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”.

1 comment:

  1. Very poignant description. Thanks for sharing. Arun Grover