XIX. NATAL INDIAN CONGRESS
Practice as a lawyer was and remained for me a
subordinate occupation. It was necessary that I should
concentrate on public work to justify my stay in Natal.
The despatch of the petition regarding the disfranchising
bill was not sufficient in itself. Sustained agitation
was essential for making an impression on the Secretary
of State for the Colonies. For this purpose it was
thought necessary to bring into being a permanent
organization. So I consulted Sheth Abdulla and other
friends, and we all decided to have a public organization
of a permanent character.
To find out a name to be given to the new organization
perplexed me sorely. It was not to identify itself with
any particular party. The name 'Congress', I knew, was in
bad odour with the Conservatives in England, and yet the
Congress was the very life of India. I wanted to
popularize it in Natal. It savoured of cowardice to
hesitate to adopt the name. Therefore, with full
explanation of my reasons, I recommended that the
organization should be called the Natal Indian Congress,
and on the 22nd May the Natal Indian Congress came into
Dada Abdulla's spacious room was packed to the full on
that day. The Congress received the enthusiastic approval
of all present. Its constitution was simple, the
subscription was heavy. Only he who paid five shillings
monthly could be a member. The well-to-do classes were
persuaded to subscribe as much as they could. Abdulla
Sheth also put the list with ?2 per month. Two other
friends also put down the same. I thought I should not
stint my subscription, and put down a pound per month.
This was for me beyond my means, if at all I was to pay
my way. And God helped me. We thus got a considerable
number of members who subscribed ?1 per month. The
number of those who put down 10s. was even larger.
Besides this, there were donations which were gratefully
Experience showed that no one paid his subscription
for the mere asking. It was impossible to call frequently
on members outside Durban. The enthusiasm of one moment
seemed to wear away the next. Even the members in Durban
had to be considerably dunned before they would pay in
The task of collecting subscriptions lay with me. I
being the secretary. And we came to a stage when I had to
keep my clerk engaged all day long in the work of
collection. The man got tired of the job, and I felt
that, if the situation was to be improved, the
subscriptions should be made payable annually and not
monthly, and that too strictly in advance. So I called a
meeting of the Congress. Everyone welcomed the proposal
for making the subscription annual instead of monthly and
for fixing the minimum at ?3. Thus the work of
collection was considerably facilitated.
I had learnt at the outset not to carry on public work
with borrowed money. One could rely on people's promises
in most matters except in respect of money. I had never
found people quick to pay the amounts they had undertaken
to subscribe, and the Natal Indians were no exception to
the rule. As, therefore, no work was done unless there
were funds on hand, the Natal Indian Congress has never
been in debt.
My co-workers evinced extraordinary enthusiasm in
canvassing members. It was work which interested them and
was at the same time an invaluable experience. Large
numbers of people gladly came forward with cash
subscriptions. Work in the distant villages of the
interior was rather difficult. People did not know the
nature of public work. And yet we had invitations to
visit far away places, leading merchants of every place
extending their hospitality.
On one occasion during this tour the situation was
rather difficult. We expected our host to contribute ?
6, but he refused to give anything more than ?3. If we
had accepted that amount from him, others would have
followed suit, and our collections would have been
spoiled. It was a late hour of the night, and we were all
hungry. But how could we dine without having first
obtained the amount we were bent on getting? All
persuasion was useless. The host seemed to be adamant.
Other merchants in the town reasoned with him, and we all
sat up throughout the night, he as well as we determined
not to budge one inch. Most of my co-workers were burning
with rage, but they contained themselves. At last, when
day was already breaking, the host yielded, paid down ?
6 and feasted us. This happened at Tongaat, but the
repercussion of the incident was felt as far as Stanger
on the North Coast and Charelstown in the interior. It
also hastened our work of collection.
But collecting funds was not the only thing to do. In
fact I had long learnt the principle of never having more
money at one's disposal than necessary.
Meetings used to be held once a month or even once a
week if required. Minutes of the proceedings of the
preceding meeting would be read, and all sorts of
questions would be discussed. People had no experience of
taking part in public discussion or of speaking briefly
and to the point. Everyone hesitated to stand up to
speak. I explained to them. They realized that it was an
education for them, and many who had never been
accustomed to speaking before an audience soon acquired
the habit of thinking and speaking publicly about matters
of public interest.
Knowing that in public work minor expenses at times
absorbed large amounts, I had decided not to have even
the receipt books printed in the beginning. I had a
cyclostyle machine in my office, on which I took copies
of receipt and reports. Such things I began to get
printed only when the Congress coffers were full, and
when the number of members and work had increased. Such
economy is essential for every organization, and yet I
know that it is not always exercised. That is why I have
thought it proper to enter into these little details of
the beginnings of a small but growing organization.
People never cared to have receipts for the amounts
they paid, but we always insisted on the receipts being
given. Every pie was thus clearly accounted for, and I
dare say the account books for the year 1894 can be found
intact even today in the records of Natal Indian
Congress. Carefully kept accounts are a sine qua non
for any organization. Without them it falls into
disrepute. Without properly kept accounts it is
impossible to maintain truth in its pristine purity.
Another feature of the Congress was service of
Colonial-born educated Indians. The Colonial-born Indian
Educational Association was founded under the auspices of
the Congress. The members consisted mostly of these
educated youths. They had to pay a nominal subscription.
The Association served to ventilate their needs and
grievances, to stimulate thought amongst them, to bring
them into touch with Indian merchants and also to afford
them scope for service of the community. It was a sort of
debating society. The members met regularly and spoke or
read papers on different subjects. A small library was
also opened in connection with the Association.
The third feature of the Congress was propaganda. This
consisted in acquainting the English in South Africa and
England and people in India with the real state of things
in Natal. With that end in view I wrote two pamphlets.
The first was An Appeal to Every Briton in South
Africa. It contained a statement, supported by
evidence, of the general condition of Natal Indians. The
other was entitled The Indian Franchise An Appeal.
It contained a brief history of the Indian franchise in
Natal with facts and figures. I had devoted considerable
labour and study to the preparation of these pamphlets,
and the result was widely circulated.
All this activity resulted in winning the Indians
numerous friends in South Africa and in obtaining the
active sympathy of all parties in India. It also opened
out and placed before the South African Indians a
definite line of action.