On 14 August Gandhiji wrote to Smuts that he was approaching him "on the eve of what promises for Indians to be an interminable struggle". He said:
On Sunday (16 August)* we meet to burn registration certificates.... By Sunday, it is highly probable that we will have at least 1500 (certificates received for burning).
The difference between you as representing the Government and the British Indians is very small indeed. I appeal to you once more, therefore, to revert to the draft Immigrants' Restriction Bill that was shown to me, and to accept the amendments suggested by me, leaving the question of educated Indians open, unless you can bring yourself to so amend the Act as to keep the door open for educated Indians being professional or university men. I ask you to study carefully the petition to be presented to the House and to answer to yourself whether the Bill published does not break the compromise in almost every particular. I ask you, then, to go back to the interviews we had before voluntary registration started, and to what you used to say. I ask you further to accept my assurance that there is absolutely no wish on my part or on the part of the leaders of the Indian community to seek for anything more than fair treatment of those who are bona fide residents of the country.
If the proposal above made by me is not acceptable to you, I venture to suggest that you see a few Indian leaders and come to an acceptable arrangement which will carry out the spirit of the compromise and end a painful situation. If you cannot do either, I am afraid that the resolve to burn the certificates at the mass meeting on Sunday must be carried out. The sole responsibility for the advice rests on my shoulders?
When the letter was received by Smuts, it was taken as an ultimatum -- the word used by the General himself. On receipt of this letter, the Colonial Secretary got angry and said that the people who had offered such a threat to the Government had no idea of its power. He was only sorry that some agitators were trying to inflame poor Indians who would be ruined if they succumbed to their leaders' blandishments.
Gandhiji wrote later that when the draft of the letter to Smuts was being prepared, there was much discussion. Would not the demand for reply within a stated period be considered impudent? Might it not be that it would stiffen the Government and lead them to "reject our terms which otherwise they might have accepted?" Would it not be sufficient to announce the community's decision indirectly to the Government? After giving due weight to all these considerations "we unanimously came to the conclusion that we must do what we thought to be right and proper for us to do."
They felt that they must run the risk of being charged with discourtesy, as well as the risk of the Government refusing in a huff what otherwise they might have granted. "If we do not admit our inferiority as human beings in any sense whatever and if we believe that we possess the capacity for unlimited suffering for any length of time, we must adopt a straightforward course without hesitation."
The proposed step which had 'some novelty and distinction' about it had 'its reverberations in the Legislature and in European circles outside.' Some congratulated the Indians on their courage while others got very angry and asked for condign punishment to be awarded to Indians for their insolence. Each section acknowledged the novelty of the Indians' fresh move. The letter created a greater stir than even the commencement of the Satyagraha movement in 1907 had done, which was also a novelty when it was started. The reason was obvious. When Satyagraha was started, no one knew what the Indians were capable of, and therefore neither a letter of this kind nor the language in which it was couched would have been fitting for that initial stage. But now the community had had its baptism of fire. "Everyone had seen that the Indians had the capacity of suffering the hardships incidental to an attempt to get their wrongs righted, and therefore the language of the 'ultimatum' appeared in the light of a natural growth and not at all inappropriate in the circumstances."
On the same day 14 August Gandhiji also wrote to Sir George Farrar, as he considered it his duty to lay before the Leader of the Opposition the gravity of the situation and to set out his objections to the Validation Bill, for the latter's consideration.
On Sunday 16 August 1908 at 4 p.m. a huge mass meeting was held at Johannesburg. The whole space looking westwards from the Fordsburg mosque within the fence was packed with members of the Indian community of all grades, of all creeds and from all places of origin. Some 3000 British Indians had gathered together purposefully, intent only upon consigning the registration certificates to the flames. Gandhiji wrote in his memoirs later, "It was a wonderful display of national unity and one that the mother country-might well be proud of." The air vibrated with expectancy and a tense feeling seemed to hold every one in check -- until the supreme moment came.
On the platform were the Natal Indian Congress leaders, Dawad Mahomed, President Natal Congress, Pardee Rustomjee, Vice President Natal Congress and M. C. Anglia, besides Adam H. G. Mahomed, Chairman of the British Indian League who by a happy chance was able to represent the Cape Indians, and Leung Quinn, Chairman of the Chinese Association. Delegates from several Transvaal towns were also present, and Indians from those places that were unrepresented in the meeting had sent telegrams of sympathy and support.
Essop Mia presided over the meeting. Below him was the Press table, and beyond that, a sea of upturned and expectant faces with determination, and a bitter merriment stamped deep upon each face. In the front row, a dozen representative Chinese leaders sat with grim faces, awaiting the fateful moment.
The chairman said that the meeting was one of the most unique in the Indian annals in South Africa. "You see before you the revered chairman of the Natal Indian Congress, the president of the British Indian League at Cape Town, a vice-president of the Natal Indian Congress, and you see the joint secretary of that Congress. All these have come to assist us and to show that they are just as ready to suffer as we are." He added that their presence demonstrated that the question in the Transvaal was a South African question, indeed an Imperial question. They had to meet an unholy combination against them. "I fear that on this question, there is no such thing as progressive opposition," and, if they were successfully to fight this combination, "it goes without saying that we must be united and we must be prepared for the worst."
Why had these gentlemen from Durban come here, the chairman asked. Why had they brought with them others who claimed the right to enter the Transvaal? It was not because they wanted to defy the laws of the country in so far as they were bearable, but they wished to show as clearly as they could that it was impossible for the Government to administer their laws successfully, unless they carried with them the majority of, and the most respectable among, the community to which such laws were applicable. "We are now showing, by the determined opposition that we are offering to the Asiatic Law Amendment Act, that we resent it, that it is against our conscience to submit to it, that we have suffered much for it, and that the vast majority of Indians in South Africa are totally against it."
Everyone who had entered the Transvaal had entered by way of protest against the breach of the compromise committed by General Smuts, he continued, and "against an invasion of our just rights". They claimed that those had lived in the Transvaal before the war had a right to return to the "Transvaal and to live in it unmolested, subject to such supervision as might be "necessary in order to effectively identify them from those who might be intruders. They claimed that those who were so entitled should not be subjected to harassing inspection, much less to any symbol of the Asiatic Act, so long as it remained on the Statute Book. They claimed further that educated Indians had, under the laws of the colony, a right to enter the colony. "In our Durban guests, "therefore, we have, in Mr. Dawad Mahomed and Mr. Parsee Rustomjee, not only distinguished Indians, but pre-war residents of the Transvaal. In Mr. Anglia, we have again a representative Indian, but at the same time, possessing sufficient educational qualifications (required) under the Immigrants' Restriction Act." There were other Indians who had arrived who possessed Peace Preservation Ordinance Permits, or Dutch Registration Certificates, or educational qualifications. "These, according to General Smuts, should become prohibited immigrants, if we want repeal of the Asiatic Act. It is impossible for bs to accept any such bargain." They had been fighting all along, he concluded, not with a view to gain some questionable advantage for themselves but to gain self-respect and equal advantage for all those Indians who had a right to enter the Transvaal.
Gandhiji in his speech declared that he was going to repeat the advice that he had been giving his fellow-countrymen for "some length of time" and that was that "as events have taken the turn that you know in connection with our struggle, we must burn our certificates" (Applause). He added that he was told that he might be instrumental in imposing on his countrymen untold suffering if they followed his advice. "I know that well, but I do know this also that if the burning of the certificates will impose untold suffering on you, the keeping of these certificates and submission to the Asiatic Act or to the Validation Bill that is to be read a second time tomorrow, will impose on my countrymen untold indignity, and I say with the greatest emphasis at my command, that I would far rather that my countrymen suffered all they have to suffer, than that they have imposed on themselves indignity."further, "my countrymen here in the Transvaal" had taken a solemn oath not to submit to the Asiatic Act. The solemn oath was taken not merely to be fulfilled in the letter but in spirit also, and if they were so ill-advised by him, or by anybody else, that they might accept the Voluntary Asiatic Registration Validation Bill and flatter themselves with the belief that they had escaped the Asiatic Act, "I shall call myself a traitor to my countrymen, a traitor to God, and a traitor to my oath. I shall do no such thing, no matter what suffering may be imposed on you by reason of burning your certificates."
He however warned, that if they did burn their certificates, they should bear in mind that they were not to take advantage of the certificates at any time whatsoever until a proper and just and honourable settlement had been arrived at.
"It is open to you to take copies tomorrow of the certificates that may be burned to ashes today, by paying 5 sh. I dare say that the Government will give you copies of these certificates even free of charge because the Bill has not yet become law, but if there is any Indian in this vast assemblage who wants to take out a copy of that certificate and today wishes to burn the certificate, either out of shame or false modesty or any other reason of a similar nature, then I say emphatically let him step forward and say he does not want his certificate to be burned, but if it is your solemn resolution that you will not go to the Government to ask for a copy of the certificate, then I say, you have well done."
Polak, who followed Gandhiji, said that he wished first of all to thank the audience for their hearty welcome. He then informed them that he had been honoured by being conferred a special title, 'the shepherd of the Indian community'. He did not know exactly why, but he presumed it was for three reasons: "First of all, because I have considered it my duty, so far as possible, to guard the Indian community; next, because I have considered it my duty to see that they went the way they should go; and thirdly, because I have considered it my duty to see that when all was finished they were properly locked up."
He said, he was in Durban a few days ago, and at that time he was the guest of Mr. Anglia. At the dinner Mr. Abdul Cadir said to him jokingly, "Mr. Polak, you cannot be Indian, because your complexion is too fair." Polak replied that it was of course possible to be an Indian even if one had a fair complexion; but he looked at it from another point of view. He said:
"We today are not here as Indians only, we today are here as men first of all. We were men before ever we were Indians or Englishmen, and, although you may be born in India and I in England, although seven oceans may lie between us, although the whole stretch of a continent may divide us, there is one thing that unites us, and that is what Mr. Anglia has called our common humanity, and that is regardless of colour, race or religion. I am here today to speak to you as an Englishman and not as a member of the British Indian Association nor as the Editor of Indian Opinion, but as an Englishman, because I wish to join myself with you today, as I feel that my honour is at stake equally with yours, in the proceedings that are before our eyes today."
Four resolutions were then' passed unanimously. The first resolution protested against the Asiatic Voluntary Registration Validation Bill, which was before the Parliament of the Transvaal, and endorsed the Petition presented to the Hon'ble the Legislative Assembly on behalf of the British Indian Association.
It was proposed by Mr. Dawad Mahomed, President Natal Indian Congress, seconded by Mr. Adam H. Gool Mahomed, President British India League, Cape Town, and supported by Mr. Parsee Rustomjee (Vice-president, Natal Indian Congress), Mr. M. C. Anglia (Joint Secretary, Natal Indian Congress) and Mr. V. A. Chettiar, Chairman, Tamil Benefits Society.
The second resolution re-affirmed solemnly, sincerely, and prayerfully the resolution of the British Indian community not to submit to the Asiatic Act, which it considered to be contrary to religion and their conscience.
It was proposed by Mr. Emam Abdul Cadir Bawazeer (Chairman, Hamidia Islamic Society), seconded by Mr. T. Naidoo and Moulvi Ahmed Mukhtiar, and supported by Messrs Ebrahim Aswat, Dildar Khan, E. M. Cachhalia, R. K. Padiachy (Pretoria), V. Chetty, P. K. Naidoo, and M. P. Fancy.
The third resolution said that the Asiatic Voluntary Registration Validation Bill was a breach of the compromise entered into by the Government with the Asiatic communities and hoped that the colonists would demand an honourable fulfilment of the terms entered into by General Smuts on behalf of the Government of the colony and in the name of the colonists.
It was proposed by Mr. Abdul Rahman (Potchefstroom), seconded by Mr. E. M. Patel (Vereeniging), and supported by Messrs R. S. Chokalingam Pillay, Harishankar Joshi (Durban), A. E. Chootabhai (Krugersdorp), and Amod Suliman Khota (Heidelberg).
The fourth resolution authorised the chairman to forward copies of these resolutions to the proper quarters.
What followed next may best be given as reported in the Transvaal Leader of 17 August.
"A large three-legged pot was then filled with the registration certificates, about 1300 in all, and about 500 trading licences. Paraffin was then poured in and the certificates set on fire, amid a scene of the wildest enthusiasm. The crowd hurrahed and shouted themselves hoarse; hats were thrown in the air and whistles blown. One Indian, said to have been a leading black-leg, walked on to the platform, and setting alight his certificate, held it aloft. The Chinese then mounted the platform and put their certificates in with the others."
The die was cast. The final irrevocable step had been taken. The second Satyagraha struggle was a 'do or die' struggle to end in death or victory.