Bernard Porter

Mahatma Abroad

Gandhi Before India


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 673pp £30 order from our bookshop

Gandhi’s years in South Africa were the making of him and could be said to mark the beginning of the unmaking of the British Empire. Ramachandra Guha’s fine new book examining this time is the first of two projected volumes that will eventually cover the whole of the Mahatma’s life. Usually this period is treated by biographers simply, and relatively sketchily, as a prelude to the much more important events that happened after his return to India in 1914. Guha thinks this does ‘injustice to both man and place’. If he had been killed then, rather than in 1948, he would still have left a huge mark. Gandhi himself, when informed of an assassination plot against him in Johannesburg in March 1914, told a nephew that, if it succeeded, it would ‘be welcome and a fit end to my work’. 

We forget how celebrated he already was, in India and Britain as well as in South Africa, before the great events of the 1920s and 1930s. He was in South Africa for twenty years, after all. That was time enough not only for some great achievements on behalf of ‘Asiatics’ living and working there, but also for him to hone his broader ideas and strategies into the distinctive forms we are familiar with from his later career. Guha ends this book with some speculation (‘counter-factual history’) on what difference it might have made if he had never gone abroad. (If his father had still been alive, he probably wouldn’t have done.) There can be no doubt that the experience was crucial – to him and, consequently, the world.

Equally crucial may have been the fact that he went to South Africa not directly from India but via London, where he trained as a barrister and – more importantly – met some good British people and what he took to be English liberal-imperial ideals. There’s an assumption prevalent today that 19th-century British society was invariably racist, and that this racism spread to its colonies; but Gandhi apparently found none of that in 1890s London – possibly because of the narrowness of his social circle, mainly English vegetarians and religious nonconformists – or in his part of India. This is why he was so loyal to the ‘improving’ British Empire in his early years. Hence his shock when he arrived in Natal and discovered, when defending Indian clients, an explicit ‘colour bar’ for the first time. Gandhi’s main objection was that it was ‘un-British’. Social equality was the ‘birthright of British citizenship’. The humiliation of a whole people on the grounds of its skin colour was ‘unprecedented in the history of the Empire’. (One wonders how much British imperial history he knew.) If the colour bar were allowed to continue and the ‘virus’ allowed to spread, they could bring the whole edifice down. The bar certainly undermined Gandhi’s trust in the British Empire, though most accounts argue that this finally collapsed as a result of the Amritsar massacre in 1919. Before that he continued to base his strategy on an appeal to Britons’ better national instincts (at one of his rallies a speaker even wrapped himself in a Union Jack). In the Transvaal, racism was at least as bad, but that was because it was predominantly Boer, a group that, as the British colonial secretary pointed out to him, ‘doesn’t like the idea even of theoretical equality’. Gandhi expected more of the Brits.

Gandhi’s own egalitarianism was not unproblematic, however. It did not extend to political rights. He never sought the franchise for Indians, possibly because of his low view of Britain’s own ‘mother of Parliaments’ (more ‘like a sterile woman and prostitute’, as he once described it); or because he realised that it would bear out the South African whites’ fear of being ‘swamped’ if it came about (Indians already outnumbered Europeans in Natal); or because of what one (white) Johannesburg paper called his ‘conspicuous moderation’ (those who demand ‘all or nothing’, Gandhi advised one follower, invariably get nothing). Nor did it appear to extend to Africans. One of his main complaints with regard to the Indians was that they were lumped together with ‘kaffirs’ when, for example, it came to public toilets. This was an affront to the dignity of ‘the highest civilization in the world’ (Guha speculates that Gandhi’s elevated view of his nation may have been ‘not unrelated’ to the fact that, after all those years in South Africa, ‘he scarcely knew India at all’). He also once argued that Indians were entitled to equal consideration with whites in the Transvaal because of their common ‘Indo-Germanic stock’. To be fair, he didn’t get to know many Africans and seemed to ‘broaden his mind’ with regard to them, at least theoretically, later on. This too can be seen as a reflection of the common liberal-imperialist view, which favoured equality between civilised men, or men when they became ‘civilised’. Men chiefly; for Gandhi’s view of a woman’s place was highly traditional – at least until one of his close colleagues in South Africa, the Jewish feminist Millie Polak, and the direct role many women took in his third and final satyagraha movement of 1913, undermined this prejudice. One of Gandhi’s great virtues was his willingness to learn and change. And he did change over his years in South Africa, the transformation illustrated, superficially, by the ways he presented himself: at the start in formal European legal outfit, with a black coat, high collar and tie; by the end in simple white dress, shaven head and bare feet. By then he had also come to be called ‘Mahatma’ (‘great soul’). So he was ready for India.

One of the strengths of this new biography is the place it gives to all the manifold influences that played on Gandhi, from his Gujarati origins to his last days in South Africa. Standing out among these are certain Indian gurus, but also – in England and South Africa – Jews, who were able to relate the Indians’ persecution to their own in history and in contemporary Europe, and nonconformist Christians, from whom he learned civil disobedience, which was the tactic they had used against English educational discrimination earlier in the 19th century. He was also open to religious influences, especially Hinduism and echt Christianity (the Beatitudes, for example, not all that ‘faith’ stuff), believing fundamentally that there were many paths to God and that ‘a religion appears divine or devilish, according as its professors choose to make it appear’. He saw good in most belief systems (except perhaps capitalism), though the Muslims could at times be a trial – as, for example, when they attacked him for agreeing to the Transvaal government’s intended ban on polygamy, which would ‘molest and violate the principle of our sacred religion’. He learned from Thoreau and corresponded with Tolstoy. He was also apparently provoked by one rabid opponent, G K Chesterton, to try to formulate a form of ‘freedom’ for India that was more indigenous. In 1909 Chesterton had complained that ‘the present weakness of Indian Nationalism seems to be that it is not very Indian and not very national’. That struck a nerve. He always hankered after a synthesis of the ‘great’ European and Indian civilisations, with each learning from the other. By the end of his time in South Africa, however, he had come around to believing that this should be founded on Eastern rather than Western values, the ‘soul’ rather than the material.

Many will come to this biography wanting to know more about Gandhi himself – his character, the details of his famously ascetic lifestyle and his relations with his family, which were not ideal. He was obviously torn between his private and what he saw as his public duties, most of the time coming down on the side of the latter. ‘You cannot attach yourself to a particular woman and yet live for humanity,’ he explained to his heroically supportive but long-suffering wife, Kasturba. Guha relates all this wonderfully. His book is clearly a labour of love, though not of uncritical infatuation. What distinguishes it is the breadth of the context – Indian, British and South African. Guha marshals his material sensitively and empathetically in order to give shape, colour and depth to the life of this saint-like figure (but how much more fascinating than any conventional saint). Its value to the historian, however, is in the light it sheds on the provocative part played by the colony of Natal, described by Winston Churchill at this very time as ‘the hooligan of the British Empire’, in the empire’s decline and eventual fall. That was the tinder for Gandhi’s spark.

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