RAM GUHA’S NEW GANDHI OPUS
Historian RAMACHANDRA GUHA has been examining the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for the past 15 years. His latest book Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (1914-1948) completes a biographical trilogy that will cover a foot at your bookshelf. Apart from other sources, it draws from the Pyarelal papers, which were not available even in the archives till a few years ago. Excerpts from an interview with SOPAN JOSHI
Q. Give us a glimpse of Gandhi’s influence on the wider world.
A. It comes up in the most unexpected places. As I mention in the book, I was at a hotel in New York City. I had with me a copy of the previous book, Gandhi Before India. It had an unusual photo of Gandhi as a lawyer, in a suit. A waiter saw it and asked, “Isn’t that the young Mr Gandhi?” I said yes. He said they admired him in his country. Which country, I asked. He said the Dominican Republic. Gandhi’s truly a universal figure. A friend recently sent a photo of Gandhi’s statue in Rio, Brazil. In the West and in Latin America, while people may not know the rich details of Gandhi’s life, they think he is cool!
Q. How does India see him? A. Here, he is the focus of debate, argument, contestation, even revulsion. There’s lots of people who hate Gandhi. It’s open season on Gandhi. The Marxists attack him, the Hindutvawadis attack him, Ambedkarites attack him, feminists attack him... The West’s view of him is more cute and cuddly.
Q. What do the Pyarelal papers show?
A. All kinds of material. For example, there’s an intriguing figure in this book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a radical Christian priest
in Germany who opposed Adolf Hitler. He’s famous in Germany because he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler in the early 1940s; he was jailed and he wrote these letters from there which were widely circulated. Now in Pyarelal’s papers, I found that in the early 1930s, he was in touch with Gandhi. He wanted to come and learn satyagraha from Gandhi, and he almost came here. Finally, he did not come. But suppose he had come here and talked with Gandhi, and then organised a satyagraha against Hitler before the Nazi regime got established...
Q. What do the Pyarelal papers show on historical figures in India? A. One of the contributions of my book, I hope, is to restore Mahadev Desai to his central role in Gandhi’s life and in the life of the freedom movement. Without doubt, he was more important to Gandhi than even Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. He was his interlocutor, his advisor, his window to the world because Desai was learned about global politics and political philosophy. Unlike Nehru, he shared Gujarati with Gandhi. Unlike Patel, he had this wider cosmopolitan outlook.
Q. Did Gandhi use different tactics for his modernist critics and his orthodox opponents?
A. He engaged with people like Ambedkar—the Hindu orthodoxy he refuses to engage with beyond a point because he sees them as absolutely bigoted and benighted. From the perspective of 2018, you’ll be told by the admirers of Ambedkar that Gandhi was moving too slowly in dismantling the caste system. But from the perspective of 1928, the main challenge to Gandhi was from the Hindu Right, which told him he was going too fast; that untouchability is part of our scriptures and how dare a bania like you who doesn’t know any Sanskrit tell us how to manage our faith? You recognise Gandhi’s dilemma only when you place the modernist critics like Ambedkar on the one side and the Shankaracharyas on the other. Hindu orthodoxy was totally opposed to him. The Shankaracharyas tell the British that Gandhi must be excommunicated. The Hindu Mahasabha ensures that he is met with black flags everywhere he goes as part of his tour against untouchability. He had to negotiate his path with great skill; it takes colossal courage to confront the entire might of your religious institutions. As he gets more assured about his control over the national movement on the Hindu social mind, he becomes more critical and radical in his approach to caste. So it’s unfair to criticise Gandhi for being incremental in his approach to caste, because he has to deal with the bulk of Hindu orthodoxy before he frontally challenges the caste system, which he does, provoked by Ambedkar. Gandhi’s path is all his own, and it’s unappealing to both the radicals and the reactionaries.
Q. Is there such a thing as Gandhi fatigue?
A. Not at all. He is endlessly fascinating. He touches every aspect of Indian life. He talks about caste, gender, technology, state, politics, culture, about inner reform, he talks about sex. He’s travelling all the time. There’s an extraordinary range of correspondence with friends and rivals. No Gandhi fatigue for me. I’ve written a book on his South Africa years, now one on his Indian years. At the moment, I’m not writing any more on Gandhi. But after a while, maybe five years from now, I’d like to write a short argumentative book about him. For a historian of modern India, there cannot be a more compelling figure.
GANDHI: The Years That Changed the World (1914-1948) by Ramachandra Guha PENGUIN INDIA `999, 1,152 pages