Roots of a move­ment

Gandhi’s for­ma­tive years in South Africa chron­i­cled in ab­sorb­ing bi­og­ra­phy

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ken Os­borne

IN 2007, em­i­nent In­dian his­to­rian Ra­machan­dra Guha pub­lished an award-win­ning his­tory of mod­ern In­dia en­ti­tled In­dia Af­ter Gandhi. Re­vers­ing that ti­tle, he calls his new bi­og­ra­phy of Mo­han­das Gandhi, Gandhi Be­fore In­dia.

Its sub­ject is the 21 years Gandhi spent as lawyer and ac­tivist in South Africa, from 1893 un­til his re­turn to In­dia in 1914. Gandhi’s bet­ter-known ca­reer in In­dia from 1914 un­til his as­sas­si­na­tion in 1948 will be the sub­ject of a sec­ond vol­ume. In this com­pellingly read­able bi­og­ra­phy, Guha gives us much more de­tail and depth than other stud­ies of Gandhi’s South African years, while adding much by way of hu­man in­ter­est. In do­ing so, he draws on many new sources of in­for­ma­tion to ar­gue that Gandhi’s later ca­reer in In­dia was “fun­da­men­tally shaped” by his years in South Africa. Hav­ing de­scribed Gandhi’s fam­ily and caste back­ground, and his In­dian boy­hood and ed­u­ca­tion, Guha shows him ar­riv­ing in Lon­don in 1888, not quite 20, hav­ing de­fied his caste elders’ ban on over­seas travel and leav­ing his young wife and new­born baby with his mother, rec­on­ciled to his ab­sence by his prom­ise not to drink al­co­hol, eat meat or en­gage in sex­ual ac­tiv­ity. Gandhi set­tled into Lon­don life sur­pris­ingly quickly. He shared digs with an English med­i­cal stu­dent and took an ac­tive part in the af­fairs of the Lon­don Veg­e­tar­ian So­ci­ety, ex­pand­ing his per­sonal and in­tel­lec­tual hori­zons while mak­ing con­tact with a wide va­ri­ety of people. Re­turn­ing to In­dia in 1891, Gandhi strug­gled to make a liv­ing as a lawyer. His lucky break came in 1893, when he was hired by a Mus­lim mer­chant to work on a breach-of-con­tract case that re­quired him to go to South Africa. Once there, he quickly found him­self in­volved in the strug­gle of South Africa’s In­dian com­mu­nity against the ef­forts of most white South Africans to deny them their rights and, if at all pos­si­ble, force them to re­turn to In­dia. As Gandhi quickly re­al­ized, this was more than a le­gal strug­gle to be waged through the courts; it was also a po­lit­i­cal fight that came to in­volve ral­lies, pe­ti­tions, pick­et­ing, boy­cotts, marches, strikes and other forms of non-vi­o­lent re­sis­tance. In the words of close as­so­ciate Henry Po­lak, it was “a race fight which was of im­por­tance for the whole world” though, as Guha points out, it was a fight that largely left black South Africans on the side­lines. Be­liev­ing in what he called “the birthright of Bri­tish ci­ti­zen­ship,” Gandhi ini­tially hoped the Bri­tish govern­ment would roll back the racist poli­cies of its South African colonies, even or­ga­niz­ing In­dian med­i­cal units to serve with the Bri­tish army in the Boer War and in a 1906 Zulu up­ris­ing. The Bri­tish re­mained un­moved. It was in this South African con­text that Gandhi de­vel­oped the strat­egy of non-vi­o­lent civil disobe­di­ence for which he is best known to­day. He called it satya­graha, of­ten trans­lated into English as “soul force” but which he him­self de­fined as the “force of truth in a good cause.” Con­vinced it would be po­lit­i­cally self-de­feat­ing and morally wrong to re­sort to vi­o­lence, as some In­dian ac­tivists wished, Gandhi di­rected his en­er­gies to per­suad­ing the In­dian com­mu­nity that satya­graha was the key to suc­cess. In the process he was threat­ened, badly beaten up twice, served three jail terms and fought count­less court bat­tles. He ran an in­flu­en­tial weekly news­pa­per, In­dian Opin­ion, main­tained an enor­mous cor­re­spon­dence, of­fered ad­vice and sup­port to vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion, and or­ga­nized mass cam­paigns of civil disobe­di­ence. As if all this weren’t enough, he es­tab­lished two com­mu­nal farm set­tle­ments run on Tol­stoyan prin­ci­ples of self-help, the dig­nity of labour and sim­plic­ity of life. All this and much more is vividly de­scribed by Guha, who also makes telling use of il­lus­tra­tive de­tail. For ex­am­ple, when Po­lak and Mil­lie Gra­ham de­cided to marry, with Gandhi as wit­ness, the lo­cal reg­is­trar ruled that an In­dian could not serve as wit­ness at a Euro­pean wed­ding. Un­de­terred, Gandhi went straight to the chief reg­is­trar, per­suaded him that the law did not specif­i­cally for­bid it, and the wed­ding went ahead. Guha has an en­vi­able ca­pac­ity to bring the past to life. Stern-minded aca­demics some­times dis­miss nar­ra­tive his­tory as mere sto­ry­telling, but this ab­sorb­ing bi­og­ra­phy shows how pow­er­ful it can be in the hands of a skilled his­to­rian who is also in full com­mand of his sources. Ken Os­borne is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in the fac­ulty of

ed­u­ca­tion at the Univer­sity of Man­i­toba.

Gandhi Be­fore In­dia

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