Updated: January 10, 2020 7:48:43 am
Wednesday (January 8) was the death anniversary of Manilal Doctor, the colonial-era barrister who fought for the rights of Indian-origin people in Mauritius and Fiji. An associate of Mahatma Gandhi, Doctor is known for his efforts towards helping abolish the indentured labour system that Indian immigrants in many parts of the British Empire were subjected to.
The indentured labour system
In 1833, the British Parliament banned slavery, and the practice became illegal throughout the Empire. However, to maintain the supply of labour in their territories, colonial authorities effectively replaced slavery with the indentured labour system.
The ‘indenture’ (meaning contract) system required Indians to sign a legal agreement stating their consent to move abroad for a minimum of five years to work mainly on sugar estates.
Many were lured to distant lands, such as the Caribbean, South Africa, Réunion, Mauritius, Malaysia, and Fiji, where they ended up living in miserable conditions.
In the mid 19th century, over 35 lakh Indians were transported to British, French, and Dutch colonies around the world. The system was officially banned in 1917.
Born in 1881 in Vadodara, Doctor studied law in Bombay before travelling to Britain in 1905 for further studies. He became a member of the Indian Home Rule Society in London, and wrote in the monthly ‘Indian Sociologist’.
In 1906, Doctor met Gandhi, who at the time was in London to meet imperial authorities on behalf of South Africa’s Indian origin people.
During the meeting, Gandhi asked Doctor to move to Mauritius to assist the Indian community there in their struggle for equal rights. Doctor arrived in Mauritius the following year.
In Mauritius (1907-1911)
Doctor organised the Indian community in the island colony, which consisted of indentured and non-indentured workers, and advocated for the abolition of discriminatory laws.
He practised law at the Supreme Court in St Louis, and provided free legal service to bonded workers in need.
Doctor visited plantations across the island and met indentured labourers, making them aware of their rights and encouraged them to agitate.
He founded ‘The Hindustani’ newspaper in Mauritius, which had the motto “Liberty of Individuals! Fraternity of Men!!! Equality of Race!!!”.
Doctor also helped establish the Arya Samaj in Mauritius. He returned to India in 1911.
Next, Fiji (1912-1920)
In 1912, Gandhi deputed Doctor to the Fiji Colony with the same objective. Like in Mauritius, Doctor emerged as the leader of the Indian community in Fiji in the coming years.
In Fiji, Doctor started ‘The Indian Settler’ newspaper, and helped set up the Indian Imperial Association. Here too, he helped establish the Arya Samaj.
In 1920, Doctor organised a major strike, which rattled colonial authorities.
He told the ‘Bombay Chronicle’ in February, “As the result of (the) tyrannical and cruel treatment of the Indian population by the whites, a reign of terror exists in Fiji, and the free Indian is taught a lesson which he can never forget. Whether under ‘indenture’ or not, the Indian of Fiji must remain a means to the end of the white capitalists… Conditions in India in the darkest days of the Moghul rule were not worse than those which exist in the Fiji Islands to-day.”
The imperial administration had Doctor deported to New Zealand, where he remained under surveillance and was barred from practising.
Gandhi had then said, “An Empire that requires such calculated persecution of a man, without even trying to prove anything against him, deserves only to be dissolved.”
In 1922, Doctor was able to move to Gaya in Bihar, where he could practise law. He later practised for many years in Aden, also then a British colony, and died in Bombay in 1956.
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