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Joseph Lelyveld (2011), ‘Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India’, Harper Collins.

To ordinary Indians, he is known as Mahatma Gandhi, or simply Mahatma (that is the apostle). The term, bestowed on M.K. Gandhi by the Bangla poet Rabindranath Tagore, did of course symbolize the immense respect Indians have for Gandhi. The term also, importantly, has the effect of taking the individual concerned outside the realm of politics—where disagreements are not only natural, but also welcome—and into the position of indubitable good, such that criticisms are to be frowned upon.

Joseph Lelyveld’s book marks itself off from most other biographies of Gandhi on precisely this point—while many of the latter can be seen as hagiographies, that is texts clearly reverential to the subject, Lelyveld concerns himself with writing a biography of Gandhi not as the Mahatma, but as a political agent. This implies, among other things, not taking Gandhi’s writings and writings about Gandhi at face value but placing them within their context; triangulating claims that they make using different sources; and asking questions related to the efficacy of political goals and strategies. In the spirit of critical thought, one would think that any and every important public figure (whether Churchill, Lenin or Mao) should be the subject of such analysis. To many in India, however, the hold of the unilinear narrative of the Mahatma—which is also the official narrative—is such that asking such questions often invites public wrath.

Lelyveld’s book too had to bear some brunt for its forthrightness. Upon its release in India, the book was promptly banned by Gujarat and Maharashtra. This was done on the call of modern India’s Hindu right-wing leaders, the progeny of the very same group that was Gandhi’s bitter enemy during his lifetime, and whose activists would eventually kill him. On the face of it, the protests were about some insinuations that Lelyveld makes about Gandhi’s relationship Hermann Kallenbach, a Jewish settler in South Africa, with whom Gandhi shared a house, ideals and admiration for the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. While Lelyveld makes no such assertion, the evidence he marshals could be interpreted as implying homosexual relations between the two men. I am of the opinion that these conjectures are hardly useful, and this part of the book actually distracts from the larger questions that form its analytical core. And I believe that the frosty response Lelyveld has received in India is really because of such questions rather than the insinuations.

Gandhi was no doubt the paramount leader of the Indian freedom movement, but he always rated that to be a secondary aspect of his political programme, which comprised of nonviolence, Hindu-Muslim unity, the end of untouchability, and ensuring cleanliness and sanitation in villages. To this end, Gandhi traveled and spoke, petitioned the authorities, wrote and published, and of course, fasted. We know as much because these images saturate our textbooks, fables, and popular culture. What we hardly ever ask is to what extent was he successful?

Lelyveld meticulously details Gandhi’s hopes and dreams, but also his anxieties and frustrations in his book, which is tellingly titled Gandhi’s ‘struggle with India’, and not, as we are used to seeing, his ‘struggle for India’.

Though the discourse of Indian struggle is dominated by the theme of nonviolence, any serious student of history also knows the violent aspects of it; and in any event, the violence amongst Indians of various denominations was a common occurrence. Regarding Hindu-Muslim unity, it was perhaps the single-most important thing to Gandhi. He made the Khilafat Movement supporting the Caliph of the Ottoman Empire after the first World War a central plank of the Indian National Congress in the hope of making the party sensitive to Muslim demands, while simultaneously attracting Muslims to the fold. He also spent many a year traveling in Muslim majority parts of the country promoting common cause. But despite his efforts, India was partitioned on religious basis at Independence. Not only that, millions lost their lives as a consequence. At the very least, it is debatable what Gandhi achieved to this end.

From his early days as a young lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi had been working against untouchability, but he could only achieve very modest results on this front. Tellingly, he couldn’t even convince his own party-men to give up casteist practices. Lelyveld shows how, at several moments, Gandhi actually asked radical anti-untouchability activists to give up their struggles for the greater good, even though he would write tough-sounding articles in his pamphlet Harijan. Lately Dalit movements have therefore been highly critical of Gandhi’s stand on this matter, considering his campaign feeble and patronizing. Instead, Babasaheb Ambedkar has emerged as the undisputed symbolic figurehead of Dalit politics, with his clear, precise, and powerful message of structural change. Relatedly, to Gandhi, and rightly so, the question of untouchability was also tied to notions of purity and pollution. To this end, he promoted cleaning of nightsoil by all in his encampments, but here too he repeatedly expressed his disappointment with even those nearest to him, who would refuse to heed his word.

The first part of the book is on Gandhi’s twenty-odd years in South Africa, debating his actions and clearly outlining his frustrations there. Most of his politics in that country was shaped by a deep commitment to the British Empire, and its goal was to win certain basic rights for an Indian merchant minority in a difficult environment at a time when the scaffolding for apartheid was being erected. Gandhi consistently argued that as citizens of the Commonwealth, Indians were entitled to rights in South Africa. To illustrate their commitment to the Empire, the Indian community—under the active guidance of Gandhi—participated as stretcherbearers in the Boer War for the British, against the Boers, who were positioned in that conflict as the freedom loving opponents of an imperialist force.

While Gandhi brought to the Indians’ politics a strategic orientation towards civil disobedience (also practiced by the African majority much later), it was a struggle not only marginal to that country’s history but also to a majority of Indians. This was because Gandhi represented a tiny minority of educated and relatively better off Indian population and not the large number of indentured workers who toiled on the country’s sugar plantations and collieries. Until 1913, Gandhi considered the latter uncivilized, and like the Kaffirs (the word whites used for Africans), undeserving of political representation. It was only during what was to be his final year in South Africa that Gandhi was pulled into the struggle of the indentured labourers against unfair taxes, which took a mass form with walkouts, strikes and protests. The struggle ended after Gandhi signed an agreement with the notorious Afrikaner leader Jan Smuts to end the strikes, in return for a rollback on taxes and some other concessions. However, as Lelyveld shows, the agreement itself contained several caveats that striking workers believed did little to make their lot better. These are tensions that one does not see in mainstream material on Gandhi’s South Africa sojourn, which is often seamlessly tied with his time in India thereafter. To Lelyveld, this is because in his writings Gandhi did a lot of ‘retrospective tidying up’ (p. 71) of several loose ends from his time in South Africa.

In sum, one may disagree with Lelyveld on his assertions and interpretations, but this book is an important contribution to Indian history for the methodological shift it encourages—it wishes to understand Gandhi as someone who writes, argues, and works not on a plane of ‘truth’ above all else, but as a visceral and situated agent, encountering successes, failures, and exasperations like other individuals. What the book also exposes is how India has turned this individual into a holy cow to the extent that the government is now considering including ‘insults to Gandhi’ (who is to decide what constitutes an insult?) amongst punishable offenses under the already backward-facing ‘Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act of 1971’. The actual Gandhi would probably be more upset by these attempts than by Lelyveld’s searching book. To the latter, he would have already shot a meticulous response.

Rohit Negi, Assistant Professor, AUD