen years, but never before have I seen such oppression as during the last three years.
Seconding this resolution, Mr. Ebrahim Salejee Coovadia made the following speech:
The chairman and others have already spoken on the Draft Asiatic Ordinance, so that little remains for me to say about it. This much is certain: wherever the subjects of a state are free from tyranny, they are happy and both the rulers and the ruled are relaxed. The late Boer Government, at the instigation of these same British friends, enacted oppressive laws before the war; being rather kindly disposed towards us, that Government did not, however, enforce them. Thanks to their kindness, we were quite happy until the war with the British broke out. Now that our [British] Government had won control of the Colony, we were hoping that we would gain all the rights, since the Government had also given us assurances to that effect, but unfortunately, what we see today is quite the opposite, and they are enacting insufferable laws against us. It is, of course, our duty to submit to all the reasonable laws that the Government may make in the public interest. But such is not the case. Since the present Government assumed power in the Colony, they have placed, upon us in particular, one severe restriction after another. All these we have suffered so far, but now we have had our fill. Just as a river in spate can take in no more and overflows its banks, so also can we no longer stomach oppressive laws. We should therefore take strong measures against the Draft Ordinance, though we are told that the law is designed for our benefit, as we are British subjects. To this I would only answer, 'By these laws, you are not making of us British raiyat [subjects], but maiyat [corpses].’ I therefore support the resolution moved by Mr. Essop Mian to send a deputation as soon as possible to England and to put up a stiff resistance.
Mr. A. E. Wania of Krugersdorp supported the resolution, and Mr. Manilal Desai of Pretoria spoke in favour of it.

Even as Mr. Hajee Habib rose to speak, the audience greeted him with cheers. His speech was so caustic and impassioned that even those who did not know Gujarati said they could follow its purport. Now and then, Mr. Hajee Habib used English anecdotes. The audience was greatly roused by his speech of which the following is a summary:

The fourth resolution is the most important of all. Everything depends upon it. There is no disgrace in going to gaol; rather it is an honour. Only a few people knew of Mr. Tilak before he went to gaol; today the whole world knows him. We are not going to get justice at the hands of the British Government. It kills us with sweet words; we should not be deceived. They offer us sympathy, but we ask for justice, not sympathy. The British are ever willing to advise others. They are always ready to appease the Christian people. Take the case of Turkey. The British do not hesitate to bully Turkey, and that not in order to secure the interests of their own subjects. Again in this country, the doors are open to the whites and Christians, even if they were foreign nationals. In their view, the whites are descended from Heaven and we, they think, have come from the other place. This Bill is most objectionable. If it is passed, I solemnly declare that I will never get myself registered again and will be the first to go to gaol. [Applause] I recommend the same course to you all. Are you all prepared to take the oath?
[The Assembly stood up to a man and said, 'Yes, we will go to gaol!']

Only by so doing shall we succeed. We tried this method in the days of the Boer Government also. Some 40 of our men were once arrested for trading without licences. I advised them to go to gaol and not to seek release on bail. Accordingly, they all remained there without offering bail. I immediately approached the British Agent, who approved of our action and ultimately secured justice for us. Now that British Government is in power, the time has come for us to go to gaol, and go we will.
As he repeated the last phrase thrice, the meeting greeted his resolve with applause.

When Mr. Hajee Ojer Ally stood up to second the fourth resolution, the whole theatre resounded with prolonged cheers which took some time to subside. Then Mr. Ally made a thundering speech in English, which is summarized below:

The resolution I stand here to second is not an ordinary one, and it enjoins a great responsibility on us. I am the father of eleven children, but I am prepared to take up the responsibility. Like Mr. Hajee Habib, I, too, shall refuse to register myself and prefer to go to gaol and deem it an honour. The Government has betrayed us. In answer to our petition, they said that the matter was under consideration and that they would give us a definite reply. They said the same thing to the deputation. Despite this, two days later, they brought the Bill before the Legislative Council, and within four days, had it passed. [Shame!] The Bill originally envisaged registration of women also. But, owing to the efforts of the Hamidiya Society, that provision was dropped.
Producing a Union Jack, he went on:
Since my childhood, I have been told that, under this Union Jack, I shall always find protection. That is exactly what we now ask for. On the occasion of the Delhi durbar, His Majesty King-Emperor Edward declared that he would give us our rights and preserve our status just as Her Majesty Queen Victoria had done. Does not that promise extent to the Transvaal also? We, the Indians resident here, demand that we be allowed to live in peace and happiness. In fact, we should have more rights than the non-British whites. They complain, because a few of us might have entered the Colony without permits. I make bold to say that, if only the Government would send three constables with me, I shall forthwith have a thousand permitless whites arrested. For the last 25 years, I have been in South Africa. In the Cape I exercised the right to vote and other rights as well. Nowhere except here in the Transvaal have I seen such oppression of our people. And the Transvaal is still a Crown Colony. When it was under the Boers, the British whites came to me for my signature to their petition. Now they are against us. We will not take up rifles as they did but like them we shall go to gaol. [Applause]
Mr. Moonlight Mudaliar then supported the resolution in a Tamil speech. Seconding the resolution, Dr. Godfrey said:
Just as India is the crown of the British Empire, so shall we, by going to Johannesburg gaol, become its most cherished possession? We won't wait for the police to come and arrest us.
Mr. Aswat, who spoke in support, appealed to those present to write and tell their people at home that they were all getting ready to go to gaol.

Mr. A. E. Chhotabhai of Krugersdorp supported the resolution in a Gujarati speech, saying that the people of the town were prepared to go to gaol rather than register themselves.

Mr. Omarji Saheb also supported the resolution.

Mr. Tar Mahomed Tayob of Pietersburg declared that the people there were ready to go to gaol but would not register themselves.

Mr. Imam Abdul Kadir also supported the resolution.

In supporting the resolution, Jemadar Nawabkhan said that he had served the Government in the war. He would now prefer gaol to the humiliation of registration. Mr. Gandhi said that the responsibility for advising them to go to gaol was his. The step was grave, but unavoidable. In doing so, they did not hold out a threat, but showed that the time for action — over and above making speeches and submitting petitions — had arrived. When people passed a resolution, it was their duty to adhere to it. And if they did that, success was bound to be theirs.

Thereafter, the whole assembly stood up and passed, amid acclamation, the resolution about going to gaol.

Mr. Bhikhubhai D. Malia moved the fifth resolution, and made a brief speech. Mr. Jusab Haji Vali of Pietersburg seconded it.

The business of the meeting was over at 5.30 p.m. Mr. Chamney then rose with the chairman's permission and expressed his thanks for having been invited to the meeting. Mr, Laishansai proposed a vote of thanks to the chair, adding that he had never seen such a meeting before and hoped that the Liberal Ministry [in England] would do them justice. Mr. Israelstram, who seconded the vote, expressed sympathy for the Indian cause and appealed to the audience to continue the struggle.

The meeting dispersed at five minutes to six. Three cheers were called for King-Emperor Edward, and God Save The King was sung.

For Indians, this meeting will for ever remain memorable.