Gandhi On Human Rights of Prisoners

By Dr. Anupama Kaushik

Mahatma Gandhi had spent approximately seven years in various prisons in South Africa and India in order to attain equality and liberty for his countrymen and country. He liked life in prison as it gave him ample time for prayers, reading, writing and spinning the wheel. He regarded time spent in prison as pilgrimage if it is done for a noble cause. To him prison was a place where he could submit to all kinds of restraints and test his belief in non violence in the face of violence and wickedness.

Gandhi himself faced hardships in the prisons and successfully worked for betterment of prison conditions both in South Africa and India. Although as he became famous the authorities treated him better than other satyagrahi prisoners he was aware of hardships faced by other satyagrahi prisoners and used his news paper to inform public about them. He also wrote to authorities for need of betterment of conditions. He identified the basic problems as lack of space, clean food, clean clothes, clean bedding, hygiene, basic facilities and humane touch from officials. He was also aware of deliberate torture of prisoners. He advocated humane treatment and human rights of prisoners at a time when the concept of human rights of prisoners was unheard of. He argued that government must play a positive role in ensuring human rights of prisoners by providing necessary facilities and sensitization of prison officials who hold awesome power over prisoners.

Although ideally Gandhi was against the concept of prisons but he realized that in reality governments cannot do away with prisons. However he stressed that detention should in itself be the punishment with a reformist objective. He considered criminals to be mentally ill people who needed help. He believed that prisoners should remain disciplined but must resist insanitation and humiliation and if need be prefer to go bare bodied but reject filthy blankets and clothes; go without food but must refuse unclean and indigestible food; go without bath rather than bathe in foul water; refuse to crawl and sit in crouching position. The satyagrahi prisoner must be ready to bear with patience any torture that despotic and irresponsible officials inflict on them with positive outlook as good evokes good and evil evokes evil.

Reference- M K Gandhi, Stonewalls Do Not a Prison Make, Navjivan Publishing, Ahmedabad, 1964.