Mahatma Gandhi and Franchise Law Amendment Bill
The lawsuit of Dada Abdulla and Company was anyhow settled and Gandhi returned to Durban where he started preparing for coming back to India.
Dada Abdulla, who was probably the richest Indian in South Africa, gave a farewell party to Gandhi, but in this party, by chance, Gandhi had a glance over a newspaper titled “Natal Mercury“. The headline of the news that attracted him was “Indian Franchise“.
The news was related to a bill named Franchise Law Amendment Bill that was tabled before the Natal legislature. The idea of this bill was to deprive of voting who then enjoyed “limited Franchise” then based upon the wealth criterion. Anybody with some other requirements had to keep a property of 50 Pounds in South Africa to exercise a voting right. The right was ceded to the Indians by the Royal Charter of 1850.
So, the new bill was contradictory to what this Royal chart says. It was also against the letter and spirit of Royal Proclamation of 1858, which said:
……We hold ourselves bound to the natives of our Indian Territories by the same obligations of duty which bind us to all other subjects……a it is our further will that, so far may be, our subjects, of whatever race or creed, be freely and impartially admitted to offices in our services, the duties of which they may be qualified by their education, ability and integrity….
But the said bill was based upon the assumption that the Indians who came to Natal from India had never exercised franchise in their motherland. Another assumption of this bill was that they were “Not fit for the exercise of franchise“. J
This naked violation of the human right gave a shock to Gandhi and in the same farewell party, he explained the Indian Guests about the result and consequence of the bill if it becomes an act – It was the first nail in the coffin of the Indian interests and strikes at the roots of their self respect.
The Indians realized the danger of the bill. The result was that this farewell party turned out to become a working committee.
To chalk out the future plan, a meeting was arranged next day under the chairmanship of Seth Haji Adam, another rich Indian merchant in Natal.
This was followed by a telegram in the name of Seth Haji Adam to be sent to the speaker of the Natal legislative assembly, Prime Minister and Attorney General of Natal. The consideration of the bill was deferred for two days.
This was followed by a petition by Gandhi signed by five hundred Indians opposing the Franchise Law Amendment Bill. In this petition, Gandhi presented Indians as humble subjects of the British and docilely opposed the said bill. He highlighted the ancient Panchayati system of India and quoted example of Mysore assembly which was a model of British parliament. He also gave reference of the existing municipal system of India. He tried to convince the honorable members of the assembly of Natal that Indians know their duty and responsibility with regard to the Franchise.
At the same time (Around July 1894) Gandhi wrote a letter to Dada Bhai Naoroji in London to raise the question of their problems in South Africa.
But the above efforts proved fruitless. The bill got passed in the assembly and it was sent to the Legislative council for approval. On July 6, 1894, Gandhi presented a second petition, which was too rejected. The bill was sent to the Governor for assent on July 10, 1894. Gandhi wrote a letter to the Governor. He again wrote a letter to Dada Bhai Naoroji about the affairs .On July 17, 1894, he submitted a mass petition with signs of ten thousand Indians to Lord Ripon, who was Secretary of State for Colonies at that time. This third petition was having the full faith in the British Empire and it represented Indians as “subjects” of the British Empire, gave the historical background and current condition elaborately.
Thus was the first political mission of Gandhi. After submitting the petition to Lord Ripon, Gandhi convinced that his work his almost done sought permission of the Indians in South Africa to return India.
But the merchant colleagues did not permit him. He had witnessed their enthusiasm and the community over there wanted him to lead them for their cause. Gandhi saw the logic and settled in Natal. He registered himself in the Supreme Court to practice at Bars and started earning his livelihood from legal practice.