THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. II - SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA > A Series of Arrests
20. A Series of Arrests
We have seen how the Government failed to reap any advantage from Rama Sundara’s arrest. On the other hand, they observed the spirit of the Indian community rising rapidly. The officers of the Asiatic Department were diligent readers of Indian Opinion. Secrecy had been deliberately ruled out of the movement. Indian Opinion was an open book to whoever wanted to gauge the strength and the weakness of the community, be he a friend, an enemy or a neutral. The workers had realized at the very outset that secrecy had realized at the very outset that secrecy had no place in a movement, where one could do no wrong, where there was no scope for duplicity or cunning, no scope for duplicity or cunning, and where strength constituted the single guarantee of victory. The very interest of the community demanded, that if the disease of weakness was to be eradicated, it must be first properly diagnosed and given due publicity. When the officers saw that this was the policy of Indian Opinion, the paper became for them a faithful mirror of the current history of the Indian community. They thus came to think the strength of the movement could not by any means be broken so long as certain leaders were at large. Some of the leading men were consequently served with a notice in Christmas week of 1907 to appear before the Magistrate. It must be admitted that this was an act of courtesy on the part of the officers concerned. They could have arrested the leaders by a warrant if they had chosen to do so. Instead of this they issued notices and this, besides being evidence of their courtesy, also betrayed their confidence that the leaders were willing and prepared to be arrested. Those who had thus been warned appeared before the Court on the date specified, Saturday December 28, 1907, to show cause why, having failed to apply for registration as required by law, they should not be ordered to leave the Transvaal within a given period.
One of these was one Mr. Quinn the leader of the Chinese residents of Johannesburg, who numbered three to four hundred, and were either traders or farmers. India is noted for its agriculture, but I believe that we in India is noted for its agriculture, but I believe that we in India are not as far advanced in agriculture as the Chinese are. The modern progress of agriculture in America and other countries defies description, but I consider it to be still in an old country like India and a comparison between India and China would be therefore fairly instructive. I observed the agricultural methods of the Chinese ion Johannesburg and also talked with them on the subject, and this gave me the impression that the Chinese are more intelligent as well as diligent than we are. We often allow land to lei fallow thinking it is of no use, while the Chinese would grow good crops upon it, thanks to their minute knowledge of varying soils.
The Black Act applied to the Chinese as well as to the Indians whom they therefore joined in the Satyagraha struggle. Still from first to last the activities of the two communities were not allowed to be mixed up. Each worked through its own independent organization. This arrangement produced the beneficent result that so long s both the communities stood to their guns, each would be a source of strength to the other. But if one of the two gave way that would leave the morale of the other unaffected or at least the other would steer clear of the danger of a total collapse. Many of the Chinese eventually fell away as their leader played them false. He did not indeed submit to the obnoxious law, but one morning someone came and told me that the Chinese leader had fled away without handing over charge of the books and moneys of the Chinese Association in his possession. It is always difficult for followers to sustain a conflict in the absence of their leader, and the shock is all the greater when the leader has disgraced himself. But when the arrests commenced, the Chinese were in high spirits. Hardly any of them had taken out a permit, and therefore their leader Mr. Quinn was warned to appear along with the Indians. For some time at any rate Mr. Quinn put in very useful work.
I would like to introduce to the reader one out of the several leading Indians who constituted the first batch of prisoners, Shri Thambi Naidoo.Thambi Naidoo was a Tamilian born in Mauritius where his parents had migrated from Madras State. He was an ordinary trader. He had practically received no scholastic education whatever. But a wide experience had been his schoolmaster. He spoke and wrote English very well, although his grammar was not perhaps free from faults. In the same way he had acquired a knowledge of Tamil. He understood and spoke Hindustani fairly well and he had some knowledge of Telugu too, though he did not know the alphabets of these languages. Again, he had a very good knowledge of the Creole dialect current in Mauritius which is a sort of corrupt French, and he knew of course the language of the Negroes. A working knowledge of so many languages was not a rare accomplishment among the Indians of South Africa, hundreds of whom could claim a general acquaintance with all these languages. These men become such good linguists almost without effort. And that is because their brains are not fatigued by education received through the medium of a foreign tongue, their memory is sharp, and they acquire these different languages simply by talking with people who speak them and by observation. This does not involve any considerable strain on their brains but on the other hand the easy mental exercise leads to a natural development of their intellect. Such was the case with Thambi Naidoo. He had a very keen intelligence and could grasp new subjects very quickly. His every-ready wit was astonishing. He had never seen India. Yet his love for the homeland knew no bounds. Patriotism ran through his very vein. His firmness was pictured on his face. He was very strongly built and he possessed tireless energy. He shone equally whether he had to take the chair at meetings and lead them, or whether he had to do porter’s work. He would not be ashamed of carrying a load on the public roads. Night and day were the same to him when set to work. And none was more ready than he to sacrifice his all for the sake of the community. If Thambi Naidoo had not been rash and if he had been free from anger, this brave man could easily have assumed the leadership of the community in the Transvaal in the absence of Kachhalia. His irritability had not still worked for evil while the Transvaal struggle lasted, and his invaluable qualities had shown forth like jewels. But, later on, I heard that his anger and his rashness had proved to be his worst enemies, and eclipsed his good qualities. However that may be, the name of Thambi Naidoo must ever remain as one of the front rank in the history of Satyagraha in South Africa.
The magistrate conducted each case separately, and ordered all the accused to leave the Transvaal within forty-eight hours in some cases and seven or fourteen days in others.
The time limit expired on January 10, 1908 and the same day we were called upon to attend court for sentence.
None of us had to offer any defence. All were to plead guilty to the charge of disobeying the order to leave the Transvaal within the stated period, issued by the Magistrate on failure to satisfy him that they were lawful holders of certificates of registration.
I asked leave to make a short statement, and on its being granted, I said I thought there should be a distinction made between my case and those that were to follow. I had just heard from Pretoria that my compatriots there had been sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour, and had been fined a heavy amount, in lieu of payment of which they would receive a further period of three months’ hard labour. If these men had committed an offence, I had committed a greater offence and I therefore asked the Magistrate to impose upon me the heaviest penalty. The Magistrate, however, did not agree to my request and sentenced me to two months’ simple imprisonment. I had some slight feeling of awkwardness due to the fact that I was standing as an accused in the very Court where I had often appeared as counsel. But I well remember that I considered the former role as far more honourable than the latter and did not feel the slightest hesitation in entering the prisoner’s box.
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 practiced, the public meeting, all these passed away like a dream, and I was now a prisoner. What would happen in two months? Would 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 sentences. 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? This second train of thought acted upon me as a bracing tonic, and I began to laugh at my own folly. I began to think what kind of imprisonment would be awarded to the others and whether they would be kept with me in the prison. But I was disturbed by the police officer who opened the gate and asked me to follow him, which I did. He then made me go before him, following me himself, took me go before him, following me himself, took me to the prisoners’ closed van and asked me to take my seat in it. I was driven to Johannesburg jail.
In jail I was asked to put off my own private clothing. I knew that convicts were made naked in jail. We had all decided as Satyagrahis voluntarily to obey all jail regulations so long as they were not inconsistent with our self-respect or with our religious convictions. The clothes which were given to me to wear were very dirty. I did not like putting them on at all. It was not without pain that I reconciled myself to them from an idea that I must put up with some dirt. After the officers had recorded my name and address, I was taken to a large cell, and in a short time was joined by my compatriots who came laughing and told me how they had received the same sentence as myself, and what took place after I had been removed. I understood from them than when my case was over, the Indians, some of whom were excited, took out a procession with black flags in their hands. The police disturbed the procession and flogged some of its members. We were all happy at the thought that we were kept in the same jail and in the same cell.
The cell door was locked at 6 o’clock. The door was not made of bars but was quite solid, there being high up in the wall a small quite solid, there being high up in the wall a small aperture for ventilation, so that we felt as if we had been locked up in a safe.
No wonder the jail authorities did not accord us the good treatment which they had meted out to Rama Sundara. As Rama Sundara was the first Satyagrahi prisoner, the authorities had no idea how he should be treated. Our batch was fairly large and further arrests were in contemplation. We were therefore kept in the Negro ward. In South Africa only two classes of convicts are recognized, namely Whites and Blacks, i.e. the Negroes, in the Indians were classed with Negroes.
The next morning we found that prisoners without hard labour had the right to keep on their own private clothing, and if they would not exercise this right, they were given special jail clothing assigned to that class of prisoners. We decided that it was not right to put on our own clothing and that it was appropriate to take the jail uniform, and we informed the authorities accordingly. We were therefore given the clothes assigned to Negro convicts not punished with hard labour. But Negro prisoners sentenced to simple imprisonment are ever numerous and hence either was a shortage of simple imprisonment prisoners’ clothing as soon as other Indians sentenced to simple imprisonment began to arrive. As the Indians did not wish to stand upon ceremony in this matter, they readily accepted clothing assigned to hard labour prisoners. Some of those who came in later preferred to keep on their own clothing rather than put on the uniform of the hard labour convicts. I thought this improper, but did not care to insist upon their following the correct procedure in the matter.
From the second or third day Satyagrahi prisoners began to arrive in large numbers. They had all courted arrest and were most of them hawkers. In South Africa every hawker, Black or White, has to take out a licence, always to carry it with him and show it to the police when asked to do so. Nearly every day some policeman could ask to see the licenses and arrest those who had jail after our arrests. In this the hawkers took the lead. It was easy for them to be arrested. They only had to refuse to show their licences and that was enough to ensure their arrest. In this way the number of Satyagrahi prisoners swelled to more than a hundred in one week. And as a few were sure to arrive every day, we received the daily budget of news without a newspaper. When Satyagrahis began to be arrested in large numbers, they were sentences to imprisonment with hard labour, either because the magistrates lost patience, or because, as we thought, they received some such instructions from the Government. Even today, I think we were right in our conjecture, as, if we leave out the first few cases in which simple imprisonment was awarded, never afterwards thought out the long drawn out struggle was there pronounced a sentences of simple imprisonment , even ladies having been punished with hard labour. If all the magistrates had not received the same orders or instructions, and if yet by mere coincidence they sentenced all men and women at all times to hard labour, that must be held to be almost a miracle.
In Johannesburg jail prisoners not condemned to hard labour got ‘mealie pap’ in the morning. There was no salt in it, but each prisoner was given some salt of rice, four ounces of bread, one ounce of ghee and a little salt, and in the evening ‘mealie pap and some vegetables, chiefly potatoes of which two were given if they were small and only one of which two were given if they were small and only one if they were big in size. None of us were satisfied with this diet. The rice was cooked soft. We asked the prison medical officer for some condiments, and told him that condiments were allowed in the jails in India. “This is not India,’ was the stern answer. “There is no question of taste about prison diet and condiments therefore cannot be allowed.’ We asked for pulse on the ground that the regulation diet was lacking in muscle-building properties. ‘Prisoners must not indulge in arguments on medical grounds,’ replied the doctor. ‘You do get muscle-building food, as twice a week you are served boiled beans instead of maize.’ The doctor’s argument was sound if the human stomach was capable of extracting various elements out of various foods taken at various times in a week or fortnight. As a matter of fact he had no intention whatever of looking to our convenience. The Superintendent permitted us to cook our food ourselves. We elected Thambi Naidoo as our chef, and as such he had to fight many a battle on our behalf. If the vegetable ration issued was short in weight, he would insist on getting full weight. On vegetables days which were two in a week we coked twice and on other days only once, as we were allowed to cook other things for the noon-day meal. We were somewhat better off after we began to cook our own food.
But whether or not we succeeded in obtaining these conveniences, every oneof us was firm in his resolution of passing his term in jail in perfect happiness and peace. The number of Satyagrahi prisoners gradually rose to over 150. As we were all simple imprisonment convicts, we had no work to do except keeping the cells, etc. clean. We asked the Superintendent for work, and he replied: ‘I am sorry I cannot give you work, as, If I did I should be held to have committed an offence. But You can devote for some such exercise as drill, as we had observed even the Negro prisoners with hard labour being drilled in addition to their usual work. The Superintendent replied, ‘if your warder has time and if he gives you drill, I will not object to it; nor will I require him to do it, as he is hard worked as it is, and your arrival in unexpectedly large numbers has made his work harder still.’ The warder was a good man and this qualified permission was quite enough for him. He began to drill us every morning with great interest. This drill must be performed in the small yard before our cells and was therefore in the nature of a merry-go-round. When the warder finished the drill and went away, it was continued by a Pathan compatriot of ours named Nawabkhan, who made us all laugh with his quant pronunciation of English words of command. He rendered ‘Stand at ease’ as ‘sundlies’. We could not for the life of us understand what Hindustani word it was, but afterwards it dawned upon us that it was no HIndustani but only Nawabkhani English.