GANDHI AND THE IMMIGRATION PROPOSALS
From around 1912, members of the Indian legislature, the Imperial Council of India, increased their demands for an end to Indian emigration. As a result of this agitation, the Council, after consulting with the British Government, sent two of its members, Lala Chimman and Lall Mc Neal to British Guiana to examine the working and living conditions of Indians. Their report, made in 1915, described these conditions as favourable. This encouraged a member of the British Guiana Court of Policy, A. P. Sherlock, to suggest the establishment of a committee to examine how the immigration of Indians to British Guiana could be expanded. This committee was formally established, but before it could begin its work, the British Government announced that emigration from India would come to an end in September 1917.
During 1916-1917, 824 indentured Indians arrived in British Guiana, and despite the official ending of emigration in 1917, over 400 Indians arrived in 1921-1922 under contracts of service. In addition there were some others who came as ordinary settlers.
With the end of officially supported Indian migration to British Guiana, and the subsequent rapid phasing out of the indenture system, the owners of sugar planters had a genuine fear that there would be a severe shortage of labour in the fields. As a result, they urged the colonial Government in British Guiana to make efforts to restart immigration, especially after an influenza epidemic killed over 12,000 Indians in 1918. The supporters of immigration into British Guiana wanted people to be brought not only from India, but from Africa as well.
It was because of the labour concern that the Attorney General, Sir Joseph Nunan, departed in June 1919, at the head of a seven-member team to hold meetings with the Colonial Office in London. The team planned to travel later to India and some British colonies in Africa to discuss migration proposals with their Governments. The other members of the delegation were Dr. Hewley Wharton, Parbhu Sawh and Joseph A. Luckhoo (representing East Indians); and A. B. Brown, Mc Farlane Corry and Eric Robinson (representing Africans). The plan of this delegation was for the Indian delegates to travel to India and the African delegates to West Africa where they would try to explain the advantages British Guiana would provide to immigrants from those countries.
In London, the delegation was joined by Thomas Greenwood of the West India Committee, (the body looking after the interests of the sugar planters), and he made it clear to the Colonial Office that the planters wanted immigrants only from India, and not from Africa. The African members of the delegation, unable to win any support from the West India Committee for immigrants from Africa, decided to abandon their plans, and they returned to British Guiana. The others journeyed in November to India where they met with influential Indians, including the Indian leader, Mohandas Gandhi, and urged them to allow the revival of emigration to British Guiana.
Gandhi himself was not initially in favour of the continuation of Indian emigration to British Guiana. Nunan and Luckhoo met with him in Delhi on 11 December and again in Amritsar on 26 December. Wharton and Sawh also met with him at his home in Ahmedabad on 5 January 1920, but he continued to express his opposition to the emigration proposals of the team.
But then on the 10 January Gandhi met with two recently repatriated Indian labourers who had been indentured in British Guiana, and who claimed that their living and economic condition there was satisfactory. After his conversation with them, he changed his opposition to the renewal of emigration and stated that he would not publicly oppose the scheme put forward by the delegation. On 1 February he signed a statement indicating that even though he was not prepared to give his personal encouragement to Indians to leave India, he was at the same time not in favour of using legislative action to prevent Indians from leaving for other lands, including British Guiana. In this document, he added that his views were not shared by everyone. But he was satisfied that British Guiana had a liberal constitution and that Indians could be represented in the legislature, and that equality of rights with other races existed. He was therefore willing to allow a test of the emigration scheme for a period of six months.
While this was happening, two reports from East Africa and South Africa gave poor descriptions of the conditions of Indians there. An unexpected visit of a deputation from Fiji, comprising Government and Church officials, also reported on a similar situation in that colony. These reports helped to spur opposition to the emigration scheme and did not aid in any way the effort of the Guyanese delegation.
Shortly after, at a meeting of the Indian Imperial Council, the Viceroy, Lord Chelmford, stated that if the British colonies offered Indians more prosperity, they should not be prevented from going there. Subsequently, the Indian Legislative Council appointed a committee to examine the proposals of the British Guiana delegation. Among these proposals were: (1) a grant of five acres of empoldered land for each emigrant family serving a period of three years of indenture; and (2) the provision of free passages from India for those who wanted to cultivate land as independent farmers.
On the recommendation of the Committee, the Indian Legislative Council passed a motion which took a favourable view of the Guyanese proposals. However, opinions against emigration from India were strong and no official agreement to restart migration could be reached. The delegation could only obtain an agreement that a three-member mission organised by the Indian Government would be sent to British Guiana to examine the living and working conditions of the Indians.
While this was happening, the campaign against emigration was stepped up by those who claimed that indenture was a system of quasi-slavery. It was probably because of this campaign that the original plan to enrol prospective emigrants was suspended until the three-member committee reported to the Indian Legislative Council on their findings in British Guiana.