Consorting with Indians
Polak went to South Africa in 1903, when he was 21 years on a family- sponsored business venture, inspired at least in part, by the hope this separation would diminish his attachment to Millie, a gentile. In South Africa, he was struck by the diversity of the population:
People known contemptuously as ‘Kaffirs’, white people of various nationalities, the small Indian community, and people referred to as ‘coloureds’.32
Most of the Indians had been brought to the colony as indentured labourers under a British-devised scheme, which met the labour needs of plantations after the abolition of slavery.33 A smaller number, ‘passenger Indians’, had come on their own volition as merchants or as small businessmen. There were very few Indian professionals such as Gandhi, a lawyer. The vast majority of the population were Africans. The white settlers, Boer and English, former enemies, had speedily joined together, after the Boer war, in a pact of whiteness, determined to exclude Indians, the few resident Chinese, and Africans, from social and political citizenship.34 This environment symbolised the poles around ‘race’ to be traversed during the twentieth century.35 There was the possibility of mutual co-operation and learning across historical and cultural differences and, on the other hand, a path to separation, segregation, domination and violence. Thus, South Africa was a crucial place to reach out in fraternity and to emphasise the common humanity of mankind.
Polak met Gandhi in a vegetarian restaurant in Johannesburg in 1904. Polak, the then sub-editor of the Transvaal Critic, was quite ‘knowledgeable of the many inequalities suffered by the Indian community’.36 Indeed, Polak wanted to meet Gandhi, having ‘watched a verbal duel, in an evening paper, between him and the Medical Officer of Health in Johannesburg, as to whose was the responsibility for the outbreak of plague in the Indian location’.37 They shared interests in vegetarianism, Tolstoy and a recent book by Adolf Just, Return to Nature. At this meeting, Polak introduced Gandhi to Ruskin’s, Unto This Last, a volume which Gandhi felt reflected some of ‘his deepest convictions’ and made him transform his own life.38 The mutual attraction was intense. Gandhi later wrote,
Mr Polak’s candour drew me to him... We seemed to hold closely similar
views on the essential things of life. He liked simple life.39
Gandhi commented, ‘I judged Polak within five hours... I at once saw what he was, and since then he became my man’, his ‘soulmate and lieutenant’.40 Gandhi soon asked him to join Indian Opinion, the newspaper of the British Indian Association in South Africa, and the agitation against discriminatory legislation. These were the heady days of the struggle of South African Indians to gain the rights of British subjects. Polak left the Transvaal Critic, where he felt constrained in his political expression, becoming the editor of Indian Opinion from 1905 to 1916.
Polak’s relationship with Gandhi was unusual and daring for the period, alienating him from the South African Jewish community, who saw him as ‘consorting with Indians’.41 Gandhi notes, ‘we began to live as blood brothers’,42 in Gandhi’s family home. Gandhi even worked to bring Polak and Millie together by intervening on their behalf to Polak’s father. The closeness of the relationship between the two men saw Gandhi act as Polak’s best man. Proceedings were temporarily halted when the Chief Magistrate thought the marriage was between an Indian and a white woman, illegal in the Transvaal. After assurances from Gandhi that Polak ‘in spite of appearances, physical, political and social ...was in fact, a “White man”’ the ceremony proceeded.43 It had no religious elements, as Gandhi commented, ‘Their common religion was the religion of ethics.’44 Later, the couple lived in the Phoenix Settlement, Gandhi’s first ashram.
Polak was closely involved with Gandhi during the years 1907-1914 in the Indian Passive Resistance Struggle against the compulsory registration of Indians and Chinese by the Transvaal authorities.45 Under Gandhi counsel, most refused to register and ‘by the end of January 2008, 2000 Indians and Chinese had been imprisoned’.46 Some were flogged or had their property auctioned to pay fines, while others were deported. Indians and Chinese also protested against the Immigration Restriction Act and other punitive and discriminatory policies. Gandhi honed his method of Satyagraha (non-violent resistance), involving the refusal to obey unjust laws with the intention of appealing to the humanity of the oppressors and to the sympathy of the general public to force change. Mesthrie notes:
Indian Opinion played a very significant role throughout the course of the passive resistance struggle. At one level it highlighted the major issues, chronicled the activities of the resisters and brought Indian grievances to the notice of influential people on Britain and India. At another level it became an active agent in mobilizing and organizing resistance.47
Polak, very much Gandhi’s lieutenant,48 was from 1906 assistant secretary of the British Indian Association (BIA), formed to advance the interests of Indians.49
On Gandhi’s suggestion Polak began studying law, becoming articled to Gandhi in 1905. Gandhi wanted a legal assistant believing it would also aid the work of the struggle and of Indian Opinion.50 In the racially divided South Africa of the time, it was remarkable for a white man to study law under an Indian. Once qualified, in 1908, Polak defended the passive resisters in court and took over Gandhi’s practice.