On a November afternoon in 1924, Indians gathered in large numbers in the heart of Durban. This wasn’t a political protest demanding greater rights, but the funeral of someone who the Indian Opinion, a newspaper started by Mahatma Gandhi, described as the “Grand Old Man of South Africa” – Parsee Rustomjee.

A big procession accompanied the cortege carrying the body of Rustomjee as it left his home for the Parsi cemetery. “There must have been over 5,000 persons following, consisting of every section of the Indian community, as well as Europeans who came from all parts of the town and district and from the villages of the north and south coasts and up-country towns to pay their last respects to this ‘Grand Old Man,’” the Indian Opinion said on November 21, 1924.

Gandhi personally paid a rich tribute to Rustomjee, calling his old friend from South Africa a “true solider” of India. The businessman and civil rights activist had been a pillar of the Parsi community in South Africa, and had played an influential role in getting it involved in Indians’ struggle there.

Racial hierarchies

Parsis began migrating to South Africa after the arrival of indentured Indian labour in the country in 1860. While their precise number is unavailable, one estimate is provided by South African academic Thillay Naidoo, who wrote in his 1987 paper titled The Parsee Community in South Africa that the total strength of the community was at best around 200.

In order to get around the system of racial hierarchy being set up by European colonisers, a few Parsis attempted to get classified as white. “Attempts to claim special status for Parsees were initiated at the turn of a century by a group of people resident in Johannesburg,” Naidoo wrote. “A petition dated 17 September 1906 was sent to the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London by three Parsees, namely P. Dorabjee, P. B. Dorabjee and P. Dhunjibhoy. The petition claimed that they in fact enjoyed, unofficially, a status equal to that of whites. Their petition therefore requested that white citizenship be given to them as a matter of course.”

Naidoo said there was no record of the extent to which the petition represented the feelings of the whole community. At the time, Parsis, by virtue of their physical appearance, had free access to the cinema, restaurants and clubs. Still, the petition was eventually rejected by the British.

Lasting friendship

Rustomjee, who was born Rustomjee Jivanji Gorkhodu in Bombay in 1861, migrated to Durban at the age of 19 and began working as a shop assistant. Learning the ropes from a mentor, he slowly entered the world of business and became an established entrepreneur by 1889. Coming from a humbler background than those who filed the petition with London, Rustomjee never reneged on his Indian identity.

It was his relationship with Gandhi that got Rustomjee involved in the Indian struggle. “In 1891, Mr Rustomjee first met Mr M. K. Gandhi and there commenced a firm friendship which lasted without a break until his death,” the Indian Opinion said. “Those who have been in close touch with Mr Rustomjee know how strong and affectionate was their attachment. For Mr Gandhi and any cause he took up, nothing was too great for Mr Rustomjee to undertake.”

At first, Gandhi “was not greatly impressed by him”. “However, as I got more and more involved in public work, I learnt more and more to value the gemlike qualities in Parsee Rustomjee,” Gandhi wrote.

The Parsi businessman helped finance the formation of the Natal Indian Congress, an organisation dedicated to fighting racial discrimination faced by Indians in Natal. He also served as its first vice chairman.

Founders of the Natal Indian Congress, 1895. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Rustomjee’s friendship with Gandhi was tested on January 13, 1897, when a white mob set out to kill Gandhi on his return to South Africa from India. “When the whites attacked me… Rustomjee’s house sheltered me and my sons,” Gandhi wrote. “The whites had threatened to burn down his house and property. That threat, however, did not deter him in the least.”

Transvaal agitation

In August 1906, the authorities in the Transvaal colony passed the Asiatic Registration Act, which forced Indians to sign up for the Registrar of Asiatics. The law required them to undergo physical examinations, submit fingerprints and carry a registration certificate at all times. Failure to follow the law, referred to as the “Black Act” by Indians in South Africa, could lead to fines, imprisonment or even deportation.

Rustomjee was among the Indians who responded to Gandhi’s call for civil disobedience and resisted the law. “In August 1908, together with Dawad Mohomed, N.C. Anglia, Shapurji Randeria and others, he crossed into the Transvaal by train to test his domiciliary rights in the Transvaal under the Immigration Restriction Act and assist the struggle of the Transvaal Indians against the Asiatic Registration Act,” Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy, an Indian-born diplomat who was a leader of the anti-Apartheid struggle in the United Nations, wrote in a paper titled Parsis and the Satyagraha Struggle in South Africa.

“They were arrested in Pretoria on 27 August and the next day ordered to leave the Colony,” Reddy added. “They recrossed the border and [were] sentenced with three months of hard labour.”

Despite the threat of severe punishment, Rustomjee continued to resist the Black Act. He was arrested again in 1909 for refusing to give his thumb impression and sentenced twice in the year to hard labour for six months each.

“He had lost over 70 pounds in prison,” Reddy wrote. “When visiting Durban in February 1910 to recuperate, he was greeted by 500 people at the station and more on his way home.” Once home, Rustomjee made a passionate speech, calling for people to agitate against injustices under the law. It was a question of “India’s honour”, he said.

All this while his health continued to deteriorate, but he once again joined the satyagraha in 1913 and crossed over to the Transvaal. This time, he was imprisoned in Pietermaritzburg, the same place from where Gandhi was thrown out of a train. Reports from the time suggest that Rustomjee was deprived of his sacred Zoroastrian thread in prison and went on a hunger strike until it was returned.

“He served a total of 18 months in prison during the satyagraha, all with hard labour, at prisons in Volkrust, Heidelberg, Diepkloof, Johannesburg, Pietermaritzburg and Durban,” Reddy said.

Gandhi was most appreciative of his friend’s sacrifices for the Indian cause in South Africa. “At the time of satyagraha, Parsee Rustomjee was the first among the businessmen of Natal who were prepared to sacrifice their all,” the Mahatma wrote. “It was his way not to give up a task once he had undertaken it, whatever the risks involved. He had to serve a longer sentence in prison than expected, but this did not frighten him. The struggle continued for eight years; many staunch warriors fell. Rustomjee, however, did not waver.”

Charity work

Over a century after his death, Parsee Rustomjee is best remembered in South Africa for his charity. He funded the construction of three orphanages, each of which were run by members of a different religious community. He also contributed money for the construction of schools, a library and the Indian hospital in Durban. His charitable activities extended to India as well.

Gandhi eulogised his friend Rustomjee when he died, writing, “Through sheer hard work he had risen from the status of a common clerk to that of a big businessman. Despite this, he had a keen common sense and great generosity and he was so tolerant that, although he was an orthodox Parsi, he had the same affection for Hindus, Muslims and Christians.”

Parsee Rustomjee’s invaluable contribution to the South African Sataygrahas is one more example of how people from various ethnic and religious backgrounds fought against colonialism and for “India’s honour”.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.