Mahatma Gandhi’s Move for the abolition of the Indentured Labour System – the “Girmit”

By Sarita Boodhoo

As we commemorate this 2nd November the 185th anniversary of the arrival of Indian Indentured workers in Mauritius, the one person to remember, one who did his utmost to get rid of this ignominious system is Mahatma Gandhi. It is no mere coincidence then that we are also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of this great soul, who was not yet then a Mahatma, who spent 18 days in this land as from October 29th to 15th November 1901.

Between 1893 and 1914 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had seen at close quarters the abominable and despicable treatment meted out to the “girmitias” in South Africa. Every time he went to India during those 21 years there was only one thought uppermost in his mind: the plight of the “girmitiyas”. He sought at every Congress meeting to acquaint its leaders with the sore and abject, humiliating, undignified conditions of the indentured labourers.

Young barrister Gandhi was horrified and shocked by the dismaying condition of the girmityas and their descendants. So disturbed was the young barrister Gandhi by their trials and tribulations that he would certainly move for the abolition of the system , even at the cost of being beaten, kicked and humiliated several times in South Africa in defence of their cause, being identified and treated as one of them, ‘a coolie…’.

In ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ by the Publications Division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting of India (1st Edition 1964) one comes across several writings, letters, petitions, pleas and speeches of his relating to the abominable system of indenture. With quite a few of them referring to the plight of the Indian Indentures in Mauritius. He first made reference to Mauritius in May 1896. In a letter to Shri Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1911, an eminent freedom fighter and leader of Indian National Congress, he wrote that Manilal Doctor, a young barrister (whom he had sent to Mauritius in 1907 to take up the cudgel on behalf of Indian labourers, planters, traders and merchants) was proceeding to India to attend an important meeting of the Indian National Congress where he would try to have a resolution passed to abolish the Indentured Labour System in the British Empire. He had even urged Shri Gokhale to visit Mauritius to familiarize himself with the dreadful conditions of Indians here.

Again, in December 1915, in his speech on India and its colonies at the 30th Indian National Congress session held at Bombay he decried the system and submitted a resolution to the effect that the system of Indentured Labour is undesirable and urged its abolition because of its “highly injurious and immoral effects”. He also petitioned that “the self-governing colonies would extend to the Indian emigrants equal rights with the Europeans.”

 In 1912, a motion to this effect by Gokhale was outvoted by the British members of the Imperial Legislative Council. Gandhiji remarked then that “the yoke, if it fell from the Negro’s black neck was transferred to the brown neck of the Indian.” For him the Indentured labour system had persisted because “its bitterness like that of a sugared pill has been cleverly though consciously concealed.”

Gandhiji says in his autobiography – ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ – “India (then British) had tolerated the system through sheer negligence, and I believed the time had come when people could successfully agitate for this redress.” He continues: “I met some of the leaders, wrote in the press, and saw that public opinion was solidly in favour of immediate abolition.”

Gandhiji canvassed the issue in his autobiography, ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’, dedicating a whole chapter to “Abolition of Indentured Emigration”. He even strongly contemplated of having a Satyagraha to fight the system – “Might this be a fit subject for Satyagraha?” he mused. But he frankly admitted: “I did not know the modus operandi.” Gandhiji referred to rejection of moves by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, founder of the Banaras Hindu University, who had moved a resolution in March 1916 in the Legislative Council for the abolition. But it was turned down. Again, in February 1917, Pandit Malaviyaji asked for leave to introduce a bill for the immediate abolition of the system. Lord Chelmsford, Viceroy of India refused permission. So, the Mahatma now growing impatient at the state of things decided, “it was time for me to act…”

He decided to tour the country for an all-India agitation, starting from Bombay, and met with unbounded enthusiasm all over the country and support from prominent personalities, as reported in the “Bombay Secret Abstracts” of March 2nd 1917. Meanwhile, a delegation of the colonial planters attended a Conference in London and met the Secretary of State Mr. J. Chamberlain to seek the repatriation of the indentured labourers (old and new and their descendants), arguing that they were not Mauritians, a move opposed by Gandhiji. The fear of the “Asiatic Peril” was predominant, also that the British may entrust the management of Mauritius to India for “more economical” administration. “Indian magistrates and officials would then be employed here at lower costs ‘a vil prix’.” (Le Mauricien of Friday 25th October 2019 forum page 14, Article – “The Action Liberal collapsed opposite the Oligarchy’s “Parti de L’Ordre” (1911) by Anand Moheeputh.

Professor Hugh Tinker, noted historian wrote: “The Mauritians of Indian origin form over two-thirds of the population of the island, yet they remain an anonymous, uncommemorated mass of people, without any history, without any heroes,” and “The labourer was confined to the coolie lines on the estate.” In 1901, the year MK Gandhi had landed in Mauritius, in the total population of 370,588 there were 255,920 Indians, but they had no voice.

But Gandhi acted as their voice heard at the important Calcutta Congress. Before 31st July 1917 the Government announced that Indentured emigration from India would be stopped, a long struggle from 1894 when he had drafted his first petition protesting against the system. Years later, in 1924, Gandhiji as President of the Indian National Congress could not help mentioning Mauritius and the semi-slavery system of indentureship. But he was also aware that some Mauritian white planters had toured India and recruited hundreds of indentured labourers for their sugar estates, despite the abolition of the system. It was then that a Commission of Enquiry headed by Kunwar Maharaj Singh was appointed by the British Raj. Its findings would definitely put a term to the system on 31st May 1924 in Mauritius.

* Published in print edition on 31 October 2019

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