Mention South Africa and the one Indian connection that comes prominently to our minds is Mahatma Gandhi. sa6Every Indian takes a great and justified pride in what Gandhi accomplished in South Africa and what he initiated in South Africa. To this day, we Indians proudly declare that Nelson Mandela’s victorious war against the apartheid regime in South Africa has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi. That is the accepted history as handed down by the establishment.

However in the layered annals of history, we find another sequence of events and toils from the heart fueled as they were by the kind of Indian nationalism associated with and advocated by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and his colleagues. It was a man from Savarkar camp who was instrumental in creating the atmosphere that eventually led to international sanctions against South Africa and greatly facilitated the ending of apartheid.

Smuts-Gandhi: Beyond the Romanticism

General Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) was the adversary Gandhi faced when he was in South Africa. Their meeting has been immortalized in the reels by Sir Richard Attenborough, in his 1982 epic movie ‘Gandhi’ (General Smuts played by Athol Fugard and Gandhi by Ben Kingsley). The real turn of events turn out to be a bit more complicated and naturally a 187 minutes film could not be expected to do justice to a much complicated history.  But an obviously transformed and positively impressed General Smuts belongs more to the realm of imagination than actual history.

It was on January 30 1908, exactly forty years before his death, that Mahatma met Smuts for the first time. The meet was arranged through the efforts of one Albert Cartwright, a journalist sympathetic to Indian cause. Gandhi was then still in jail. sa1General Smuts the European strategist assured Gandhi the Hindu Satyagrahi that the South African government would ‘repeal the Asiatic Act as soon as most Indians underwent voluntary registration’. After consulting with his co-workers in jail, Gandhi signed the agreement. To those who were critical of his signing the agreement, the Mahatma stated that ‘an implicit trust in human nature’ as the essence of the creed of the Satyagrahi. [1]  An ace strategist General Smuts promptly went back on his words leading Gandhi to start the Satyagrahaof burning the certificates in public for which he was arrested second time and then subsequently Gandhi went back to London on his release in 1909.

Gandhi returned back to South Africa again and conducted his Satyagraha with varied intensities and successes. The main objective namely removal of racial discrimination against Indians was largely an unaccomplished task.  By 1910, South Africa had been given Dominion Status. This effectively made South Africa unbound by British government. Smuts was now the Minister of the Interior. Gandhi started his negotiations in this changed milieu. He was at last ready to concede an educational qualification in the Immigration Bill for the new Union, he was fighting against. The educational qualification would as effectively exclude many Indians practically as the original bill intended.

The last Satyagraha was when a legal judgment in South Africa invalidated all marriages except the Christian marriage which technically reduced the legallysa2 wed Hindu and other non-Christian wives of Indian origin to the level of concubines and exempted their children from legal rights to the property of their fathers. This naturally created an outrage which ultimately led to a massive Satyagraha of 50,000 workers of Indian origin.

As a result of extensive outrage against the South African government, both in India and Britain, the state was forced to set up a commission to look into the grievance of Indians.  Thus in 1914, when Mahatma returned from South Africa, the repeal of the Transvaal Act was more symbolic than practical, winning Indians hardly any of the refused rights or setting right the discrimination. And General Smuts had stood his ground and refused to abolish the Natal poll tax. [2]

The Sandals: Mahatma’s Moral Victory

But all thatsa7 did not stop the Mahatma in presenting his adversary with a pair of hand-made sandals as a symbol of Mahatma’s grandeur of simplicity. By 1938, General Smuts had become an important politician in South Africa who would in a year become South Africa’s fourth Prime Minister. Mahatma was spearheading the Indian freedom movement eclipsing all other personalities in the freedom struggle.  The sandals would become a great symbol of divine triumph of Gandhi in his biographies. In the celebrated anthology on Gandhi edited by Louis Fischer, we find:

Smuts wore the sandals every summer at his farm and then returned the sandals to Gandhi on Gandhi’s seventieth birthday. Smuts remarked, ‘I have worn these sandals for many a summer … even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.’[3]

However W. K. Hancock the biographer of General Smuts contradicts this:

Those sandals! Gandhi’s biographers like to tell how Smuts returned them to the Mahatma on the occasion of his seventieth birthday; but all he sent was a photograph of them; they were still ‘a precious relic’ in his possession on that day.[4]

Whatever may be the facts with regard to the return of the Sandals, what cannot be denied, is the fact that General Smuts expressed a great respect for Mahatma on his 70th birth day and acknowledged the greatness of Mahatma. For the followers of the Mahatma that definitely was the victory of Ahimsa. And that was in 1939.

Gen. Smuts brings ‘the Pegging Act’

Mahatma had returned to India following his monumental moral and spiritual victory over Smuts in July 1914. However the material conditions of  Indians in South Africa did not improve much. In fact South African Indians saw newer and newer laws take away their livelihood freedoms one by one. Thus since 1919 the Asiatic private companies were not entitled to hold fixed properties. ‘The Mines and Works Act‘ debarred Indians from becoming skilled workers. In 1932 the Asiatic Land Tenure Act also debarred any Asiatics (read Indians) even holding shares in minority, in any company.

In 1939, even as General Smuts was sending his moving message to Mahatma, an interim act called Asiatic Land and Tilling Act was introduced. It restricted Indians economically well within the areas which were ‘pegged’ as their community area.  The act evolved even more menacingly by 1943.  That year the Second World War was two years from getting over. Gen. Smuts, the friend of Mahatma, was the Prime Minister of South Africa. The interim act of 1939 was renamed the Pegging Act and was extended to both Transvaal and Natal. [5]   The result of this act was that 24000 Indians were confined to 200 acres in Transvaal and Natal while 7000 whites were given 5000 acres at their disposal.[6]

The reaction of Indian National Congress (INC) to this act was inspired by the ‘implicit trust’ Mahatma had in reaching out to the ‘human nature’ of Gen. Smuts. Ahmed M. Kathrada a veteran of the South African liberation struggle records the response of to this act of Smuts and the counter-response of the apartheid regime to the appeal of INC:

In line with their established response, the leaders of the Indian National Congress sent a deputation to convey to Smuts their dissatisfaction with the law, and to plead with him to repeal it. They did manage to secure an undertaking that the law would be repealed, but the quid pro quo was the humiliating and spineless suggestion by the Indian politicians that in place of the Pegging Act, the government should set up an Occupation Council Board to regulate Indian residence in white areas. The board would consist of two Indians and three white members, which meant, in effect, that it could do exactly what the Pegging Act was designed to do, except that Indians would themselves be complicit.[7]

Such a soft approach by Congress should not be considered anyway as a sign of weakness. Mahatma had declared that Smuts as ‘the warmest friend’ he had at that time.[8] So the Congress leadership should have perceived that, in the heart of his heart, General Smuts was a friend of Indians, though political compulsions made him work against the Indian interests in South Africa.

A doctor comes to the rescue

With such a magnanimous gesture sa5of a noble protest from the Congress, the future of Indians in South Africa seemed sealed and was headed towards a sure economic doom. However there was an ex-Congress man who was then in the Viceroy’s executive committee member- a doctor by profession and a fierce Indian nationalist by disposition. He was Dr. Narayan Bhaskar Kharve. As a Congress leader he was the premier of the Central Provinces and had gone far radical in implementing the empowering schemes for the downtrodden castes.

When he made a Dalit one of his cabinet ministers, the then Congress high command criticized the move. Dr. N.B.Khare refused to yield ground and had to pay with his dismissal by the Congress high priests. Bitterly he parted way with the Congress. [9] He was shabbily treated, humiliated and sent out. Decades later after the power equations got safely enthroned none other than Rajaji, then a faithful lieutenant of Mahatma, conceded to Dr.Khare that he was ’treated badly by a powerful organization which did not suffer from any lack of arrogance’[10]

Despite his differences with the Congress, his commitment to the welfare of Indians everywhere was beyond any criticism. As a member of the Viceroy’s executive committee Dr. Khare was also in charge of the department of Indian Overseas. But Viceroy had overriding powers. Adding to this already disadvantaged conditions Dr.Khare learnt that the one law that called for retaliatory measures for safeguarding the welfare of the people of Indian origins abroad legal and technical difficulties in actually getting implemented.

So Dr.Khare quickly made amendments to the law and within the same July month of Smut’s law damning Indians, on July 26th 1943 he succeeded in placing on the Statute book the Indian Reciprocity Act Amendment Bill. [11] Then he started demanding that it be implemented against South Africa. That in itself was a great accomplishment but now the real challenge was to make the British viceroy implement this against South Africa. He also cautioned the British that war cannot be made an excuse for South Africa to humiliate its citizens of Indian origin.  He made himself bluntly clear in the Council:

Same means must be found for maintaining the dignity and prestige of Indians and the Government of India, even in wartime. . . . Had India been independent, she would have considered this a casus belli *against South Africa. [12]

‘… to declare war against South Africa – here and now’

However, all his plans were made ‘topsy-turvy’ with the arrival of the new viceroy, Archibald Percival Wavell (1883-1950) in October 1943.  sa3The very same month Dr. Khare met him and raised the issue of South Africa. Dr.Khare discovered that the British Viceroy, like Mahatma Gandhi, considered Smuts ‘a good friend and a thorough gentleman‘ and hence ‘would not allow enforcing the decisions against South Africa’ and ‘would not allow anyone to do anything against Smuts’. [13] Khare in his own words was totally dejected and yet he was not a man to give into the feelings of his adversary when the interests of the fellow countrymen were getting sabotaged.  Repeated harsh words and expressions of Dr. Khare in every executive council forced Wavell to act.

There are British historians who naturally want to minimize the role of Dr.Khare and project Wavell’s action as if it was flowing from his own concern for Indians. Even they are forced to acknowledge that it were the ‘sharp words from Dr.Khare’ which made Wavell telegraph his ‘very good friend‘ that ‘unless he can give satisfactory answer now‘ Khare would press for drastic action against South Africa. [14] On April 15, 1944 Indian high commissioner in South Africa was made to give a note to Smuts threatening counter measure.  Three days later Pretoria regime came out with an agreement – the Pretoria Agreement – partly in consultation with the  Natal Indian Congress. Even this was racially biased against the Indians. It essentially meant that Indians would agree to residential restrictions but the ‘Pegging Act’ would be withdrawn only after an ordinance had been passed by Natal legislature (where even the Indians would be represented only by the white men). Even  this was too much for the  Whites.

Sensing the dissatisfaction of the white population, Smuts quickly announced that his government would extend the pegging act for all time to the whole of Natal. [15] Indians in South Africa were shocked by this abject betrayal of Smuts. Back in India at a meeting of the Central Legislative Assembly Dr.Khare  echoed their sense of betrayal and minced no words and declared “I wish India was in a position to declare war against South Africa, here and now.” Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar, the Member for Industry and Civil Supplies, announced that if a force was raised to attack South Africa, he would enlist. [16]

Dr. Khare telegraphed the British government about the mounting displeasure in India. This led Viceroy Wavell to personally caution Smuts about the increased Indian pressure that might force the British government take action against South Africa.  At last in 1944 Dr. Khare’s efforts yielded a first major victory. It also made history of sorts when a not yet independent India implemented the reciprocity Act against South Africa an independent state. This was essentially symbolic. But Dr. Khare was not a man to be satisfied with such symbolic gestures and moral victories.  Meanwhile the second world war had come to an end and by June 1945 the League of Nations was being reconstituted and established as United Nations. Dr. Khare now came up with a radical new plan that completely transformed the terrain of fight for the justice in South Africa.

‘An Irresponsible Act’ and a Tamil Connection

Dr. Khare decided to submit a memorandum to United Nations against South Africa and announced this to the media – the Associate Press of America in Delhi. This created a shock and uproar in many circles –from the Viceroy to the bureaucratic establishment.  Dr. Khare describes the response of the establishment to his announcement of going to the UN:

The Associate Press of India took very pointed notice of my interview with the Associated Press of America in Delhi and of my speeches made in Nagpur. On account of this the bureaucratic atmosphere of the Government of India in Delhi became hostile to me and I was accused of making irresponsible speeches and giving irresponsible interviews without making any reference to the Government of India. One of my colleagues said to my face that an I.C.S. would never have behaved irresponsibly like that… Viceroy also charged me with irresponsibility … and there was great bitterness between me and the Viceroy …Lord Wavell the Viceroy did not at all like my attempt to lodge a complaint against South Africa before the U.N.O. He tried his level best to dissuade me from this attempt.[17]

But Dr.Khare stood his ground. He forced Viceroy to consider going to UNO by bringing an adjournment motion in the legislative assembly. Viceroy who considered the proposal ‘irresponsible’ had asked the secretary of India’s external affairs department, Hugh Weightman to see if there was any substance to Dr.Khare’s announcement. Weightman who also thought India going to UNO as an “ill-considered action” which would have “grave repercussions” had asked his undersecretary to see if there was anything to it. To the shock of both Wavell and Weightman, the undersecretary came back with the finding that India ‘would have every right to raise the question‘ at the General Assembly (and not at the Security Council, as originally intended by Dr.Khare) of the UNO. [16]

Setting the Sail with Changing Winds

Things were becoming somewhat favorable to Indian cause. Winston Churchill a racist imperialist with intense hatred for India, had been defeated for domestic reasons in the UK general elections of 1945. By January 1946 Dr.Khare’s cabinet colleague Sir Arcot Ramasamy Mudaliar (1887-1976) had been appointed as the head of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.  He had informed in the legislative council that Khare’s efforts would be put into action as soon as South Africa makes the bill a permanent law. sa4By April 1946 Dr.Khare had succeeded in making Indian government withdraw the high commissioner to South Africa. Still there were pressures from the British bureaucratic circles trying to dissuade Dr.Khare from raising the issue in UNO.

Arrogant and oblivious to such protests, General Smuts went ahead and made the Asiatic Land Tenure and Representation Act a permanent law on June 1946. Meanwhile there were efforts on to install a caretaker government by September which would be a Congress government under Jawaharlal Nehru. Dr.Khare had to hurry and make sure that the issue would be submitted to the UNO so that the Congress government with Nehru-Gandhi high command would not be able to reverse or dilute it. Through the services of his secretary R.N.Banerjee a lengthy memorandum was prepared that studied the various aspects of the racial discrimination created by South African regime and drew parallel to ‘the Nazi principles and practice of race superiority’. [18] The draft of the memorandum running 18 pages was sent by air telegram to Ramaswamy Mudaliar who on 22nd June 1946 submitted it to Mr. Trygve Lie, the Secretary-General of United Nations. Satisfied that he had done a solid work for the South African Indians Dr. Khare quit his office in September 1946.

The Final Triumph of Mahatma

Soon a caretaker Congress government came into effect. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru presided over with the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi.sa8 Nehru immediately appointed his own sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit as the head of the delegation to the United Nations Organization. As Vijayalakshmi Pandit basked under the media limelight projecting her brother’s government as the champion for the rights of the South African people, the perseverance with which Khare fought to arrive at that point was relegated to the footnotes in the long march of history.  Vikayalakshmi Pandit revealed to General Smuts that Mahatma Gandhi with his characteristic spiritual magnanimity had summoned her before her departure to UN. Mahatma had told Vijayalakshmi Pandit, she revealed to General Smuts  ‘’that I should shake your hand and ask your blessing for my cause’. [19] General Smuts would have had reason to smile – for his place in history would be assured along with Mahatma. However it is the first pioneering seeds so painstakingly planted by Dr.Khare that eventually became the international sanctions against South Africa.

The world community does need great souls like Mahatma Gandhi for inspiration and guidance along with the lofty principles of Ahimsa and Satyagraha. But the deprived and exploited communities like the South African Indians need persistent practical selfless self-effacing fighters like Narayan Bhaskar Khare fight with all their might and sweat for them against the injustice to these otherwise orphaned people.  Memory of Dr. Khare is very much relevant today. Today peoples of Indian origin suffer in many foreign lands: from Hindus in Pakistan, Hindus and Buddists in Bangladesh, Tamils in Sri Lanka, people of Indian origins in various nations of Africa, our workers in theocratic states like Saudi Arabia and many gulf countries …  where are the Khares we need?

(References in Page 2)

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Aravindan Neelakandan

Co-author of acclaimed book "Breaking India", Aravindan Neelakandan has worked for the past decade with an NGO in Tamil Nadu serving marginalized rural communities in sustainable agriculture. He is also a popular science writer in Tamil and is part of the editorial team of highly popular Tamil web portal

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