Gandhi preached rebellion, launched mass civil disobedience and was repeatedly jailed. When arrested, he pleaded guilty and asked for the severest punishment. In South Africa, the charge against him and his co-workers was proved by witnesses furnished by him. The horror, shame and hardship of jail life, originally a punishment allotted to criminals, scared the Indians. Gandhi removed this fear from their hearts.
He was jailed eleven times. Once he was arrested thrice within four days. If he had to complete all his jail terms, he would have spent 11 years and 19 days in jail. Occasionally his punishment was reduced and and he altogether spent 6 years and 10 months in prison. At the age of 39, he first entered a jail. He came out of the prison gates for the last time when he was 75.
He first entered the jail in South Africa with five satyagrahis. He had heard terrible stories about jail life and was a bit nervous and wondered whether he was to be specially treated as a political prisoner or was to be separated from his his co-worker. a slight feeling of awkwardness crept in his mind, when he stood in the very court where he often appeared as a counsel. He got two months' simple imprisonment. He was stealthily driven to prison from the court in a cab to evade the big crowd waiting outside the court. On reaching the jail , he had to give digit impressions. He was weighted, totally undressed and made to wear very dirty jail clothing. every second or third day, more comrades joined him and, in a fortnight, the number rose to 150. they were huddled in a room meant for 50. Tents were pitched to accommodate some prisoners at night only.
The jail inspector, Governor and chief warder visited the prison four or five times a day. Gandhi and others had to fall in a row, cap in hand. He volunteered to do manual labour but that was a not allowed.
The jail diet was trying for the Indians. In the morning and evening, they were given mealie pap (a sort of maize porridge) without sugar, milk or ghee and this they could not eat. Some evenings only boiled beans were served. No sugar and no spices except salt was a allowed. European prisoners got meat., bread and vegetables. Peelings of those vegetables, cooked with vegetables were served to the coloured convicts. Gandhi sent a complaint bearing the signatures of 100 Indian prisoners to the jail authority. He was told: " this is not India. This is a prison, no palatable dish can be allowed here." within a fortnight , Gandhi succeeded in a getting a ration of rice, bread, vegetables and ghee sanctioned for Indians. They were also permitted to cook their food. Gandhi helped in cooking and twice a day distributed the food. Without clamoring for better or more rations, the half-cooked porridge without sugar was eaten by Gandhibhai's followers. During his third jail term, food was no problems. He then lived on fruits and got enough bananas, tomatoes and nuts. He liked some disciplinary rules of the jail an dafter release, he stopped taking tea and continued to take the dinner before sunset.
Gandhi suffered many hardships in his next two convictions is South Africa. He was awarded hard labour and was led in handcuffs from the same court where he had practised for ten years. He was clad in the dress of a" native convict with a small military cap, loose coarse jacket bearing a convict ticket number and board arrow marks, short trousers similarly marked, thick grey woollen socks and leather sandals". He had to march six furlongs carrying his bed on his head in pelting rain. He was lodged with the worst type of Negro and Chinese prisoners. Some Zulu prisoners abused him and beat him. There was no privacy in sanitary arrangements. their indecent manners scared him. He could not understand their languages. Soon he was removed to a dark isolation cell 4ft. by 6ft. There was a small window near the roof for ventilation. He had to take his meals standing behind locked doors. Every day he was taken out twice for exercise. In protest, he did not take rice for 15 days because no ghee was given with it. He lived on on one meal of mealie pap a day. Ghee and bread were thereafter given to him. He was given a coir mat, a small wooden pillow, two rugs and some books . He was daily supplied with one bucket of water. Another bucket placed on a large tray served for chamber-pot. For keeping a watch on the prisoner an electric light was kept burning after dark, but that was too dim for reading a book. If, as a change, Gandhi walked up and down the cell. the warder shouted : " don't walk about like that . It spoils my floor." and the precious floor was made of tar.
If Gandhi asked permission for a bath, the warder ordered him to go undressed. Gandhi could not walk 125 feet naked . His request for hanging his clothes on the curtain of the water closet was granted. Before he could clean his body, came the order: " Sam come out." If Sam was not prompt in vacating the place, a Negro would knock him down.
He had to cut shirt-pockets, sew pieces of torn blankets or polish varnished iron doors for nine hours a day. After rubbing the doors and floors for three hours, he found them same as before. He also was asked to clean the lavatories. Gandhi bore these hard-ships with a smile, but when he joined colleagues, their plight moved him. The fatigue made some of them weep, some to faint. He was responsible for dragging them weep, some to faint. He was responsible for dragging them from their homes to this life of suffering and shame. He believed that self-sacrifice and suffering was the only remedy for ending their slavery and that helped him to regain his peace of mind.
By six in the morning, ablution and toilet had to be finished. work started from seven and they all had to labour for nine hours. With them , Gandhi walked a mile and then began digging dry hard ground. He lost weight. His back ached, water oozed from the blisters covering his palms and with difficulty he could lift the spade. He he rested a while, the guard shouted: " Go on go on." Gandhi warned the guard that if he did not mend his manners, he would stop working. This mellowed the guard. Gandhi prayed to god to defend his honour by giving him strength to finish the task allotted to him.
When Gandhi stayed in " His Majesty's Hotel" in India, his expenses were borne by the Government, yet he disliked to incur any extra expenditure for his maintenance. Once he asked the jail superintendent to remove all furniture and extra pots and pans. He used one iron cot and a few utensils. He could never forget that the whole the dumb millions of India. Referring to his last detention in the Aga Khan Palace, he said: " The huge palace in which I am being detained with big guards around me, I hold to be waste of public fund. When the people are dying of starvation , it is almost a crime against humanity."
The first trial scene of Gandhi in India was a memorable incident. The English sessions Judge nodded a respectful salutation to this native standing in the dock, before he took his seat. He awarded six year's of simple imprisonment for Gandhi's rebellious you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and even saintly life." Gandhi said: " I know that some of the most loved of India's patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege to be charged under that section. I know I was playing with fire, I would still do the same" The entire court rose to pay homage, when Gandhi entered and left the court. In telegrams the police secret code referred to him as " Bombay Political No. 50." his name was struck off from the roll of barristers. In jail, his height and special identification marks were noted down. He was confined in a solitary cell. He had nothing but a loin-cloth on, still his groins were touched and blankets searched. Gandhi made no protest, till his water-pitcher was touched with boots. Out of disgust, he sometimes stopped having visitors or writing letters.
Gandhi never became bitter or fretful under duress. Every time he came out of jail, his mind grew richer and more poised. Jail to him was a rest-cure where one learns to be more regular in one's habits and companions. He felt as happy as a bird in jail. He was fond of reading, but outside the prison he kept so busy with numerous activities that he could get little time for study. In jail he followed a strict routine for study. He learned Urdu and read books in Sanskrit, Tamil Hindi, Gujarati and English. In two years, he once read 150 books by noted authors on religion, literature and social science. He read the Gita , Koran, Bible and books on Buddhism, Sikhism and Zorostrianism. He also read the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Upanishads, Manusmriti and Patanjali Yoga Darshan. He took his first lessons in astronomy at 65 from a co-prisoner. He managed to get a telescope from the jail authorities and studied the stars.
Gandhi regularly prayed, spun for four to six hours a day and took brisk walks in jail. In the Aga Khan Palace, at 75, he gave lessons to Kasturba and to his grand-niece on geography, geometry, history, Gujarati grammar and literature. Previously he taught English to a Chinese co-prisoner and Gujarati to an Irish jailor. He also wrote a text-book for Children and to an Irish jailor. He also wrote a text-book for children and the history of the satyagraha struggle in south Africa. He translated hymns from the Upanishada and poems by Indian saint poets into English and that collection was published as Songs from the prison. He wrote hundreds of letters form jail to the ashramites, co-workers, jail authorities, Governors, Viceroys and the British Prime Ministers. Every week he sent such charming notes to the ashram children will as" If you learn to fly without wings, all your troubles will vanish. I have no wings yet I come flying to you every day in thought. Here is little Vimla and there is Hari".
Gandhi noted down the advantages of the disciplined life in jail and described how a model prisoner should behave. He wanted the prisoners to do what ever work was given to them and to obey jail regulations so long as it was not immoral to do so. Also they were not to start a hunger-strike until they were humiliated or were given unclean food. He and his followers never sat in a crouching position or shouted "Sarkar salam."
Gandhi admitted that we shall have to maintain jails even under swaraj. He wanted to convert them into reformatories and workshops a school for education of those who in fact were temporarily deranged and misguided. While in prison , he once suggested how the prisoners could do productive work and make the jail self-supporting. the jail authorities could not accept and such scheme from the prisoner.
This ideal prisoner at times proved very exacting and put the jail authorities in a fix. When he was permitted to eat bread, he demanded a knife to cut it, as he could not eat untoasted bread. he asked for more space for his walks. He treated his comrades as wards kept under his special care. He wanted to bear the responsibility of treating somebody who suffered from asthma of someone else who needed nature cure or Ayurvedic treatment and asked for special facilities. He indirectly coerced the jailors to meet his demands by resorting t long fasts. When his condition grew worse, the jail authority set him free. They did not want to take risks with the life of renowned citizen of the world like the Mahatma. They showed great concern and promptly got him operated when he developed appendicitis. He twice fell ill in jail.
Gandhi invariably entered the jail with a retinue of friends and relatives. Kasturba and his secretary Mahadev Desai were kept with him in the Aga Khan Palace. They both died there and were cremated inside the jail compound. Gandhi said:" they lived up to the 'Do or Die' mantra and laid down their lives at the altar of the Goddess of Freedom. They have become immortal."