The Social Science Collective

Multiple lives Superhuman or fallible? Hirsh Sawhney considers the complicated existence of Mahatma Gandhi


FEBRUARY 19, 2019


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In 1919, the First World War had been won, thanks in large part to the contribution of more than 1 million Indian soldiers fighting on the side of the Allied powers, some of whom had been forcibly enlisted into the British armed forces. The British government could have rewarded the wartime contribution of Indians by granting them some modicum of independence. Instead, it passed the Rowlatt Act, which denied those suspected of anti-government activities their basic civil liberties and squashed the rights of newspapers. To protest against this autocratic law, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, aged fifty and not quite yet the giant he would become, announced a nationwide campaign of non-violent resistance. Businesses came to a standstill across the country, and hundreds of thousands of people gathered in peaceful demonstrations. But the situation quickly worsened, with government troops gunning down protesters, and rioters burning down government buildings and murdering several Europeans in Punjab. The British responded with martial law, flogging dissidents in public and shutting down houses of worship. On April 13, 1919, Brigadier- General Reginald Dyer ordered his men to open fire on a peaceful gathering of civilians at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, some of whom were only present to celebrate a religious holiday. More than a thousand were killed. Despite these imperial atrocities, Gandhi was more preoccupied with the violent actions of his own countrymen. He called an end to the uprising, believing that Indians had not yet fully grasped the true spirit of non-violent resistance.

This course of events was irrevocably tragic, and yet the struggle of April 1919 was a momentous occasion in the history of India. It signalled Gandhi’s emergence as a pre-eminent nationalist leader, one who could bring together Indians of different classes and differing ethnic and religious backgrounds. During the days of the anti-Rowlatt agitation, Muslims celebrated the birth of the god Ram alongside Hindus in Punjab, shouting slogans in support of Gandhi and Hindu-Muslim unity, and a Karachi newspaper rejoiced that people from previously disparate groups were now members of a single Indian community. In April 1919, it still seemed possible that South Asia’s largest religious communities could rise together and rid their nation of its colonial oppressors through non-violent resistance. This intoxicating possibility, which would prove itself to be a pipe dream a few decades later, was strongly correlated with the extraordinary organizational skills and openhearted, inclusive vision of Gandhi.


At the time of the Rowlatt Act, Gandhi had been back in India for four years after living much of his adult life abroad, first for three years in England, where he became a barrister, and then for a twenty-one-year stint in South Africa. He had moved there to represent the interests of wealthy Muslim traders, but eventually organized a massive non-violent uprising of Indian immigrants against the racist institutions of South Africa’s British and Boer rulers. It was his time outside India – wearing a suit and tie and forging friendships with Christian and Jewish Europeans – that this most iconic of Indians – known for his bare feet and his loin cloth – developed the world view and skills that would enable him to become one of the most influential and famous people in the world. While he was abroad, he read British books about diet that would shape his passionate vegetarianism. His European friends introduced him to the Gita in English translation, and this Hindu text about dutifulness would remain a cornerstone of his philosophy until his murder by a Hindu fanatic in 1948. While abroad, Gandhi read Tolstoy and Ruskin, whose critiques of materialism and modernity influenced the creation of his various ashrams.

It was Gandhi’s reading of Hindu and Christian texts, as well as his experiences building a multi-faith coalition against racism in South Africa, that inspired his formation of the concept of non-violent resistance known as Satyagraha, which would become his principal tool in the struggle for Indian independence. Satyagraha, a neologism coined by Gandhi and his disciples, is an abstract term that means “truth force”, or “holding fast to the truth”. Gandhi sought to distinguish it from traditional passive resistance, which he saw as associated with weakness and unconcerned with a commitment to truth. Those who practise Satyagraha tend to court violence or arrest, and thus they suffer. According to Gandhi’s biographer Ramachandra Guha, by drawing attention to their suffering, an activist is able to “open up a channel of communication with his or her adversaries”. Satyagraha, Guha explains, might not be effective when facing an adversary such as Hitler, but “in normal times” it is “always more moral, and often more effective, than violence”.

Guha is the author of a previous biography about Gandhi’s years abroad, and this new volume takes on Gandhi’s life from the time of his departure from South Africa in 1914. In an essay published in his collection The Last Liberal (2004), Guha once lamented the dearth of biographies about Indian leaders, wondering if this was connected to the fact that many prominent Indian historians were Marxists concerned with social history and unconvinced of the capacity for individuals to alter their surroundings. His new book, massive, meticulous and engrossing, makes a compelling case for how Gandhi, a singular being, emboldened and transformed colonial India. Guha’s Gandhi had forward-thinking ideas about environmentalism and development. He was a rigorous public intellectual who wrote incisive books and ran several magazines, and he met and exchanged letters with the leading thinkers of his time, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Margaret Sanger and George Bernard Shaw. And yet he managed to find time to respond to the countless letters he received from ordinary people about politics, ethics, or family. Guha attempts to shield Gandhi from critics of all sorts: those on the Left who are suspicious of his egalitarian credentials and frequent collaborations with capitalists and oppressors; those on the Right who blame him for placating the sensitivities of Muslims; and various commentators who suggest that he treated Muslims and other minorities unfairly. Though the book gives voice to these critics and demonstrates an awareness of Gandhi’s flaws and inconsistencies, it ultimately shows him as a compassionate, super-human unifier who brought people together by “promoting an ethic of dialogue and compromise”, and, more tangibly, by revolutionizing India’s Congress Party. Before Gandhi, the Congress was a body of educated Indians founded by a British man with the consent of a British viceroy. Under Gandhi’s stewardship, asserts Guha, it became a “mass political organization, with branches in states and districts, its networks touching every part of India and virtually every section of Indian society”.

Old-guard Congress leaders thought the plight of farmers was a distraction from their pursuit of freedom. Gandhi, however, understood that the masses had to get involved with the freedom struggle for it to be successful, so in 1917 he travelled to Champaran in Bihar, where, in his own words, British planters were subjecting farmers to a “reign of terror”, forcing them to grow indigo owing to wartime demand. If the farmers didn’t comply, they were brutalized and fined, and sometimes their lands were confiscated. Despite intimidation by British authorities, Gandhi organized a group of Indian lawyers to support these farmers’ cause, convincing the elite activists to dispense with their servants and fancy meals. The group collected the statements of 7,000 oppressed farmers and presented its findings to the regional government in Bihar, which then made reforms that alleviated local suffering. Gandhi became a hero among villagers, and thousands of them bid him farewell with music and flowers.

In Guha’s account of the Champaran Satyagraha, he mentions the rituals conducted by local students to honour Gandhi’s arrival, describing the coconuts that were used for a ceremony, and the tree from which they were plucked. However, he refrains from dwelling on the actual complaints made by farmers. Something similar occurs during Guha’s take on the unrest in Punjab. He describes a few poignant features of martial law, but doesn’t offer an expansive portrait of the British Raj’s intense repression, which Gandhi and his Congress colleagues vividly captured in their own report on the situation. In place of such vital information, we get Gandhi’s pained meditations on the fetidness of the Ganga, which was being polluted by the bathroom habits of Indians. Guha’s omissions aren’t surprising given his stated ideas about biography, and yet they detract from the comprehensiveness of his otherwise exhaustive project.

While Champaran displayed Gandhi’s ability to organize a popular movement in a localized rural setting, it wasn’t until the Punjab turmoil that he truly made his entrance on the national stage. After the anti-Rowlatt struggle of 1919, Gandhi led the famous Noncooperation movement of the early 1920s, a prolonged period of agitation in which the Congress urged people to withdraw themselves from government service. Gandhi had clearly captured the admiration and imagination of many Indians, for they returned British medals and stayed away from jobs in government schools. Women picketed liquor stores, and peasants refused to pay taxes or carry the luggage of government officials, many inspired by Gandhi. During this period, a Muslim woman named Raihana Tyabji, a talented singer and the daughter of a powerful nationalist, wrote to Gandhi. She said that she had once “envied English girls” for their freedom and their “white skins”, but that Gandhi had made Indians see that they “are in no way inferior to any people”.

The purpose of Noncooperation was multifaceted. Gandhi wanted the government to atone for the atrocities of Punjab and also to take serious steps towards granting Home Rule. In a controversial and tactical effort to forge bonds between Muslims and the Congress Party, Gandhi had become an ardent supporter of India’s Khilafat movement, which sought to restore the Ottoman Sultan as the leader of the Islamic world, and so Noncooperation was also an attempt to bolster this cause. Gandhi’s involvement with Khilafat elicited both considered criticism and sectarian rage from some Hindus, and it alienated the Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the future founder of Pakistan, who was then a moderate member of the Congress Party and an advocate of inter-religious harmony. Despite such disapproval, Gandhi’s blending of this religious cause with the quest for independence brought the powerful Muslim leaders Shoukat and Mohammad Ali into the Congress fold and reunited Hindus and Muslims, albeit temporarily.

The risky but exhilarating Noncooperation movement unfortunately imploded in the same way as the strike of 1919. A large crowd of activists in a town called Chauri Chaura were shouting slogans in praise of Gandhi and Khilafat when they clashed with police, who opened fire. The police were outnumbered though, and they were forced to retreat into their station under a “hail of rocks”. The protesters then set the police station on fire, leaving twenty-three policemen dead. Just as he had done in 1919, Gandhi called off this civil disobedience campaign because his followers hadn’t been faithful to his credo of non-violence, known as ahimsa. His decision to end Noncooperation when it was making genuine gains and fortifying an alliance between Hindus and Muslims angered more radical members of the Congress, as well as Muslim leaders. Gandhi’s zealous devotion to non- violence, epitomized by his decisions here, also elicited ire from divergent ends up the political spectrum. The right-wing Hindu extremist Veer Savarkar, who inspired Gandhi’s killer as well as the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, believed that absolute non-violence was sinful and a type of “monomaniacal” senselessness. Meanwhile, the communist tactician M. N. Roy asserted that “the cult of non-violence” was emblematic of an “anti-revolutionary spirit”. Notably, though Gandhi was steadfastly devoted to non-violence when it came to struggling with his British overlords, he sometimes revealed contradictory and potentially hypocritical attitudes on these core principles. He supported numerous British wars, encouraging Indians to “fight unconditionally unto death with the Briton” during the First World War, and he also supported the decision to send Indian troops to Kashmir to wage war with the nascent nation of Pakistan during Partition.

The story of the heart-rending deterioration in Hindu–Muslim relations that defined the twenty-five years after Noncooperation and culminated in Partition is all too well known. Guha documents various perspectives on the origins of this discord. Many Muslims felt threatened by right-wing Hindu elements, which had permeated certain sections of the Congress, and also by Hindu sects that were attempting to convert Muslims. They felt marginalized by Gandhi’s resolute fixation with Hindu iconography and Scripture. Meanwhile, the Hindu Right believed that Gandhi was placating the Muslim minority, granting them undue rights at the expense of the majority. The intransigence of both Congress leaders and Jinnah played a role in driving the communities apart, though Guha seems particularly hard on Jinnah and glosses over the way in which his relegation to the margins by Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru undoubtedly contributed to the inevitability of Partition. British rulers, of course, had a major hand in fomenting the divide between India’s two largest religious communities. The creation of special electorates by the Raj in the first years of the twentieth century may have created an irrevocable rift between Hindus and Muslims, exaggerating the prominence of religious identity for individuals. Later, as the Congress attempted to hold together an inter-religious front against colonialism, the Secretary of State for India, Lord Zetland, declared in the House of Lords that the Party was solely a “Hindu organization”. A British governor of Bombay commented that it was “maddening to see all the Moslems gradually leaving us to make common cause with the Brahmans whom they despise and hate”. He worried that Hindus might deny the empire the “never failing prop of Moslem loyalty and military support”.

The tangled web of factors that led to the heinous Partition of South Asia along religious lines has elicited an enormous body of critical analysis. Guha, however, refuses to wield his analytical scalpel when it comes to these issues, asserting that while he has his “own answers to these (admittedly) important questions”, “the biographer’s task is to document what happened at the time, not to pose counterfactuals”. Despite such declarations about “counterfactuals”, he does take the time to conjecture what might have happened had Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and Gandhi admirer, met the Mahatma before the Second World War. Might Gandhi’s ideals have spread to Germany, asks Guha, and enabled the Allies to intervene before the gravest atrocities of the war had been committed? Guha might have forsaken this piece of quixotic speculation and instead asked more relevant and provocative questions. What would have happened had Gandhi and Nehru built a stronger coalition with Jinnah? Could Partition have been avoided? Might India and Pakistan have been able to form some type of federation?

Though Guha is reluctant to weigh in on the causes of Partition, he casts a spotlight on Gandhi’s heroic role in stemming the communal bloodbaths that defined the late 1940s. Gandhi, in his late seventies, walked from village to village in parts of Bengal and Bihar that had been blighted by communal violence, extracting promises from locals that they would treat their neighbours kindly, irrespective of their religion. In these later moments of his life, he comes across as an unparalleled leader of the past century, one who was truly willing to put his body on the line for the sake of tolerance and peace. But even as he exhibited immense levels of bravery and honour, he still espoused the misogynistic and sectarian rhetoric that upsets some of his critics. As the journalist Nisid Hajari points out, Gandhi urged Hindu women who faced the threat of rape to remember “the incomparable power of Sita”, the self-sacrificing Hindu goddess who is celebrated for her purity, and Gandhi also suggested that Hindu women should commit suicide rather than be violated by Muslim men. While Guha acknowledges that patriarchal and parochial sensibilities occasionally marred Gandhi’s views on women, he ultimately seeks to portray him as their defender. Guha is justified in highlighting the way Gandhi elevated various women, including the poet Sarojni Naidu, to prominent positions in the national struggle, and yet his treatment of Gandhi’s relationship with his great-niece Manu is problematic. As per Gandhi’s design, he and Manu, who was around eighteen, slept naked together towards the end of his life in order to test the resolve of his vow of bhahmacharya and also to atone for the violence of Partition. In Guha’s telling, there was “a certain amount of imposition” on the part of this venerated and ageing global leader on this young, dependent woman. And yet the author suggests that there might be “two sides to the story”, playing down the oppressive and disquieting nature of Gandhi’s “experiment”.

Despite Gandhi’s ethical ambiguities and moral lapses, Guha admires him for his “heightened self-awareness and openness to self-criticism”, which stands in contrast to the “arrogance of those in positions of power today”. He claims that Gandhi was “singular” in that he exposed his “defects” and “manias” through his writing. Guha counts his “largely successful quest” for truth as perhaps his “most remarkable achievement”. Truth, of course, both spiritual and literal, was a primary concern of Gandhi’s life, and also the subject of his memoir, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. In this legendary volume, Gandhi claims that “a clean confession, combined with a promise never to commit the sin again”, is the “purest type of repentance”, and he worries that if “things that are relevant are omitted, truth will be dimmed”. This book was originally published as a series of Gujarati newspaper articles beginning in 1925, and it has been recently republished with annotations compiled by the scholar Tridip Suhrud, an erudite reader of Gandhi’s immense body of work. Suhrud’s numerous footnotes and marginal notes make Experiments a more immersive experience for contemporary readers, providing invaluable socio-historical context, and they also illuminate the sophistication and thoughtfulness of the book’s translation by Gandhi’s ingenious personal secretary, Mahadev Desai, who at one point draws on Shakespeare to translate a tricky Gujarati idiom that doesn’t convert easily into English.

The most cumbersome parts of this memoir are its parable-like moralistic anecdotes, which perhaps explain its undying popularity in the Euro-Christian world. Though at the time of writing the book Gandhi was a celibate brahmacharya who renounced sensory pleasure for the sake of heightened awareness, he describes in vivid detail his jealousy and lust during the early days of his marriage. It seems that he was having sex with his wife, Kasturba, when his father died under the same roof. Gandhi remarks that “this shame of my carnal desire even at the critical hour of my father’s death” is a “blot I have never been able to efface or forget”. He then draws a correlation between his sinful transgressions and the fact that his wife later gave birth to a child who died shortly after being born, asking “all those who are married to be warned by my example”. Not everything here is so tiresome. Gandhi offers piercing descriptions of the institutionalized racism that defined South Africa, which paved the way for apartheid, and his meditations on dressing and grooming speak volumes about race and colonialism. In South Africa, he wondered if appearing “in faultless English dress” would shield him from racism. In London, he rid himself of visible signs of his Indianness so that he wouldn’t be exposed to “ridicule” or appear like “a barbarian in the eyes of Englishmen”. Gandhi, it seems, was parsing out the particulars of multiculturalism more than half a century before it was fashionable do so in highbrow literary magazines.

Gandhi was extremely preoccupied with his reputation and legacy. He bought numerous copies of his first biography to share with bigwigs in England. Shortly after his arrival back in India, he removed seditious parts of a speech so as not to perturb Indian nobles and British leaders. And later in life, he is reported to have made journalists quote authorized versions of his statements rather than the words that actually came out of his mouth. Parts of this memoir, too, feel like an attempt to set the record straight about past controversies. For example, he addresses criticism of his participation in the Khilafat movement. His response to this criticism, however, doesn’t betray the intelligent self-awareness that Guha admires. Gandhi just doubles down on his previous stances without much thought or consideration. In other instances, as the biographer Joseph Lelyveld points out, he reimagines events so as to come across as a more benevolent protagonist, as when he exaggerates the way in which he helped an indentured servant named Balasundaram.

Such revisions are probably harmless, but other simplifications deserve more scrutiny. Gandhi claims in Experiments that “service of the poor has been my heart’s desire, and it has always thrown me amongst the poor and enabled me to identify myself with them” – emphasis added. When writing about the brutal British war against the Zulus, he claims that his “heart was with the Zulus”, and he suggests that his witnessing of atrocities against them led him deeper down his path of brahmacharya. In actuality, when Gandhi first arrived in South Africa, he harboured deeply classist and racist ideas. He believed that poorer Indian migrants were “ignorant” and “uncouth” and should not be granted voting rights. He referred to Zulus derogatorily as Kaffirs and saw them as “uncivilized” and “troublesome” people who “were very dirty and live almost like animals”. He wrote articles strongly encouraging Indians to support the British war effort against the Zulus, and he himself volunteered on the side of the British.

Arundhati Roy has taken aim at these contradictions, noting how Gandhi saw fit to trace some aspects of his life frankly – those connected to sexuality, for example – but was much more tight-lipped when it came to race and class. He never forthrightly disavowed his former archaic opinions, according to Roy, which makes her wonder if he ever completely jettisoned them. Roy is particularly suspicious when it comes to Gandhi’s evolving views on untouchability and caste. He made the betterment of Dalits, who were formerly referred to as Untouchables, a mainstay of the Congress platform early on during his tenure with the party. He understood the fact that the British oppression of Indians was analogous to upper-caste Hindus’ treatment of the Dalits. But he was slow to denounce the institution of caste as a whole, at some points suggesting it had “saved Hinduism”, perhaps because he didn’t want to alienate his Hindu base. Moreover, he bullied and manipulated the Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar, trampling on his desire for separate Dalit electorates to safeguard their rights and denouncing Ambedkar’s desire for Dalits to free themselves from untouchability by converting to another religion. Roy suggests, like Perry Anderson before her, that Gandhi’s interests in the Dalits may have been less benevolent than they appear. Though she doesn’t say so directly, her lyrical, somewhat elliptical prose makes readers wonder if Gandhi wanted to keep Dalits in the Hindu fold so that Hindus would retain their majority over Muslims, a point that Anderson was unequivocal about in his controversial book about Indian ideology (2012).

Guha responds with anger to Roy in his book, claiming that her perspectives lack “scholarship or sociological insight”. He attempts to defend Gandhi against her charges of racism, though his own discussion here lacks depth and force. He doesn’t directly contend with her provocative suggestions about Gandhi’s treatment of the Dalits, but the thrust of his biography is at odds with her statements. For Guha, the sum total of Gandhi’s actions and words, irrespective of any flaws or inconsistencies, make him a highly progressive figure for his time when it comes to issues of gender, race, class and caste, and he evolved past any pernicious ideas he might have held about these things. According to Guha, Gandhi may have been patronizing towards Ambedkar, but his disputes with him were ultimately productive and redemptive, and Gandhi was responsible for the “delegitimizing of untouchability”.

So whom do we believe? Perhaps we can turn to Gandhi himself for advice, for he had a precocious understanding of the fact that knowledge and story are inherently subjective things – a fact that is currently under attack by forces on the Left and Right in the West. Gandhi once stated that every “case can be seen from no less than seven points of view, all of which are probably correct by themselves, but not correct at the same time and in the same circumstances”. Indeed, we might be better off with multiple versions of Gandhi. We should see him both as the superhuman Mahatma of Ramachandra Guha’s book, one who is so unlike the fetid leaders of our day. And we should see him as a human politician who made mistakes, one who cannot always be rounded or redeemed. For if Gandhi was human and fallible, there is still a chance that someone like him might appear to fill the void of hateful garble that passes for our public life.

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