Gandhi And The Money Trail

The phrase ‘follow the money’ applies aptly in evaluating Mahatma Gandhi’s years in Natal, which is why, as Puni Dyer states, he was not the icon he is portrayed to have been (The Mercury, April 15).

At the request of his brother, whose merchant firm was pursuing a claim for £40,000, the prospect of substantial earnings by winning a big court case brought him to the Transvaal in May 1893.

His campaigning against the Natal colonial government’s legislation discriminating against Indians was premised on the interests of the moneyed class of Indians – the merchant trading elite. They constituted the membership of the Natal Indian Congress, which was inaugurated on August 22, 1894. With annual dues of £3 per member, the NIC was then an exclusive body.

For all Gandhi’s efforts to expose and oppose the discriminatory nature of the Robinson ministry’s legislation, an interview Gandhi gave the New Statesman on November 13, 1896, provides a clear indication of how he distinguished between classes of Indians.  He regarded only the merchant class as worthy of enfranchisement, stating that he had no intention of paving the way for common labouring Indians to vote.

On legislation which imposed a punitive residential tax of £3 per annum on Indians who preferred to remain in Natal after completing their indenture contracts instead of returning to India, Gandhi was lukewarm on the prospect of repealing it. For him, indenture was an issue of contract and bargain and not an Empire issue which threatened intercolonial relations with Britain.

Despite the 1906 inquiry into inhuman treatment of indentured labour on Reynolds Bros. sugar estates, which led to the removal of Charles Reynolds from having anything further to do with indentured labour, Gandhi’s newspaper, Indian Opinion was silent.

From the above instances, Gandhi’s position between the sugar barons, the Indian merchant class and their mutual financial interests is beyond dispute.

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