Gandhi, in his own words
There is no major episode of Gandhi’s life that he has not documented himself
Like any other child growing up in independent India, I too had been introduced to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as the Mahatma who had won us freedom from colonial rule. That Gandhiji supported truth telling, stood for non-violence, fought for the downtrodden, had all become common knowledge, acquired from school textbooks and elders at home. But as I grew older, my naïve faith in the Father of the Nation began to dwindle.
The first seed of doubt was sown while covering an event where SC/ST workers of a bank were unveiling an Ambedkar statue in Chennai. Their union leader told me that Dalits in modern India abhorred Gandhi as he had opposed B.R. Ambedkar’s bid to create separate electorates for them. Gandhi’s four-day fast in Yeravda Jail against the Communal Award forced Ambedkar to call off the Poona pact of 1933, which Gandhi feared would divide the Hindus forever. Was this the same Gandhi who had fought vehemently against untouchability? The controversies surrounding his experiments with women in the Sabarmati Ashram had shaken me as well. More recently, the authors of ‘The South African Gandhi’ Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed have accused the leader of pandering to the British and remaining indifferent to the cause of the indentured Indian and African labourers in South Africa.
How do we gauge the man’s intentions in the face of such revelations? Four years ago when I signed up for a winter school on Gandhi at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) in Shimla, I had the opportunity to read Gandhi in original. There is no major episode of Gandhi’s life that he has not documented himself. With noted Gandhian historian Tridip Suhrud for instructor, we revisited the leader’s original works that helped put in perspective much of the received wisdom about him. The digitisation of all his major works and life events — available at https://www.gandhiheritageportal.org — put together by Mr. Suhrud and others at the Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad, has only made this exercise easier.
Was Gandhi biased against Dalits in opposing the Poona pact? We discussed the question at length in class. Gandhi’s fasts, I learnt from The Story of My Experiments with Truth were intended to be led by the force of truth, and that is what gave him the strength to sustain the fasts. So one could infer from this that a fast that did not have the power of truth behind it would be difficult to sustain? The Yeravda fast of 1932 lasted for four days, as opposed to Gandhi’s 21-day-long self purification fast observed next year in Parna Kuti in Poona. As Suhrud observed in class: “There was an element of coercion in Gandhi’s Yeravda fast, which weakened his body so much that some feared he may even die…” By Gandhi’s own exacting standards for truth-telling then, the Yeravda fast had clearly failed both his body and soul.
Another source about the leader’s life was the diary of Gandhi’s personal secretary Mahadev Desai. It quoted the leader as saying that if the untouchables were allowed to separate politically from other Hindus, they may adopt the same path of violence that Muslims had embraced, which would destroy caste Hindus. If we examine his writing, it appears that what he cared for the most was Hindu unity and reform. “And so far as Harijans are concerned, every Hindu should make common cause with them and befriend them in their awful isolation…” he writes in Constructive Programme: Its meaning and place.
And as regards the accusations against Gandhi of being an Empire loyalist during his South Africa days, one only needs to read Satyagraha in South Africa in which Gandhi elaborates the events of the time. Gandhi helped form the Natal Indian Congress which took up the cause of the indentured Indian workers in South Africa. He helped build consensus on opposing the three pound tax levied on indentured labourers in Natal by the imperial government. In one of the chapters he describes being held captive in a ship to Natal for bringing free Indians with him on a trip back from home after helping build consensus there for the cause of labourers in South Africa. Gandhi even criticises the European plantation owners of South Africa as pseudo-philosophical in their bid to deny equal rights to Indian labourers and traders who helped run the plantation economy. The Satyagraha of South Africa led by Gandhi concluded in the signing of the Indian Relief Bill in 1914 which abolished the tax. It was during these efforts in South Africa that Gandhi formulated the idea for his greatest treatise on passive resistance — Hind Swaraj — which also contains a sharp critique of modern Western civilisation that put accumulation of material wealth above everything else.
To understand Gandhi’s experiments with women in the ashram, one has to understand his motive. “I clearly saw that one aspiring to serve humanity with his whole soul could not do without it (brahmacharya),” he writes in The Story of My Experiments with Truth. “Without the observance of brahmacharya service of the family would be inconsistent with service of the community.” It was towards this end that he slept with women in order to test his self-restraint in matters sexual.
One could of course question if Gandhi could be trusted to tell the truth in his writings. After all he could have manipulated them to serve his own ends. But the leader’s disarming honesty in admitting to his failings put such doubts to rest. While Gandhi never describes his ashram experiments in his writings (we know about them only through the testimonies of other inmates), the leader admits to his struggle with his inner passions in his autobiography: “To conquer the subtle passions seems to me to be harder far than the physical conquest of the world by the force of arms”. In the end, reading Gandhi in his own words allows me to see in him, not a Mahatma, but an ordinary mortal striving to fight his inner demons in an effort to aid a larger cause.