16th March 1912 Gandhiji Commends Gokhale`s Attempts To Abolish Indenture System

 220px-Non_Interactive_Gandhi Gandhi1

INDENTURED LABOUR

The question of indentured labour is a seasonable subject for more reasons than one. Messrs. Andrews and Pearson have just returned from Fiji after finishing their self-imposed labours for the sake of India which they have learnt to love as they love their motherland. Their report is about to be issued. There Mr. Malaviya has given notice for leave to move a resolution in the Imperial Council which will if adopted, commit the Government to a repeal of the system of indentured labour. Mr. Malaviya’s resolution will be, it may be decided, a continuation of the late Mr. Gokhale’s work in 1912, when in a speech full of fervour and weighted with facts and figures he moved his resolution demanding repeal of this form of labour. The deceased stateman’s resolution was thrown out only by the force of official majority. The moral victory lay with Mr. Gokhale. The deathknell of the system was rung when that resolution was moved. The Government, as it could not then

abolish the system, outvoted Mr. Gokhale but did not fail to note that they must hurry forward to do so at an early date. Mr. Malaviya’s proposed resolution and the report of Messrs. Andrews and Pearson, which latter, it is known, is to suggest total abolition of the system, will enable Lord Hardinge fittingly to close his most eventful viceroyalty removing this longstanding and acknowledged grievance.

These lines will be merely an attempt to give personal observations and to indulge in a few reflections upon the question. For facts and figures the reader and the public worker must look up Mr. Gokhale’s speech referred to above and Messrs. Andrews and Pearson’s forthcoming report.

Indentured labour is admittedly a remnant of slavery. The late Sir William Wilson Hunter, when his attention was drawn to it in 1895, was the first to call it a state perilously near to slavery. Most legislation only partly reflects the public opinion cf its time. Legislation abolishing slavery was really a bit in advance of public opinion, and that was a big bit. And its effect, like that of all such legislation was largely neutralised by the dissatisfied slave-owners resorting to the dodge of indentured labour. The yoke, if it fell from the Negro’s black neck, was transferred to the brown neck of the Indian. In the process of transfer, it had somewhat to be somewhat polished, it had to be lightened in weight and even disguised. Nevertheless in all its essentials it retained its original quality. The hideousness of the system was forcefully demonstrated when the curse descended upon South Africa in the shape of indentured labourers from China for working the gold mines. It was no mere election cry that the late Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman had taken up when he made the British Isles from end to end ring with denunciation of the system. No cost was counted as too great for ridding South Africa of the evil. The great multimillionaires of Johannesburgh spared nothing to be enabled to hold to the indentured Chinaman, They asked for breathing-time. The House of Commons remained unmoved. Mine-owners had to shift for themselves. The interest of humanity overrode all other considerations. The mines were threatened to be closed. The House did not care. The millions promised to Mr. Chamberlain would not be forthcoming. The House laughed. Within six months of passage of the measure for the abolition of Chinese indentured labour, every Chinese labourer had been repatriated bag and baggage. The mines survived the shock. They discovered other methods of life. And now be it said to the credit of the mine-owners as well as of the Conservatives who opposed the measure, that both these classes recognise that the abolition was a great deliverance.

Indian indentured labours is not less demoralising. It has persisted because its bitterness like that of a sugared pill has been cleverly though unconsciously concealed. The one great distinction between the two classes was that the Chinese were brought in without a single woman with them, whereas every hundred Indian labourers must include forty women among them. Had the Chinese remained they would have sapped the very foundations of the society. The Indian labourers confine the evil to themselves. This may be unimportant to non-Indians. But for us, the wonder is that we have allowed the sin to continue so long. The business about the women is the. weakest and the irremediable part of the evil. It therefore needs a somewhat closer inspection. These women are not necessarily wives. Men and women are huddled together during the voyage. The marriage is a farce. A mere declaration by man and woman made upon landing before the Protector of immigrants that they are husband and wife constitutes a valid marriage. Naturally enough divorce is common. The rest must be left to the imagination of the reader. This is certain — that the system does not add to the moral well-being of India. And it is suggested that no amount of figures adduced to show that the labourer is far richer at the end of his contract of labour than when he entered upon it can be allowed to be any set-off against the moral degradation it involves.

There is another most powerful consideration to be urged against the continuance of this system. The relations between Englishmen and Indians in India are not of the happiest. The average Englishman considers himself to be superior to the average Indian and the latter is generally content to be so considered. Such a state of things is demoralising to both and a meance to the stability, of the British Empire. There is no reason why every Englishman should not learn to consider every Indian as his brother and why should not every Indian cease to think that he is born to fear every Englishman. Be that as it may, this unnatural relationship is reflected in an exaggerated form outside India when the artificial state of indentured service under a white employer is set up. Unless, therefore, the relation between the English and ourselves is put on a correct footing in India, and transference of Indian labourers to far off lands whether parts of the Empire or otherwise, even under a free contract must harm both employer and employed. I happen to have the privilege of knowing most humane employers of Indian labourers in Natal. They were their men. But they do not, they cannot give them more than the most favoured treatment that their cattle receive. I use this language in no uncharitable spirit. The humanest of employers cannot escape the limitations of his class. He instinctively feels that the Indian labourer is inferior to him and can never be equal to him. Surely no indentured Indian, no matter how clever and faithfull he may be, has ever inherited his master’s state. But I know English servants who have risen to their master’s state even as Indian servants have risen to their Indian master’s state. It is not the Englishman’s fault that the relationship with his Indian employees has not been progressive. It is beyond the scope of these lines to distribute the blame, if there is any, on either side or to examine the causes for the existence of such a state of things. I have been obliged to advert to it to show that apart from all other considerations, the system of indentured labour is demonstrably so degrading to us as a nation that it must be stopped at any cost and that now.

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