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As soon as the Cape Town Agreement was announced, the South African government wasted little time in pushing for the assisted emigration scheme. A piece of legislation, called Act 37 of 1927, to implement the agreement’s undertakings on assisted emigration was introduced in the Union parliament and passed without opposition a week after Sastri’s arrival. The government also raised bonus rates for emigrants, which led to an appreciable rise in the numbers early on. Compared to 1,358 Indians who emigrated in 1925, the numbers for 1927 and 1928 rose to 2,975 and 3,477, respectively.

Assisted emigration was stringently opposed by many Indians, especially in the Transvaal. Their criticisms were mainly around three concerns. First, the emigration was not really voluntary. It allowed the Union government to create conditions, through racial laws and public pressure, which would drive out Indians from their jobs, reduce their means of livelihood and therefore force them to leave. Second, it was widely feared that the emigrants would be worse off in India than in South Africa. Third, the scheme considered the Indian as a foreigner in South Africa, even when a large percentage of them were South Africa-born.1

The South African government also noted a key operational flaw in the scheme. The European opposition against Indians in Natal and Transvaal was largely based on the assumption that Indians competed with Europeans in trade. In contrast, agricultural labourers, employed mostly in the sugar-cane industry, were paid a pittance, and were valued by Europeans. Through travel bonuses and assistance with finding jobs in India, the emigration scheme incentivized those who were closer to subsistence levels rather than the comparatively affluent trading class.

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‘Already feel the monotony of life’, Sastri scrawled in his diary on 30 April 1919.1 The Arabian Sea was calm; the SS Manora travelled at a leisurely pace of about 12 knots per hour on its journey towards England. This was his first trip abroad. On earlier occasions he had pointedly refused to go overseas because of his mother’s illness. Now when he had grudgingly given in, Balambal fell ill and never recovered. She passed away soon after he arrived in England.2

Anxiety about his mother’s health and recurring bouts of back pain chained him to his cabin for long periods on the ship; the motionlessness of time snoozing in sync with his body. The cabin that he shared with three other people had a porthole and a fan, making it barely tolerable. The proverbial silver lining was that he spent his days feasting on books and writing letters to family and friends. Of all of the ship’s passengers from Bombay only nine were Indians. Six of them were Indian political leaders travelling to London to present evidence on the historic Montagu–Chelmsford Reforms. Sastri and H.N. Kunzru, both from the Servants of India Society, were representing the moderates. Kunzru, younger than Sastri by 17 years, was the more experienced traveller of the two, having studied at the London School of Economics. In views as in temperament, Sastri and Kunzru were quite alike.

The other four politicians were going to join the veteran radical Bal Gangadhar Tilak to represent the Congress’ point of view; although it was not clear if Tilak, who was in London to fight a defamation case against the journalist Valentine Chirol, would be the leader of this delegation.

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