Ramachandra Guha Gandhi Before India

ISBN 13: 9780141044217

Gandhi Before India

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9780141044217: Gandhi Before India

Here is the first volume of a magisterial biography of Mohandas Gandhi that gives us the most illuminating portrait we have had of the life, the work and the historical context of one of the most abidingly influential—and controversial—men in modern history.
           
Ramachandra Guha—hailed by Time as “Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler”—takes us from Gandhi’s birth in 1869 through his upbringing in Gujarat, his two years as a student in London and his two decades as a lawyer and community organizer in South Africa. Guha has uncovered myriad previously untapped documents, including private papers of Gandhi’s contemporaries and co-workers; contemporary newspapers and court documents; the writings of Gandhi’s children; and secret files kept by British Empire functionaries. Using this wealth of material in an exuberant, brilliantly nuanced and detailed narrative, Guha describes the social, political and personal worlds inside of which Gandhi began the journey that would earn him the honorific Mahatma: “Great Soul.” And, more clearly than ever before, he elucidates how Gandhi’s work in South Africa—far from being a mere prelude to his accomplishments in India—was profoundly influential in his evolution as a family man, political thinker, social reformer and, ultimately, beloved leader.
           
In 1893, when Gandhi set sail for South Africa, he was a twenty-three-year-old lawyer who had failed to establish himself in India. In this remarkable biography, the author makes clear the fundamental ways in which Gandhi’s ideas were shaped before his return to India in 1915. It was during his years in England and South Africa, Guha shows us, that Gandhi came to understand the nature of imperialism and racism; and in South Africa that he forged the philosophy and techniques that would undermine and eventually overthrow the British Raj.
           
Gandhi Before India gives us equally vivid portraits of the man and the world he lived in: a world of sharp contrasts among the coastal culture of his birthplace, High Victorian London, and colonial South Africa. It explores in abundant detail Gandhi’s experiments with dissident cults such as the Tolstoyans; his friendships with radical Jews, heterodox Christians and devout Muslims; his enmities and rivalries; and his often overlooked failures as a husband and father. It tells the dramatic, profoundly moving story of how Gandhi inspired the devotion of thousands of followers in South Africa as he mobilized a cross-class and inter-religious coalition, pledged to non-violence in their battle against a brutally racist regime.
           
Researched with unequaled depth and breadth, and written with extraordinary grace and clarity, Gandhi Before India is, on every level, fully commensurate with its subject. It will radically alter our understanding and appreciation of twentieth-century India’s greatest man.

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About the Author:

Ramachandra Guha has taught at Yale and Stanford universities, the University of Oslo, the Indian Institute of Science and the London School of Economics. His books include a pioneering environmental history, an award-winning social history of cricket and the award-winning India After Gandhi. He writes regularly on social and political issues for the British and Indian press, including columns in The Telegraph and the Hindustan Times, and his work has also appeared in The New York Times. He lives in Bangalore.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue: Gandhi from All Angles
 
I might never have written this book had I not spent the spring term of 1998 at the University of California at Berkeley. The university had asked me to teach a course on the history of environmentalism, till then the chief focus of my research and writing. But I was tired with the subject; I suggested that I instead run a seminar called ‘Arguments with Gandhi’.
 
At the time, Gandhi’s vision of an inclusive, tolerant India was being threatened from both ends of the political spectrum. From the right, a coalition of Hindu organizations (known as the Sangh Parivar) aggressively pushed for a theocratic state, a project Gandhi had opposed all his life. On the left, a growing Maoist insurgency rejected non-violent methods of bringing about social change. To show their contempt for the ‘Father of the Nation’, Maoists demolished statues of Gandhi across eastern India.
 
Despite these attacks from political extremists, Gandhi’s ideas survived. They were given symbolic – but only symbolic – support by the Government of India, and more emphatically asserted by social workers and activists. The course I wished to teach would focus on Gandhi’s contentious legacy. However, my hosts in Berkeley were unhappy with my proposal. They knew that my contribution to Gandhian studies was close to nil, whereas a course on environmentalism would always be popular in California, a state populated by energy entrepreneurs and tree-huggers. The university worried that a seminar on Gandhi would attract only a few students of Indian origin in search of their roots, the so-called ‘America Born Confused Desis’ or ABCDs.
 
Finally, after many letters back and forth, I was permitted to teach the course on Gandhi. But within me there was a nagging nervousness. What if my counsellors were correct and only a handful of students showed up, all Indian-Americans? On the long flight to the West Coast I could think of little else. I reached San Francisco on a Saturday; my class was due to meet for the first time the following Wednesday. On Sunday I took a walk down Berkeley’s celebrated Telegraph Avenue. On a street corner I was handed a free copy of a local weekly. When I returned to my apartment I began to read it. Turning the pages, I came across an advertisement for a photo studio. It said, in large letters: ‘ONLY GANDHI KNOWS MORE THAN US ABOUT FAST’. Below, in smaller type, the ad explained that the studio could deliver prints in ten minutes, in those pre-digital days no mean achievement.
 
I was charmed, and relieved. A Bay Area weekly expected its audience to know enough about Gandhi to pun on the word ‘fast’. My fears were assuaged, to be comprehensively put to rest later that week, when a full classroom turned out to meet me. Thirty students stayed the distance. And only four of them were Indian by birth or descent.
 
Among my students was a Burmese girl who had fled into exile after the crushing of the democracy movement, a Jewish girl whose twin guiding stars were Gandhi and the Zionist philosopher Martin Buber, and an African-American who hoped the course would allow him to finally choose between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. There was also a Japanese boy, and plenty of Caucasians. In the class and in the papers they wrote, the students took the arguments with Gandhi in all kinds of directions, some of them wholly unanticipated by the instructor.
 
The course turned out to be the most enjoyable I have ever taught. This, I realized, was almost entirely due to my choice of subject. How many students in Berkeley would have enrolled for a course called ‘Arguments with De Gaulle’? And if an American historian came to the University of Delhi and proposed a course entitled ‘Arguments with Roosevelt’, would there have been any takers at all? Roosevelt, Church- ill, De Gaulle – these are all great national leaders, whose appeal steadily diminishes the further one strays from their nations’ boundaries. Of all modern politicians and statesmen, only Gandhi is an authentically global figure.
 
 
What accounts for Gandhi’s unique status? He worked in three different countries (and continents): Britain, South Africa and India. Anti- colonial agitator, social reformer, religious thinker and prophet, he brought to the most violent of centuries a form of protest that was based on non-violence. In between political campaigns he experimented with the abolition of untouchability and the revival of handicrafts. A devout Hindu himself, he had a strong interest in other religious traditions. His warnings about individual greed and the amorality of modern technology, seemingly reactionary at the time, have come back into fashion as a result of the environmental debate.
 
Educated in Victorian England, making his name in racialist South Africa, Gandhi’s life and work are writ large against the history (and geography) of his time. The years of his most intense political activity witnessed the rise of Bolshevism, the rise (and fall) of fascism, the two World Wars, and the growth of anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa. While Gandhi was leading a mass movement based on non-violence in India, Mao Zedong was initiating a successful violent revolution in China.
 
To both scholar and lay person, Gandhi is made the more interesting by his apparent inconsistencies. Sometimes he behaved like an unworldly saint, at other times like a consummate politician. Asked by a British journalist what he thought of modern civilization, he answered: ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ Yet this foe of the West acknowledged three white men – Henry Salt, John Ruskin and Leo Tolstoy – among his men- tors. This rebel who called the British Empire ‘satanic’ wept when London (a city he knew and loved) was bombed during the Second World War. And this celebrated practitioner of non-violence actually recruited Indians to serve in the First World War.
 
Gandhi enjoyed a long life and is enjoying a vigorous after-life. His message was communicated – or travestied, depending on one’s point of view – in a film made by Richard Attenborough in 1982, a film that won nine Oscars and was a box-office hit. His example has inspired rebels and statesmen of the calibre of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. The techniques of non-violence that he fashioned have endured. A study conducted of some five dozen transitions to democratic rule concluded that in over 70 per cent of cases, authoritarian regimes fell not because of armed resistance but because of boycotts, strikes, fasts and other methods of protest pioneered by this Indian thinker. Most recently, during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, activists in Egypt, Yemen and other countries displayed photographs of Gandhi and closely studied his methods of struggle and protest.
 
More than six decades after his death, Gandhi’s life and legacy are discussed, and sometimes acted upon, in countries he barely even knew of. And he continues to loom large in the life of his native land. His ideas are praised as well as attacked; dismissed by some as dangerous or irrelevant, yet celebrated by others as the key to resolving the tension between Hindus and Muslims, low castes and high castes, humans and the natural environment.
 
 
Testimony to Gandhi’s global significance is provided by the books about him that roll off the world’s presses. These have been enabled by the publication by the Indian Government of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. The series runs to a hundred volumes, a colossal effort of editing and collation that includes tens of thousands of letters, speeches, essays, editorials and interviews that can be reliably attributed to Gandhi.
 
Gandhi wrote well, and he wrote a great deal. From 1903 to 1914, and again from 1919 to 1948, he published weekly newspapers in Gujarati and in English. While his prose was demotic and direct in both languages, his Gujarati writings are more intimate, since he shared a moral and cultural universe with the reader. Because of the quantity of his prose, and perhaps its quality too, one might say that there was actually a fifth calling that Gandhi practised – that of editor and writer. This complemented and enhanced his other callings, with his views on politics and society (and much else) being articulated in periodicals owned or at least controlled by himself.
 
All (or almost all) of Gandhi’s writings are now available in his Collected Works. Priced at Rs 4,000, or about £50, the English edition has recently been put on a CD-ROM. The volumes are also available on multiple websites. They have been industriously mined by Gandhi’s biographers, and by those who have written studies of his religious thought, his economic thought, his philosophy of non-violence, his attitude towards women, and his views on drink, drugs and gambling.
 
As a consequence of the easy availability of the Collected Works, Gandhi’s ideas, campaigns, friendships and rivalries have come to be seen very largely – and sometimes exclusively – through the prism of his own writings. This reliance on Gandhi’s words can often narrow the historical landscape against which his life and work were enacted. Sixty-five years after his death, the general public knows a good deal more about what Gandhi thought of the world, but virtually nothing at all of what the world thought of him.
 
A decade ago, after teaching that course in Berkeley, I decided I would write a many-sided portrait of Gandhi, which would explore his words and actions in the context of the words and actions of his family, friends, followers and adversaries. The Collected Works are indispensable, but they are only one source among many. So I began visiting archives that held the private papers of his contemporaries. I studied the papers of his major South African associates. I examined the letters to Gandhi and about Gandhi written by the many remarkable men and women who worked alongside him in the Indian freedom struggle. I examined the writings, published and unpublished, of Gandhi’s four children.
 
I also studied the perceptions of those who opposed Gandhi. The officials of the British Empire had superb intelligence-gathering skills, as well as a fifty-year-long interest in Gandhi. They were obsessed with him in South Africa, where he was a constant irritant in their flesh, and still more obsessed with him in India, where he led millions of his com- patriots in protest against the iniquities of British rule. In national and provincial archives in India, England and South Africa, I read the letters, telegrams, reports and dispatches whereby the functionaries of the Empire commented upon their most dangerous (not to say most distinguished) rebel.
 
Not all those who opposed Gandhi, of course, were British or Afrikaners. Many were Indians, and some, Indians of great distinction. These included two brilliant London-trained lawyers, the Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the leader of the low castes, B. R. Ambedkar; as well as the writer Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize. These three are deservedly famous, but Gandhi had other major critics in India, as well as less well-known opponents of his work in South Africa. Their writings (published and unpublished) are vital to a fuller understanding of Gandhi’s thought and practice. What Gandhi said and did makes sense only when we know what he was responding to.
 
Another crucial set of sources are contemporary newspapers. The first reference to Mohandas K. Gandhi in print appears to be in the Kathiawar Times in 1888, reporting his imminent departure to study law in London. But it is from his time in South Africa, and his assumption of a public role, that we find Gandhi appearing regularly in the news, at first in decidedly local newspapers such as the Natal Mercury and the Johannesburg Star, and later in more international and important periodicals such as The Times of London and the New York Times.
 
I cannot claim to have read the press all through Gandhi’s long life. Still, I have consulted thousands of newspaper reports on the interest and controversy generated by his campaigns, both in South Africa and in India. Like the government intelligence reports, these present a day-to- day narrative of Gandhi, and like them again, they do so from all the places visited by a man always on the move. They give voice to people who are otherwise unknown: the peasants, workers, merchants and clerks who were powerfully affected by Gandhi, and whose views are captured in correspondents’ reports and letters to the editor.
 
Searching for materials on or about Gandhi that are not in the Collected Works, I consulted archives in five countries (in four continents). These travels and researches were principally conducted to find material that did not carry my subject’s name or signature. Yet I also found, to my pleasure and surprise, dozens of letters written by Gandhi himself that, for one reason or another, had not come to the attention of the compilers of the Collected Works.
 
The diversity and depth of this new – or at least so far unused – material is explained in greater detail in ‘A Note on Sources’ at the end of this book. Drawing on this research, I plan to write two volumes of biography, in an attempt to create a fuller sense of Gandhi’s life, work and contexts. This, the first book, examines his upbringing in his native Gujarat, his two years as a student in London and, most intensively, his two decades as a lawyer, home-maker and community organizer in South Africa. The second book will cover the period from our subject’s return to India in January 1915 to his death in January 1948. It will provide a social history of his political campaigns, of his reform movements and of everyday life in his ashram.
 
These studies of the African Gandhi and the Indian Gandhi each contain many different characters and stories. Some are charming, others tragic, yet others resonant with social or political meaning. The geo- graphical breadth extends over Asia, Africa and Europe, and even, here and there, North America. The narrative flows from desert to mountain, from city to village, from river to sea. The historical breadth extends from the second half of the nineteenth century down to the present day.
 
In reading (and telling) these stories we meet Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Sikhs, and even the odd atheist. Many characters come from the labouring classes – they include farmers, crafts- people, shopkeepers, housewives, scavengers and mineworkers. Others come from an elite background, being prosperous businessmen, powerful proconsuls, decorated generals and elected heads of state.
 
These diverse landscapes and human beings are given meaning by their relation to Mohandas K. Gandhi. It is his journey that we follow, from Gujarat to London to Natal and the Transvaal and then back to Gujarat, and on to a thousand places beyond. It is by tracing his steps and recalling his actions that we encounter these many landscapes and this range of remarkable people.
 
There are some striking...

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