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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

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