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:, where this testimony is attributed to the official website of African National Congress

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,

Friday 21 June 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World VII


Volksrust and Pretoria, February 25 to May 24, 1909




After release from his second imprisonment in December 1908, Gandhiji raised the Satyagraha to a higher pitch and the government responded with a higher level of oppression. To sustain the Satyagraha in those difficult circumstances, Gandhiji once again courted arrest by crossing the Natal-Transvaal border on February 25, 1909. He was tried the same day and sentenced to three months with hard labour. This third term of Gandhiji in the prisons of South Africa was the most trying, during which he was subjected to unimaginably severe physical suffering and humiliation. 


After the sentencing, Gandhiji was taken to Volksrust prison, where his son, Harilal Gandhi and several other Satyagrahis already lodged. Within a week, he was ordered to be removed to Pretoria. Gandhiji was naturally unhappy leaving the company of his fellow prisoners: “Which Satyagrahi would like to leave a place where conditions were so happy and where the largest number of Indians were congregated?”



The journey to Pretoria in a cold rainy night


On the rainy evening of March 2, 1909, Gandhiji was walked to Volksrust station, accompanied by a warder and carrying his kit on his head. Gandhiji describes the nearly 400-kilometres long train journey to Pretoria in a third-class compartment thus: “The warder and I found ourselves huddled up in a compartment. It was cold, and it rained the whole night. I had my overcoat with me, which I was allowed to put on. I felt a little better after that. I had been given bread and cheese to eat on the way. I did not touch them, since I had had my meal before starting. They were consumed by the warder.” 



Confined in an isolation cell at Pretoria jail


On reaching Pretoria on March 3, Gandhiji, after the initial formalities, was removed to a small cell where he was to spend the rest of his term: “It measured, I believe, ten feet long and seven broad. The floor was covered with black pitch. The warders were constantly engaged in keeping it shining. For ventilation, it had a very small glass window, with iron bars. It was provided with an electric light for keeping a watch on the prisoner during the night. The light is not meant for the prisoner’s use, for it is not powerful enough to read by.” 



Bathing and defecating under watch 


The bathing spot was about 125 feet from the cell. Gandhiji was expected to run naked up to there, but the warder kindly granted his request to undress in the bathing area. He was watched over while defecating. Gandhiji describes the process almost cheerfully, seemingly making fun of his sluggish bowel movement: “Even when I went for evacuation, a warder stood by to keep watch. If by chance he did not know me, he would shout: ‘Sam, come out now.’ But Sam had the bad habit of taking a long time for evacuation; how could he get out so soon, and if he did, how would he feel easy in bowels afterwards? Sometimes a [white] warder, and sometimes a Kaffir, would thus stand by, and keep peeping over or shouting to the refrain of ‘Get up’, ‘Get up’.”



Shining of floors and mending of blankets


From the day after his arrival in Pretoria jail, Gandhiji was given the task of polishing the floors and doors of his cell and the corridor. The floors were covered with black pitch; the doors were made of varnished iron. After ten days of the polishing of floors and doors, Gandhiji was given the task of mending worn-out blankets.  “This was rather intricate work. It required me to bend down the whole day towards the floor, and that, too, while sitting in the cell. This used to give me back-ache by evening, and my eyes also began to feel the strain. “Gandhiji asked to be allowed to do this work in the open air. The request was denied. He asked for a small bench to sit on while working; that request was also denied with a flat ‘No’. Later, when his health began to deteriorate, he was allowed the luxury of doing the mending in open air outside his cell.  



Forbidden communication with Kasturba


Kasturba, who had fallen gravely ill during Gandhiji’s second imprisonment, remained on the sickbed. She was operated upon on January 10, 1909, seven weeks before his third imprisonment. On the first day of his arrival at Pretoria jail, he asked the Deputy- Governor for permission to write to his wife. The permission was granted; but because he wrote the letter in Gujarati, it was returned to him with the remark that he must write in English. Gandhiiji refused to communicate with his wife in English. Instead, he wrote to his colleague West, saying that: “The authorities will not grant permission for me to write to Mrs. Gandhi in Gujarati. …I do not know whether wife would like me to write in English. …Please tell Mrs. G[andhi] that I am all right. …” 



Surviving on one meal a day


Since Gandhiji was in solitary confinement, he was expected to eat his meals “in the cell standing, with the doors shut “. Describing the diet offered to him, Gandhiji says, “The food was in keeping with the conditions described above. Mealie pap in the morning, mealie pap with potatoes and carrots thrice a week for the midday meal, beans on other three days and rice without ghee for the evening meal. “On a couple of days some ghee was allowed with the midday meal. Gandhiji refused to eat rice without ghee, and most of the other items were uneatable. Gandhiji had to survive practically on one meal a day: “Sometimes I would take four or five spoonfuls of mealie pap in the morning. But on the whole, I spent one and a half months on one meal of beans only at midday.” 



Further brutality: handcuffed in public 


There was another brutality that was inflicted upon Gandhiji during his third imprisonment. On the fourth day after his arrival at Pretoria, he was summoned as a witness in the case of a Satyagrahi woman. For this appearance, he was made to walk to the court through the streets of Pretoria in handcuffs. Describing this new brutality, Gandhiji says: “I was handcuffed on the occasion. Moreover, the warder locked up the handcuffs rather tight. I think he did this unintentionally. The Chief Warder saw this. I had obtained his permission to carry a book with me to read [on the way]. Thinking probably that I felt ashamed of the handcuffs, he asked me to hold the book with both hands, so that the handcuffs might not be seen. I was rather amused at this. To me the handcuffs were a matter of honour.” Gandhiji was handcuffed also on the way back, but then he was transported in a truck. 


Gandhiji was taken to court in handcuffs on another occasion also, but was spared walking through the streets on foot. The indignity and brutality involved in making Gandhiji walk through the streets of Pretoria in handcuffs caused much resentment. The Rev. J. J. Doke, who was to become the first biographer of Gandhiji, wrote about the incident in The Rand Daily Mail. Several other comments appeared in the press. Questions were asked about it in the House of Commons to which Colonel Seeley gave the stock reply that: “There has been no suggestion that Mr. Gandhi has been subjected to any special disability. Mr. Gandhi has been treated in every respect as any other prisoner would have been treated… “The Secretary of State for the Colonies addressed a routine enquiry to the Colonial Government on this subject, to which the Prime Minister, Louis Botha, replied that “the statement that M. K. Gandhi was marched handcuffed from the Pretoria Gaol to the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court is correct. It is the universal rule to handcuff prisoners when so marched and they are so marched when the prison van is not available…”



Why the brutality?


The intensity of the brutality and indignity that Gandhiji was subjected to during his third period of incarceration raises the question as to why and at whose orders was it perpetrated. Who ordered the solitary confinement, close observation, starvation diet, denial of access to fresh air, handcuffing and so on? 


Gandhiji felt that it was the doing of General Smuts. When Mr. Lichtenstein, a sympathetic white lawyer from Pretoria, came to see him with special permission, Gandhiji told him, “Without going into details, I shall only say that I am being subjected to brutal treatment. General Smuts wants to bend me, but I am not likely to succumb. I am prepared to suffer everything. My mind is at peace… He repeated this when the director of prisons visited him a few days later.  


Gandhiji, of course, could not be sure about the involvement of Smuts. He publicly withdrew the aspersion in a Letter to the Press he issued two days after his release from the prison: “The opinion I expressed to Mr. Lichtenstein about General Smuts underwent a change upon further observation, and I felt that he had directly nothing to do with the treatment described above…”



The great suffering, bordering on torture, that Gandhiji was put through during his third imprisonment was meant to bend and break him. Instead, he came out stronger. His anchorage in dharma became deeper. His great spiritual strength began to shine through. 


It is after this passage through fire that he began to be seen as a Mahatma, a high spiritual personage, and his fame began to spread through the world. We narrate that story in subsequent notes. Here let us only notice that that Gandhiji and his Satyagraha were already known enough for his treatment in prison to be discussed in the House of Commons and for Prime Minister Botha being constrained to formally respond to the criticism. This was more than seven decades before the film of 1982 which is now being credited for his fame.


Based on our book “Making of a Hindu Patriot”.

Monday 17 June 2024



October 14 to December 12, 1908, Volksrust and Johannesburg


The provisional settlement that Gandhiji and General Smuts had arrived at the end of his first imprisonment on January 30, 1908 did not last, because the latter reneged on his word. The Satyagraha was resumed from early July. In August, Gandhiji decided to intensify the stir by calling for a mass meeting to publicly burn the registration certificates and trading licenses that the Indians had obtained by complying with the terms of the provisional settlement. On August 16, nearly two thousand certificates and licenses were burnt. More certificates were burnt in another mass meeting held a week later on August 23. These ceremonial public burnings of the official passes drew much attention and set the stage for excessively coercive actions by the government. Many leaders of the Satyagraha movement were arrested on August 26. Gandhiji was arrested a few weeks later, on October 7. He was held in custody at Volksrust for a week and, on October 14, was sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour. He was taken to the notorious Johannesburg Central Prison, where more than five decades later, Nelson Mandela was also imprisoned.



Hard labour: breaking stones at the public square


Physical suffering of Gandhiji intensified during this second imprisonment. On the day after he was sentenced, he was sent with a convict gang comprising both Indian and native African prisoners to dig up and remove stones from an agricultural showground in the Market Square of Volksrust. It was backbreaking work, and it was exacted in the most humiliating and stringent manner that the rules allowed. Describing his first day of hard labour, Gandhiji writes: 


“…On the first day, we had to dig up the soil in a field near the main road… We were taken there along with the Kaffirs. The soil was very hard… the labour involved was strenuous. The day was very hot. The place of work must have been at a distance of about one and a half miles from the gaol. All the Indians set to work with great energy. But only a few of them were used to hard work… As the day advanced, we found the task quite hard. The warder was rather sharp of temper. He shouted at the prisoners all the time to keep on working. The more he shouted, the more nervous the Indians became. I even saw some of them in tears. One, I noticed, had a swollen foot. …I too got exhausted. There were large blisters on the palms, the lymph oozing out of them. It was difficult to bend down, and the spade seemed to weigh a maund. For myself, I was praying to God all the time to save my honour, so that I might not break down, … Placing my trust in Him, I went on with the work. The warder started rebuking me. …”


The work was indeed so hard that one of the Indians, Jhinabhai Desai, had fainted by noon and all of them were in bad shape by the end of the day.



Carrying urine buckets and cleaning the lavatories


Besides performing nine hours of hard labour every day, the prisoners were also expected to carry and empty the urine buckets placed in the night in the wards; and, occasionally, they were ordered to clean the lavatories of warders and other officers. Gandhiji’s fellow Indians in the prison found this work humiliating. He, while cheerfully carrying out the task, also tried to convince them that no work is degrading or humiliating.



Sent to Johannesburg in prisoner’s garb


As Gandhiji was settling down to the routine at Volksrust and had begun to find the prison work bearable, he was ordered to be transferred to Johannesburg for a few days to give evidence in some court cases there. This became an occasion to subject him to further indignities. He was made to walk, in prison uniform carrying his kit on his head, from the prison to the railway station at Volksrust. He was similarly made to walk from the Johannesburg railway station to the prison there. 



Subjected to the fear of sodomy in the Johannesburg jail


Gandhiji reached Johannesburg in the evening of October 25. For that night, he was put in a cell that housed mostly native African prisoners. This was a night from hell for him. The situation was so bad that even Gandhiji, who had prepared himself to suffer the worst ignominies, turned fearful and nervous. The reason for the fear was that his cellmates seemed to be intent on immoral conduct; they came near, looked closely at him and then ‘exchanged obscene jokes, uncovering each other’s genitals’. Such, gang-intimidation is known to be a facet of prison-life in South Africa even today.



Physically lifted from the pot and thrown out of the lavatory


There was a further indignity heaped upon him; in this instance, however, he was able to maintain his equanimity and composure. Use of the lavatories was always an issue in the prisons. Gandhiji had a particularly horrifying experience in the Johannesburg jail. He had entered one of the lavatories in a ward and barely sat down to relieve himself, when a native African prisoner asked him to get out, abused him, lifted him in his arms and threw him out.


Gandhiiji was able to retain his mental composure in the face of such grave abuse and humiliation offered to his person. As he says, he was not the least frightened and walked away with a smile. But the experience was physically traumatic: he had no bowel movement for the next four days! 


Gandhiji was taken back to Volksrust on November 4, where he completed the rest of his term in relatively less painful and humiliating conditions.



Reactions to Gandhiji’s Treatment


Gandhiji by that time was already a public figure. The news of his working with a convict gang in a public square at Volksrust was carried by the Reuter’s. His walk to and from the station in prisoner’s garb with his kit on his head at Volksrust and Johannesburg was also noticed. The liberal MP from Brentford, Dr. Vickerman Rutherford, who was particularly sensitive to Indian interests, raised the issue of Gandhiji’s treatment in the House of Commons. The question was referred to the government at Transvaal, who replied that Gandhiji and other “Indian prisoners were treated with every consideration consistent with the Goal Regulations…”


Gandhiji endured much worse treatment during his third imprisonment which we describe in a subsequent note.

Based on our book, Making of a Hindu Patriot.

For a description of life in Number 4 Prison of Johannesburg, where Gandhiji was held during part of his second imprisonment, see,

Thursday 13 June 2024



January 10-30, 1908 Johannesburg


Gandhiji suffered imprisonment thrice during 1908-1909 in the course of the Satyagraha that the Indian community had resolved to launch on 11 September 1906. Many members of the Indian community went to jail in the course of the Satyagraha. His son Harilal Gandhi was in and out of jail during this period. He was sentenced to hard labour six times between 1908-1911. Kasturba underwent rigorous imprisonment in 1913, during the later and larger Satyagraha movement of 1913-1914. 


This last Satyagraha led by Gandhiji in South Africa attracted the participation of a large number of indentured labourers, whom Gandhiji led on a Great March from New Castle in Natal to the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg in the Transvaal. The marchers, whom Gandhiji referred to as the pilgrims, were arrested before they could reach their destination. In the course of this, his last Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhiji decided to permit women to offer Satyagraha and Kasturba led the first group of women Satyagrahis. He was imprisoned a fourth time in the course of this movement.


Gandhiji was imprisoned for the first time on January 10, 1908. This first experience of being taken into custody was traumatic, even for him, who had been preparing himself for the eventuality for long. In his Satyagraha in South Africa, he describes the experience poignantly:


In the Court there were hundreds of Indians as well as brother members of the Bar in front of me. On the sentence being pronounced I was at once removed in custody and was then quite alone. The policeman asked me to sit on a bench kept there for prisoners, shut the door on me and went away. I was somewhat agitated and fell into deep thought. Home, the courts where I practised, the public meeting, —all these passed away like a dream, and I was now a prisoner. What would happen in two months? Would I have to serve the full term? If the people courted imprisonment in large numbers, as they had promised, there would be no question of serving the full sentence. But if they failed to fill the prisons, two months would be as tedious as an age. These thoughts passed through my mind in less than one hundredth of the time that it has taken me to dictate them. And they filled me with shame. How vain I was! I, who had asked the people to consider the prisons as His Majesty’s hotels, the suffering consequent upon disobeying the Black Act as perfect bliss, and the sacrifice of one’s all and of life itself in resisting it as supreme enjoyment! Where had all this knowledge vanished today? 


Notwithstanding the initial trauma, this first imprisonment of Gandhiji turned out to be the least painful. He, of course, had to suffer the various indignities of jail—being finger-printed; stripped and made to change into the prison garb; having ones garments marked with an ‘N’, indicating Native (because that is how the Indians were classified in the jails of the apartheid regime); being deprived of privacy even while defecating; getting one’s head cropped and moustaches removed (the prison authorities exempted Gandhiji from this, but he insisted on the rule being observed); falling in line whenever an officer of the jail appeared, which happened several times a day; and so on…


This was the initial phase of the Satyagrahis being sentenced to jail. The magistrates were somewhat lenient and were not generally sending the Satyagrahis to hard labour. In the jail, the Satyagrahis were allowed to stay together in the same ward. This did lead to considerable overcrowding, —towards the end of January there were more than 150 Indians in a ward meant for 51. But this also led to a certain camaraderie, which made the privations of jail-life more bearable.


This first imprisonment also turned out to be all too brief. He and the other Satyagrahis with him were sentenced to 2 months in prison. But on January 30, on the twenty-first day of his imprisonment, he was taken to Pretoria, where a short-lived compromise was arrived at between him and General Smuts.  He was released immediately after that and the other Satyagrahis were released the next day.


Soon General Smuts reneged on his part of the compromise and the Satyagraha was resumed in a more intense form in early July. That led to Gandhiji’s further and much more painful imprisonments, which we describe in our later notes.


Based on our book, Making of a Hindu Patriot. Picture below from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday 12 June 2024



In the previous blogs in the context of Gandhiji and the world, we have shown that Gandhiji was known in the world by 1909. His fame has spread partly because of the novelty of the passive resistance Satyagraha campaign, deeply anchored in Dharma, that he was carrying out in South Africa since 1906. It was also because of the intense tapas, stoic acceptance of physical deprivation, that the Satyagrahis, and Gandhiji personally were going through.


The tapas involved deprivation of all kinds. Gandhiji adopted aparigraha, non-possession of worldly things, before beginning the Satyagraha, and had dedicated all his belongings and earnings to the community. Many of the Satyagrahis, some of whom held substantial wealth, also lost all their possessions. Their families were turned destitute and had to seek shelter and sustenance in the Phoenix Ashram or in the community. 


Most intense part of the tapas that Gandhiji and the Satyagrahis in South Africa went through were the jail-goings. Nowadays, there are many who ignorantly make fun of jail-going of the Satyagrahis as some weird form of relaxation. The imprisonments that Gandhiji, his family and the Satyagrahis went through in a foreign land, among unfamiliar, unknown and unsympathetic people, were anything but easy. The concept of Satyagraha at that stage was new; it was not yet widely known or accepted as a legitimate instrument of political protest. Even later, when Gandhiji’s Satyagraha campaigns in India began to draw worldwide attention, the British hardly granted any legitimacy to it and the ordinary Satyagrahis had to undergo much suffering in the Indian prisons.


But the suffering undergone by Indians in the South African prisons was of a different order altogether. The authorities treated those violating the law as common criminals; and after the first few months of the Satyagraha, the protesters were invariably sentenced to hard labour, not merely simple imprisonment. The lot of the Satyagrahis was in fact worse than that of common criminals; because unlike the native African prisoners, with whom they were classified, they were not used to the native diet that the authorities insisted on serving them. Gandhiji and the Indian community in prisons of South Africa had to carry out a long and difficult struggle to get a spoonful of ghee, which Gandhiji insisted was an essential part of the Indian diet, included in the prison diet of the Satyagrahis.


We have described Gandhiji’s experiences in the prisons of South Africa in some detail in our book The Making of a Hindu Patriot. In the subsequent notes, we shall give some glimpse of the suffering that he went through his various incarcerations.


It was this suffering, this tapas, which he joyfully went through and made thousands of Indians in South Africa accept willingly, that made him known in the world, already in 1909. The films and other media celebrating the man and his achievements came much later.

The image below is of Gandhiji (extreme left) with other members of the Indian community outside a jail in South Africa, probably in Johannesburg, in 1908. Wikimedia Commons.