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.

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