End of Indentureship Pt 2

By Ravi Dev

It was only gradually after indentureds spontaneously joined Gandhi’s protest that the latter’s eyes opened up to the plight of the former: rather not being treated like whites, their very humanity was denied. As racism was exposed through its extreme “apartheid” form a hundred years later, South Africa helped to make more “educated” Indians in India aware of their naïveté in aspiring to be “British”, through information supplied by Gandhi, who was in touch with Gokhale.
Ironically, Gandhi accepted a system in which white British persons were seen as being “better” than Indians, who were to be loyal “helpers”.
Gokhale and Gandhi initially saw Indentureship as hindering Indians being accepted as British because the “coolies” were not distinguished from “other” (read “educated”) Indians. They sought amelioration of the conditions under which the coolie laboured and only called for the abolition of Indentureship to Natal as a tactical measure after the Government of Natal imposed restrictions on the movement of “free” Indians. Abolition there was achieved in 1911.

MK Gandhi

In 1912, Gokhale extended his call to the entire system of Indentureship and other members of the Congress, such as Madan Mohan Malaviya took up the cause. By this time, the harsh conditions in other colonies, especially in Fiji, were made known in India, and the “ban on Indentureship” became a nationwide cause célèbre. On Gandhi’s return to India in 1915, he was identified with ending indentureship, but it was due more to the work of Girmititas Totaram Sanadhya from Fiji and Banarsi Chgaturvedi from South Africa.
On March 20, 1916, after Gokhale had passed away and Gandhi returned to India (both in 1915), Malaviya introduced a motion in the Indian Legislature for the cessation of Indentureship. Governor General Hardinge agreed in principle, but the India Office back in Britain, under J Austen Chamberlain, balked. He insisted that a new method of supplying labour to the colonies had to be found. By this time, however, most ships ferrying indentureds had been commandeered to the (WWI) war effort and the recruitment was also competing with enlistment efforts of the Indian army.

J Austen Chamberlain

Already under fire for a bungled campaign by that Indian-dominated army in Mesopotamia, Chamberlain did not want to face further attacks from the Government of India. On March 12, 1917, he authorised the Government of India to issue orders under the Defence of India Act to stop recruitment and the same day Governor General Hardinge of India passed it in the Legislative Council prohibiting any further recruitment and shipping of Indian Indentureds.. Two weeks earlier, the last ship, the SS Ganges had sailed to British Guiana and Trinidad.
The official date from the British Parliament came on January 1, 1920, when all Indentured contracts were commuted in Guyana.
In Guyana, beyond those indentured who had arrived on the Ganges in 1917 and had their indentureship reduced by two years, the event elicited little notice.