Reading this magisterial new biography of Mohandas K Gandhi, one could almost imagine that the British Empire might have been saved had the imperial government, not to mention the Indians, listened to him more. As is pretty well known, he didn’t turn against the empire until well into his career, long convinced – beyond reason, perhaps – that the nation of John Stuart Mill and of the numerous liberal friends he had made while studying law in London would eventually show what he took to be its ‘best side’ and grant self-government to India, on the same basis as Canada and Australia, under the aegis of its beloved king-emperor. It was for this reason that he actually aided the British side in the Boer War, the Zulu War and the First World War (his work on behalf of the Indian diaspora in South Africa is retailed in Ramachandra Guha’s Gandhi Before India, the prequel to this volume, reviewed here in December 2013). Gandhi sustained his faith in the people of Britain for some time after his enthusiastically celebrated return to India, already a hero, in January 1915.
His faith even survived his first incarceration there in 1922 by a clearly reluctant British judge, whose warm words of admiration for Gandhi even while he was sentencing him moved Guha, when he first read them, ‘almost to tears’. It was on the supposed sensitivity of the British that Gandhi’s famous technique of satyagraha (non-violent resistance) was predicated, being designed, in the words of one of his followers, to ‘make the rulers realize that they have done a grievous wrong, and ultimately will have to give in’. Gandhi ‘thinks that this is a weapon patent to India, and will teach a lesson not to our rulers only, but to the world’. That indicates the global nature of his ambition, even then. But the British, he thought, were particularly teachable, for, he wrote in 1920, ‘no European nation is more amenable to the pressure of moral force.’ And that was just a year after the Amritsar massacre, which saw nearly four hundred peaceful protesters and worshippers mown down in a public square on the orders of Brigadier General Dyer and did more than anything else to disillusion him of the good faith of the British in India.
But these were not the only obstacles in the way of swaraj, meaning self-rule. True swaraj would only come when Indians learned to control themselves and to be independent of the Manchester factories whose cloth was undercutting native Indian industry. This lay behind Gandhi’s campaign for domestic spinning and weaving, today symbolised on the Indian national flag. Communists regarded this as reactionary, which, of course, it was. Then there were problems arising out of religion. Untouchability was one. Hinduism’s ‘greatest blot’, Gandhi called it, as ‘shocking, and as brutal’ as anything Dyer had done. ‘People who oppress a section of their own community,’ one of his allies wrote, ‘do not have any right to complain about the oppressive measures of foreign rulers.’
Communal antagonism was another great obstacle. Gandhi worked tirelessly and sympathetically, in harness with Muslim leaders, to bring the two great Indian religions (and the smaller ones) together, even to the extent of pressing Britain to preserve the old Ottoman caliphate, with which Indian Muslims identified, after the defeat of the Turks in the First World War. That was to little avail, despite the fast that Gandhi undertook to shame his compatriots. All this, of course, benefited the British, whose great fear for years had been that Hindus and Muslims would join together to drive them out. But they needn’t have worried. India continued to be riven with religiously inspired riots, massacres, burnings and worse throughout the 1920s and 1930s, leading in the end to the horrendous circumstances of Partition in 1947 and to Gandhi’s assassination the following year, not by a Muslim but by a Hindu nationalist who thought Gandhi had given the Muslims too much. Guha believes that this act in fact brought the two communities together: ‘For more than a decade after Gandhi’s death, there were no serious communal riots in India.’
After Gandhi’s death, Viscount Wavell, one of the last viceroys with whom he had dealt, claimed that ‘the departure of the British’ had been Gandhi’s ‘life’s aim’. That was not quite – or not completely – true. ‘For Gandhi,’ Guha writes, ‘political independence meant nothing at all unless it was accompanied by religious harmony, caste and gender equality, and the development of self-respect in every Indian.’ The fact that Wavell seems not to have understood this may give a clue as to why the British and, more especially, the Indian governments (they were supposed to be separate, India being an ‘empire’ in its own right) never quite got the measure of him in a way that would have enabled them to co-operate in a fashion that might have kept the Raj, in one form or another, going a little bit longer. As it was, Nehru’s liberal, post-independence India and the self-governing Commonwealth that was supposed to unite it with all the other free ‘dominions’ reflected Gandhian principles and ideals to an extent, but only after some unnecessary and bitter ‘liberation’ struggles of a kind that would almost certainly have provoked more of Gandhi’s self-punishing fasts.
Most of this is familiar. Part of Guha’s achievement in this book is to bring it all together in a form that is reliable, balanced and brilliantly readable. He follows Gandhi everywhere, not only through his own writings – a large cache of which, in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, he is the first Gandhi biographer to use – but also through those of contemporary helpers, advisers, critics and journalists. This adds an important layer of context to his story and helps explain why the book is so splendidly long. In the course of this, Guha rescues a number of Gandhi’s co-workers from undeserved oblivion, including some women, though he also acknowledges that Gandhi ‘often thought and acted’ too much ‘like a Hindu patriarch’ to gain any plaudits from modern feminists. He deals at length with Gandhi’s day-to-day personal life: his asceticism, physical simplicity, vegetarianism, struggles with celibacy and, of course, spinning. Guha seems to be fair to everyone, even the Brits, as Gandhi himself would have wanted. (But can it be true that Gandhi was refused the Nobel Peace Prize in part ‘because of Norway’s extremely close relationship to Britain’? Guha cites no source for this claim.)
Guha’s summing-up of Gandhi’s life and posthumous legacy tries to be cheerful, but not altogether convincingly. Yes, Gandhi had many admirers and followers, including, apparently, Barack Obama, who had a portrait of him on his office wall when he was a state senator. But Obama’s own legacy is currently being smashed to pieces in America, as are gentler, more tolerant and consensual forms of politics in Europe and elsewhere. This is not a good time for Gandhians. His contribution to political and social life in his own country has been scarcely longer-lasting. One Indian civil servant posted in London claimed after his death that ‘this was the end of civilization in India’. While not quite that, of course, it is dispiriting to read of the negative reactions to his beliefs and lifetime achievements that sprang up in India following his death, much of it among the more ‘muscular’ Hindus in the Bharatiya Janata Party, who rejected his pacifism and regarded him as something of a collaborator with the British (and Muslims). Many of these criticisms were deeply misguided, neglecting, for example, his efforts to eradicate untouchability, in order to paint him as a social conservative. More radical leftist parties, such as the revolutionary Maoist Naxalites in Bengal, dismissed his insistence on satyagraha as ‘a diversionary tactic designed to suppress the revolutionary instincts of the masses and keep the ruling classes in power’. Gandhi’s favourite cause, Hindu–Muslim reconciliation and religious tolerance, received a body blow when serious communal rioting resumed in the 1960s.
Still, he was a saint, wasn’t he? Some contemporaries objected to the title Mahatma that was popularly given to him on the grounds that he wasn’t without his faults (Guha doesn’t shy away from these), but ‘Great Soul’ – a loose translation of the word – seems to fit him well enough. He is remembered partly as a nationalist, but in fact he had no time at all for nationalism in a narrow sense. His main contribution to the world was a philosophy and an example that transcended nationalism. This biography reads like the final word on its subject, though it probably won’t be. ‘Every generation of Indians needed, I thought, its own assessment or reassessment of Gandhi,’ is Guha’s justification for writing it. In fact, this masterly assessment should serve for several generations, and for non-Indians as well.