13. WHAT IT IS TO BE A 'COOLIE' :
THE STORY OF MY EXPERIMENTS WITH TRUTH
by Mohandas K. Gandhi
It would be out of place here to describe fully the condition of Indians in the Transvaal and the
Orange Free State. I would suggest that those who wish to have a full idea of it may turn to
my History of Satyagraha in South Africa. It is, however, necessary to give here a brief outline.
In the Orange Free State the Indians were deprived of all their rights by a special law enacted
in 1888 or even earlier. If they chose to stay there, they could do so only to serve as waiters in
hotels or to pursue some other such menial calling. The traders were driven away, with a nominal
compensation. They made representations and petitions, but in vain.
A very stringent enactment was passed in the Transvaal in 1885. It was slightly amended in
1886, and it was provided under the amended law that all Indians should pay a poll tax of £3 as
fee for entry into the Transvaal. They might not own land except in locations set apart for them,
and in practice even that was not to be ownership. They had no franchise. All this was under the
special law for Asiatics, to whom the laws for the coloured people were also applied. Under these
latter, Indians might not walk on public footpaths, and might not move out of doors after 9 p.m.
without a permit. The enforcement of this last regulation was elastic so far as the Indians were
concerned. Those who passed as 'Arabs' were, as a matter of favour, exempted from it. The
exemption thus naturally depended on the sweet will of the police.
I had to experience the effect of both these regulations. I often went out at night for a walk with
Mr. Coates, and we rarely got back home much before ten o'clock. What if the police arrested
me? Mr. Coates was more concerned about this than I. He had to issue passes to his Negro
servants. But how could he give one to me? Only a master might issue a permit to a servant. If I
had wanted one, and even if Mr. Coates had been ready to give it, he could not have done so, for
it would have been fraud.
So Mr. Coates or some friend of his took me to the State Attorney, Dr. Krause. We turned out
to be barristers of the same Inn. The fact that I needed a pass to enable me to be out of doors
after 9 p.m. was too much for him. He expressed sympathy for me. Instead of ordering for me a
pass, he gave me a letter authorizing me to be out of doors at all hours without police
interference. I always kept this letter on me whenever I went out. The fact that I never had to
make use of it was a mere accident.
Dr. Krause invited me to his place, and we may be said to have become friends. I occasionally
called on him, and it was through him that I was introduced to his more famous brother, who was
Public Prosecutor in Johannesburg. During the Boer War he was court-martialled for conspiring to
murder an English officer, and was sentenced to imprisonment for seven years. He was also
disbarred by the Benchers. On the termination of hostilities he was released, and being
honourably re-admitted to the Transvaal bar, resumed practice.
These connections were useful to me later on in my public life, and simplified much of my work.
The consequences of the regulation regarding the use of foot-paths were rather serious for me.
I always went out for a walk through President Street to an open plain. President Kruger's house
was in this street--a very modest, unostentatious building, without a garden, and not
distinguishable from other houses in its neighbourhood. The houses of many of the millionaires in
Pretoria were far more pretentious, and were surrounded by gardens. Indeed President Kruger's
simplicity was proverbial. Only the presence of a police patrol before the house indicated that it
belonged to some official. I nearly always went along the footpath past this patrol without the
slightest hitch or hindrance.
Now the man on duty used to be changed from time to time. Once one of these men, without
giving me the slightest warning, without even asking me to leave the footpath, pushed and kicked
me into the street. I was dismayed. Before I could question him as to his behaviour, Mr. Coates,
who happened to be passing the spot on horseback, hailed me and said:
'Gandhi, I have seen everything. I shall gladly be your witness in court if you proceed against
the man. I am very sorry you have been so rudely assaulted.'
'You need not be sorry,' I said. 'What does the poor man know? All coloured people are the
same to him. He no doubt treats Negroes just as he has treated me. I have made it a rule not to
go to court in respect of any personal grievance. So I do not intend to proceed against him.'
'That is just like you,' said Mr Coates, 'but do think it over again. We must teach such men a
lesson.' He then spoke to the policeman and reprimanded him. I could not follow their talk, as it
was in Dutch, the policeman being a Boer. But he apologized to me, for which there was no need.
I had already forgiven him.
But I never again went through this street. There would be other men coming in this man's
place and, ignorant of the incident, they would behave likewise. Why should I unnecessarily court
another kick? I therefore selected a different walk.
The incident deepened my feeling for the Indian settlers. I discussed with them the advisability
of making a test case, if it were found necessary to do so, after having seen the British Agent in
the matter of these regulations.
I thus made an intimate study of the hard condition of the Indian settlers, not only by reading
and hearing about it, but by personal experience. I saw that South Africa was no country for a
self-respecting Indian, and my mind became more and more occupied with the question as to
how this state of thing might be improved.
But my principal duty for the moment was to attend to the case of Dada Abdulla.
NEXT :14. PREPARATION FOR THE CASE