In 1913 Gandhi embarked on his final confrontation with the South African government. He was determined to fight attempts to restrict the rights of the country’s Indian population. It was the last in a series of campaigns he had launched and it was to be the most dramatic.

Gandhi sent a group of Indians – including his wife – across the Natal border into the Transvaal without permission. By 6 November the march had reached Volksrust, on the border with the Transvaal.  Whites in the town threatened to ‘shoot the Indians like rabbits,’ but they refused to be intimidated.

Simultaneously supporters of Gandhi called on Indian miners to come out on strike. Miners were whipped and fired upon, in an attempt to force them underground. The violence failed and the sugar plantation workers also came out on strike.

Troops were rushed to Natal and Gandhi was arrested, but still the strikes and marches persisted.

Finally, on 11 December, under acute pressure from both home and abroad, Smuts finally took the step that broke the impasse. He announced a Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the strike. Gandhi was freed and negotiations were commenced. These resulted in a compromise which allowed Gandhi to declare a victory, and leave South Africa for England and then India on 18 July 2014, where he began his long campaign for India’s independence.

The American connection

All of this is well known and well documented.

What is less well known is just how much Gandhi owed to the outrage and protests of Indians around the world – including those living in San Francisco.

On 30 January 1914 D. S. Dady Burjor wrote to the British authorities, outlining the role of radical Indian migrants – labourers and students – in the city. He was a Parsee cigar importer who also worked as a part-time interpreter for American immigration authorities in San Francisco.

His letter is preserved in the National Archive at Kew on the outskirts of London. The letter’s contents are included in full at the end of this article.

These are the key passages:

“I have had talks with several students, and had opportunities to ascertain their political views. [S]ome students who have unfortunately become out and out anarchists and political fanatics of the most aggravated type….

Unfortunately the trouble in Transvaal and Natal and other South African colonies which is at present agitating India so violently has added fresh fuel to smouldering flame of discontentment and unrest and I have heard even Sikhs of the labouring class bitterly complain against the attitude of indifference and neutrality adopted by the Home Government as regards the prohibition and exclusion of all British Indian subjects in such British possessions as Canada, Australia and South Africa colonies.”

These views would have been transmitted to London, and would have strengthened the British view that something had to be done to end the South African government’s fight with Gandhi.

It was – of course – only one source of support for Gandhi, who would not have succeeded if it had not been for the bravery and tenacity of Indians on South Africa’s mines and plantations, who refused to buckle under brutal pressure. But it is important not to forget that Indians across the world contributed to his victory.

Letter from D S Dady Burjor (catalogue reference FO 371/2154)

This extract dated 30 January 1914 is from D S Dady Burjor, a San Francisco resident. In his report he summarises the class of Indian migrants – labourers and students – in the USA. He gives his opinion why students are attracted to Indian radical politics advocated by educated Indians like Har Dyal in the USA and Mrs Cama in Europe. The writer believes that paternalism (mai-baap) by the government in India would help to curb radicalism. This document provides an insight into a shift in radical nationalist politics from the elites in towns and cities of India to Indian migrants abroad.

Transcript (highlighted passages)

Students are freely admitted to this country, and every facility given them to overcome any little technicality that may stand in their way…

But the curse of the student life on this coast is the baneful effect of the political agitation that is carried on by some of the highly educated “Hindoos” of the type of Har Dyal. Most of these students are infected by seditious ideas and doctrine promulgated by political agitators of the extremist class…

I have had talks with several students, and had opportunities to ascertain their political views. Some of them had very sensible and sane views, and they seemed to realise and fully appreciate the difficult task the British government in India has in ruling such a vast country of teeming millions, divided in so many diverse races, casts, creeds and religions. They frankly admitted that though they in their heart did not like the seditious doctrine circulated amongst them by the political agitators of the type of Shyamji Krishna Varma, Mrs Cama, Har Dyal and others, they had to fall in with their views to just keep up appearances as long as they lived amongst and with them…

…some students who have unfortunately become out and out anarchists and political fanatics of the most aggravated type. They allege that the British Government in India is robbing the people, that instead of educating the people and spending a good part of the public revenue for educational, and sanitary improvements or industrial regeneration they are squandering money in keeping up costly military establishments, that they deny the educated natives of India a fair share in the administration of government of the county….

Unfortunately the trouble in Transvaal and Natal and other South African colonies which is at present agitating India so violently has added fresh fuel to smouldering flame of discontentment and unrest and I have heard even Sikhs of the labouring class bitterly complain against the attitude of indifference and neutrality adopted by the Home Government as regards the prohibition and exclusion of all British Indian subjects in such British possessions as Canada, Australia and South Africa colonies.

Unfortunately these fanatics believe that it is only by using physical force and resorting to violence and blood shed that the concessions, rights and privileges which are so long and so unjustly withheld by the British Government from the natives of India could be obtained and accordingly they preach the doctrine of “terrorism” which they say alone won the Russian people the right of the Duma, and self government from the tyrannical Czar of Russia. The murder of Curzon Wylie and Doctor Lalcaca by Madanlal Dhingra…can all be traced to this dangerous movement…