“Gandhi, The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948” by Ramachandra Guha


I decided to read Ramachandra Guha’s epic thousand-page biography of Gandhi because I wanted to be as knowledgeable about that era of history as I like to pretend I am.

My parents had lived through some of these very turbulent years, and when I was young, my father, especially, used to talk about this period often; but, of course, he had his own biases, and he was not a historian. There are other reasons why the picture I have of Gandhi and of his times remains unfocussed and unclear: Gandhi has been raised on such a pedestal, declared a saint and a great soul (quite literally) even in his own lifetime, that there has been no shortage of people from various different political backgrounds trying to pull him down from that pedestal ever since; furthermore, those heady years of the Indian independence movement – roughly from around 1914 to 1947, the year of independence; or, if we want to take it up to the point of Gandhi’s assassination by Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse, January 1948 – were riven with all kinds of factionalism, and those factions, and their various different and conflicting narratives, remain with us still. All of this has resulted in a cacophony of different voices, and untangling all that to get some kind of clarity is no easy task. But, given that the very concept of Indian nationhood stems from that era, this untangling is something I was rather keen to do, and this volume, hefty though it is, seemed a good first step. And yes, I am very glad I took it, though I do realise that this is no more than a first step, and, should I want to delve into this further, there are many more steps yet to be taken. But it’s a start, and a very good start too.

But given all the factions that are still fighting each other with competing voices, what about Guha’s own stance? Guha’s position is unapologetically that of liberal democratic secularism, and that’s absolutely fine by me.

As well as attacks from right-wing Hindu nationalists, Guha’s Nehruvian stance often come under attacks from the liberal Left as well (these attacks are generally more intelligent than the ones coming from the Hindu nationalists, but frankly, the bar isn’t very high here). It is felt by many that Guha is too sympathetic towards, and insufficiently aware of, the less palatable aspects of Gandhi-ism. I did not sense this at all from the book: like most people, Gandhi had flaws; and, unlike most people, Gandhi held and acted by certain views that may politely be described as “cranky”. Guha is not reticent when it comes to discussing these matters, and he eloquently describes and takes seriously, and frequently sympathetically, the points of view of those many who had opposed Gandhi. For instance, I came away from this book with a great respect for, among others, Ambedkar, one of Gandhi’s most bitter and outspoken opponents.

Among the crankiest (from my perspective, at least) of Gandhi’s views were his views on sex (and since that topic is bound to come up, it’s best to get it out of the way first). Put in a nutshell, he was against it. He himself and taken the vow of chastity in early middle age, and he enjoined even young people to take that vow. For, to Gandhi (as to his inspiration Tolstoy), sex was impure (though it could just about be tolerated for procreation); and it was a bar to achieving spiritual liberation. I couldn’t help comparing this to D. H. Lawrence, who appeared to see sex as an expression of our spirituality. If they are on two extreme ends of a spectrum, then I, who stand clear of that spectrum altogether, can’t help seeing the two of them as a pair of nutters, each in his different way. Gandhi’s preoccupation with sex perhaps reached an apogee (I was about to write “climax”, but thought better of it) in his old age, when he shared a bed with his grand-niece, in order, it appears, to demonstrate that it is possible for the sexes to intermingle freely, even in bed, without the thorny issue of carnal desire getting in the way. This is, of course, a somewhat unpleasant detail in Gandhi’s life (some would insist it’s more than just a detail): no matter that Gandhi and his wife Kasturba (who had passed away before this particular “experiment”) had raised their grand-niece with the greatest of love and tenderness; no matter that she was of age and very much a willing partner in this; given the difference of age and prestige and of authority between the two, it is hard not to see this as a grotesque abuse of power. Some of Gandhi’s closest associates turned against him at this point. I raise this episode because it is one frequently raised by detractors as a stick to beat Gandhi with. I personally find this episode distasteful, but given that I am quite out of sympathy with the beliefs held so fervently both by Gandhi and by his grand-niece, I don’t know how significant my point of view is here. Guha does not gloss over this episode: indeed, he devotes an entire chapter to it, and, with the scrupulousness and even-handedness that is entirely correct for a biographer, records fully the points of view of Gandhi, and also of those who had opposed him in this matter. And, as a good biographer should, he tries to understand Gandhi’s own motivations in this matter, without himself passing judgement.

As Guha says in his epilogue, Gandhi had no private life. Everything he did and thought – even the most intimate details – he himself recorded with a most disconcerting openness. And naturally, this leaves him more open to criticism than the rest of us who generally manage to keep our private lives private.

While it is no doubt fun debunking myths – and the myth of sainthood is just crying out to be debunked – the myth isn’t entirely without foundation, as there are many elements in Gandhi’s life and personal make-up for which the term “sainthood” does not seem misapplied. Even conceding the various flaws in his character, there were times I found myself simply gasping with admiration. For Gandhi wasn’t born a saint. He had emerged into the wide world as a young man with a great many of the prejudices, and, yes, even many of the bigotries, that were common to people of his background. Thus, for a surprisingly long time, he saw nothing wrong with the caste system: true, he rejected from the very beginning the concept of “outcasts”, or the “untouchables”, and he insisted also that the four different castes should be on an equal footing; but the fact of caste division itself he did not appear to have a problem with. All this changed later in life: no caste distinctions were observed in his ashrams; he sanctioned and even officiated in inter-caste marriages; and, by 1945, in a foreword to a re-publication of some of his earlier writings, he wrote, quite bluntly: “If a scripture is found to sanction distinctions of high and low, or distinctions of colour, it does not deserve the name of scripture.” He added, for good measure, that the reader should “discard anything in this [older] book which may appear to him incompatible with my views given above”.

And similarly with race. While in South Africa (a period of his life not covered in the present volume), he had made a number of statements about black people that are inexcusably racist. But once again, he evolved from there, and, as is apparent from his later correspondence with various civil rights campaigners in USA, and, indeed, his welcoming many such campaigners into his ashram, whatever bigotry he had on this score, he shed completely. And similar comments may be made about his approach to feminism. Gandhi originated from a profoundly patriarchal society, and, to begin with, he had insisted that his wife and his children obey his commands. In this, too, he evolved, and by the time he arrived in India in 1914, he insisted on complete autonomy for women: in his ashram, duties were never divided on the basis of gender (men as well as women were expected to do the cleaning and the cooking), and both boys and girls were educated in the same manner. Gandhi may not have been born a saint, but he took an altogether harder path towards that end: he developed in himself those qualities that may, without exaggeration, be termed “saintly”.

The non-violence that he insisted upon was very real. He was himself prepared to suffer any kind of torment, up to and including death, rather than betray this basic principle. He seemed never to harbour even any resentment, let alone hatred, against those who mocked him, or oppressed him: in every circumstance, he tried his utmost to seek out the good in people – no matter how unlikely it may be for good to reside in them – and to appeal to their better natures, which he was convinced must exist. His strength of will, his steadfastness, and his physical and moral courage, would all be hard to credit were not all this a matter of record.

The story told in this book starts in 1914, just before the outbreak of the War, when Gandhi returned from South Africa to India, already, on account of his political campaigns in South Africa, a celebrity. (An earlier book by Guha, Gandhi Before India, records Gandhi’s life up to this point, but I haven’t yet read that, though I have been reliably informed that that volume and this, which effectively form a two-part biography, may be read independently. A further book by Guha, India After Gandhi, is a history of India since Independence, and together, these three books form a trilogy.)

It didn’t all start immediately, of course. It started with local injustices, local oppressions, and Gandhi applied there the methods of non-violence he had already practised so successfully in South Africa. Over time, it all grew, but two particular challenges unrelated to the demand for greater independence, or even for full independence, became apparent: the first was the challenge from Muslims, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah; the second from the “Untouchables”, whom Gandhi renamed (perhaps a bit patronisingly) “Harijans” (people of God), and this faction was led by Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. How would Muslims fare in a Hindu majority India? And, given that the Congress Party leadership consisted mainly of high caste Hindus, why should the Untouchables – the Harijans – take part in the struggle to hand over power to the very people who had oppressed them in the past, and who were likely to do so again in the future?

On the first point, Gandhi insisted on unity. He himself was completely free from any communal bias, and in his prayer meetings, regularly recited from the Bhagavad Gita, the Qu’ran, and the Bible. But it would be foolish to pretend strong communal prejudices did not exist elsewhere in the movement.

Gandhi is still thought of as the major figure in the struggle for Independence – and he was – but, from reading this book, I strongly get the impression that the greater part of his struggle was to heal the breaches on his own side. Despite the often acrimonious charges from Ambedkar (who demanded separate representation and a separate electorate for Untouchables), the greater part of Gandhi’s efforts was spent in what he himself referred to as “shaming the Hindus”: for Gandhi, any change that was meaningful had to be bottom-up: only when peoples’ hearts were changed could real change occur. Which is, of course, admirable, but one cannot really blame Ambedkar for lacking the patience: when people were being humiliated, and were suffering immensely, waiting for the oppressors’ hearts to change did not look a very attractive proposal. Gandhi’s campaigns against untouchability were not without success, but they did demand from the oppressed a patience and a forbearance that is not really to be expected from those of us who happen not to be saints.

The challenge posed by Jinnah too proved intractable. No matter how insistently Gandhi claimed that the Congress Party represented everyone, including Muslims, Jinnah refused to be convinced. Jinnah’s own party, Muslim League, performed disappointingly in the 1937 elections; and yet, only ten years later, the partition of the Indian subcontinent to provide a homeland for Muslims became inevitable. There is still much debate over how such a turnaround happened in so short a time, but much of that is surely due to Jinnah’s political brilliance, and, frankly, to his sheer bloody-minded doggedness!

And then of course, came the War, in which India found itself a participant without any form of consultation. The Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, who seemed to view the Indian people as a bit of a nuisance, without consulting either his Executive Council, or the Central Legislative Assembly, and certainly not any Indian political leader, declared India to be at war, and that was that. But of course, claims to be fighting for freedom and democracy weren’t really very credible given Britain was denying India this same freedom and democracy.

In February 1942, George Orwell, writing in the Observer, proposed offering India dominion status, on a par with Australia and Canada, with an option to secede completely after the war; and inviting leading Indian political leaders to form an emergency unity government. This would certainly have been accepted by Congress, but neither Churchill nor Lord Linlithgow would countenance this. Eventually, Stafford Cripps, a friend of Nehru’s and Gandhi’s and sympathetic to the Independence movement, was sent over with very watered down proposals, but even here, he was quite clearly undermined from his own side, and the talks fell through. Churchill, who openly said he hated Indians, and thought them a “beastly people”, did a little dance of triumph when he heard of the failure of the Cripps initiative. While Churchill’s leadership in the War was magnificent and vital (Cripps certainly knew better than to break ranks with him), one cannot but feel that even from the perspective of winning the war, he had shot himself in the foot: the Congress leaders were all firmly anti-fascist; Nehru had seen through Mussolini when even Churchill was describing Il Duce as “the greatest lawgiver among living men”. Had Orwell’s characteristically clear-sighted proposals been taken up, Britain would have found in India a most co-operative ally and partner in the War. But instead, on top of all its other problems (including that of its very survival), they were faced with a mass non-co-operation campaign in India. It could easily have been avoided.

I am far from sure that Gandhi’s call for a non-co-operation campaign at such a time can be justified. No matter how intractable and insulting the British government had been on this matter, it was still a choice between them, or totalitarians. For surely, it must have been obvious even to Gandhi that his non-violent campaigns wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in Hitler’s Germany. He had himself been deeply conflicted with the rise of totalitarian powers: the principle of non-violence, which he had devoted his entire life to nurturing, suddenly seemed in danger of becoming irrelevant. Gandhi himself would have been prepared to give his life for his beliefs, but it was a bit too much to expect the same from his followers; and appealing to the better side of adversaries was a laughable idea when those adversaries were Nazis. Himself conflicted, Gandhi made at this time a number of conflicting statements, but his declaration of a mass non-co-operation movement does seem, to me at any rate, a poor misjudgement, to say the least. His staunch ally and friend, and long time campaigner for Independence, C. Rajagopalchari, had advised him against making such a declaration; and, after the declaration despite his advice, he refused to have anything to do with it. And in England, Henry Polack, who had been Gandhi’s closest friend and ally in his South African campaigns, publicly turned against him. Given that Polack was a British Jew whose country was in danger of ceasing to exist, and whose co-religionists were being slaughtered en masse in concentration camps, his anger was entirely understandable.

It is in those few years after Gandhi’s release from prison, between 1945 and 1947, that Gandhi’s greatness becomes apparent. It is hard not to see Gandhi here as a protagonist of a great tragic drama. The generally accepted picture of Gandhi is that he emerged victor, achieving the Independence that he had so wanted and fought for. But Independence in itself was never his aim. All that he had really aimed for – religious tolerance and unity, the outlawing of cruel and barbaric practices, and, not to put too fine point on it, universal human love – seemed quite literally to go up in flames. Bengal had already suffered a devastating famine in 1942-43; now, in the wake of imminent partition, it erupted in grotesque communal violence. Each atrocity led to revenge atrocities; each side felt justified in ever-increasing cycle of bloodshed. Communal violence erupted also in Punjab – the other state which was to be partitioned; and also in Bihar, where attacks on innocent Muslims were carried out in revenge for attacks in Bengal on innocent Hindus.

With everything he had so fervently fought for now seemingly in tatters, Gandhi, now in his late 70s, did the only thing he could do: he walked into the worst affected areas in Noakhali in Bengal (now in Bangladesh), without guns, without bodyguards, and armed only with his walking-stick. It was an act of physical and moral courage that defies belief. He met with the rioters, and spoke to them and to their ringleaders. He urged them to welcome back people who had fled. He attended prayer meetings with them, whatever their religion. He even went on hunger strike, to be broken only when the violence stopped. And miraculously, it did. It defies belief, but it really did. As Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, famously commented, in Punjab there were well-armed troops to restore peace, and yet, violence continued unchecked; whereas in Bengal, there was a single unarmed old man, and the violence had stopped. Einstein had once said about Gandhi that future generations would wonder that such a man had ever existed; he had also said that Gandhi was, quite simply, “the greatest man of our times”. Reading these pages, it is hard not to agree.

In the end, this vast volume reads like a vast tragedy. Independence was secured, yes, but the cost was far, far more than Gandhi had been prepared to pay. And all that Gandhi has fought for remain unresolved to this day: communal hatreds are as intense as ever; barbarous religious practices continue, though perhaps not unabated. This astonishing tale, with all its manifold complexities, Guha relates with tremendous clarity and lucidity. And what a cast of characters! Apart from Gandhi himself, there’s Nehru; there’s Rabindranath Tagore (whose criticisms of certain aspects of Gandhi-ism did not prevent a deep and sincere admiration); there are those brilliant and charismatic antagonists of Gandhi, Jinnah and Ambedkar; there’s Rajagopalchari, whose judgement seems right in every respect, even in retrospect; there’s Churchill, there’s Cripps, and also those mighty offstage presences Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini; no novelist would have dared make up so extraordinary a cast of characters, even if they could.

Saints are not always very likeable people. I am not sure I would have liked to have known Gandhi personally (though those who did all attest to his personal charm). Like all saints, he made moral demands of humanity that humanity cannot realistically live up to. But yes, if there was ever a saint, he, I think, was one. And Guha’s epic narrative, exhaustively researched and documented, is as enthralling as any novel.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Staveley Ferguson on April 19, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    About 15 years ago I read Gandhi’s Autobiography, which was published in 2 volumes in Gujarati in 1927 and 1929, later translated into English by Mahadev Desai in 1982. It covers his years up to the mid-1920s. It is a remarkably honest account of his early life, warts and all, and must overlap neatly with this biography.
    I was born in India in the year after Gandhi’s assassination, and grew up in a post-Independence secular state where India was run by a Congress government which had representatives of all religions, no doubt partly a legacy of Gandhi’s influence. It seems ironic that he was from the state of the present Prime Minister.
    It is impossible to travel anywhere in India without coming across M K Gandhi roads in most big towns, or Khadi emporia selling locally made goods which he championed. I have even come across a statue of Gandhi which has pride of place in the centre of Durban in South Africa, where he first practised as a lawyer.
    I tend to agree with you about his “saintliness”. How many saints needed “conversion” after their early profligate lives? I wonder what post-Independence India would have been like if he had survived for a few more years.


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