His Majesty’s Hotels: Gandhi’s Satyagraha in South Africa. Martin F. Reicher - Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)

His Majesty’s Hotels:
Gandhi’s Satyagraha in South Africa

Martin F. Reichert


Mohandas Gandhi was one of the most famous political prisoners of the twentieth century. His lifelong struggle for equal rights, first in South Africa and then in India, made him an iconic revolutionary figure. In Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi talks about his time in South Africa working against the British colonial government; he also lays out the philosophical principles for political action that he called satyagraha. It was this vision of nonviolent political action that set the stage for the conflict in South Africa and in India. It was also picked up by other activists around the world, notably Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States. It is often forgotten that Gandhi spent two decades in South Africa, honing his political skills and learning how organizations operate, before he returned to India and became involved in the struggle for Indian independence.—J.W.R.

Gandhi in Jail

It is highly unlikely that many people, besides Gandhi, enjoyed going to jail. In Satyagraha in South Africa (1924), he asked his followers “to consider the prisons as His Majesty’s hotels” and their own suffering “as perfect bliss” (Gandhi 34: 125).1 In his cell, he claimed, he found “perfect happiness and peace” (128). Being under arrest afforded him a welcome opportunity for “self-purification” (181). In An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (1925-1929), he largely glossed over his numerous arrests, remarking merely that jail taught him “wholesome rules of self-restraint,” notably to give up tea and to finish his last meal before sunset (44: 333f.).

By then, he had gathered plenty of experience. Altogether, Gandhi spent 2,327 days of his life behind bars.2 Were colonial jails really so peaceful as to be comparable to a mandir, a temple, as Gandhi often claimed? Did he perhaps receive special treatment? Or was he just an exceptional individual who somehow managed to transcend reality? Aren’t his claims hopelessly idealistic, then, grandiose even, not to mention politically naïve and quite possibly dishonest?

Conditions in Colonial Jails

In 1908, when describing his first two prison terms upon his release in a series of newspaper articles, Gandhi had sung a different tune. Together with numerous other Indian immigrants, he had been arrested for failing to obey the recently passed Asiatic Registration Act—the so-called Black Act—which forced foreigners to be thumb-printed and carry a certificate, or passport, at all times. Two incidents may illustrate some of the real terrors he and his fellow inmates experienced; both took place during his second stint in jail, in fall of 1908. The first night proved a taxing one for the inexperienced leader of the protest movement. In his newspaper he related how he was lying in bed when a Native—or “Kaffir”—inmate came over; Gandhi could not understand his language, but it was clear that he was being mocked. A moment later, he was accosted by a Chinese inmate who then “went to a Kaffir lying in bed. The two exchanged obscene jokes, uncovering each other’s genitals” (9: 256). Both of them were murderers and larcenists. “Knowing this, how could I possibly sleep?” (Ibid.) Another scary incident occurred in the prison lavatory. While Gandhi was using one of the stalls, which had no doors, in came “a strong, heavily-built, fearful-looking Kaffir” who demanded that he get out. Gandhi replied that he was not finished yet. “Instantly he lifted me up in his arms and threw me out.” Two of his fellow Indian prisoners who had witnessed the confrontation were weeping whereas Gandhi, who walked away uninjured and smiling, went on to claim that he was “not in the least frightened”; he admitted, though, not without a sense of humor, that he “had no motions for four days” afterwards (270).

It is clear, then, that Gandhi was in no way oblivious to, let alone spared, the terrifying, often brutal reality of colonial prisons, which were set up not so much to punish, let alone rehabilitate or reintegrate, criminals, but to subjugate, infantilize, and dehumanize as well as economically exploit the non-white population.3 In his newspaper articles, he complained bitterly about some of the abuses, especially the food and the proximity to Native prisoners, accusing the authorities of “callous contempt for the Indian community” (210). Conditions in his native India turned out to be as atrocious as they had been abroad, at least initially. While in South Africa a jail sentence usually meant hard labor, such as pounding gravel, or sewing, in India political inmates were often kept without occupation. Gandhi filled the time with reading, writing, and spinning—his famous spinning wheel had initially been confiscated by the warden whereupon he threatened not to eat if he was not allowed to spin. Daily he was frisked for weapons or prohibited material, such as newspapers or periodicals. Living in almost complete isolation from the outside world, he was allowed one visitor every three months and one letter received and one written during the same period. These quarterly visits and letters could be arbitrarily refused. Gandhi’s nationalist movement, incidentally, was soon to lead to improvements in the Indian penal system. With the growing influx of middle-class inmates, prisons became hotbeds of resistance and political agitation, prompting investigations and modest reforms that began in the 1920s, unlike in South Africa of course, where reforms only came with the end of Apartheid.4

The Book Satyagraha in South Africa

It is a common misconception that Gandhi began his Autobiography while in jail.5 His most substantial piece of writing from prison is Satyagraha in South Africa, a record of his formative years written ten years after his return to India.6 At the time of writing, Gandhi was serving a six-year sentence, though he was released early in 1924, after about two years, when falling ill with acute appendicitis. The British government was afraid that if he died in custody, his death would spark new riots. By then, he had completed thirty chapters, about two thirds of the book.7 A fellow-prisoner who happened to be the owner of the Gujarati monthly Navajivan offered to write to Gandhi’s dictation. The chapters appeared serially in Navajivan between April 1924 and November 1925; the book was published in two parts in 1924 and 1925 in Gujarati. The English version appeared in serial form in Young India, another weekly published by Gandhi, and in book form in 1928.

Aside from the newspaper articles that were written in 1908, the South Africa book gives us the most detailed record of Gandhi’s jail time. We already saw, however, that by now he cast his experience in a gentler light, belittling the hardships he and his followers had suffered. True, he remembers several nonviolent resisters who died in jail (chs. 31, 40, 45); but the language he adopts, when not religious as in the passages highlighted above, tends to veer toward the humorous or the gently self-mocking, as when he describes his experience as a defendant in the same court where he plied his business as a lawyer (34: 125); the shock he and his compatriots suffered when finding themselves in “the Negro ward”; their indignation when they were made to dress in clothes assigned to Native convicts; their complaints about the boredom, the lack of hygiene, and the unsalted mealie pap (126f.)—obviously upsetting for the Indians, whom Gandhi presents as rather finicky, what with their dietary restrictions and their concerns about caste purity. If the point of the book was, as he states in the Preface, to reassure himself and his reader that “victory is absolutely certain” in the current struggle in India and that there was “no ground whatever for despair in the fight that is going on” (4f.), should not the author have made more of his first-hand experiences to rile up potentially seditious Indians against the British? Why did he downplay the severity of the conditions? Wasn’t he passing up an opportunity to draw more bodies into the anti-colonial struggle?

I argue that Gandhi was by no means blind to the reality of British imperialism and violence; rather, what appears as starry-eyed idealism is actually a hardnosed disillusionment that occasionally veers toward the apocalyptic. Before going into details, a few words about Gandhi’s life and the circumstances of his imprisonment.

The Early Years

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was hardly born a fearless leader. Little Mohan first saw the light of day on October 2, 1869, in Porbander on the Indian Ocean. His family belonged to the Gujarati merchant caste, the third of India’s four major castes. Even though his grandfather and father had been diwans (advisors and administrators) to the local prince, we know from his autobiography that Mohan was a shy boy who showed hardly any promise in school. In the South Africa book his early life is not mentioned at all. The reader therefore does not get to enjoy any of the often hilarious, sometimes shocking revelations of which biographers have made much: his excessive fear of darkness; his marriage in 1882 at age twelve to a girl his age; his taste for meat; the death of his ailing father—while Mohan was in bed making love to his teenage wife.

The first important decision of his life was to go to London, against the objections of the elders of his caste, to study law; he hoped to become successful as a professional in India. In 1891, after three years of studies in London during which Gandhi tried hard to turn himself into an English gentleman, wearing Western suits and taking classes in dancing, French, elocution, and the violin, he took the bar and returned home. His attempts to make a living as a barrister in Bombay failed, however. He was unfamiliar with the Indian legal system, and when he finally took up his first case, he found himself completely tongue-tied in court so that he had to refund the fee to his client. He was also turned down for part-time work as a high school teacher. When his brother lined up a temporary job for him in Durban in Natal, he sailed off to South Africa in 1893, leaving behind his wife and children. He ended up staying for twenty-one years, leading the movement against discrimination by colonial government through nonviolent activism and realizing in the process, as he put it later, “my vocation in life” (276).

South Africa

The two decades spent in South Africa were formative in several respects. For one thing, they confronted him with a facet of Western civilization that he had been able to ignore in the genteel, cosmopolitan environment of London, namely that it was founded on violence, exploitation, and racism. For another, South Africa afforded him an opportunity to mix with Indians of various backgrounds—in terms of caste, profession, class, religion, and gender—to an extent that would have been difficult at home, so that when he eventually returned he was able to see with different eyes. It also helped him conceive of Indians as a nation working together rather than pursuing limited self-interests. Finally, it provided him with invaluable experience as a lobbyist dealing with colonial administrations in Natal and Transvaal and with the imperial government in London.

The first encounter with the racist underbelly of the glittering Empire came as a shock. This incident, immortalized near the beginning of Richard Attenborough’s famous movie Gandhi, is emblematic of this experience. Gandhi had a first-class train ticket, but when a white passenger complained about the presence of a “coloured” man, he was evicted from the train by a policeman and spent a freezing night in Maritzburg station pondering whether to return to India or follow his duty in South Africa. This episode, dramatized at length in Gandhi’s autobiography, is dealt with only cursorily in the South Africa book. In any case, it was not his own misfortunes but the abuses of others that mobilized him to oppose the repressive measures of the British rulers. Initially, he was retained to look after the interests of the Indian merchants, mostly Muslims from his home state, Gujarat.

In the 1860s, Indian laborers had been imported by the South African government to work on plantations and in coalmines, and Indian merchants had followed them in hopes of making a fortune abroad. Their presence was deeply resented by Boers and British alike. The situation in South Africa was tense to begin with. The British had seized control of the Cape area in 1795, driving the earlier Dutch settlers—the Boers: “farmers”—further north. Native peoples, particularly the Xhosa and Zulu, were forced to submit or to move. Tensions only increased when gold and diamonds were discovered inland during the nineteenth century. These frictions escalated during Gandhi’s time, and within a few years both the Afrikaners—in the Boer War (1899-1902)—and the Zulus—in the Zulu Rebellion (1906)—were brutally crushed by the British. Discriminatory laws were passed to check immigration and restrict the upward mobility of non-European settlers. When Gandhi’s protests on behalf of his clients proved ineffective, from 1906 on he began to adopt more confrontational measures, such as the burning of registration certificates. At a community assembly on September 11, 1906, Gandhi took an oath “before God and man” (89) to stand firm in the face of violence and abuse, to suffer patiently without resorting to retaliatory violence but also without cowing down to the laws he perceived as unjust. If the Indians followed him along, at least initially, it was because they were driven by their mercantile interests, not by moral motives. Not surprisingly, when confronted with imprisonment and deportation, the merchants’ initial enthusiasm for noncooperation gradually waned.8

It was only in 1912, when Gandhi took up the cause of the working class, that he was able to mobilize a more substantial and more committed army of supporters. They had much less to lose than the merchants in the fight against the government. Most of them were indentured laborers; as members of the Commonwealth they could not be enslaved, but in Natal they were subject to a Poll Tax which, considering their small income, was exorbitant and condemned them to perpetual servitude. Under Gandhi’s leadership, they willingly broke the law through walkouts, illegal border crossings, and similar acts of civil disobedience. Faced with a mass movement, the government at last started to make concessions and in 1914 reached an accord that repealed the Poll Tax. Proclaiming victory, Gandhi left South Africa for good and returned to his homeland. His claim that the struggle had a “happy ending” (276) glosses over the shallowness and short duration of the compromise he achieved. With Gandhi out of the way, the repressive colonial politics in South Africa were quickly resumed.


Back home, Gandhi soon took up his struggle against the Raj—the British colonial power—with a series of nonviolent campaigns on a local scale. These were largely successful. In 1919, he announced a Non-Cooperation Movement, the first campaign on a national level. At the time the Indian majority was held in check by an astonishingly small number of British Civil Service officers: a few thousand of them commanded 76,000 British troops, and 129,000 Indian troops (Heathcote 381f.). Gandhi’s call for a nation-wide strike resulted in sporadic outbreaks of violence, however. In 1922, during the worst incident, twenty-two policemen, trapped inside their station during a protest in a town called Chauri Chaura, were burned to death by a mob that chanted the Mahatma’s name. Gandhi took full responsibility and, even though the violence had been fairly isolated, immediately called off the entire campaign; his belief that the Indian people were ready to bring about peace by nonviolent means had been a “Himalayan blunder,” he realized in the Preface to Satyagraha in South Africa (34: 4). He was put on trial and, as mentioned, sentenced to six years in prison.

Some biographers have read the book on South Africa, which was written during that time, as an attempt to come to terms with the spectacular failure of nonviolence in India. By claiming victory in the past, he could comfort himself and his followers in the present struggle. Such arguments miss the point. Gandhi’s conceptions of failure, of fight, and of victory were different from the common notion. Having maintained lively contacts with many members of the Indian community in South Africa, and having a son permanently settled there, he was very much aware of the predicament of the Indians in South Africa: “They are still fighting” (7), he acknowledged in the preface, and later in the book he indicated that their situation had actually deteriorated since his departure (277). The reason for his counterfactual claim, the reason for downplaying the violence he suffered at the hands of the British, the reason for calling prison “a holy and happy place,” does not lie in faulty memory, nor is it a rhetorical ploy or idealization. Rather, it lies in his belief in a force he called satyagraha.


Satyagraha (stressed on the second syllable: suht-YUH-gruh-huh) was a term Gandhi coined with the help of a follower; it roughly translates as “truth force,” “firmness in truth,” or “soul force.” Existing terms, he felt, were insufficient to express what he conceived of as essential. The term “passive resistance,” used by suffragists in England, failed to capture the active, creative, courageous engagement with an opponent that he found crucial in his campaigns. “Nonviolence” was a doubly negative term and did not take into account the willingness of the practitioner of Gandhi’s methods to suffer violence. As Faisal Devji has pointed out very astutely, in Gandhi’s thinking violence plays an ambiguous, even paradoxical role. On the one hand, a violent response to a violent act only increases the violence and destruction already in the world. On the other hand, if nonviolence were to mean simply the avoidance of violence, it would be equivalent to cowardice. In Gandhi’s view, the world is saturated with violence. Even basic life-sustaining measures, such as eating or lovemaking, he held, involve violent aspects. Caught between violent retaliation and cowardice, what should a satyagrahi (practitioner of satyagraha) do? His followers, Gandhi reasoned, needed to be trained like soldiers to look death in the eye willingly and bravely, without flinching, but also without returning the violence. Such courage in the face of suffering, he believed, would have a deep impact on the enemy; it could not fail to win over his heart, transform his violence. In order for this conversion to nonviolence to take place, then, the opponent must be provoked to commit violent acts, indeed atrocities.

To resist having recourse to violence in the face of violence was, of course, an entirely counterintuitive notion, rooted more in Christian gospel—mediated by Tolstoy’s writings—than in conventional political wisdom. It was also far removed from the meek, turn-the-other-cheek preconception one often finds associated with Gandhi and his “passive resistance.” The Mahatma left no doubt that in the absence of a creative, nonviolent response to oppression he much preferred violence to the inaction of the coward. His goal, though, was to convert rather than defeat and vanquish the enemy, and in order to do so he was willing to risk the death of thousands of satyagrahis. Satyagraha can certainly be thought of as a spiritual practice, but it is a spirituality that remains firmly rooted in reality, in the physical body of the satyagrahi who has been trained to overcome the fear of prison and suffering, of violence and death.

While the status of violence in satyagraha is a critical and troubling issue, another is the role of religion. To the extent that satyagraha has immediate political consequences, it infuses politics with religion. Gandhi considered the very existence of satyagraha to be God’s doing. This led him to rethink the classic concept of dharma-yuddha, a Sanskrit term meaning “righteous struggle.” The ancient court adviser Kautilya, for instance, in his Arthashastra from the fourth century bce, had distinguished “open” forms of fighting—waged on a battlefield—from “treacherous” ones that entailed guerrilla warfare; his distinction was purely pragmatic: winning was all that mattered. Gandhi, by contrast, infused the notion of dharma-yuddha with a religious dimension so that it came to mean “holy war” or “just war.”

That is the beauty of satyagraha. It comes up to oneself; one has not to go out in search of it. This is a virtue inherent in the principle itself. A dharma-yuddha in which there are no secrets to be guarded, no scope for cunning and no place for untruth, comes unsought; and a man of religion is ever ready for it. A struggle which has to be previously planned is not a righteous struggle. In [a] righteous struggle God Himself plans campaigns and conducts battles. A dharma-yuddha can be waged only in the name of God, and it is only when the satyagrahi feels quite helpless, is apparently on his last legs and finds utter darkness all around him, that God comes to the rescue [5].

The twenty-first-century reader cannot but be struck by Gandhi’s prescience. With its rhetoric of jihad, of righteousness, of God and truth, of apocalypse, the passage is an eerie anticipation of the contemporary situation when politics has come to be dominated by morality, by religion, by concerns and movements that lie beyond its pale. Gandhi’s vision of the end of politics, of a world obscured by darkness in which violence has become endemic, which leaves the reader with no reassurance at all. Does the end mean the breakdown of binary friend-enemy oppositions, the cessation of violence and injustice? Does it mean global annihilation and death? A charge frequently leveled against Gandhi’s satyagraha is that it is impractical, unrealistic, impossible. In light of the above passage, to call him an idealist or a dreamer would be to miss the mark entirely. Gandhi made no false promises about the possible outcome of nonviolence; but unlike most people, he had actually experienced the contagious logic of violence, its mimetic escalation to extremes, and he had no delusions about its deadly outcome. His gaze into the abyss of violent conflict was unflinching.

Textual Analysis

Few contemporaries of his were ready to gaze with him. Satyagraha in South Africa records his attempt to train some of them to do so. The early chapters are devoted to laying out the geography and history of South Africa and to chronicling the settlement of the Indians there. The author appears chatty and long-winded. “Africa is one of the biggest continents in the world,” reads the first sentence (7). The reader who manages to look past generalizations and platitudes will discern an indictment of modern Western civilization and Christendom, as in this passage about the Dutch settlers: “The Boers are simple, frank and religious…. Every Boer is a good fighter…. I have stated above that the Boers are religiously minded Christians. But it cannot be said that they believe in the New Testament. As a matter of fact Europe does not believe in it” (17). The argument, then, is more subtle than it appears at first; stylistically, it frequently hinges on tensions or contradictions marked by “and yet,” “but,” “nevertheless,” which are among Gandhi’s favorite expressions, especially when it comes to describing human nature.

In other area as well, Gandhi’s book poses certain challenges to “the patient reader” (85). The list of characters who make an appearance is long, but highly selective. Compared with the autobiography, his wife and four sons are dealt with only cursorily. Maganlal Gandhi, a remote cousin and most devoted follower to whom the book is dedicated, is mentioned only a few times in passing; it was he who helped coin the word “satyagraha.” The omission by name of any Africans he met is certainly striking. Even Indian supporters make only episodic appearances; few of them are mentioned repeatedly. Many, maybe most, are severely flawed, either in their character or in their commitment to the fight. There is, for instance, a publicly celebrated satyagrahi who lost courage and secretly abandoned the movement rather than risk going to jail again (118). Another, a “lion-like” (196) community organizer whose “invaluable qualities had shone forth like jewels,” suffers from such “irritability,” “anger,” and “rashness” that these traits eventually “eclipsed his good qualities” (124). A visiting Indian dignitary by name of Gokhale, the closest thing Gandhi ever had to a mentor, comes off as fussy and pampered. Ambiguities abound: “All this notwithstanding, many Indians remained perfectly firm. Many more however weakened” (183). A particularly startling moment in the book is the introduction of a “hero,” over one third of the way into the work. The occasion is one of the mass meetings that led to the burning of the registration certificates in August 1908. One speaker at the rally was Ahmad Muhammad Kachhalia, “the hero, not of this chapter alone, but of the present volume” (112). What are Kachhalia’s qualifications for this epic role? At the meeting he gave “a very short speech” in which he swore “in the name of God” that he would rather be hanged than submit (Ibid.). And shortly before the bonfire of certificates he resisted the pressure from his European creditors to drop out of the struggle and, because of this show of “firmness and courage” (162), was made Chairman of the Transvaal British Indian Association. These are the only two passages of any substance where Kachhalia is mentioned. Gandhi did not refer to him by name in the autobiography, and in Satyagraha in South Africa he finally admitted that Kachhalia was a rather “obscure hero” (113). The term “hero” seems to be used rather loosely. At any rate, the Indians, despite their plight as colonialized people, hardly come off as morally superior to the British.

One of the few recurring characters is Gandhi’s main antagonist, General Jan Smuts, a leading politician in the Transvaal. The title of the chapter that discusses Smuts’s reneging on a promise to the Indian community is marked with a parenthetical question mark—thus: “General Smuts’ Breach of Faith (?)”—and Gandhi comments: “I am ashamed of writing the caption of this chapter as well as the chapter itself, for it deals with the obliquity of human nature” (158). What happened was that after Indians had flooded the jails, Smuts promised to revoke the already mentioned discriminatory Black Act provided that the Indians registered voluntarily. Gandhi had been warned by many English friends that the general could not be trusted, but he decided nevertheless to lead his community to the registration offices. He realized too late that Smuts had no intention of making good on his promise. From the distance of a decade and a half, Gandhi evaluated Smuts’s actions. “Even today,” he wrote, he considered the incident “a breach of faith from the Indian community’s standpoint” (Ibid.). “However”—here is that favorite formula again—however, “the General’s action did not perhaps amount to an intentional breach of faith.” In that case, “[i]t is quite possible” that Smuts “was not guilty of a deliberate breach of faith” (Ibid.). Gandhi then devoted a lengthy chapter to analyzing Smuts’s character. His conclusion was highly ambiguous: “First, he has some principles in politics which are not quite immoral. Secondly, there is room in his politics for cunning and on occasion for perversion of truth” (165). Gandhi was not above depicting Smuts in a negative light; toward the end of the struggle, when Smuts was forced to give in to the demands of the Indians he had harassed for so long, Gandhi compared him to “a snake which has taken a rat in its mouth but can neither gulp it down nor cast it out” (263). In other places satyagrahis are encouraged “never to be afraid of trusting the opponent,” even if he plays them false twenty times, but “to trust him for the twenty-first time” (133). So the issue of trusting one’s opponent is not neatly resolved. Satyagraha is, after all, an experiment; the latter word, which anticipates the title of the autobiography written a year later, recurs frequently throughout the South Africa book. Gandhi is visibly wrestling with its practice, and he expects his reader to do the same: to maintain an uneasy distance toward conventional—epic—expectations of good and evil, friend and enemy, us and them. Given the obliquity of all human nature, opposites coincide and differences collapse.

One of the most interesting aspects of Satyagraha in South Africa is the glimpse the reader gets inside Tolstoy Farm, the second of the four alternative communities Gandhi founded in his lifetime. Sociologically speaking, these ashrams, as he called them later, were reckless experiments—and perhaps most difficult to tolerate for the only people who had not followed him there of their own free will: his wife and children. Aside from his family members, the other settlers of Tolstoy Farm, who spent much time together in manual labor and prayer, were composed of members of different religions, ethnicities, castes, ages, and cultural backgrounds. In retrospect, the mature author can only marvel at his lack of worries. How could he ever send “mischievous” boys and “innocent” girls to the spring to bathe together (201)? How could he be so firmly convinced that dietary changes or fasting alone could cure any disease? The doctor was never called, he reports, nor were drugs ever used. Snakes presented a different kind of danger. Apparently they were to be found everywhere on the grounds of the settlement. Gandhi announced to his shocked followers that it was a sin to kill snakes and any other animal. Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jew who lived with Gandhi for many years, took this verdict to the extreme by attempting to tame a huge cobra. Again, years afterwards Gandhi could only breathe a sigh of relief that no one was ever bitten. He admitted that it was difficult for him personally to overcome his fear of snakes. Nevertheless, “[a] person who fears snakes and who is not ready to resign his own life cannot avoid killing snakes in case of emergency” (208).

This, of course, brings us back to the question of satyagraha and the cultivation of soldierly courage in the face of violence and death. Gandhi was not at all blind to the realization that one’s fearlessness and self-sacrifice might be neither perfect nor sufficient to melt the opponent’s heart and thus to transform reality. He warned that the sufferer should not have the expectation that suffering will necessarily work. The adversary might continue to take advantage of one’s trust; hard labor will not be magically lifted from the prisoner’s lot; the “wicked warder” might never cease his harassment; a motley bunch of self-interested Indians might never come together as a community, let alone a nation. To have any such expectations would make the satyagrahi’s suffering just another form of coercion and violence. In this sense, satyagraha is offered for the “virtue inherent in the principle itself”; it is indifferent to its outcome. By contrast, violence “works,” at least in the short run, and that is what makes it so immediately plausible and contagious; its long-term effect, however, is disastrous as both sides get swept away in its frenzy. Writing years later, at the beginning of World War II, Gandhi saw very clearly that the Allies could defeat the Nazi; but in order to do so, he argued, they “would have to out-Hitler Hitler” (79: 235). As the war progressed—and came to an end with Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945—he saw his words fulfilled.

Satyagraha is not a political tool, then; it is not an instrument for the resentful revolutionary, for the striking worker, for the uprising colonized masses to get what they want. Gandhi knew from first-hand experience that even those who thought of themselves as opponents of the Empire could still be caught up in the Empire’s principles and values. They continued to speak the Empire’s language, to wear its clothes, to play by its music. Something more was needed than courage. How to break out of the endless cycle of violence and retribution, what René Girard calls the mimetic relationship with the enemy-model? Of utmost importance was the realization that violence originated in the self: “I have observed the roots of evil deep down in my own nature” (Gandhi 34: 200f.). Gandhi was the first to remind himself and his followers of his own shortcomings. His refusal, often against all evidence, to see his adversary as an enemy was rooted in the recognition of his own implication in the violent structure of the world. The opponent was no different—and, against all appearances, no more evil—than himself: “All men are imperfect” (118). The fight against violence, then, starts within the self, with the renunciation of one’s own violent desires, including the desire to survive at the cost of others. Gandhi’s famous vow of brahmacharya (chastity) at the age of 36, his dietary quirks and fasts may seem bizarre in our promiscuous, consumerist society. For Gandhi they were as important to the transformation of reality as the cultivation of soldierly fearlessness.

As the leading public figure in India between the wars, he devoted his boundless energy to a number of issues that radically—though not necessarily successfully—challenged the political status quo of his nation. He fought to end poverty, untouchability, and, late in life, the Hindu caste system; he tried to establish women’s rights and better relations between Hindus and Muslims; and above all he strove for independence from Britain. It took several more campaigns, notably the 1930-33 Civil Disobedience Movement (the Salt March) and the 1942-43 Quit India Movement, and several more stints in jail to drive the colonial government out of India and secure independence. When it finally came, in August 1947, the actual result—the partition of India and Pakistan and the outbreak of communal violence in various parts of the subcontinent—was far from what he had hoped for. But one need only remember his apocalyptic musings to realize why he was not very surprised by this outcome either. On January 30, 1948, he was assassinated by a Hindu who thought the Mahatma was making too many concessions to the Muslims. Half a century after his murder, one century after his fight in South Africa, it is apparent that Gandhi’s unsentimental assessment of a world of violence could not be more timely.


1. For the sake of convenience, I cite all of Gandhi’s works from the—controversial—online version of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi with the volume number preceding the page number.

2. My count differs from Homer Jack (516), who claims that Gandhi spent 2,338 days in jail, and from Louis Fischer, who concurs with Jack: “Altogether, he spent 2,089 days in Indian jails, and 249 days in South African prisons” (394). Presumably the discrepancy arises from counting the beginning and ending day separately, thus adding eleven days to the total. As it pertains to the topic of this volume, here is a list based on references in the Collected Works:

In South Africa (215 days):

✵ 10-30 January 1908 in Johannesburg Jail (arrested for failing to register and refusing to leave the country; sentenced on Jan. 10 to two months’ simple imprisonment; served 20 days);

✵ 7 October-12 December 1908 in Volksrust Jail (“King Edward’s Hotel”), Pretoria (arrested for failing to produce registration certificate; sentenced on Oct. 14 to two months’ imprisonment with hard labor; served 66 days);

✵ 25 February-24 May 1909 in Volksrust, then Pretoria Central Goal (arrested for refusing to produce registration certificate and to give fingerprints; sentenced on Feb. 25 to three months’ imprisonment with hard labor; served 88 days);

✵ 6-8 November 1913 in Palm Ford (arrested for having brought unauthorized persons into the Transvaal and released on bail; served 2 days);

✵ 9 November-18 December 1913 in Heidelberg Jail, then Dundee Jail (both near Johannesburg), then Volksrust, then Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (arrested for inducing indentured immigrants to leave the Province; sentenced on Nov. 11 to nine months’ imprisonment with hard labor, then on Nov. 14 at Volksrust to a further three months’ imprisonment; served 39 days).

In India (2,112 days):

✵ 10-11 April 1919 (arrested and released; served 1 day);

✵ 10 March 1922-5 February 1924 in Sabarmati Jail, Ahmedabad, then Yeravda Jail (now Yerawada Central Jail), Poona (now Pune), then Sassoon Hospital, Poona (arrested for sedition; sentenced on Mar. 11 to six years imprisonment; served 697 days);

✵ 5 May 1930-26 January 1931 in Yeravda (arrested under Regulation 25 of 1827 “for removal of inconvenient persons without assignable reasons” (Gandhi 54: 369), which authorized detention without trial; served 266 days);

✵ 4 January 1932-8 May 1933 in Yeravda (arrested under Regulation 25; no trial; served 490 days);

✵ 1-23 August 1933 in Sabarmati Central Prison, then Yeravda, then Sassoon Hospital (arrested for disturbing the public peace; released on Aug. 3 and rearrested within an hour for disobeying an order of the Government to remain within Poona city limits; sentenced on Aug. 4 to one year imprisonment; served 22 days);

✵ 9 August 1942-6 May 1944 in Agha Khan Palace, Poona (arrested under Defense of India Rules for the purpose of public safety; no trial; served 636 days).

3. See Bernault who shows that South African jails played an important economic role from the 1880s onward by drawing upon the mostly African detainees as cheap labor; racial discrimination and segregation emerged at around the same time. See also Peté and Devenish who discuss corporal punishment, specifically flogging, in colonial jails as part of the emergence of a discourse of race.

4. For the reforms in India, see Barker, who advised the Indian Jails Committee during the 1920s. Arnold discusses the Indian prison as the “material adjunct to a colonial system of economic exploitation and political control,” a system that defined itself as civilized and modern vis-à-vis the cruelty and barbarism of India’s history, religion, and social practices. For the conditions in South Africa, see Mandela (8f.) whose experiences were very similar to those of Gandhi.

5. See, e.g., Jack 514. The roots of this faulty assumption no doubt lie in an ambiguous phrasing in the 1925 “Introduction” to the autobiography. There Gandhi wrote that he “should indeed have finished the autobiography had I gone through my full term of imprisonment at Yeravda [jail], for there was still a year left to complete the task, when I was discharged” (Gandhi 44: 89). The Gujarati original renders the passage differently: “But it would be still one year before I could take up the task. I could in no circumstances even start writing the autobiography before then. The work, therefore, remained unattempted” (44: 470). The autobiography was written and published serially, in weekly installments, starting in late 1925.

6. With the exception of Satyagraha in South Africa, the pieces he wrote for publication in prison were all short, like the articles for his newspapers. There was a Primer (1922, published posthumously in 1951), offering lessons for school children; From Yeravda Mandir (1930, published in 1932), a short treatise on the ashram vows every member of Gandhi’s household had to obey; Ashram Observances in Action (1932, published in 1948); and Key to Health (1942, published in 1948), which is concerned with dietary questions, sex, and other addictions.

7. The time of writing can be determined fairly precisely. On November 26, 1923, Gandhi noted in his jail diary: “Today commenced writing the history of Satyagraha in South Africa” (26: 450). By the time he was released on February 7, 1924, he had completed 180 pages, with about 100 left to go. In an interview with The Bombay Chronicle on March 27, 1924, he announced that the book would soon be published (27: 120), and a few days afterwards, on April 2, he was preparing the preface (147).

8. See Maureen Swan’s revisionist reading of Gandhi’s South African years. She argues that the Indian minority can hardly be said to have rallied as a body behind Gandhi’s leadership. For one thing, they were far from unified to begin with, being split into three large groups that were looking primarily after their own interests: the merchant elite, the young professionals, and the indentured workers. For another, it was the people—the merchants at first, the workers later on—who politicized Gandhi, not the other way round.

Works Cited

Arnold, David. “The Colonial Prison: Power, Knowledge and Penology in Nineteenth-Century India.” Subaltern Studies VII: Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha. Ed. David Arnold and David Hardiman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. 148-87. Print.

Barker, F.A. “Twenty Years of Penal and Prison Reform in India.” The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice 6.1 (1941): 52-59. Print.

Bernault, Florence. “The Politics of Enclosure in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa.” A History of Prison and Confinement in Africa. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2003. 1-53. Print.

Devji, Faisal. The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence. London: Hurst, 2012. Print.

Fischer, Louis. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: Harper & Row, 1950. Print.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 98. New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India, 1999. Web. 19 July 2013.

Girard, René. The Girard Reader. Ed. James G. Williams. New York: Crossroad, 1996. Print.

Heathcote, T.A. “The Army of British India.” The Oxford History of the British Army. Ed. David G. Chandler and Ian Beckett. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 362-84. Print.

Jack, Homer. The Gandhi Reader. New York: Grove Press, 1956. Print.

Mandela, Nelson. “Gandhi the Prisoner: A Comparison.” Mahatma Gandhi: 125 Years. Ed. B.R. Nanda. New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 1995. 8-17. Print.

Peté, Stephen, and Annie Devenish. “Flogging, Fear and Food: Punishment and Race in Colonial Natal.” Journal of Southern African Studies 31.1 (2005): 3-21. Print.

Swan, Maureen. Gandhi: The South African Experience. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1985. Print.