A cyclist passes a bust of Indian independence movement leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Photo: PA

Arguing for India: what Gandhi's ideas mean today

Gandhi's ideas might seem eccentric, but they helped liberate a nation—and have much to teach us today
October 22, 2018

Five years after the first volume, Ramachandra Guha has produced the second part of his impressive biography of Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi Before India (2013) dealt with the less familiar stage of Gandhi’s life from 1869 to 1914. It covered his childhood and early years in Gujarat, west India, his time as a law student in London and his life in South Africa, where he started to develop his political ideas and methods about non-violent passive resistance—or satyagraha—in order to defend the rights of the Indian minority. In this second volume Gandhi appears in his mid-forties, back in India for the first time in decades and fully formed by his experiences abroad.

Gandhi landed in Bombay on 9th January 1915 ready to launch campaigns against British colonialism. He caught unawares both Raj officials and timid Indian moderates, who reacted with alarm. Yet the sheer excitement Gandhi unleashed among the new generation of nationalists was thrilling. Young men such as the future prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru gave up promising legal careers, threw aside their western clothes and built alliances with poor peasants in the villages.

Between 1917 and 1922, satyagraha-inspired civil disobedience rocked the Raj. By 1919, Gandhi was heading nationwide protests against what he called the “obnoxious” Rowlatt bills—repressive legislation proposed by the British to combat the spectre of revolutionary terrorism. He encouraged strikes, marches, resignations from government jobs and the rejection of western goods. More civil disobedience followed in 1930-4, starting with the iconic Dandi salt march. Later, the Quit India movement of 1942 undermined the British war effort, not least by winning support from the US. All this culminated in Indian independence, declared on 15th August 1947.

Gandhi’s non-co-operation with the colonial power—which resulted in him being imprisoned several times—is the best-remembered part of his story. But in daily life Gandhi was engaged in less dramatic but equally important forms of activism and social work: running ashrams, fasting, spinning, publishing, journalism, travelling, public speaking and, most of all, arguing. Indeed, Guha argues that “Gandhi’s life in India was, among other things, a series of often intense and long-running arguments.”

This book shows Gandhi in close-up: a man of focused and urgent energy, busily making himself present across the country, directing himself not at one community or section of society but at everybody. As Guha says, many Indian politicians travelled, “but Gandhi travelled everywhere. UP, Bihar, Bengal, Assam, the Tamil and Telugu country, Maharashtra, Punjab—Gandhi went to all these places, visiting cities and towns small and even smaller.” What comes across is his sheer chutzpah, ambition and determination—whether he is cheekily encouraging the wife of a colonial official to take up spinning, or appearing in regions like Bengal, where an upstart Gujarati like him had never before been welcomed as a leader.

Gandhi is one of the most studied men in history and there are thousands of interpretations of his life and message. Guha’s book is not an esoteric or mystical biography; nor is it rooted in deep engagement with political philosophy. His devotion is to the archive. Readers shouldn’t be deterred by this volume’s near thousand pages; it’s riveting to see Gandhi’s life unfold on such a broad canvas. Strictly chronological, this biography sets out in fine detail, often week by week, what Gandhi did, said and thought; the focus is on his actions and engagements rather than his thought and reflections. The biography is focused squarely on the earthly Gandhi, and withholds any overall judgments on his ideology until the very end.

During the second half of his life Gandhi built a mass following in India, becoming the towering figure of the independence movement. Even in the 1920s he was rated in a poll as the “Greatest living Indian”—a spot he would hold until his assassination in 1948. “That he was as widely known and revered was truly astonishing,” Guha writes, “when we consider that in 1920-1 the radio had not yet arrived in India, and television and the internet had not been invented.”

Historians have long questioned how this feat was managed, especially given British censorship and suppression, and the diverse interests of Indians at the time. Undoubtedly Gandhi was tapping into already existing economic and social discontent—from the indigo-growing peasants who launched a movement against their landlords in Champaran in 1917, to the upsurge of economic fury that accompanied inflation and food shortages during the Second World War. His genius was to provide an alternative nationalist vision, which did not aim to mimic the west, but made a virtue of the poverty, simplicity and spirituality of village life.

His schedule was punishing, his energy boundless. He wrote personally to thousands of correspondents; he endured years in prison; and, in the cause of unity between his compatriots, pushed himself to the brink of starvation. In 1946 and 1947, by now in his late seventies, he stayed in village huts alone in Bihar and Noakhali fending for himself in areas infested with malaria and torn apart by communal killings, while the politicians in New Delhi worked out the constitutional settlement.

The flip side of such confidence was a lack of self-doubt that was not easy for those closest to him. “In his personal life Gandhi often thought and acted like a Hindu patriarch,” Guha concludes. “For all his empathy and concern for those outside his family, Gandhi was curiously blind to the pain of his own sons.” They were pressured to conform to his high ideals and never felt quite good enough. In the 1920s, the married Gandhi fell in love with a woman named Saraladevi, describing himself as her “spiritual husband;” he also bombarded her with criticism and signed his letters to her “LAW-GIVER.” It was tough on his family, but it was part of the same self-belief that enabled him to project himself on to a vast and highly differentiated subcontinent.

Gandhi never stood alone and Guha’s book shows how important his relationships with other people were—British and Indian, male and female—especially those strong-minded individuals who stood up to him. Mahadev Desai was Gandhi’s long-term assistant and right-hand man. He served as his “secretary, interpreter, travel manager, interlocutor and (when necessary) cook.” Desai knew him as well as anyone and Guha suggests he should be better known in his own right. As Desai himself remarked: “To live with the saints in heaven / Is bliss and glory / But to live with a saint on earth / Is a different story.”

Guha is excellent on the strained relationship between Gandhi and the leader of the “untouchables” BR Ambedkar who referred to the group as dalits. Their relationship was critical to shaping the place of caste in modern India. Gandhi was against maltreatment of dalits—a radical stance for his time. But his position was gradualist and relied on the charity of the higher castes. By the end of his life, he had progressed to encouraging inter-dining and inter-marriage. But he could be condescending and, above all, believed that the dalits should not break away from the Hindu fold to create a separate political movement.

The more radical Ambedkar, by contrast, wanted to change the law and ultimately the new constitution. As a dalit himself, unlike the higher-caste Gandhi, he was marked by his own experiences of discrimination at the hands of higher castes—unable to enter the village school as a boy, refused the services of barbers and taxi drivers, refused a place to rent, even after he returned from studying at Columbia University. Guha concludes, persuasively, that modern Indians need to synthesise the perspectives of both men—the campaign for rights among the dalits themselves who still look to Ambedkar’s memory, but also the reform of Hindu orthodoxy by the upper castes, begun by Gandhi.


*** Gandhi’s preoccupation with chastity is a more scintillating theme. Sex was incredibly important to the Mahatma. His commitment to brahmacharya (chastity) which he took up in his thirties, even while married, was based on his desire to channel his sexual energy to more constructive ends. The conquest of sexual desire became almost a fixation for Gandhi, though he never quite liberated himself from it in the way he hoped. At crucial moments, he was steered away from shaming himself in the national press by his Congress colleague Rajagopalachari: once in the early 1920s, when Gandhi wanted to go on the record about his proposed spiritual marriage to Saraladevi; and again in 1938 (more bizarrely) when he almost wrote publicly about breaking his chastity vow by masturbating. At some points, Gandhi even seems to have confused in his mind the bloody failures of Partition and his own failures of sexual self-will.

Gandhi drew no lines between the personal and the political, the internal struggle and the external. The search for satyagraha was as much about taking on oneself, as it was taking on the British: the word used as a rallying cry for independence, Swaraj, literally means self-rule. Gandhi, Guha concludes, had no “private” life as we would understand it. Any shreds of personal information that were held back from the public during his life were published after his death, without sentimentality, by the brilliant editors of his collected works.

The British at first derided him and then tried to ignore him. Then they had to face him, and they found him difficult to manage. While Churchill’s hostility towards Gandhi is well known, there were many other politicians and administrators who underestimated the Indian leader. During much of the Second World War direct communication with the viceroy became impossible and Gandhi was reduced to corresponding with a lower-ranking official. Things might have turned out differently if the British had taken the initiative in the early 1930s and granted home rule. Instead, as the years dragged on, political positions calcified and the constitutional settlement became ever more intractable.

Although Gandhi knew he needed to build enduring relationships with Indian Muslims, who then made up 25 per cent of the population, he never quite managed to. Gandhi’s childhood had been steeped in traditions quite different from the Islamic culture of north India, which shaped the growth of the Muslim League. He did have partnerships with Muslim colleagues but by the 1940s they had fallen away. His bad personal relationship with the obstinate and single-minded Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would be the founding leader of Pakistan, did not help. Nor did the British, who blocked reconciliation with Muslim leaders at key moments—for instance, preventing them from visiting or corresponding while Gandhi was in jail.

When it came to building true alliances with Muslims, he was often at a loss. Under his leadership, a vision of Indianness that was capacious enough to include everybody only tentatively emerged. Yet his vision was of an India for all, most poignantly at the time of Partition and Independence.

Ultimately this cost him his life. Nathuram Godse, who shot Gandhi dead at point blank range on 30th January 1948, was not a lone wolf but a calculated assassin. As Godse stated at his trial, he had “never made a secret about the fact that I supported the ideology or the school which was opposed to that of Gandhiji.

I firmly believed that the teachings of absolute ahimsa [non-violence] as advocated by Gandhiji would ultimately result in the emasculation of the Hindu community [and] thus make the community incapable of resisting the aggression or inroads of other communities especially the Muslims.” Godse had received money from a leading Hindutva ideologue for his extremist journalism, and had been a member of the RSS—the right-wing Hindu organisation that nurtured India’s current prime minister Narendra Modi, whose anti-secular nationalism is rooted in similar dogma.

Gandhi has been overshadowed in modern India, where Modi’s BJP pay lip-service to his standing as “father of the nation” but continue to elevate their own heroes, especially VD Savarkar, associated with Hindutva. Others, on the left, have disagreed with Gandhi’s use of religious idiom, his scepticism about the state, or his pacifism. In a world driven by materialism, industrialism and urbanisation, Gandhi can seem increasingly remote and eccentric.

But Guha, by no means an uncritical biographer, sees in his subject’s life an example that can speak directly to the world today. When I ask my students to read Gandhi’s early book Hind Swaraj, now more than a century old, they are often struck by his environmental message, by his localism and ability to see an alternative to capitalist growth. Guha concludes—and I would agree—that Gandhi’s simple and enduring messages of peaceful co-existence, respect for all religions, non-violence, sustainable and modest living, care for the poor and disadvantaged, and plain truthfulness, are as good a guide as any for navigating our broken world.