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Limits to Cosmopolitanism?

Polak and Gandhi have been criticised by a number of scholars who note their focus upon Indians and neglect of the rights of Africans.113 Polak referred to the hardship of Indian detainees in the Transvaal having to share prison cells with Africans, ‘human beings scarcely emerged from savagery and barbarism, full of animal lusts and brutal passions’.114 Such opinions echo hierarchical and evolutionary views of humanity, rather than a cosmopolitan and egalitarian one, suggesting a selective anti-racism. However, over time, both Polak and Gandhi widened their views. Indeed, Polak claims that he suggested Gandhi widen his campaign to include the Africans, who were suffering loss of land, violence and discrimination at the hands of the white settler authorities.

After careful consideration he [Gandhi] decided that it was not advisable to do so, as speaking generally, the Africans were very backward at the time and highly emotional, and would probably not appreciate the necessity of nonviolence in thought and action. Besides, he pointed out, whatever the ‘passive resisters’ gained by their efforts towards racial freedom would be a gain for the Africans, too.115

Certainly, there was a tendency within Theosophy to privilege Indians and their religions. Holton notes Annie Besant

discerned a hierarchy in which the Indians along with the British stood for a higher set of social capacities than the ‘savage people and barbarian nations’ of most of Africa.116

Africans in South Africa pursued their sometimes parallel political goals under the leadership of men such as John Langalibalele Dube (18711946) and John Tengo Jabavu (1859-1921), keeping a mutually respectful distance from Gandhi and Polak. But they were located differently under colonialism, with the Indians seeking the end of discriminatory legislation and to enjoy the rights of British subjects and the Africans seeking to hold onto their own land and sovereignty.117 If Polak focussed early upon the Indian struggles, he later became supportive of African and other peoples. The IOA under Polak’s direction, ‘was concerned with African as well as Indian welfare. Between the two world wars... the Indian Overseas Association rivalled the Anti-Slavery Society in humanitarian interest in Africa’.118 Polak with C.F. Andrews and Gandhi were ‘instrumental in convincing Indians at home and abroad that Africa belonged to the Africans’ .119

The recent dismissal of Polak as a ‘white do-gooder’120 fails to consider the complexities of his relationship with Gandhi and their Indian colleagues. Defending Polak from the charge of a British Indian newspaper that he was merely the paid agent of the BIA, Gandhi wrote:

I know him personally as a dear friend and brother. He came to the cause, embraced poverty and left the Assistant Editorship of a Johannesburg weekly, which might ultimately have proved much to him, if he had desired the goods of this world... The struggle in the Transvaal has meant for Mr. Polak, as it has meant for many Indians, the deprivation of even the means or rather the opportunity of earning a livelihood.121

South African Indians appreciated Polak’s efforts and dedication. Their farewell, complete with extensive speeches by community leaders, was one of many indications of their regard. A Polak Farewell Committee issued invitations and a flyer, in both English and Gujarati, for his farewell where a special address was presented to him.122

Indian liberals valued Polak’s connections with them. In 1916, Natesan welcomed him to India saying ‘you have sacrificed and laboured for it more than any one of us and you are more Indian in feeling and action than many of us’.123 In 1917 as Polak prepared to settle back into English life, Surendranath Banerjee, the editor of The Bengalee, wrote:

We won’t grudge your settling down to business and living amidst family.

We welcome it. You have done enough for us and the country shall never forget your services.124

S. Durai Raja Singam, a Malayan Indian, wrote:

Mr. Polak will always be remembered for his work for Indians overseas, the abolition of Indentured Labour, the betterment of Indo-British relations, the removal of the Race and Colour Bar and the cause of World Unity. His name is a household word among Indians in India, Ceylon and South Africa.125

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