Tuesday 23 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World: Preface



In the course of the just concluded General Elections, our Prime Minister, in one of his interviews, suggested that Mahatma Gandhi came to be widely known only after Attenborough made his celebrated film on him in 1982.


It would be unfortunate, if it were indeed true that we, and especially our young people, know so little about Gandhiji today that we have to learn about him from a movie, however great. Therefore, we have put together a series of brief notes that give the story of how Gandhiji became known as the Mahatma across the world in early twentieth century. He achieved that status through his extraordinarily passionate commitment to the land, people and civilisation of India and by performing intense tapas in the form the great suffering he endured during his several imprisonments in South Africa. He also undertook an extensive study of Indian classical texts so that he could commit to India knowingly, not only passionately.


All this he did in the 21 years he spent leading the fight of Indians in South Africa to reclaim their human dignity. For him and for his co-sufferers, that fight for human dignity became a struggle for the establishment and recovery of Dharma, and the leader of that struggle came to be known in the world as a Mahatma. 


In these notes, we tell this story, briefly but passionately. We show that on the strength of his austere discipline, erudition and tapas, Gandhiji had become well known in the world already by 1909. In that year, he was referred to as the Mahatmaby Pranjivan Mehta in a letter to Gokhale. He was addressed as Deshbhakta Mahatma in the formal Manapatras that the Indians presented to him when he was leaving South Africa in 1914. And, within weeks of his arrival in India on January 9, 1915, he was being spontaneously addressed and treated as the Mahatma by people in different parts of India.


We have written these notes to quickly remind ourselves of the epic story of the Mahatma. The story is important to recall in the current climate of a certain malignancy towards him.


These brief notes are not enough. To ensure that this epic story remains a part of Indian lore, we must ensure that our educated youth are made familiar with at least three of his foundational books: Hind SwarajMy Experiments with Truthand Satyagraha in South Africa. Reading these shall make our youth and all of us Indians immune against any current and future malignancy against the Mahatma and by extension against our civilisation and ourselves.

The brief notes are posted on this blog under the label Mahatma Gandhi and the World and run from the Mahatma and the World I (June 1, 2024) to Mahatma and the World XI (July 20, 2024). We shall soon be bringing these notes together in the form of a booklet.

Saturday 20 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World XI




Indians in South Africa formally bestowed the epithet of “Deshabhakta Mahatma” on Gandhiji when he left that country for India, his karma-bhumi, as he called it in one of his farewell speeches. And, Indians in India recognised and began acknowledging the Mahatma in him almost immediately after he landed here.


Gandhiji had left Cape Town on July 18, hoping to soon reach India after a brief stay in England. By the time he reached London on August 4, World War I had broken out. His efforts to organise an Indian Ambulance Corps and indifferent health delayed his return by four and a half months. He finally returned to India on July 9, 1915. Tendulkar, one of the earlies chroniclers of Gandhiji, describes the momentous landing thus:


“The Indian leaders did not wait for him to land but met him on the steamer upon its arrival, and his landing took place, by permission of the authorities, at the Apollo Bunder—an honour shared with Royalty, by Viceroys and India’s most distinguished sons. He was met on board by a deputation consisting of Narottam Morarji Gokuldas, J. B. Petit, B. G. Horniman and others. At the quay he was received by hundreds of people.” (D. G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, Vol. I, 1951, p.193)


A public reception to welcome Gandhiji was held on July 12 at the palatial house of Jehangir Petit. Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the founders of Indian National Congress who was elected its President four times, presided over the event. According to Tendulkar, more than 600 of the elite of Bombay had accepted the invitation and another two hundred had reached without invitation.


Gandhiji felt out of place in the opulent surroundings of his first public reception in India. In his reply to the welcome speeches, he expressed his discomfort saying that “he had felt that he would be more at home in his own Motherland than he used to be in South Africa, among his own countrymen. But during the three days that they had passed in Bombay, they had felt—and he thought he was voicing the feelings of his wife too—that they had been much more at home among those indentured Indians, who were the truest heroes of India. They felt that they were indeed in strange company here in Bombay, …” (CWMG 13.5-6)


Within days of his arrival, he began going around the country, travelling in third class railway compartments along with the ordinary people of India. He went to many parts. Everywhere, tumultuous welcome was offered to him and, at the formal receptions, he was often addressed as “Mahatma”. The first available record of his being called the “Mahatma” after his arrival in India is of a public meeting held on January 21, 1915 at Jetpur in his native Suarashtra, about 30 kilometres from Junagarh. Tendulkar in his chronicle provides a facsimile of this address, which we reproduce below. The address in Gujarati begins with “Shriman Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Barrister-at-Law”.


Dhananjay Keer, another biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, records that Gandhiji was again addressed as “Jagat Vandaneeya Mahatma” on January 27 at Gondal, 30 km northeast of Jetpur. Replying to the address, Gandhiji said that he was conscious of the obligation that the ruler of Gondal, Thakore Sahib, had laid him under, he was not worthy of the epithets that had been applied to him, but wished to continue the struggle to become so worthy and tendered all that praise at the feet of Sri Krishna. (CWMG 12.15-16)


In April, Gandhiji went to Gurukul Kangri on the way to Hardwar, where he met Mahatma Munshi Ram, the founder of the Gurukul, and developed a lasting friendship with him. It is generally believed that it was at Gurukul Kangri that he was first addressed as “Mahatma” in the public meeting held on April 8. It is also said that the title was bestowed on him by Gurudev Rabindra Nath Tagore on March 6, 1915, when Gandhiji was with him at Santiniketan for a few days.


Whoever may be formally credited for addressing Gandhiji as Mahatma for the first time, it was the Indian people in South Africa who spontaneous called him thus while he was leaving for India, and the Indians everywhere began to address him in this manner soon after he arrived in India and began to move around amongst them.


The people of India not only addressed him as “Mahatma”, they also treated him in the manner of a venerable pious person. The chronology of his first few months in India records several instances when the people insisted on yoking themselves to the vehicle in which he was carried in procession. It is recorded to have happened first on January 17, when he arrived in his native town of Rajkot, just a week after landing in India. It happens again on February 1 in Ahmedabad, in Calcutta on March 12, in Rangoon on March 17 and in Madras on April 19. The chronology mentions that at Ahmedabad, the people insisted on drawing the motor-car in which he was being taken. He refused and began walking. 


A report of April 19, 1915 in the Hindu of Madras, graphically describes how the large number of young students who had gathered on the railway station to receive him unyoked the horse and pulled the carriage all the way to his place of stay in the old George Town part of the city:


“Mr. and Mrs. M. K. Gandhi arrived in Madras last Saturday evening from Hardwar by Delhi Express… A little disappointment was in store for the people, however. When the train arrived, they searched all the first and second class compartments, but in vain, and they were inclined to think that Mr. Gandhi and Mrs. Gandhi had not come. But a guard told them that Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi had come by that train and they were in a compartment at the end of the train. A long search discovered Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi sitting in a third class compartment. Mr. Gandhi looked thin and emaciated, a loose shirt soiled by four days of continuous travel covered his body and a pair of trousers similar in appearance covered his legs. There was a rush to that compartment and the crowd was such that about a dozen policemen who had been there found themselves powerless to manage the crowd and had to leave it to shift as best it could. …Shouts of “Long live Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi” and “Bande Mataram” rang from the crowd. Mr. Gandhi bowed to them in acknowledgement and was conducted to the carriage. The students who had gathered in large numbers unyoked the horse and volunteered to drag the carriage. The carriage was taken, dragged by students, to the premises of Messrs Natesan & Co., Sunkurama Chetty Street, Mr. Gandhi being cheered all along the way, Mr. sand Mrs. Gandhi standing in the carriage and with hand cooped [sic] acknowledging the greetings.”                                  (The Hindu, 19-4-1915)


The scene of young men enthusiastically and worshipfully pulling the carriages of gods during various temple-festivals can be often seen on the streets of Madras even today. The custom of pulling the carriages of gods and of venerable pious people was perhaps common all across India in the early twentieth century.


Gandhiji stayed for three weeks, from 17th April to 8th May in Madras at the home of G. A. Natesan, a liberal politician, scholar and publisher, who had been in contact with Gandhiji since 1896. He published many of his works including an edition of Hind Swaraj in 1921. Gandhiji had developed a special affection for South India during his South African campaigns, which were joined and led by many highly committed, selfless and self-sacrificing Tamil Satyagrahis. Tendulkar records that during the three weeks of his stay with Natesan: “Gandhi travelled widely in South India. He went out of his way to see two widows whose husbands had been shot during the South African struggle. In Madras Presidency Gandhi felt inwardly he was with his former colleagues in South Africa.” (p.206)


In the first few months of his arrival in India, Gandhiji not only came to be addressed and treated as the Mahatma by the people, he also took vows that bound him to great austerity. In Natesan’s house, he refused to lie on cots placed in his room and both he and Kasturba chose to sleep on the floor. On February 20, 1915, when he learnt about the death of Gokhale, whom he had adopted as his political guru, he took a vow to go barefoot for one year. And in Hardwar on April 10, he took an extreme vow. He records in his diary for that day: “Vow to have in India only five articles of food during 24 hours, and that before sunset. Water not included in five articles. Cardamom, etc., included. Groundnut and its oil to count as one article.” (CWMG: 13.164)


It is the custom for ordinary disciplined Indians to give up the use of some article when they visit a tirtha like Haridwar. Gandhiji’s companion on that day, Raojibhai vowed to abstain from milk and milk-products. But the extreme vow that Gandhiji took could be sustained for a life-time only by the Mahatma that he had become already, before reaching India.


Such was the tapas and discipline of the Mahatma. The fame of such great souls spreads and the world pays respect to them spontaneously. Their life and work give rise to great literature and great cinema, it is never the other way round.

Tuesday 16 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World X

FORMALLY ADDRESSED AS DESHABHAKTA MAHATMA                                                                BY THE INDIANS IN SOUTH AFRICA



In 1909, after he came out of his third imprisonment in South Africa, Gandhiji was seen as a Mahatma by those like Pranjivan Mehta, who came in intimate contact with him. As we have described in the previous note, Dr. Mehta, after his long interaction with him during July-September 1909, began to refer to him as a Mahatma “who worships this civilisation of ours and considers this country to be a holier land than any other”. By 1914, when Gandhiji left South Africa for India, all of the Indians in South Africa had begun to see him in that light. They addressed him as “Deshabhakta Mahatma” in the formal written addresses they presented to him in the farewell meetings that they organized in his honour in July 1914.


His third imprisonment was indeed the climactic moment in his journey towards becoming a Mahatma who derived his religion from his love for his motherland and commitment to his civilisation. But his work in South Africa was not yet complete in 1909. The Satyagraha that had been rising and ebbing since its advent on September 11, 1907 had not yet reached its goal. The demand of the Indians to be treated as equal and dignified citizens had not yet been met. Gandhiji spent another five years in South Africa before achieving that denouement.


Before that he had to intensify the Satyagraha once again and raise it to a new peak that involved thousands of Satyagrahis, rather than hundreds of the previous phases, and called for the participation of all Indians, including women and also indentured labourers, who had been exempted earlier. The government of the newly established Union of South Africa had sought to implement measures that had agitated both the indentured and free labourers, those who were still serving their contract and those who had completed their indented period.


This last campaign of the Satyagraha in South Africa was waged from September 15, 1913 to January 22, 1914. Kasturba Gandhi, leading a group of women from the Phoenix Ashram, was arrested at the beginning of the campaign. Gandhiji was arrested towards the end, on November 9, when the Satyagrahis were on the Great March from New Castle in Natal to the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg in the Transvaal. All of the Satyagrahis, who Gandhiji referred to as Pilgrims, were also arrested a day later.


The marching labourers were taken back to the coalmines which were declared as outstation jails. Gandhiji was tried on two separate charges and awarded a total of 12 months of rigorous imprisonment. For this fourth imprisonment in South Africa, he was taken to far off Bloemfontein in Orange Free State, where he could hope to see no Indian.


By that time, however, he and the Satyagraha he was leading had become too well known across the world to be easily suppressed. There was widespread condemnation across the world of  the suppression unleashed by the South African government. The Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, could not keep quiet. Ignoring the etiquette between separate constituents of the Empire, he, in a speech delivered on November 24, 1913 at Madras, publicly charged the Government of the Union of South Africa of brutality against Indian migrants to Natal. The Government of India had been sufficiently agitated by the plight of Indian in South Africa and the harsh measures used against the movement of passive resistance led by Gandhiji that it had earlier, in July 1911, decided to legally prohibit the system of sending Indians to South Africa under indent to serve in the mines there. There was thus to be no more girmitiyas (गिरमिटिया), Indian labourers under agreement.


The Government of South Africa had to act to resolve the situation. A Commission to look into the demands of the Indians was appointed on December 11. Gandhiji and his colleagues were released from jails on December 18. A provisional settlement was reached between Gandhiji and General Smuts on January 22, 1914. As per the provisions of the settlement, an “Indians Relief Bill” was drafted in consultation with the Indians and was passed by the Parliament on June 28. It conceded almost all of the demands for which the Satyagraha was initiated in 1907.


The long Satyagraha succeeded in gaining for the Indians their legal rights as equal citizens of the Union of South Africa. Even more importantly, the South Africans and the world, came to recognise them as inheritors and carriers of a great civilisation. As irreconcilable an opponent as General Smuts was moved to inform the new Parliament in February 1911 that the Asiatic people ‘belonged to an ancient civilisation’, who ‘were prepared to suffer in defence of what they considered their rights’ and who could not be treated like ‘barbarians’.


The passing of the Indians Relief Bill brought the Satyagraha to an end. Gandhiji decided to leave for India almost immediately. He was to leave from Cape Town on July 14 for England on the way to India. Before that, several receptions were organised in various towns by the Indians in South Africa. There was also a reception organised by the Europeans and another specifically by Muslims.


The “Indian Opinion” of July 1914, which was published when Gandhiji was already on the sea, carries texts of the printed addresses presented to him in two such receptions. Below, we give a facsimile of the relevant page. The first of these, presented on behalf of the “Gujarati Hindu brethren” in a meeting held on July 9 in Durban, addresses him as “Deshabhakta Mahatma Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, देशभक्त महात्मा मोहनदास करमचंद गांधी”. The second was presented in a meeting held on July 12 at Verulam, near Durban. According to the report in the Indian Opinion, “this address was in Hindi, Gujarati and Tamil, of which only the Hindi text is reproduced here.” The address begins, “Mahatma Shriyut Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Deshabhakta Mahashayaमहात्मा श्रीयुत मोहनदास करमचंद गांधी, देशभक्त महाशय.


Thus, on the eve of his departure from South Africa, Gandhiji was formally and publicly being addressed as Deshabhakta Mahatma. His fame as a great Indian patriot firmly anchored in Dharma and committed to his land and his civilisation had spread across the world.

Highlighted Text:

Left Column: મી. ગાંધીને મળેલાં માનપત્રો 

Right Column: ગુજરાતી હિંદુભાઇયોનું માનપત્ર, દેશભક્ત મહાત્મા શ્રી મોહનદાસ કરમચંદ ગાંધી,
વેરૂલમમાં મળેલ માનપત્રો, મહાત્મા શ્રીયુત મોહનદાસ કરમચંદ ગાંધી, દેશભક્ત મહાશય

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World IX





Soon after his release from the third imprisonment at Pretoria, Gandhiji led a deputation to England to try to get the problem of Indians considered in the negotiations that were about to take place on the formation of the Union of South Africa. The deputation stayed from June to November 1909 and met with all concerned, including several highly placed politicians and parliamentarians. But it could achieve little success. The Union Bill was passed without incorporating any protections for the Indians in South Africa.


During these six months, Gandhiji got an opportunity to interact with and observe the British elite society from within. He was deeply disillusioned with what he saw. In his letters form that time expresses the extreme disgust he felt for the British elite and the civilisation that they represented. In one such letter to his friend Polak, he compares the elite to the Rakshasas of Indian lore and their civilisation to “refined savagery”:


“I am sending you a copy of the list of those who took part in the banquet to the Ottoman Parliament delegates. The function was brilliant but I came away from it much saddened. The banqueting hall was crowded; the dinner took nearly three hours. The fumes from the wine-glasses and the smoke from the cigars or cigarettes, smoked by nearly three hundred guests, had a most depressing effect on the mind. I then involuntarily called it “refined savagery”, and it reminded me of the scene described by poets at banquets held by Rakshasas.”


It was this realisation of the unscrupulous irreligion of the modern British civilisation and its elite on the one hand and on the other the deep religious anchorage of the Indian Satyagrahis, which gave them the strength to stoically suffer inhuman atrocities in South African jails for a righteous cause, that directly led to his formulation of Hind Swaraj. He wrote this foundational text, which guided his public activity throughout his life, on the way back from England. 


While in England, Gandhiji stayed for a month with Doctor Pranjivan Mehta, an old friend, confidante and benefactor of his. The two had several late-night discussions, occasionally lasting from 11.00 p.m. to 2.00 a.m. Gandhiji, much later in 1940, recalls that all of the ideas of Hind Swaraj were formulated and argued out in those discussions with Mehta. The latter thus had an intimate and extensive interaction with Gandhiji soon after he had passed through the hell of his third imprisonment in Pretoria which we have described in the previous notes. The interaction convinced the Doctor that this passage through hell had transformed Gandhiji into an exalted soul.


Dr. Mehta describes the interactions he had with Gandhiji in 1909 and his understanding of the effect the imprisonment had on Gandhiji in his long Translator’s Preface to the Gujarati version of J. J. Doke’s biography of Gandhiji:


“Instead of being frightened by the painful experiences of the prison described above, Bhai Mohandas became more and more resolute in his cause and his work. Those who have come in contact with him recently—this writer met him in England last year and lived with him for some time—they feel that because of having gone through these adversities his soul has become stronger and purer. …he had been craving for some solitude for a long time. Ultimately he got that solitude in the prison. There he read several books on various subjects, but mainly on religion. He also contemplated on the important questions concerning India as well as other countries of the world. If ever in his life he got the freedom he wanted, he got it in the Transvaal prisons. And for this he is extremely happy from within. …He believes that the real civilisation of India is superior to all other civilisations, because it is founded in religion and morality.


“He worships this civilisation of ours and considers this country to be a holier land than any other. …He considers patriotism (स्वदेशाभिमान) to be a part of religion and always keeps repeating:


भलो देश मारो भली भोम मारीमने प्राणथी नित्य छे एज प्यारी।

My country is good, my land is good.

It indeed is always dearer to me than my life.”


Mehta here notices both the strength and purity of Gandhiji’s soul and his intense patriotism, the two attributes that came to be always associated with Gandhiji after 1909.


Mehta also writes to G. K. Gokhale about these interactions of his with Gandhiji and his assessment of the exalted soul that he had become following his Tapas. In a letter of early November 1909, soon after those late-night discussions between him and Gandhiji, he writes: 


“During my last trip to Europe I saw a great deal of Mr. Gandhi. From year in year (I have known him intimately for over twenty years) I have found him getting the more and more selfless. He is now leading almost an ascetic sort of life—not the life of an ordinary ascetic that we usually see but that of a great Mahatma and the one idea that engrosses his mind is his motherland.”


The Tapas had indeed turned Gandhiji into a Mahatma. This is the first known use of the epithet “Mahatma” for Gandhi. This was in 1909, more than five years before he returned to India.


Pranjivan Mehta’s appreciation of Gandhiji keeps growing with time. Later in 1912, in another letter to Gokhale, he says: 


“In my humble opinion men like him [Gandhiji] are born on very rare occasions & that in India alone. As far as I can see, it seems to me that India has not produced an equally far-seeing political prophet like him, during the last five or six centuries and that if he was born in the 18th century, India would have been a far different land to what it is now & its history would have been altogether differently written.”




Note: Extracts from the letters of Dr. Mehta to Gokhale are from S. R. Mehrotra’s biography of Pranjivan Mehta published in 2014. For further details please see our Making of a Hindu Patriot.

Monday 1 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World VIII



The Gandhiji’s third imprisonment at Pretoria, as we have described in the previous notes in this series, was extremely oppressive and painful. In that passage through hell, Gandhiji comes out with his faith deepened. He discovers the joy of seeing the creator all around him. He ends his narration of this third prison experience (in the Indian Opinion) with a joyful hymn that speaks of the devotee who hears the ‘name of the Invisible’ echoing through the skies and sits rapt in this ‘world-temple’ with his heart filled with gladness. His mind engrossed in such joy, he overcomes all despondency. Smiling and playing his way through life, he sees His presence revealed to him at every step: 


अलख नाम धुनि लगी गगनमेंमगन भया मंदिरमें राजी

आसन मारी सुरत दृढ धारीदिया अगमघर डेरा जी।

करना फकीरी क्या दिलगीरीसदा मगन मन रहेना छे।

हसतां रमतां प्रगट हरि देखुं रेमारुं जीवयुं सफल तब लेखुंरे

एनुं स्वपने जो दर्शन पामे रेएनुं मन न चडे बीजे भामे रे।


The sky rings with the name of the Invisible,

I sit rapt in the temple, my heart filled with gladness;

Taking up an asana, they face immovable,

I have pitched my tent in the abode of the Inscrutable.


Take to the life of a fakir and yield not to despondency,

Let the mind be always rapt with joy.


When, smiling and playing my way through life,

I see [Him] revealed to me, a visible presence,

Then shall I consider my life to have attained its true end;

He who has seen Him even in a dream,

Will cease chasing the shadows in vain.



This revelation, achieved through high Tapas and deep and extensive study of religious texts before and during this Tapas, is what made him the Mahatma. Those who came in contact with him and even those, like Tolstoy, who corresponded with him immediately following that period could sense a certain asceticism and wisdom in him. 


But there was something special about his religious asceticism, because for him religion and patriotism had become the same. At the end of this narration of his third imprisonment in the Indian Opinion, he recalls the hymn above, but just before that he says:


“I wish that everyone who reads this account of experience should cultivate patriotism, if he does not have it, and learn satyagraha therefrom, and if he has it already, be more firm in it. I am growing more convinced every day that no one who does not know his religion can have true patriotism in him.”


This realization that patriotism and religion must always go together, that the two must not be separated from each other, make both his patriotism and his religiosity special. Soon the world begins to notice this. As we have seen in an earlier note, Tolstoy comments on this coming together of religion and patriotism in him. His seminal text, Hind Swaraj, which he writes within six months after his release from his third imprisonment, is largely based on this understanding of religion and patriotism. That text put him among the strongest critics of the then nascent modern civilization and made him a world-figure to be reckoned with.

Wednesday 26 June 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World VII-B



In the previous notes in this series, we have described the terrible condition of prisons in South Arica on the basis of Gandhiji’s own description of his imprisonment. In this note, we offer the testimony of Nelson Mandela on the condition of prisoners in the jails of South Africa at the time of Gandhiji and at his own time. 


There is great similarity in the conditions of imprisonment during our days and Gandhi’s. Prison conditions changed dramatically only in the 1980s, despite the pressures exerted at the beginning of the century by Gandhi and his colleagues, and in the latter decades by my colleagues and myself.     — Nelson Mandela



Gandhi threatened the South African Government during the first and second decades of our century as no other man did. He established the first anti-colonial political organisation in the country, if not in the world, founding the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. The African People’s Organisation (APO) was established in 1902, the ANC in 1912, so that both were witnesses to and highly influenced by Gandhi’s militant satyagraha which began in 1907 and reached its climax in 1913 with the epic march of 5,000 workers indentured on the coal mines of Natal. That march evoked a massive response from the Indian women who in turn, provoked the Indian workers to come out on strike. That was the beginning of the marches to freedom and mass stay-away-from-work which became so characteristic of our freedom struggle in the apartheid era. Our Defiance Campaign of 1952, too, followed very much on the lines that Gandhi had set.


So the Indian struggle, in a sense, is rooted in the African. M. K. Gandhi and John Dube, first President of the African National Congress, were neighbours in Inanda, and each influenced the other, for both men established, at about the same time, two monuments to human development within a stone’s throw of each other, the Ohlange Institute and the Phoenix Settlement. Both institutions suffer today the trauma of the violence that has overtaken that region; hopefully, both will rise again, phoenix-like, to lead us to undreamed heights.


During his twenty-one years in South Africa, Gandhi was sentenced to four terms of imprisonment, the first, on January 10, 1908 to two months, the second, on October 7, 1908 to three months, the third, on February 25, also to three months, and the fourth, on November 11, 1913 to nine months hard labour. He actually served seven months and ten days of those sentences. On two occasions, the first and the last, he was released within weeks because the Government of the day, represented by General Smuts, rather than face satyagraha and the international opprobrium it was bringing the regime, offered to settle the problems through negotiation.


On all four occasions, Gandhi was arrested in his time and at his insistence there were no midnight raids, the police did not swoop on him— there were no charges of conspiracy to overthrow the state, of promoting the activities of banned organisations or instigating inter-race violence. The State had not yet invented the vast repertoire of so-called “security laws”, that we had to contend with in our time. There was no Terrorism Act, no “Communism Act”, no Internal Security Act, or detentions without trial. The control of the State was not as complete; the Nationalist police of State and Nationalist ideology of apartheid were yet to be born. Gandhi was arrested for deliberately breaching laws that were unjust because they discriminated against Indians and violated their dignity and their freedom. He was imprisoned because he refused to take out a registration certificate, or a pass in terms of the Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act (TARA), and “instigated” others to do likewise.


When apartheid was still in its infancy, we too, like Gandhi, organised arrests in our own time through the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign, but by the end of the sixties, the violence of the State had reached such intensity that passive resistance appeared futile. We were literally pulled out of our beds and dragged into prison. Our Defiance, instead of bringing relief, provoked the Government into passing the so-called security laws in a bid to dam up all resistance. This should not mislead the reader into thinking that Gandhi’s resistance did not provoke harsh measures against him and his followers. The Indians suffered terrible reprisal   they were deported to India and several groups spent time navigating back and forth, between the ports of Bombay and Durban in third class steerage because they refused to disembark in India, insisting they would only do so on their mother soil, South Africa.


Most of those deportees had in fact been born in South Africa and India was for them, a foreign country. Others like Ahmed Cachalia and E. I. Asvat lost their lucrative businesses and were forced into insolvency by their white creditors, not because their businesses were not doing well, but because they resented their ‘defiance’ and forced them to liquidate their assets and pay them back. Others had their property auctioned, just so that the government could extract the fines the satyagrahis refused to pay for defying unjust laws. Gandhi himself was treated with utmost indignity on several occasions, the like of which was not heaped on us. On two occasions, while being moved from Volksrust to Johannesburg and Pretoria respectively, he was marched from the gaol to the station in prison garb, handcuffed, with his prison kit on his head. Those who saw him were moved to anger and tears. For Gandhi, it was part of his suffering, part of the struggle against inhumanity.



Prison Conditions


There is great similarity in the conditions of imprisonment during our days and Gandhi’s. Prison conditions changed dramatically only in the 1980s, despite the pressures exerted at the beginning of the century by Gandhi and his colleagues, and in the latter decades by my colleagues and myself. Access to newspapers, radio and television were allowed, in stages, only in the last decade as, too, were beds. In a sense, I was eased into the prison routine.


My first time in a lock-up was on June 26th, 1952 while I was organising the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. I was held for a few days in a police cell before being released on bail. Gandhi’s first imprisonment was without hard labour, in January 1908, and though sentenced to two months, he was released within 19 days. General Smuts, fearful of the momentum the passive resistance struggle was gathering, had him brought by train, from Johannesburg, to his offices in Pretoria to work out a settlement.


I too, was called out with a view to a settlement by the then head of state, Mr. P.W. Botha. They drove me to Groote Schuur, but that was in my twenty-sixth year of imprisonment - when the Nationalist Government saw that they could no longer govern the country on their own. Gandhi spent his first term of imprisonment in the Fort in Johannesburg, so did I —in the hospital section as an awaiting trial prisoner in 1962.


Gandhi describes his apprehension on being first convicted: “Was I to be specially treated as a political prisoner? Was I to be separated from my fellow prisoners?” he soliloquized. He was facing imprisonment in a British Colony in 1908, and he still, at the time, harboured a residue of belief in British justice. My colleagues and I faced imprisonment in the cells of apartheid; we had no expectations that we would be given privileges because we were political prisoners. We expected the reverse - greater brutality because we were political prisoners. My first conviction was for five years in 1962, following my incognito African “tour”. I began serving in Pretoria. Like Gandhi, we experienced the insides of the major Transvaal prisons. Gandhi, however, was never on Robben Island in the Cape, and we were never in Volksrust in the Transvaal.


Gandhi’s approach was to accommodate to the prison conditions since, as a satyagrahi, suffering in the path of freedom and justice was part of his creed: We were never satyagrahis in that sense. We did not accept suffering, we reacted against it. I was as uncooperative on my first day of prison as I possibly could be. I refused to wear the prison shorts and I refused to eat the prison food. They gave me long trousers, and food that was somewhat more palatable, but at a heavy price. I was placed in solitary confinement where I discovered that human company was infinitely more valuable than any material advantage.



Clothing and Food


There was practically no difference in the issue of clothing given to us in 1962 and that given to Gandhi in 1908. He records, that “After being stripped, we were given prison uniforms. We were supplied, each with a pair of short breeches, a shirt of coarse cloth, a jumper, a cap, a towel and a pair of socks and sandals.” (Indian Opinion, 02-01-1909) Our issue was almost identical.


Neither was there any difference in the diet, basically porridge, save that we were given a teaspoon of sugar; Gandhi’s porridge had no sugar. At lunch, we were served mealies, sometimes mixed with beans. He spent one and a half months on a one-meal-a-day diet of beans.


He did not think it proper to complain, writing:


“How can we complain when there are hundreds who accept these things. A complaint must have only one object - to secure relief for other prisoners. How would it mend matters if I were occasionally to complain to the warder about the small quantity of potatoes and so get him to serve me a little more? I once observed him giving me an additional helping from a portion meant for another, and thereafter I gave up complaining altogether.”


He declined any favours offered to him exclusively but accepted improvements when these were shared with his fellow political prisoners. On Robben Island, we observed the same principle.


We took up issues on behalf of all the prisoners, political and non-political, never on behalf of an individual, except when an individual was personally discriminated against. In prison, one’s material needs are so straitened that they are reduced to almost nothing, and if in that condition one can still think of one’s fellowmen, one’s humanity excels and passes all tests for fellow feeling. Gandhi passed that test superbly. I am grateful that I maintained my humanity throughout my internment as did too my immediate colleagues.





The cells in 1962 were comparable to those during the early 1900s. Gandhi describes his cell in Volksrust:


 “It had fair ventilation, with two small windows at the top of the cell, half open apertures in the opposite wall. There was no electric light. The cell contained a dim lamp, a bucket of water and a tin tumbler. For natural convenience, a bucket in a tray with disinfectant fluid in it, was placed in a corner. Our bedding consisted of two planks, fixed to three-inch legs, two blankets, an apology for a pillow, and matting.” (Indian Opinion, 07-03-1908)


We were similarly locked up with a bucket for a commode and drinking water in a plastic bottle. Though we had electricity, the lights, controlled from outside, remained on throughout the night. We had no raised planks for sleeping. We slept on a mat, on the floor. Communal cells, in Gandhi’s time and ours, usually accommodated 15-20 prisoners, but that varied. The worst Gandhi experienced was sharing a cell, with accommodation for 50, with 150 prisoners. (Indian Opinion, 28-03-1908)


The ablution facilities in Gandhi’s time were worse than in ours, two large stone basins and two spouts that served as a shower, two buckets for defecation and two for urine - all in the open, since prison regulations did not allow privacy. The one grilling routine that some of his compatriots suffered was absent from ours. Ahmed Cachalia, for instance, was left in a cold bath with other prisoners for hours and developed pneumonia as a consequence.



Prison Routine


Our prison routine and Gandhi’s were remarkably similar, but then why wouldn’t they be? In prison everything stands still. There is one way to treat prisoners, and that way doesn’t change. During my first decade of imprisonment, we were up at 5.30 a.m., we rushed through our ablutions, folded our bedding and lined it against the wall and stood to attention for inspection.


Once counted, we filed for our breakfast, and then filed to be counted again before being sent to work. Work stopped at 4.30 p.m., when there was further counting; when we reached the compound, we were stripped naked and searched. By 5.30 p.m. we had had our supper and were locked up for the night.



Now let us look at Gandhi’s account of his prison routine:


 “The prisoners are counted when they are locked in and when they are let out. A bell is rung at half-past five in the morning to wake up the prisoners. Everyone must then get up, roll up his bedding and wash. The door of the cell is opened at six when each prisoner must stand up with his arms crossed and his bedding rolled up beside him. A sentry then calls the roll. By a similar rule, every prisoner is required to stand beside his bed, while he is being locked up [at night]. When the officials come to inspect the prisoners, they must take off their caps and salute him. All the prisoners wore caps, and it was not difficult to take them off, for there was a rule that they must be taken off, and this was only proper. The order to line up was given by shouting the command fall in whenever an official came. The words fall in therefore became our daily diet. They meant that the prisoners should fall in line and stand to attention. This happened four or five times a day. The prisoners are locked up at half-past five in the afternoon. They read or converse in the cell up to eight in the evening. At eight, everyone must go to bed, meaning that even if one cannot sleep, one must get into bed. Talking among prisoners after eight constitutes a breach of Gaol Regulations. The Native prisoners do not observe this rule too strictly. The warders on night duty, therefore, try to silence them by knocking against the walls with their truncheons and shouting, Thula! Thula!”  (Indian Opinion, 21-03-1908).



From: mkgandhi.org, where this testimony is attributed to the official website of African National Congress anc1912.org.za.

Monday 24 June 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World VII-A


In the previous note, we have described the extremely rough treatment that Gandhiji was subjected to during his incarceration in a solitary cell of Pretoria Central Prison from March 3 to May 25, 1909. The prison was the official site for capital punishment in South Africa. The maximum-security section of the prison where Gandhiji was held is called the C Max today. The Wikipedia page on Pretoria Central Prison describes the C-Max thus: 


 “C Max is the maximum security division of the prison. It is run by the South African Department of Correctional Services. The division is specifically designed for violent and disruptive prisoners who have been classified as dangerous in terms of the South African Criminal Procedure Act. Prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours of each day out and specialized equipment, such as electric shields, are used by the prison guards. “


The readers may also look at a travellers account of parts of the Pretoria Central Prison which has been turned into a museum here. This includes a surreptitiously clicked picture of C Max, reproduced below. These descriptions should disabuse social-media commentators who claim that jail-going of Gandhiji and other satyagrahis was some silly joke.

Covert shot of the castle-like maximum security building at Kgosi Mampuru. Photo: Ted Botha, https://2summers.net/2017/08/02/gauteng52-week-31-pretorias-prison-museum/