THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. II - SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA > The First Satyagrahi Prisoner
18. The First Satyagrahi Prisoner
When the Asiatic Department found, that notwithstanding all their exertions, they could not get more than 500 Indians to register, they decided to arrest someone. In Germiston there lived many Indians, one of whom was Pandit Rama Sundara. This man had a brave look and was endowed with some gift of the gab. He knew a few Sanskrit verses by heart. Hailing from North India as he did, he naturally knew a few dohas and chopais from the Tulsi Ramayana, and owing to his designation Pandit, he also enjoyed some reputation among the people. He delivered a number of spirited speeches in various places. Some malevolent Indians in Germiston suggested to the Asiatic Department that many Indians there would take out permits if Rama Sundara was arrested, and the officers concerned could scarcely resist the temptation thus offered. So Rama Sundara was put under arrest and this being the first case of its kind, the Government as well as the Indians were much agitated over it. Rama Sundara, who was till yesterday known only to the good people of Germiston, became in one moment famous all over South Africa. He became the cynosure of all eyes as if he were a great man put upon his trial. Government need not have taken, but it did take, special measures for the preservation of peace. In the court too Rama Sundara was accorded due respect as no ordinary prisoner but a representative of his community. Eager Indian spectators filed the Court-room. Rama Sundara was sentenced to a mouth’s simple imprisonment, and kept in a separate cell in the European ward in Johannesburg goal. People were allowed to meet him freely. He was permitted to receive food from outside, and was entertained everyday with delicacies prepared on behalf of the community. He was provided with everything he wanted. The day on which he was sentenced was depression with great éclat. There was no trace of depression, but on the other hand there was exultation and rejoicing. Hundreds were ready to go to jail. The officers of the Asiatic Department were disappointed in their hope of a bumper crop of registrants. They did not get a single registrant even from Germiston. The only gainer was the Indian Community. The month was soon over. Rama Sundara was released and was taken in a procession to the place where a meeting had been arranged. Vigorous speeches were made. Rama Sundara was smothered with garlands of flowers. The volunteers held a feast in his honour, and hundreds of Indians envied Rama Sundara’s luck and were sorry that they had not the chance of suffering imprisonment.
But Rama Sundara tuned out to be a false coin. There was no escape from the months’ imprisonment, as his arrest came as a surprise. In jail he had enjoyed luxuries to which he had been a stranger outside. Still accustomed he was to license, and addicted as he was to bad habits, the loneliness and the restraints of jail life were too much for him. In spite of all the attention showered upon him by the jail authorities as well as by the community, jail appeared irksome to him and he bid a final good-bye to the Transvaal and to the movement. There are cunning men in every community and in every movement and so there were in ours. These knew Rama Sundara through and through, but from an idea that even he might become an instrument of the community’s providence, they never let me know his secret history until his bubble had finally burst. I subsequently found that he was an indentured labouer who had deserted before completing his term. There was nothing discreditable in his having been an indentured labourer. The reader will see towards the end how indentured labourers proved to be a most valuable acquisition to the movement, and what a large contribution they made towards winning the final victory. It was certainly wrong for him not to have finished his period of indenture.
I have this detailed the whole history of Rama Sundara not in order to expose his faults, but to point a moral. The leaders of every clean movement are bound to see that they admit only clean fighters to it. But all their caution notwithstanding, undesirable elements cannot be kept out. And yet if the leaders are fearless and true, the entry of undesirable persons in to the movement without their knowing them to be so does not ultimately harm the cause. When Rama Sundara was found out, he became a man of straw. The community forgot him, but the movement gathered fresh strength even through him. Imprisonment suffered by him for the cause stood tour credit, the enthusiasm created by his trial came to stay, and profiting by his example, weakling besides this but I do not propose to deal with them in any detail, as it would not serve any useful purpose. In order that the reader may appreciate at their real worth, it will been enough to say that there was not one Rama Sundara but several and yet I observed that the movement reaped pure advantage from all of them.
Let not the reader point finger of scorn at Rama Sundara. All men are imperfect, and when imperfection is observed in someone in a larger measure than in others, people are apt to blame him. But that is not fair. Rama Sundara did not become weak intentionally. Man can change his temperament, can control it, but cannot eradicate it. God has not given him so much liberty.If the leopard can change his spots then only can man modify the peculiarities of his spiritual constitution. Although Rama Sundara fled away, who can tell how he might have repented of his weakness? Or rather was not his very flight a powerful proof of his repentance? There was no need for him to flee if he was shameless. He could have taken out a permit and steered clear of jail by submission to the Black Act. Further, if at all so minded, he could have become a tool of the Asiatic Department, misguided his friends and become persona grata with the Government. Why should we not judge him charitably and say that instead of doing anything of the kind, he being ashamed of his weakness hid his face from the community and even did it a service?