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,

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