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Sastri of South Africa


For the cause of education V.S. Srinivasa Sastri

My item on People of Indian Origin (PIO) overseas last week had Dr. T.P. Naidoo of South Africa calling on me. While many Indians in South Africa have written of the conditions their ancestors lived in, in South Africa, Dr. Naidoo is planning to writ e on the conditions his forebears lived in, in the Conjeevaram area in the first half of the 19th Century, and what forced them and their ilk to go to South Africa.

The Indian migration to South Africa, mainly as indentured labour, took place between 1860 and 1910. A little over 150,000 arrived in Natal during that period and most of them were Tamil and Telugu speakers from the Madras Presidency. Today, there are about 1.25 million Indians settled in South Africa, mainly in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, and about two-thirds of them are Tamil and Telugu speakers. What strikes Dr. Naidoo — and this was a common refrain I was to hear during those recent days when over a thousand PIOs descended on Madras — was how much better off many of the settlers overseas were compared to their kin in the villages of India. But then he was one of the five million I referred to last week; as for the other 20 million, could the same be said?

The professionalisation of at least a part of the Indian community in southeast South Africa, the Natal area, Dr. Naidoo attributes squarely to the contribution of Sastri College, Durban. Between its founding in 1931 and its golden jubilee celebrations in 1981, 27,000 Indians had passed out of the College (a high school). Many of them went on to become teachers, engineers, doctors and accountants. The College, I discovered, was founded by V.S. Srinivasa Sastri with a contribution of £100 he made to kick off the idea at a public meeting he addressed. Sastri was the first Agent-General for India in South Africa. That Srinivasa Sastri’s thoughts would turn to education first is no surprise; he had been a revered headmaster of Hindu High School, Triplicane, before becoming a maverick politician and, later, an internationally recognised statesman.

Sastri’s appointment as Agent-General was a consequence of the Cape Town Agreement of December 1926, which encouraged Indian settlers to voluntarily return to India under an aided scheme, while those who stayed on would have their standard of living uplifted, through education and welfare, by the South African Government. Most decided to stay back, but Sastri — with a long history of contrariness in India — stirred up a hornets’ nest when he advised the Indians not to unite with the Africans but to team with the Whites.

In tendering his advice, Sastri said at the time, “The African status is greatly inferior to ours and by making common cause with them, our community will only be disabling themselves in the very severe combat that has fallen their lot” and will only be “antagonising the Whites”. But many of the young Indians strongly opposed Sastri’s advice, accused him of being “muzzled by the dictates of Whitehall”, and of having become “the spearhead of compromise and defeatism”.

This last remark was remarkably similar to what The Hindu had written a few years earlier when the Rt. Hon. Srinivasa Sastri had still not become disillusioned with the British and was one of the leaders of the Moderates in the Congress, urging the Party to consider half a loaf as better than none. The Hindu at that time had written, “It was said of the Austrians that they had a genius for defeat. It may be said with equal justice of Mr. Sastri that he has a genius for surrender.”

In the case of South Africa, however, his moderatism helped, to a considerable extent, in the uplift of the Indian settlers, particularly in improving their educational opportunities. Just as Sastri College continues to produce Indian leaders in South Africa, the M.L. Sultan Technical College continues to contribute significantly to producing Indian engineers. Sultan, who was from Malabar, came to Natal as an indentured labourer in 1890; by 1940, he had become a prosperous farmer. He contributed his wealth to Indians in South Africa — and it made quite a difference to them.

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