It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi, had to pass through the ordeal of being locked up many times. But what is much less known is that the man, whose birth anniversary we observe today, linked suffering and its exaltation with the asceticism of Sufi traditions, i.e., the acceptance of pain as a necessary stage in a human being’s spiritual development. In search of tranquillity, he regarded the time spent behind prison bars as a crowning achievement.
Bodily hardships provided mental strength to Gandhi. To a friend in New York, he explained that “when the conviction goes deeper than the intellect, you will brave all danger and risks and live the true life, and you will at once find that it is its own reward.” He felt privileged to receive the same sentence of six years simple imprisonment in the 1922 sedition case against him, as had been given to Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1908. His attitude vindicated Lord Krishna’s comforting words in the Gita: “Even here, in this life, the universe is conquered by those whose mind is established in equanimity”; confirmed the Biblical verse — “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Patriots and reformers all over the world have had the capacity to put up with pain when they take it up in the true spirit. Gandhi, for one, was a seeker of the pure spirit of fearlessness or tapasya .
Gandhi expected all others in the civil resistance movement to do the same — to know as much as possible about jails. They had to fight for their rights, face the worst, deny themselves the privilege of being let off, and in the process stimulate the public to win Swaraj. Therefore, instead of fretting over jail, Gandhi exhorted satyagrahis to brave the attendant risks, such as uttermost penury, loss of all possessions, and lathi blows, and not be either contaminated or dissipated by worldly gains.
The day before his trial in March 1922, Mohandas wrote to C.F. Andrews, his “dear Charlie,” asking him not to seek permission to visit him in jail. That would be a privilege, and he would have none. He was happy as a bird, he wrote. “The religious value of good discipline is enhanced by renouncing privileges.” The hardship he had already undergone. Prison life and fare were no different than he had been accustomed to, and he would have the precious privilege of solitude. He had time to reflect, to study, to set down a history of his mission in South Africa, and of the steps by which satyagraha had been evolved.
Gandhi’s trial and imprisonment were imprinted on popular memory. To those witnessing the court proceedings, it seemed that, “Jesus of Nazareth himself was again being tried and convicted in this fashion.” Beyond India , an American magazine published a poem which asked:
Who is it sits within his prison cell
The while his spirit goes astride the world.
And, when Gandhi was prematurely released, he clarified: “Such a release can bring me no joy for I hold that the illness of a prisoner affords no ground for his release.” Moving from place to place, the dogged fighter set his tasks in their proper order, changing slogans in a timely fashion and making timely transitions in his strategies, while never losing sight of the long-term goal of freedom as a whole. Thousands who followed him created his exalted place in history. Rabindranath Tagore described Gandhi’s prison terms as “arrest cures.” That is when he took to serious and intensive reading. Speaking about his early jail experience in South Africa, Gandhi mentioned Thoreau and his affinity with the American’s thinking. Besides, at regular intervals, he read Tolstoy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist and poet, and Thomas Carlyle, who brought the much-needed intellectual reinforcement. On the other hand, the Bible, the Manusmriti , the Ramayanasar , the Mahabharat and the Bhagavad Gita elevated his spirits to new heights. He scanned the Mahabharat in Gujarati — 5,000 pages.
When German historian Ranke was surrounded by his children and grandchildren he used to say, ‘I have another and older family, my pupils and their pupils.’ Likewise, in the Aga Khan Detention Camp, Gandhi had his share of pupils, admirers, and disciples. Individually and collectively, they could have made life in the camp austere and grim. But they did not. Mira behn created a clay temple of all faiths, Sushila Nayar wrote verses of the Ramayana in big letters, and Gandhi taught Kasturba the tune of one of the hymns — “the 74 years old couple enjoying their honeymoon” (Sarojini Naidu). Others played badminton. In this happening place, Gandhi leisured to look at a spider’s web at the fountain and wondered how the spider crossed from the periphery to the central column of the fountain and wove its web.
Gandhi used jail as a metaphor to describe India’s enslavement. “India is a vast prison,” he stated. “The Viceroy is the irresponsible superintendent of the prison with numerous jailers and warders under him,” he added. “The four hundred millions of India are not the only prisoners. There are other similarly situated in the other parts of the earth under other superintendents.” To him, the jail khana equalled persecution, torture, and loss of life: “the discomforts of prison life,” he wrote, “will be throughout our lives the most cherished of our memories, like the scars of warriors,” and mentioned the qaidis in Delhi, and the prizes of honour and virtue, rewards, and distinctions to them. Their role and contribution, he said, confirmed India’s fitness for swaraj .
While in Sabarmati jail, he took up the cause of the six prisoners of Mulshipeta, who had been subjected to lashing. On October 2, 1943, he didn’t want any birthday celebrations. But Sarojini Naidu ignored his protestation. The Jail Superintendent brought in flowers, and garlands were made out of them. After Bapu went to sleep, they were hung up at different places on the staircase leading down to the compound. On the landing between the steps and on the veranda leading from his room, the place was brightened up with rangoli decorations in different coloured powders. All this was completed by well after midnight. Ba distributed food to the poor, though Bapu protested on the grounds that government’s money should not be spent in this fashion. But Sarojini Naidu brushed aside his protestation and told Bapu, “tomorrow you will have lunch like a civilized human being. You will have a special soup, then cauliflower, bread and raw vegetables. Everything will be served in courses in the right style.” Bapu smiled.
Ba wore a new sari with a red border of yarn spun by no other than her husband. Manu behn and Sushila Nayar also dressed in red-bordered saris. But there was no lavish eating. With Gandhi reminding them of their brethren dying of starvation in the Bengal famine of 1943, they ate coarse grain and bajra . Ba and Bapu looked beautiful loaded with garlands of flowers. The sepoys had decorated Bapu’s room and the veranda with flowers and leaves. All the inmates sat down for prayers, singing a hymn “O God our Help in Ages Past.”
(Mushirul Hasan is a historian.)
Instead of fretting over time spent in jail, Gandhiji expected everyone in the civil resistance movement including himself to see imprisonment as a way to inspire India’s millions to win Swaraj