Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology arrow Cosmopolitan Lives on the Cusp of Empire: Interfaith, Cross-Cultural and Transnational Networks, 1860-1950

Cosmopolitan Thought Zones/p

The close friendship and collaboration of Gandhi and Polak was based upon reading, and conversations between ‘different cultural, linguistic and political communities in the pursuit of shared goals’.51 Gandhi introduced

Polak to Max Muller’s India: What can it teach us?, an account of India’s rich philosophical and religious culture, which led its readers to think critically about Western dominance. Polak introduced Gandhi to Thomas a Kempis. Both were interested in different religious communities and their sacred writings. Millie Polak recalled:

When guests were present, philosophies of different countries would be compared and many varieties of religious and mystic experiences dwelt upon. One never-failing theme was the different customs of East and West, and the different outlook upon life that various races of the world exemplified.52

Polak deepened his understanding of Hinduism:

I studied the great Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita with Gandhiji in 1905, while living with his family in Johannesburg. The teaching of Lord Krishna to his pupil and devotee, Prince Arjuna was always deep in his consciousness.

‘By whatever path men approach Me, even so I do welcome them; for the path men take from every side is Mine.’ That teaching had a deep impression on me and helped me decide, unwilling at first, but upon Gandhiji’s’ persuasion to become a member of the Theosophical Society and to join the Johannesburg lodge.53

The Indian Opinion was produced in a number of different languages54 aimed at the diverse Indian communities in South Africa and British and Indian supporters of their struggle.55 As editor and frequent writer in its columns, Polak was a crucial participant in what Hofmeyr terms ‘one of the great intellectual archives of the world’.56 It was created in a cosmopolitan thought zone as Hofmeyr details,

Produced in a context of multiple diasporic intersections in southern Africa, the paper’s pages are woven from a variety of global intellectual filaments, drawn from larger trajectories of migration. These intellectual maps included the imperial and subimperial triangle of Africa-India-Britain; the dispersal of indentured Indian workers (Mauritius, Fiji, Caribbean, Burma, Ceylon, Malaya); the flashpoints where voluntary Indian migration encountered the global color line (British Columbia, the United States, Australia, New Zealand); the sacred geographies of Islam and Hinduism, followed by Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Christianity; circuits of back internationalism (Universal Races Congress, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois); and configurations within and between other European empires (Portuguese, French, German).57

Readers were encouraged to read across many traditions, including Gujarati titles, works in English by Tolstoy, Ruskin, Emerson, Mazzini, ethical, religious and theological works.58 Extracts from and references to Polak and Gandhi’s own wide reading were found in its pages. Indeed, Polak refers to Thoreau’s pamphlet, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, which Gandhi urged him to publish ‘as a supplement to Indian Opinion' 5 Polak and Gandhi also explored the notion of ‘race’ in its pages, with Polak publishing a pamphlet critiquing the ideas of Johannesburg journalist L.E. Neame, on ‘The Asiatic Danger’ to white supremacy in the colonies. Polak interrogated white racism as a ‘symptom of Western industrial capitalism’.60 It was most likely Polak who, under a pseudonym, reviewed Jean Finot, Racial Prejudice in 1907. This text influenced Gandhi, accelerating

his transformation in South Africa from one who was seeking equality with Europeans to one who spoke in terms of equality for all.61

An Envoy for the Indians, Building Networks Across India

On a number of occasions from 1909, Gandhi and the BIA sent Polak on a speaking tour to India to inform and gain the support of the Indian public about the South African situation and to gather funds for Passive Resisters. On these visits, he represented the South African Indians at the INC, as well as those in East Africa and Zanzibar. In 1909, he spoke to many groups across the country, also visiting Ceylon to arrange the repatriation of 67 South African Indians who had been deported for participating in the resistance.62 During these visits, Polak made many Indian friends including the liberal South Indian publisher, G.A. Natesan, editor of the Madras based, Indian Review, and began writing for this and many other Indian publications, circulating information about the South African struggle and India’s position within the British Empire. Natesan published two books by Polak in 1909, The Indians of South Africa; helots within the empire and how they are treated.63 and also A tragedy of empire: the treatment of British Indians in the Transvaal; an appeal to India.64 Both were intended to inform Indian public opinion about the Indian situation in South Africa. Polak gathered ?6,000 to further the work of the BIA.65 He became a prolific public speaker, broadcaster and writer on Indian matters, on internationalism and the scourge of racism and published widely in Indian, British and American publications.

As part of a BIA delegation, Polak also attended the Universal Races Congress in London, in 1911. This unusual assembly of missionaries, anthropologists, anti-colonial activists, intellectuals and assorted others, aimed

to discuss in the light of modern knowledge and the modern conscience, the general relations subsisting between peoples of the West and those of the East, between so-called white and so-called coloured peoples, with a view to encouraging between them fuller understanding, the most friendly feelings and a heartier cooperation.66

This was a crucial moment for the airing of anticolonial cosmopolitan- isms,67 and both exposed and facilitated networks of connection among the ‘globally oriented elite’ of African, African-American and Asian professionals, intellectuals and political activists’.68 Polak spoke about the South African Indian campaign for justice.69 He was also deputed by the Transvaal Chinese Association ‘to represent their grievances to the Chinese Consul-General’ in London.70 Back in South Africa, Polak was arrested in 1913 while supporting the Indian opposition to the poll tax imposed upon them. He refused to apply for bail or pay fines, which would have seen him released in solidarity with the Indians and served a 3-month sentence.71

Gandhi left India in 1914. They had agreed that the Polaks would also return to London when the South African campaign came to an end, so that their children could be ‘brought up in an atmosphere free from racial and colour prejudice’.72 However, Gandhi asked Polak to stay behind to oversee the implementation of the Smuts-Gandhi agreement, a somewhat unsatisfactory compromise agreement with the South African government, aimed to settle the Indians’ concerns.73

On his return trip to England, Polak made a long detour to India in 1916-1917 to speak on the evils of the indenture system, on South African Indian problems and to confer with Gandhi. As a BIA delegate he again addressed the INC and various other gatherings, including The Servants of India society in Bombay, founded by Gandhi’s mentor, social reformer and nationalist G.K. Gokhale (1866-1915). He spoke to the members of the Vizagapatam District Association on indentured labour and to the Home Rule League at Cocanda. He spoke in smaller centres such as Gooty and to the Ahmedabad Students Brotherhood, while the District Congress Committee of Ajmer, planning a great demonstration against indentured labour, invited him to address them.74

Throughout his Indian travels, Polak was under surveillance by British intelligence. At times it was difficult to arrange public meetings due to the blocks placed by British officials.75 Police questioned his hosts, and undercover British representatives attended his talks.76 Addressing a meeting in Allahabad critiquing the superior position of the white settler dominions within the British Empire in May 1917, he joked about the fact that the Criminal Investigation Department would have a spy in the meeting, ready to report back. He asserted that no public meeting in India was complete without

The cordial cooperation of those kindly guardians of the public conscience, those simple, selfless unassuming souls, the gentlemen of the Criminal Investigation Department.77

By 1917 and his return to London, the campaign against indenture was achieving some success. Polak was

One of a small group responsible for the termination of indenture labour to Natal (1911), Closing of recruitment of indentured labour throughout the Empire (1917) and abolition of indenture (1920).78

The small group was diverse, bringing together activists from different backgrounds, including Gandhi; G.K. Gokhale; Totaram Sanadhya (1876-1947), a former indentured worker; the nationalist journalist Banarsidas Chaturvedi (1892-1925); and C. F. Andrews (1871-1940), the Anglican priest and missionary who worked closely with Gandhi. Polak’s return to London marked the end of his South African residence, but he always maintained an active interest in South African affairs and wrote extensively about them.79

While the South African interlude has been represented as crucial to Gandhi’s political development,80 Gandhi and Polak’s joint activities and discussions were transformative for both of them. Gandhi’s relationship with

Henry Polak in South Africa enabled Gandhi to move from a life as a middle- class lawyer ‘in the direction of a more simplified life of public service’.81 In South Africa, Polak found Theosophy, which confirmed his worldview; and discovered his life’s work in combatting racism and working on a global stage, in particular for Indian equality. In these years, Polak became an experienced political activist, a lawyer, an accomplished public speaker, writer, and editor. His friendships and working relationships across ‘racial’, and cultural boundaries were remarkable for the period. He had become an international figure, particularly in the sub-continent and South Africa.

 
Source
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics