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.

Thursday 6 June 2024

Loksabha 2024


The results of Lok Sabha 2024 elections show that of the 102 constituencies that were polled in the first phase on April 19, NDA has won only 34, while 68 seats have gone to others. Part of the reason for this low score for the NDA is that 40 of the 102 seats in the first phase were from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, from where the NDA could expect to get little. But, unexpectedly, the NDA also lost 4 of the 5 seats in Maharashtra, 8 of the 12 seats in Rajasthan and 6 of the 8 seats in Uttar Pradesh. It also lost all of the 6 seats of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland. In addition, it lost a seat each in Assam, Bihar and West Bengal.
This looks like a decisive loss in the very first phase of polling. The leadership must have been made aware of the scale of possible loss by their cadre, pollsters and the intelligence outfits. Could that be the reason for the very visible and audible shift in the style of campaigning in the later phases?

Incidentally, out of the 34 seats won by the NDA in this phase of polling, 30 went to the BJP and 4 to its allies. Of the 68 seats won by others, INC obtained 27. The two parties were thus running neck to neck in this phase.

Monday 3 June 2024



We began our previous blog on Tolstoy and Gandhiji with Troyat’s quote about how Tolstoy “deeply admired” Gandhiji “except for his Hindu patriotism, which spoils everything”. There is a background to this exception that tempered Tolstoy’s admiration. 


In his Letter to a Hindoo, Tolstoy had expressed his great appreciation for the ways of the Hindus, but he had some reservation about some of their beliefs. Towards the conclusion of this Letter, he advised the Hindus to shun these beliefs, writing:


If only people freed themselves from their beliefs in all kinds of Ormuzds, Brahmas, Sabbaoths, and their incarnation as Krishnas and Christs, from beliefs in Paradises and Hells, in reincarnations and resurrections, from belief in the interference of the Gods in the external affairs of the universe, and above all, if they freed themselves from belief in the infallibility of all the various Vedas, Bibles, Gospels, Tripitakas, Korans, and the like, and also freed themselves from blind belief in a variety of scientific teachings about infinitely small atoms and molecules and in all the infinitely great and infinitely remote worlds, their movements and origin, as well as from faith in the infallibility of the scientific law to which humanity is at present subjected: the historic law, the economic laws, the law of struggle and survival, and so on… —the simple law of love, natural to man, accessible to all and solving all questions and perplexities, would of itself become clear and obligatory.  


Gandhiji, while translating the Letter did not quite appreciate this advice, especially the advice to the Hindus to give up belief in reincarnation and rebirth. In his letter to Tolstoy, seeking permission to publish the Gujarati translation of the Letter, he politely requested Tolstoy to remove the reference to reincarnation in this context:


I would also venture to make a suggestion. In the concluding paragraph you seem to dissuade the reader from a belief in reincarnation. I do not know whether …you have specially studied the question. Re-incarnation or transmigration is a cherished belief with millions in India, indeed, in China also. With many, one might almost say, it is a matter of experience, no longer a matter of academic acceptance. It explains reasonably the many mysteries of life. With some of the passive resisters who have gone through the gaols of the Transvaal, it has been their solace. My object in writing this is not to convince you of the truth of the doctrine, but to ask you if you will please remove the word “re-incarnation” from the other things you have dissuaded your reader from.


It was indeed impish for the young Gandhi to make such a request to the celebrated sage of Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy, it seems, was not amused by the impudence. Replying to Gandhiji, he wrote: “As to the word ‘reincarnation’, I should not myself like to omit it, for, in my opinion, belief in reincarnation can never be as firm as belief in the soul’s immortality and in God’s justice and love. You may, however, do as you like about omitting it.”


Gandhiji, in his Gujarati translation, removed both “reincarnation” and “resurrection” from this paragraph of Tolstoy’s Letter to a Hindoo.


Such was the deep faith that Gandhiji had already acquired in Hindu Dharma and its foundational principles. Later, in 1921, in an article published in the Young India of 6.10.1921, he proclaimed:


I call myself a sanatani Hindu, because,

1. I believe in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and all that goes by the name of Hindu scriptures, and therefore in avataras and rebirth,

2. I believe in the varnashrama dharma in a sense in my opinion strictly Vedic but not in its present popular and crude sense,

3. I believe in the protection of the cow in its much larger sense than the popular,

4. I do not disbelieve in idol-worship.


Notice that the first of the essential attributes of Hinduism that he defines here is belief in rebirth and reincarnation. 


Gandhiji was the first and perhaps the only modern Hindu to proudly and unapologetically proclaim his faith in all of the foundational principles of Hinduism. Unlike many of our reformist leaders, he was not overwhelmed by neither the claims of universal rationality of the West, nor the claims to universal love and justice of Christianity. He refused to compromise on any of the principles of Hinduism on such grounds. He did not compromise on these even in the face of Tolstoy, the wise and saintly spokesperson of the western civilisation and Christian religion. This complete and unwavering faith in Indian civilisation and Hindu religion made the world pause and listen to him. Beyond his unconditional faith, he needed no other support to make an imprint on the world. 


Postscript: Gandhiji, it seems, was aware Tolstoy’s exasperation at his ‘Hindu Patriotism’. In March 1926, long after the death of Tolstoy, while writing to an unnamed correspondent about some ‘fundamental differences’ between him and Tolstoy, he wrote: … “My patriotism is patent enough; my love for India is ever growing but it is derived from my religion and is therefore in no sense exclusive."

This note is based on our book, "Making of a Hindu Patriot" and on an article on the Relevance of Mahatma Gandhi on our website.

Sunday 2 June 2024




Henry Troyat, the scholarly Russian-French author who wrote an authoritative biography of Tolstoy, records that in the months before his death in 1910, Tolstoy was corresponding “with Gandhi, whom he deeply admired, except for his Hindu patriotism, which spoils everything’”.

Leo Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest and most influential authors of all times; within his lifetime, he had come to be regarded and celebrated as an author and philosopher of the west. Reports of Gandhiji’s Satyagraha in South Africa, the form of struggle against tyranny that he invented and led, must have reached far and wide already in 1910, for Tolstoy, who lived in his “inaccessible literary stronghold” of Yasnaya Polyana, to agree to correspond with the young man and even to come to admire him deeply.

The correspondence occurred in the context of the Letter to a Hindoo, which Tolstoy had written to response to a couple of letters from Tarak Nath Das, an Indian revolutionary in North America, seeking support for the Indian Independence movement. Gandhiji came across this letter during his visit to England in the latter half of 1909 and translated it into Gujarati in the course of his voyage back to South Africa. Before publishing the translation in his weekly paper, Indian Opinion, Gandhiji writes to Tolstoy requesting him to confirm the accuracy of the English translation that he had used and seeking his permission for publishing the Gujarati translation. This was the beginning of Gandhiji’s correspondence with Tolstoy. In his last letter to Gandhiji written in September 1910, a couple of months before his death in November 1910, Tolstoy writes:

“…your [Gandhiji’s] work in Transvaal, which seems to be far away from the centre of our world, is yet the most fundamental and the most important to us supplying the most weighty practical proof in which the world can now share and with which must participate not only the Christians but all the peoples of the world. …”

Gandhiji and his work were thus already known in 1910 to Tolstoy, in his remote abode. The fame had spread because of the crucial significance of his work for mankind, as Tolstoy hints. The Mahatma and his work continue to guide all people of the world suffering under the tyranny of unjust and arrogant rulers. No films or other exercises in public relations are required to propagate it.

[Gandhiji in his correspondence with Tolstoy displayed an impish insistence on the foundational principles of Hinduism, which seems to have led Tolstoy to temper his admiration with the proviso “except for his Hindoo Patriotism” that Troyat records. We shall write about this episode in a later blog. The correspondence between Gandhiji and Tolstoy is reproduced in our book Making of a Hindu Patriot.]


Saturday 1 June 2024




These strange times make me recall that Gandhiji's first biography was published from London in 1909. It was republished in India by G. A. Natesan of Madras in 1919. After Independence, the Publication Division reprinted Natesan's edition in 1967.

The author of this intense biography was Joseph Doke, an English baptist minister, who arrived in South Africa in 1903 and who, in December 1907, sought out Gandhiji, to meet and see the man who was then leading the Indians of South Africa in a Passive Resistance Movement. Joseph Doke describes his first meeting with Gandhiji in his Johannesburg office thus:

"It was late in December, 1907, when I saw Mr. Gandhi for the first time. Rumour had been very busy with his name. The Passive Resistance Movement had come into prominence. Some small stir had been made in the newspapers by the imprisonment of a Pundit, and in one way or another, Mr. Gandhi’s name had been bandied from lip to lip. One evening, a friend raised the Asiatic question at the supper-table, and as we were comparatively new to Johannesburg, although not new to the country, he told us what he thought of the Indians. His account was so strange and so completely opposed to all our previous experience that it made us curious, and more than anything else decided me to interview the leader."

Doke's friendship with Gandhiji and his knowledge of the man deepened when a year later, in December 1908, Doke and his wife took a nearly fatally wounded Gandhiji home and nursed him back to health. Doke describes the incident thus:

"Another scene recurs to my mind with equal vividness. The Pathans had attacked him, striking him down and beating him with savage brutality. When he recovered consciousness, he was lying in an office nearby to which he had been carried. I saw him a moment later. He was helpless and bleeding, the doctor was cleansing his wounds, the police officers watching and listening beside him, while he was using what little strength he had to insist that no action should be taken to punish his would-be murderers. “They thought they were doing right,” he said, “and I have no desire to prosecute them.” They were punished, but Mr. Gandhi took no part in it."

This first biography of Gandhiji carries a foreword by Lord Ampthill, a British peer and Governor of Madras from 1900-1906, who until then had only heard about the unusual movement of Gandhiji and not met him yet.

The biography is entitled, "M. K. Gandhi—An Indian Patriot in South Africa". In those days, everyone who met him seems to have been struck by his intense patriotism, his love, respect and devotion for his land, his people and his civilisation. It is this aspect of Gandhiji that we have tried to document in our book, "The Making of a Hindu Patriot".

Attenborough's film indeed took Mahatma Gandhi to some new sections of the international elite. But it is not the film that made Gandhiji known to the world; if anything, he made the film known.