THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. II - SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA > Women in Jail
40. Women in Jail
These ‘invaders’ were to go to jail for crossing the border and entering the Transvaal without permits. The reader who has seen the list of their names will have observed, that if some of them were disclosed beforehand, the police might not perhaps arrest the persons bearing them. Such in fact had been the case with me. I was arrested twice or thrice but after this the police ceased to meddle with me at the border. No one was informed of this party having started and the news was of course withheld from the papers. Moreover, the party had been instructed not to give their names even to the police and to state they would disclose their identity in court.
The police were familiar with cease of this nature. After the Indians got into habit of courting arrest, they would often not give their names just for the fun of the things, and the police therefore did not notice anything strange about the behavior of the Phoenix party, which was arrested accordingly. They were then tried and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment with hard labour (September 23, 1913).
The sisters who had been disappointed in the Transvaal now entered Natal but were not arrested for entering the country without permits. They therefore proceeded to Newscastle and set about their work according to the plans previously settled. Their influence spread like wildfire. The pathetic story of the wrongs heaped up by the three pound tax touched the labourers to the quick, and they went on strike. I received the news by wire and was as much perplexed as I was pleased. What was I to do? I was not prepared for this marvelous awakening. I had neither men nor the money which would enable me to cope with the work before me. But I visualized my duty very clearly. I must go to New Castle and do what I could. I left at once to go there.
Government could not now any longer leave the brave Transvaal sisters free to pursue their activities. They too were sentenced to imprisonment for the same term-three months and were kept in the same prison as the Phoenix party (October 21, 1913).
These events stirred the heart of the Indians not only in South Africa but also in the motherland to its very depths. Sir Pherozeshah had been so far indifferent. In 1901 he had strongly advised me not to go to South Africa. He held that nothing could be done for Indian emigrants beyond the seas so long as India had not achieved her own freedom, and he was little impressed with the Satyagraha movement in its initial stages. But women in jail pleaded with him as nothing else could. As he himself put it in his Bombay Town hall speech, his blood boiled at the thought of these women lying in jails herded with ordinary criminals and India could not sleep over the matter any longer.
The women’s bravery was beyond words. They were all kept in Maritzburg jail, where they were considerably harassed. Their food was of the worst quality and they were given them from outside nearly till the end of their term. Onesister was under a religious vowto restrictherself to a particular diet. After great difficulty the jail authorities allowed her that diet, but the foodsupplied was unfit for human consumption. The sister badly needed olive oil. She did not get it at first, and when she got it, it was old and rancid. She offered to get it at her own expense but was told that jail was no hotel, and she must take what food was given her. When this sister was released she was a mere skeleton and her life was saved only by a great effort.
Another returned from jail with a fatal fever to which she succumbed within a few days of her release (February 22, 1914). How can I forget her? Valliamma R. Munuswami Mudaliar was a young girl of Johannesburg only sixteen years of age. She was confined to bed when I saw her. As she was a tall girl, her emaciated body was a terrible thing to behold.
“Valliamma you do not repent of your having gone to jail?” I asked. “Repent? I am even now ready to go to jail again if I am arrested,” said Valliamma.
“But what if it results in your death?” I pursued.
“I do not mind it. Who would not love to die for one’s motherland?”
Within a few days after this conversation, Valliamma was no more with us in the flesh, but she left us the heritage of an immortal name. Condolence meetings were held at various places, and the Indians resolved to erect ‘Valliamma Hall’, to commemorate the supreme sacrifice of this daughter of India. Unfortunately the resolution has not still been translated into action. There were many difficulties. The community was torn by internal dissensions; the principal workers left one after another. But whether or not a hall is built in stone and mortar, Valliamma’s service is imperishable. She built her temple of service with her own hands, and her glorious image has a niche even now reserved from it in many a heart. And the name of Valliamma will live in the history of South African Satyagraha as long as India lives.
It was an absolutely pure sacrifice that was offered by these sisters, who were innocent of legal technicalities, and many of whom had no idea of country, their patriotism being based only upon faith. Some of them were illiterate and could not read the papers. But they knew that a mortal blow was being aimed at the Indians’ honour, and they’re going to jail was a cry of agony and prayer offered from the bottom of their hearts, was in fact the purest of all sacrifices. Such heart prayer is always acceptable to God. Sacrifice is fruitful only to the extent that is pure. God hungers after devotion in man. He is glad to accept the widow’s mite offered with devotion, that is to say, without a selfish motive, and rewards it s hundredfold. The unsophisticated Sudama offered a handful of rice, but the small offering put an end to man years’ want and starvation. The imprisonment of many might have been fruitless but the devoted sacrifice of a single pure soul could never of in vain. None can tell whose sacrifice in South Africa was acceptable to God, and hence bore fruit. But we do know that Valliamma’s sacrifice bore fruit and so did the sacrifice of the other sisters.
Souls without number spent themselves in the past, are spending themselves in the present and will spend themselves in the future in the service of country and humanity, and that is in the fitness of things as no one knows who is pure. But Satyagrahis may rest assured, that even if there is only one among them who is pure as crystal, his sacrifice suffices to achieve the end in view. The world rests upon the bedrock of satya or truth. Asatya meaning untruth also means non-existent, and satya or truth means that which is. If untruth does not so much as exist, its victory is out of the question. And truth being that which is can never be destroyed. This is the doctrine of Satyagraha concisely.