The last book I read in 2020 was Ram Guha’s Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World and I don’t think I could have ended what was a tumultuous year with a better read. In a year that was arguably the most chaotic that India has seen since Independence and the Partition, and that has seen the greatest loss of lives since then, the book provides several lessons in leadership and a striking contrast to what we see around us today.
The book begins with Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa in 1915 and traces his growing interest in India’s politics as well as her struggle for freedom. Preparing for his return to India had begun even earlier, through his correspondence with his mentor and guide, Gokhale, who had even visited Gandhi in South Africa. Guha describes Gandhi’s travels across India after his return when he wished to familiarize himself with the country and the people, having been away for many years.
And although his plan was to start an ashram in Gujarat along the lines of the Phoenix and Tolstoy farms he had run in South Africa, he was also drawn to the country’s myriad political and social troubles, from untouchability, to the special rights and privileges of the princes, to sectarian divisions and anarchists. He is said to have voiced his opinions on several of these issues at a speech he gave at the founding of the Banaras Hindu University where he was invited to speak. Guha says, “Gandhi’s speech in Banaras was the first properly public statement he made after his return to the homeland. What he said created a stir; how the audience responded to what he said created a stir too.” (italics, the book author’s)
His attacks on princely rights, Hindu custom, sycophancy in high offices, and elitist education were not just too much for the audience to digest, they were in some ways the earliest indication of Gandhi’s ideas for a free, developed India. An India where he saw the education of the village farmer as salvation for the country and where his idea of government as a kind of trusteeship took shape.
From here, Guha tells us about Gandhi’s three earliest experiments in yet another of his ideas, Satyagraha. These were related to indigo farming in Champaran in Bihar, agricultural taxes and revenues in Kheda in Gujarat and an industrial relations problem due to reverse migration because of the onset of plague in Ahmedabad. What is remarkable, as Guha points out, was the amount of public support that Gandhi received in all these endeavours. And most important, Guha says, were the three educated followers Gandhi attracted during these experiments, who would become his friends for life: JB Kripalani, Vallabhai Patel and Mahadev Desai.
While Gandhi focused his attention on his ashram which attracted growing numbers of followers, and on the political problems facing India, his ideas and methods were also attracting international attention. It is hard not to see the striking contrast between Gandhi’s influence and reach around the world at a time when India was still part of the British empire with the insular and protectionist mindset that one sees today in independent India. And yet, Gandhi did not seek international attention; they were drawn to him quite naturally because of his unusual ideas and methods and his sincerity in pursuing them.
Indeed, Guha says about the international interest in the man:
“At this time, Gandhi had little interest in world affairs. He did not even comment on such vital matters as the Treaty of Versailles or the Paris Peace Conference.
Gandhi was not interested in the politics and social life in Europe, North America or even Africa. But writers and thinkers in those countries were interested in him.”
The book also provides a detailed insight into how Gandhi managed to work with his colleagues – those who had an early influence on him, those that worked closely with him and agreed with his ideas for the most part, and those with whom he had serious differences. Of the last kind, there were only two with whom Gandhi could never manage to bridge the chasm: Ambedkar and Jinnah. And this too, as the book amply illustrates, is not for want of trying.
At around 1000 pages, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World is a pleasure to read. While most of the book is about Gandhi’s freedom movement and how he dealt with each of the obstacles along the way, from the Rowlatt Act, to the Jallianwala Bagh incident, the Simon Commission and indeed the Roundtable Conferences, each of them is treated as a validation of Gandhi’s firm beliefs and provides further vindication of his methods. Through these years, we also get to see his leadership and mentoring of the Indian National Congress, though he was never a member of the party himself.
In later years, Gandhi began to rely increasingly on two Congressmen to get India the independence it needed with the least violence and strife: Vallabhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru. And although he and Nehru had different visions for independent India, he was sharp enough to realise that Nehru would make the better leader for the country, given his acceptance among all communities in the country, and his acceptance internationally. And it is to Nehru’s credit that he engaged Ambedkar to write India’s constitution.
Another interesting aspect of this book on Gandhi is the story of how so many Indian businessmen championed Gandhi’s cause and supported his freedom movement, both financially and in kind. From Pranjivan Mehta, a businessman who first helped Gandhi in Gujarat after his return, and the Sarabhais, to Jamnalal Bajaj, GD Birla, and many others, they seemed eager to see the freedom movement succeed.
In fact, Gandhi’s own lack of political ambition makes him a strange character, an odd man out, in the gallery of political leaders the world has seen.
And perhaps, that is another reason he drew international attention. While telling us all about Gandhi’s involvement in India’s freedom struggle, the book also tracks Gandhi’s overseas connections almost as if on a parallel track. Through his writings, his correspondence with friends and foreign journalists who were both intrigued as well as interested in learning more about his ideas, especially those to do with his non-violent freedom movement, civil disobedience, fasts, and of course, his experiments with celibacy.
It is in how these two tracks or threads of narrative cross or dovetail into each other that the book comes into its own and manages to be distinct from other books on Gandhi including Ram Guha’s own, considering the amount the author has already written about him. As you’d expect, the book is meticulously researched, including into less-reported aspects of Gandhi’s life, such as his troubled relationship with his sons, as well as with Kasturba, and his friendships with Mahadev Desai, his scholarly friend, trusty secretary and personal assistant as well as with Saraladevi Chaudhurani, Rabindranath Tagore’s niece whom Gandhi was said to be infatuated with. Guha could have spent a little less time on the relationship with Saraladevi even if Gandhi himself referred to her as his spiritual wife, since it has little bearing on Gandhi’s freedom movement. I was also amused to learn that it was Rajagopalachari’s friendly admonishment to Gandhi to end the relationship, that eventually worked.
On the subject of his international following and friends, there are many encounters reported in the book. Guha tells us about how opinion in the international media about Gandhi suddenly changed. How Gandhi went from being “a wisp of a man in a loincloth” to leader and saint in a matter of months is worth reading about. Guha writes that the first mention of Gandhi in the American press actually dates as far back as 1897, when the Nation carried an article on racial discrimination in Natal and Gandhi’s role in it. And in 1921, the same paper carried an article titled “The New Light of Asia” from which Guha quotes:
“In a cynical, materialistic, and disillusioned age, there had emerged a man whose singular devotion, unselfishness and spiritual power have won him almost the superstitious reverence of his own people and the respect of his sceptical critics. At a time when the western world had just concluded an extended and very bloody war, Gandhi had committed himself and his people to a credo of non-violence… Gandhi has kept his own soul free from hate. The literature of revolution contains no documents so uncompromising, yet so reasonable and sweet spirited, as his “Letter to Every Englishman.”’
Guha also mentions that in 1920, the New York Tribune published an article by its London correspondent on Gandhi and the non-cooperation movement. The writer was an American who had never been to India but had written, based on his conversations:
“(The non-violent movement led by Gandhi) appears a greater menace to the British Empire than all the revolutionists, Bolshevik agitators, Indian fanatics and other troublemakers of the last fifty years… To his countrymen, Gandhi apparently combined the wisdom of a statesman, the cleverness of a politician, (and) the simplicity of a peasant.”
Six months later, Guha tells us, the Tribune’s main competitor, The New York Times published a five-column full-page laudatory article on Gandhi saying, among other things:
“Not even the British are able to cast the slightest aspersion on the high sincerity of the man… Although Gandhi was a dark little wisp of a man who looked as if he could be cradled like a child, in point of personal following, he is far and away the greatest man living in the world today.”
When it came to his own friendships with foreigners, Guha mentions Gandhi’s fondness for the British people on several occasions. Gandhi never allowed his demand for independence from British rule to colour his opinions about the British people. One of his closest friends, CF Andrews, was an Englishman who knew him from his South Africa days and helped prepare for Gandhi’s return to India, coordinating matters with Gokhale. He stayed a loyal friend throughout.
Another close friend from South Africa was Henry Polak, with whom Gandhi had a long and great friendship even after Gandhi returned to India. Guha describes their encounters and correspondence in some detail, including differences and a rift that developed between the two men in the later part of their lives.
Romain Rolland was yet another person very much taken in by Gandhi and all that he stood for. He first heard of Gandhi from Tagore and a Bengali musician mystic, Dilip Kumar Roy and when Gandhi was jailed in 1922, Rolland wrote a book about Gandhi, titled Mahatma Gandhi: The Man Who Became One with the Universal Being.
And then, there was Madeleine Slade, the daughter of a British admiral who had served in India. She discovered Gandhi through Romain Rolland, having read his earlier book, Jean Christophe. Madeleine wrote to Gandhi in 1925, asking if she could learn to live his ideals and principles. Guha says that as Gandhi was disowning his eldest son, Harilal, an adoptive daughter was entering the Gandhi household. He even gave her a new name, ‘Mira’ and she became Mira Behn (Sister Mira) to all ashramites.
It is not surprising that in a war-torn world in the mid-20th century, the international community turned to a man, who would show the world a new path to self-rule and freedom. We do know that Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela were both inspired by Gandhi and adopted many of his principles and methods. His ideas travel far and wide and are with us even today because they are timeless. Over two decades ago, I had the opportunity to visit a higher secondary school in Berlin that had modeled itself completely on Gandhi’s ideas and principles and I wrote about it for The Hindu newspaper in India. It was located in a troubled industrial neighbourhood in Berlin with a large immigrant population and they found the need to coalesce around principles of communal, racial, and religious harmony as well as non-violence.
We are in a new war-torn world once again, and the world needs to unite in the fight against the pandemic. As we begin a new year in 2021, we will hopefully vanquish the coronavirus. However, new divisions always creep in. Britain has exited the EU and there are louder demands for a second Scottish referendum. It is therefore fitting that I end this piece with something Gandhi said to a visiting British journalist in 1924. When asked how India could rule itself amidst the irreconciliable differences of caste, religions and tribes, Gandhi said:
“Of course, there are differences. No nation is without them. The United Kingdom was born amidst the War of the Roses. Probably, we too shall fight. But, when we are tired of breaking each other’s heads, we shall discover that, despite the disparities of our races and religions, we can live together, just as the Scotch and Welsh manage to live together.”
The featured image at the start of this post is of enthusiastic East End crowds greeting Mahatma Gandhi while in London for the Roundtable Conference in 1931; Image: Wikimedia Commons