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.

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