Prologue: Gandhi from All Angles
I might never have written this book had I not spent the spring term of 1998 at the University of California at Berkeley. The university had asked me to teach a course on the history of environmentalism, till then the chief focus of my research and writing. But I was tired with the subject; I suggested that I instead run a seminar called ‘Arguments with Gandhi’.
At the time, Gandhi’s vision of an inclusive, tolerant India was being threatened from both ends of the political spectrum. From the right, a coalition of Hindu organizations (known as the Sangh Parivar) aggressively pushed for a theocratic state, a project Gandhi had opposed all his life. On the left, a growing Maoist insurgency rejected non-violent methods of bringing about social change. To show their contempt for the ‘Father of the Nation’, Maoists demolished statues of Gandhi across eastern India.
Despite these attacks from political extremists, Gandhi’s ideas survived. They were given symbolic – but only symbolic – support by the Government of India, and more emphatically asserted by social workers and activists. The course I wished to teach would focus on Gandhi’s contentious legacy. However, my hosts in Berkeley were unhappy with my proposal. They knew that my contribution to Gandhian studies was close to nil, whereas a course on environmentalism would always be popular in California, a state populated by energy entrepreneurs and tree-huggers. The university worried that a seminar on Gandhi would attract only a few students of Indian origin in search of their roots, the so-called ‘America Born Confused Desis’ or ABCDs.
Finally, after many letters back and forth, I was permitted to teach the course on Gandhi. But within me there was a nagging nervousness. What if my counsellors were correct and only a handful of students showed up, all Indian-Americans? On the long flight to the West Coast I could think of little else. I reached San Francisco on a Saturday; my class was due to meet for the first time the following Wednesday. On Sunday I took a walk down Berkeley’s celebrated Telegraph Avenue. On a street corner I was handed a free copy of a local weekly. When I returned to my apartment I began to read it. Turning the pages, I came across an advertisement for a photo studio. It said, in large letters: ‘ONLY GANDHI KNOWS MORE THAN US ABOUT FAST’. Below, in smaller type, the ad explained that the studio could deliver prints in ten minutes, in those pre-digital days no mean achievement.
I was charmed, and relieved. A Bay Area weekly expected its audience to know enough about Gandhi to pun on the word ‘fast’. My fears were assuaged, to be comprehensively put to rest later that week, when a full classroom turned out to meet me. Thirty students stayed the distance. And only four of them were Indian by birth or descent.
Among my students was a Burmese girl who had fled into exile after the crushing of the democracy movement, a Jewish girl whose twin guiding stars were Gandhi and the Zionist philosopher Martin Buber, and an African-American who hoped the course would allow him to finally choose between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. There was also a Japanese boy, and plenty of Caucasians. In the class and in the papers they wrote, the students took the arguments with Gandhi in all kinds of directions, some of them wholly unanticipated by the instructor.
The course turned out to be the most enjoyable I have ever taught. This, I realized, was almost entirely due to my choice of subject. How many students in Berkeley would have enrolled for a course called ‘Arguments with De Gaulle’? And if an American historian came to the University of Delhi and proposed a course entitled ‘Arguments with Roosevelt’, would there have been any takers at all? Roosevelt, Church- ill, De Gaulle – these are all great national leaders, whose appeal steadily diminishes the further one strays from their nations’ boundaries. Of all modern politicians and statesmen, only Gandhi is an authentically global figure.
What accounts for Gandhi’s unique status? He worked in three different countries (and continents): Britain, South Africa and India. Anti- colonial agitator, social reformer, religious thinker and prophet, he brought to the most violent of centuries a form of protest that was based on non-violence. In between political campaigns he experimented with the abolition of untouchability and the revival of handicrafts. A devout Hindu himself, he had a strong interest in other religious traditions. His warnings about individual greed and the amorality of modern technology, seemingly reactionary at the time, have come back into fashion as a result of the environmental debate.
Educated in Victorian England, making his name in racialist South Africa, Gandhi’s life and work are writ large against the history (and geography) of his time. The years of his most intense political activity witnessed the rise of Bolshevism, the rise (and fall) of fascism, the two World Wars, and the growth of anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa. While Gandhi was leading a mass movement based on non-violence in India, Mao Zedong was initiating a successful violent revolution in China.
To both scholar and lay person, Gandhi is made the more interesting by his apparent inconsistencies. Sometimes he behaved like an unworldly saint, at other times like a consummate politician. Asked by a British journalist what he thought of modern civilization, he answered: ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ Yet this foe of the West acknowledged three white men – Henry Salt, John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy – among his men- tors. This rebel who called the British Empire ‘satanic’ wept when London (a city he knew and loved) was bombed during the Second World War. And this celebrated practitioner of non-violence actually recruited Indians to serve in the First World War.
Gandhi enjoyed a long life and is enjoying a vigorous after-life. His message was communicated – or travestied, depending on one’s point of view – in a film made by Richard Attenborough in 1982, a film that won nine Oscars and was a box-office hit. His example has inspired rebels and statesmen of the calibre of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. The techniques of non-violence that he fashioned have endured. A study conducted of some five dozen transitions to democratic rule concluded that in over 70 per cent of cases, authoritarian regimes fell not because of armed resistance but because of boycotts, strikes, fasts and other methods of protest pioneered by this Indian thinker. Most recently, during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, activists in Egypt, Yemen and other countries displayed photographs of Gandhi and closely studied his methods of struggle and protest.
More than six decades after his death, Gandhi’s life and legacy are discussed, and sometimes acted upon, in countries he barely even knew of. And he continues to loom large in the life of his native land. His ideas are praised as well as attacked; dismissed by some as dangerous or irrelevant, yet celebrated by others as the key to resolving the tension between Hindus and Muslims, low castes and high castes, humans and the natural environment.
Testimony to Gandhi’s global significance is provided by the books about him that roll off the world’s presses. These have been enabled by the publication by the Indian Government of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. The series runs to a hundred volumes, a colossal effort of editing and collation that includes tens of thousands of letters, speeches, essays, editorials and interviews that can be reliably attributed to Gandhi.
Gandhi wrote well, and he wrote a great deal. From 1903 to 1914, and again from 1919 to 1948, he published weekly newspapers in Gujarati and in English. While his prose was demotic and direct in both languages, his Gujarati writings are more intimate, since he shared a moral and cultural universe with the reader. Because of the quantity of his prose, and perhaps its quality too, one might say that there was actually a fifth calling that Gandhi practised – that of editor and writer. This complemented and enhanced his other callings, with his views on politics and society (and much else) being articulated in periodicals owned or at least controlled by himself.
All (or almost all) of Gandhi’s writings are now available in his Collected Works. Priced at Rs 4,000, or about £50, the English edition has recently been put on a CD-ROM. The volumes are also available on multiple websites. They have been industriously mined by Gandhi’s biographers, and by those who have written studies of his religious thought, his economic thought, his philosophy of non-violence, his attitude towards women, and his views on drink, drugs and gambling.
As a consequence of the easy availability of the Collected Works, Gandhi’s ideas, campaigns, friendships and rivalries have come to be seen very largely – and sometimes exclusively – through the prism of his own writings. This reliance on Gandhi’s words can often narrow the historical landscape against which his life and work were enacted. Sixty-five years after his death, the general public knows a good deal more about what Gandhi thought of the world, but virtually nothing at all of what the world thought of him.
A decade ago, after teaching that course in Berkeley, I decided I would write a many-sided portrait of Gandhi, which would explore his words and actions in the context of the words and actions of his family, friends, followers and adversaries. The Collected Works are indispensable, but they are only one source among many. So I began visiting archives that held the private papers of his contemporaries. I studied the papers of his major South African associates. I examined the letters to Gandhi and about Gandhi written by the many remarkable men and women who worked alongside him in the Indian freedom struggle. I examined the writings, published and unpublished, of Gandhi’s four children.
I also studied the perceptions of those who opposed Gandhi. The officials of the British Empire had superb intelligence-gathering skills, as well as a fifty-year-long interest in Gandhi. They were obsessed with him in South Africa, where he was a constant irritant in their flesh, and still more obsessed with him in India, where he led millions of his com- patriots in protest against the iniquities of British rule. In national and provincial archives in India, England and South Africa, I read the letters, telegrams, reports and dispatches whereby the functionaries of the Empire commented upon their most dangerous (not to say most distinguished) rebel.
Not all those who opposed Gandhi, of course, were British or Afrikaners. Many were Indians, and some, Indians of great distinction. These included two brilliant London-trained lawyers, the Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the leader of the low castes, B. R. Ambedkar; as well as the writer Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize. These three are deservedly famous, but Gandhi had other major critics in India, as well as less well-known opponents of his work in South Africa. Their writings (published and unpublished) are vital to a fuller understanding of Gandhi’s thought and practice. What Gandhi said and did makes sense only when we know what he was responding to.
Another crucial set of sources are contemporary newspapers. The first reference to Mohandas K. Gandhi in print appears to be in the Kathiawar Times in 1888, reporting his imminent departure to study law in London. But it is from his time in South Africa, and his assumption of a public role, that we find Gandhi appearing regularly in the news, at first in decidedly local newspapers such as the Natal Mercury and the Johannesburg Star, and later in more international and important periodicals such as The Times of London and the New York Times.
I cannot claim to have read the press all through Gandhi’s long life. Still, I have consulted thousands of newspaper reports on the interest and controversy generated by his campaigns, both in South Africa and in India. Like the government intelligence reports, these present a day-to- day narrative of Gandhi, and like them again, they do so from all the places visited by a man always on the move. They give voice to people who are otherwise unknown: the peasants, workers, merchants and clerks who were powerfully affected by Gandhi, and whose views are captured in correspondents’ reports and letters to the editor.
Searching for materials on or about Gandhi that are not in the Collected Works, I consulted archives in five countries (in four continents). These travels and researches were principally conducted to find material that did not carry my subject’s name or signature. Yet I also found, to my pleasure and surprise, dozens of letters written by Gandhi himself that, for one reason or another, had not come to the attention of the compilers of the Collected Works.
The diversity and depth of this new – or at least so far unused – material is explained in greater detail in ‘A Note on Sources’ at the end of this book. Drawing on this research, I plan to write two volumes of biography, in an attempt to create a fuller sense of Gandhi’s life, work and contexts. This, the first book, examines his upbringing in his native Gujarat, his two years as a student in London and, most intensively, his two decades as a lawyer, home-maker and community organizer in South Africa. The second book will cover the period from our subject’s return to India in January 1915 to his death in January 1948. It will provide a social history of his political campaigns, of his reform movements and of everyday life in his ashram.
These studies of the African Gandhi and the Indian Gandhi each contain many different characters and stories. Some are charming, others tragic, yet others resonant with social or political meaning. The geo- graphical breadth extends over Asia, Africa and Europe, and even, here and there, North America. The narrative flows from desert to mountain, from city to village, from river to sea. The historical breadth extends from the second half of the nineteenth century down to the present day.
In reading (and telling) these stories we meet Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs, and even the odd atheist. Many characters come from the labouring classes – they include farmers, crafts- people, shopkeepers, housewives, scavengers and mineworkers. Others come from an elite background, being prosperous businessmen, powerful proconsuls, decorated generals and elected heads of state.
These diverse landscapes and human beings are given meaning by their relation to Mohandas K. Gandhi. It is his journey that we follow, from Gujarat to London to Natal and the Transvaal and then back to Gujarat, and on to a thousand places beyond. It is by tracing his steps and recalling his actions that we encounter these many landscapes and this range of remarkable people.
There are some striking resemblances between the central character in this story and his counterpart in the great Indian epic, the Ramayana. The hero of that story, Lord Ram, also travels long distances, sometimes willingly, at other times unwillingly. He too spends long periods in exile, and has a loyal and very supportive wife, whom (like Gandhi) he does not always treat with the respect and understanding she deserves. He is also a man of high moral character, who occasionally entertains dark and dangerous thoughts. Both Gandhi and Ram have powerful adversaries, who are not without a certain appeal of their own. Both men could not have done what they did, one in myth and the other in reality, without the self-effacing support of very many others. And both have enjoyed a vigorous and contentious after-life.
But one should not push the parallels too far. The morals that the Ramayana seeks to establish are cultural and familial – how to deal with one’s wife, for example, or with one’s father or step-mother, or how to uphold the dharma of caste and community. In the case of our own epic, the morals are more explicitly social and political. We are asked to choose between rule by foreigners and self-rule, between violence and non-violence, between the aggressive proselytizing of one’s faith and the loving understanding of another, between a respect for natural systems and an arrogant disregard of them. Sometimes, pace the Ramayana, the ‘right’ choices may in fact involve a reversal of the traditional order, as in the abolition of Untouchability or the granting of equal rights to women.
That said, in both epics the morals are secondary. What really matters are the stories, the richness of the human experience they contain, the fascination of the central character and of those who worked with or fought against him.
The narrative of the current book begins with Gandhi’s birth, in October 1869, and ends with his departure from South Africa in July 1914. Much of this time was spent as a lawyer and activist in Natal and the Transvaal. Gandhi’s biographers have tended to skip hastily over this phase of his life, treating it as a prelude to his later, apparently more important, work in India. They have chosen to consider his life in teleological terms, with his work in South Africa preparing the way for his more important work in his homeland.
Haste and teleology – these twin temptations – do injustice to both man and place. As social reformer, popular leader, political thinker and family man, Gandhi was fundamentally shaped by his South African experience. In turn, he had a profound impact on the history of that continent, with his ideas and attitudes influencing later struggles against racism.
When Gandhi first landed in Durban in 1893, South Africa was very much a nation-in-the-making. Its separate colonies governed them- selves. Some, like Natal, were ruled by British expatriates; others, like the Transvaal, were ruled by Afrikaners of largely Dutch descent (then known as ‘Boers’). In the only part of Africa with a European climate, the colonists set about creating a homeland for themselves. There were, of course, very many Africans who had lived there from long before the white man arrived. But through a series of wars and conquests they were being thoroughly subjugated.
Between the dominant Europeans and the subordinated Africans lay the Indians. They had come in as labourers, imported to work in the mines and sugar plantations, and on the railways. There were also a significant number of Indian traders, and a few professionals. By the time of Gandhi’s arrival there were about 50,000 Indians in this part of the world, a majority of them in Natal.
Gandhi lived for long periods in both Natal and the Transvaal – roughly a decade in each. Natal was on the coast, dominated by the British, with an economy founded on sugar and coal. Transvaal was inland, ruled by the Boers, and going through a massive boom due to the discovery of gold. The material riches, relative underpopulation and glorious climate of both colonies was attracting settlers from Europe as well as Asia. Gujaratis, Tamils and Hindi-speakers came across the Indian Ocean; Anglicans, Catholics, Jews and Theosophists via the Atlantic. These were all people in search of more – far more – material prosperity than they could ever find at home.
The great rush to colonize and claim South Africa took place at roughly the same time as the westward expansion of the United States. The attractions of open territory, of fabulous natural wealth (and nat- ural beauty), of escape from an over-populated and class-ridden Old World – these were what the two processes of economic migration had in common. But whereas the European colonists of western America had merely to deal with the natives, their counterparts in southern Africa had this additional complicating factor – the presence of Indians from India, who were not indigenous but emphatically not European either.
It was in this strange scenario that Gandhi came to acquire, and practise, his four major callings – those of freedom fighter, social reformer, religious pluralist and prophet. In fact, an early (and now largely forgot- ten) associate of his once identified as many as seventeen identities that Gandhi bore in the years he spent outside India. ‘South Africa is the grave of many reputations,’ wrote this man, adding: ‘It has certainly been the birth-place of a few, and one such is that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Diwan’s son, barrister, stretcher-bearer, pamphleteer, cultured thinker, courteous gentleman, manual labourer, nurse, teacher, agitator, propagandist, sterling friend, no man’s enemy, ex-convict, sadhu, chosen leader of his people, and arch passive-resister.’
Of these seventeen identities, the last has had the greatest impact on the history of the world. Gandhi gave the name ‘satyagraha’ (or truth-force) to the techniques of mass civil disobedience he invented in South Africa and later used in India, and which his followers or admirers used in other countries. Before Gandhi, those discontented with their superiors had either petitioned their rulers for justice or sought to attain justice by means of armed struggle. The distinctiveness of Gandhi’s method lay in shaming the rulers by voluntary suffering, with resisters seeking beatings and imprisonment by breaking laws in a non-violent yet utterly determined manner.
In 1916, not long after Gandhi left South Africa, a publisher in a small town in central India brought out a history in Hindi of the satyagrahas Gandhi had led. The book was presented as ‘the story of that heroic battle, which was the first of its kind in the history of the world’, a battle where ‘there were no guns and bombs and cannons’ (and ‘no shells thrown by aeroplanes’ either), a battle which showed that ‘strength of character can conquer any other kind of strength’. The publisher hoped the reader would ‘swell with pride’ as he learnt of how ‘coolies and labourers’ in the diaspora had ‘shamed and shocked educated elites [in India] with their resolution and spirit.’
At this time, Gandhi had been back barely a year in India. The British were solidly in control of the subcontinent. Still, what might have sounded hyperbolic in 1916 may seem more reasonable a century later. For the Indian freedom struggle, the civil rights movement in the United States, the civic resistance to Communism in Eastern Europe and China (including Tibet), the ongoing protests against military dictators in Burma and the Middle East, have all taken some or much inspiration from techniques of protest first forged by Gandhi in the Transvaal. The colossal and still expanding influence of satyagraha mandates a closer attention to the precocious protests of Indians in South Africa, to aid a deeper understanding of Gandhi in his time, and of his still unfolding legacy in ours.
Rather than rely on Gandhi’s own recollections (contained in two books published a decade and a half after he left South Africa), I have here examined his early satyagrahas through the prism of contemporary documents. These letters, speeches, newspaper accounts, court cases and government reports give a more immediate sense of how Gandhi formulated his ideas of civil disobedience, of how he designed its methods and techniques, and how he mobilized people to court imprisonment. From these varied sources we can track how the protests unfolded and what forms they took, who followed Gandhi (and why) and who opposed him (and why), and where the funds for sustaining the resistance he led were coming from. The historical reconstruction of these first satyagrahas also throws a sharp light on a crucial period of South African history, as once separate colonies came together in a territorial Union that consolidated white sentiments and prejudices against the hopes and aspirations of the darker races.
The political Gandhi may be illuminated from more angles than his own. So also the personal Gandhi. Here too, the South African experience was fundamental and formative. Most Indians of Gandhi’s generation worked and died in the same town or village in which they were born. In their everyday lives, they mostly met and spoke with people who had the same mother tongue and the same ancestral faith as they. By coming to South Africa, Gandhi was taken out of this conservative, static world into a country still in the process of being made. Durban and Johannesburg, the two cities where he lived and worked, were attracting migrants from Europe and Asia, and from other parts of Africa. In this heterogeneous and ever-changing society, Gandhi forged enduring friendships with individuals of ethnic and religious back- grounds very different from his own.
Strikingly, perhaps even tragically, the friends and associates of Gandhi’s South African years are largely absent from the historical record. This is due to a combination of factors – an excessive reliance on the Collected Works; the tendency to treat the life before India as a prelude to the real story rather than as having an integrity of its own; and the tendency among biographers and hagiographers to magnify the role and personality of their main subject. Most Indians – and, following Attenborough’s film, many non-Indians too – are moderately well acquainted with the colleagues and critics of the mature Gandhi. Yet they know very little about those who worked with him in South Africa. Here, his closest friends outside his family were two Hindus (a doctor-turned-jeweller and a liberal politician respectively); two Jews (one a journalist from England, the other an architect originally from Eastern Europe); and two Christian clergymen (one a Baptist, the other an Anglican).
These six men were, so to speak, the South African analogues of Gandhi’s famous colleagues in the Indian freedom struggle – Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Madeleine Slade (Mira Behn), C. Rajagopalachari, Maulana Azad, et al. They are much less recognized (in some cases, unrecognized), although their impact on Gandhi’s character and conduct may have been even more decisive, for they came into his life when he was not yet a great public figure or ‘Mahatma’ – as he was in India – but a struggling, searching activist.
The letters to and by these friends of his South African period illuminate Gandhi’s anxieties, struggles and relationships in rich and often unexpected ways. Yet these materials have, remarkably, not been consulted by previous biographers. This may only be because they are not printed in the Collected Works, but rest in archives in New Delhi and Ahmedabad, in Pretoria and Johannesburg, in London and Oxford, and even, in one case, in the Israeli port town of Haifa.
In 1890, in 1900, in 1910, the majority of those who lived in South Africa were Africans. Sometimes, as sharecroppers and labourers, they worked for their white masters. In more remote areas, they lived away from them as herders and hunters. However, in both city and country- side, they rarely came into daily competition with the British or the Boers. There were few African traders, and still fewer African doctors or lawyers.
Because they were better educated and better organized, some Indians could more actively challenge the facts of white domination. The rulers responded by changing the laws: by disallowing Indians from living in or opening shops in certain locations, from moving from one province to another, from seeking admission to the best schools, from importing brides from India with whom they could raise families and thus bring more Indians into the workforce. In so far as these restrictions were later extended more thoroughly to the Africans, the Indians should really be considered to be among apartheid’s first victims. And in so far as it was Gandhi who led the first protests against the racial laws, he should really be more seriously recognized as being among apartheid’s first opponents.
Gandhi’s struggles in Natal and the Transvaal also shaped nationalist politics in India, as well as imperialist agendas in Great Britain. From one vantage point, Gandhi was merely a community organizer. However, since his work had an impact on the politics of three continents, it had much larger consequences. In an age when even the telephone had not come into common use, when the fax and the internet lay many decades in the future, Gandhi’s struggles thus carried connotations of what is now known as a ‘global social movement’.
Gandhi’s South African campaigns were an early example of ‘diasporic nationalism’, a nationalism later practised assiduously by (among others) Irishmen in Boston, Jews in New York, Palestinians in Tunis and Sikhs in Vancouver, who have likewise struggled both for civil rights in the land they happened now to live in and for freedom for their compatriots in the land they had left behind.
The predicament of Indians in South Africa in Gandhi’s day also anticipated the predicament of Muslims in Europe and of Hispanics and Asians in North America today. Should immigrants be allowed to practise their own faith and speak their own language? How can they combat discrimination in school and in the workplace? What forms of political organization are best suited to their needs and hopes? What are the rights and responsibilities of the host community and the migrants respectively, in maintaining social peace and democracy?
These questions are as urgent in our time as they were between 1893 and 1914, the years that Mohandas Gandhi lived in Natal and the Transvaal. Gandhi’s African years show how the first phase of globalization, with its willing and sometimes unwilling migration of groups and communities, produced difficulties and discontents not dissimilar to those produced by our own, even more globalized world.
Excerpted from Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha. Copyright © 2014 by Ramachandra Guha. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.