x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Great Soul: Revealing the man behind the spectacle of Gandhi

The Indian leader didn't come to politics fully formed, as an unjustly controversial new biography by Joseph Lelyveld makes clear.

Indian thinker, statesman and nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi as a law student in 1887.
Indian thinker, statesman and nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi as a law student in 1887.

Astounded by the devotion India's masses showed to Gandhi, the American journalist Louis Fischer asked the mahatma, then in his 70s, what he thought he meant to them. "A spectacle", Gandhi answered. Fischer had been one of his generation's foremost champions of the Soviet Union, describing, in the mid-1930s, Stalin's Russia as the world's "first true democracy". By the time he met Gandhi, in 1942, Fischer had concluded the arduous intellectual hegira from Soviet sympathiser to anti-totalitarian liberal. Gandhi's philosophy was the terminus of Fischer's intellectual quest. In 1948, shortly after Gandhi's assassination at the hands of a Hindu supremacist, Fischer produced a comparative study, Gandhi and Stalin: Two Signs at the World's Crossroads. Two years later, in 1950, he published the first major biography, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. Fischer's gripping and admiringly detailed book did more than any other popular biography to establish Gandhi's statesman-saint image. It formed the basis of Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning biopic, in which Martin Sheen's American journalist was a tribute to Fischer.

Six decades on, another American journalist has undertaken to reappraise that image. Joseph Lelyveld, a former editor of The New York Times, gently strips the accumulated saintly sheen to lay bare the man behind the spectacle. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India bears the signs of long years of engagement and contemplation. Having spent his early career as a foreign correspondent reporting from India, Lelyveld is distinctly not part of that burgeoning band of western historians who have stumbled on the country in the recent past; and South Africa, where a substantial portion of this ruminative essay is set, was the subject of his Pulitzer-winning book of reportage, Move Your Shadow, published in 1985. Yet since the publication of Great Soul last month, Lelyveld has been forced to defend himself from charges of distortion and sensationalism hurled at him by Indian politicians who could not conceivably have read his book. Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gandhi's home state of Gujarat, issued a pre-emptive ban on the book. Legislatures in other Indian states have decried Lelyveld in severe terms. In the US, at least two events featuring Lelyveld as headline speaker were abruptly cancelled.

What is so explosive in Lelyveld's book? Virtually nothing. The more likely cause of the controversy is a crotchety tirade against Gandhi by British historian Andrew Roberts that was published as a review of Lelyveld's book in The Wall Street Journal last month. Offering quotations unhinged from their contexts, Roberts fulminated that Gandhi was a "sexual weirdo" and an implacable "racist". It is not clear what Lelyveld, who built his reputation chiefly as a sympathetic reporter of the black majority's condition in apartheid South Africa, made of the review. But those aware of the lecture Roberts delivered to the Springbok Club 10 years ago, an expatriate group in London that aims to return South Africa to the "civilised rule" of the apartheid era, may find it slightly affected.

Departing from the strictures of biographical form, Lelyveld begins Gandhi's story in South Africa, the crucible in which the Great Soul was cast. After struggling for a year to establish a successful legal practice in Bombay, the 23-year-old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi accepted an invitation to work in Durban as a translator in a civil case. The job was somewhat lowly for an Inner Temple barrister, but Gandhi agreed to do it for one year. By the time he left South Africa permanently, a full 21 years later, he was an author, politician, war veteran, pamphleteer, dietician and evangelist for a heterodox spiritualism whose sources ranged from the Bible and Bhagavad Gita to Tolstoy and Ruskin. It is during these crucial two decades in South Africa that he developed, applied and refined his doctrine of nonviolence. Moral perfection became Gandhi's goal, but his journey, in Lelyveld's account, revealed also the deep limitations which the mahatma, being human, frequently failed to transcend.

The Gandhi who arrived on the shores of South Africa in 1893 was largely an insular man. The cosseted child of a respected civil servant and an indulgent mother, he carried a provincial sense of his own worth, always alert to insults to his dignity. The first such insult came just a day after arriving in South Africa when, offended by the brown lawyer's incongruous attire - frock coat, starched collar, striped trousers topped off with a black turban - a magistrate ordered him to remove his headgear. Rather than obey the decree, Gandhi stormed out of the courtroom in protest. When a local newspaper published this story the following morning under the title "An Unwelcome Visitor", Gandhi immediately wrote a letter to the editor explaining that the head-dress had achieved social sanction in the "drawing-room meetings and evening parties" of London. The implication was inescapable: if the turban was acceptable in the capital of the empire, why was South Africa, a mere colony, protesting?

Lelyveld seizes on this incident as evidence that Gandhi's "spirit didn't need igniting". Taking this argument a step further, he suggests that the importance of Gandhi's subsequent ejection in Maritzburg from a first class train car has been overplayed, consecrated into myth by Richard Attenborough's film and Philip Glass's opera. Decades later, Gandhi himself would describe the night at Maritzburg to the missionary John R Mott as the "experience that changed the course of my life". (Mott's name does not appear in Lelyveld's text.) Even making allowances for the possibility of retrospective readjustment by Gandhi, the event still stands out for being the first instance of racial humiliation he endured.

Yet Lelyveld's dismissal is not casual. Being subjected to racism did not prompt Gandhi to reflect on his own prejudices. Gandhi is today claimed by South Africa as one of its founding fathers. But, as Lelyveld shows, in his 21 years in South Africa the future mahatma had virtually no contact with the country's black leaders. His closest associates were Europeans, and his petitions to the government were aimed at securing rights for Indians, whom he, at least in the early years of his life in South Africa, appears to have considered superior to blacks. He objected to the use of the word "coolie" as a descriptor for Indians in South Africa, but it would be a long time before the young Gandhi stopped saying "kaffir" - the equivalent, Lelyveld informs us, of "nigger". "About the mixing of the kaffirs with the Indians," Gandhi wrote to a medical officer in Johannesburg during the outbreak of plague in 1904, "I feel most strongly". Then there was Gandhi the racial theorist: "If there is one thing the Indian cherishes more than any other, it is purity of type." This implied a mythical prototypical Indian who has never existed. The "Indian" Gandhi was likely to encounter in South Africa could be a Muslim or Hindu, a Tamil or a Gujarati, a Brahmin editor or an untouchable indentured labourer.

Lelyveld is sufficiently repulsed by Gandhi's language to condemn it as "racist" - both "in, as well as out of, context". But, judicious prospector that he is, he examines Gandhi's attitude to race in the context of his evolving response to the question of caste. His views on blacks, after all, were not "conspicuously different from what a refined Brahman in the era … might have voiced about untouchables". It would be two decades before Gandhi's political agitation extended to include the untouchables who made up a majority of South Africa's indentured labourers - or "semi slaves", as Gandhi would come to see them - imported from India.

Gandhi's prejudices were inherited. He would cast them off gradually, to emerge, by mid-1930s, as an almost fanatical opponent of untouchability. But in 1906, at the height of the Zulu rebellion, the future mahatma, the symbol of nonviolence, volunteered his community's services to suppress the natives in service of the white government. Dispatched to the battlefield as a sergeant major in charge of stretcher-bearers, Gandhi and his tiny band of Indian nurses wound up tending to the natives. The horrors he witnessed there would haunt him for the rest of his life; but they did not immediately make him sympathetic to blacks, nor instil in him an absolute aversion to war. Instead, they alerted him to his own spiritual inadequacy.

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The same year, pursuing the Hindu ideal of brahmacharya, Gandhi took a vow of celibacy (his wife, Kasturbai, to whom he was "cruelly kind", had no choice in the matter). Desire, Gandhi concluded, was the cause of all ills, and sex the most indomitable of all desires. By surmounting it, he would fortify his spiritual powers: no longer a slave to ardour, he would dedicate himself to a higher cause. That cause was still amorphous and undefined at this stage, but over the years scholars have ascribed various motivations to Gandhi. In her own provocative recent biography, the British historian Kathryn Tidrick argued that the mahatma's aim was nothing less than to establish the "Kingdom of Heaven" on earth. Lelyveld, with a more sober perspective, is more persuasive in tying up Gandhi's spiritual exercises to ultimately earthly ends, chief among them the organic eradication of untouchability during his own lifetime, the preservation of India's unity, and peace between Hindus and Muslims. The first produced an illusion of success; the second ended in failure; the third led to his assassination.

The first test of Gandhi's resolve came in the form of the "Black Act", a piece of discriminatory legislation which placed humiliating conditions on Transvaal's Indians, requiring them to register as residents and carry identification at all times. Police would be empowered to enter and search Indian residences on a whim. Gandhi offered "passive resistance" against the law, led both Hindus and Muslims in opposition, and then, just as his movement began to matter, in a manner that would prefigure many of his eventual defeats, he allowed himself to be fooled by his adversaries and repudiated his own campaign. More than that, he switched sides and became a spokesman for the government. Jan Smuts, the future prime minister of South Africa, offered Gandhi a bargain that made no sense: if Indians voluntarily submitted themselves to the law, he would repeal it. In other words, if Indians volunteered to commit suicide, the government wouldn't go through the trouble of killing them. Gandhi agreed to it.

The trouble lay in Gandhi's conception of "passive resistance", which, at its logical extreme, made the victim responsible for his tormentor's conscience. It was not just a tool with which to secure political concessions. Its purpose was to transform, through nonviolent conduct, the opponent's outlook. Thus Smuts was not the subject of opposition: he was an object of reform. Smuts, like so many of Gandhi's future foes, proved too obdurate, and his spiritual bankruptcy aside, the political failure belonged to the mahatma.

"Passive resistance" had come to imply weakness, so Gandhi sought an Indian replacement. A relative suggested satyagraha, "firmness in the cause". With mahatmic sprachgefuhl, Gandhi changed it to satyagraha: "firmness in truth". From then on truth, that most multifarious of words, became for him an ideal and a concept, something to aspire to and experiment with. The ideal could be reached by refining himself with experiments, and these experiments ran the full gamut from growing vegetables to cleaning latrines.

The dénouement of Gandhi's South African sojourn, the culmination of 21 years in the African subcontinent, was an epic satyagraha campaign in which Indians of every station participated. What began as a protest against poll tax on ex-indentured Indians rapidly grew into a mass movement of miners and plantation workers who harboured the hope of freeing themselves from indentured labour. Their coordinated walkouts shut down mines and halted production on plantations. It was the first time that Gandhi involved and led untouchables in a mass campaign. Their disciplined adherence to nonviolence surprised the man who had once been in the habit of pronouncing them unworthy of his high philosophy. It was an overcoming of divisions in a common purpose which Gandhi would rarely be able to replicate, and never sustain, in the subcontinent on the other side of the Indian Ocean to which he headed in 1914.

Lelyveld is not the first biographer to argue the important role South Africa played in shaping Gandhi. Maureen Swan's Gandhi: The South African Experience did that in 1985. But being a journalist and not a Marxist academic, Lelyveld knows that books are written primarily so that people can read them: he has an eye for human drama that often eludes professional historians. Yet on some level, his book functions as a cathartic corrective, an attempt to revise the received image of Gandhi by retracing his transformation along the paths the author has himself walked. South Africa was doubtless relevant to Gandhi's development, but its magnitude often appears exaggerated here.

Lelyveld devotes an entire chapter to Gandhi's relationship with a German-Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach, but its relevance to the larger narrative remains unclear. "In an age when the concept of Platonic love gains little credence, selectively chosen details of the relationship and quotations from letters can easily be arranged to suggest a conclusion," Lelyveld warns the reader. He then spends most of the chapter moving between ambiguous quotations and vague details.

Three short lines about a "trying day" in an abandoned Kallenbach diary are enough to make Lelyveld cry eureka. "The context is obscure," Lelyveld concedes about his discovery, but that does nothing to prevent him from declaring that "Kallenbach's feelings, for once, leap off the page". The correspondence between Gandhi and Kallenbach has been in the public domain for decades now. But if this chapter seems objectionable, it is not because it explores Gandhi's sexuality. It is because it is a bathetic divagation in a riveting ride.

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Great Soul is at its most powerful when Lelyveld delves into Gandhi's "struggle with India", the book's subtitle and its second part. It is here that the mahatma's many complexities are fleshed out. Lelyveld gives long overdue recognition to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a formidably educated untouchable leader who emerged as Gandhi's principal nemesis. If Gandhi viewed the arena in which they sparred as religious, Ambedkar considered it political. To Gandhi, Ambedkar's effort to gain separate electoral recognition for the untouchables - or Dalits, as they began to call themselves - was nothing less than an assault on Hinduism's unity. To Ambedkar, Gandhi's attempt to improve the Dalits' condition by reforming the caste system was proof of well-intentioned paternalism that would only perpetuate their degradation.

No two leaders were more alike, and yet they found themselves in opposition. Gandhi eventually had his way, embarking on an indefinite fast which forced Ambedkar to give up his demand for separate electorates. The fast was also aimed at orthodox Hindus, many of whom were shamed into opening up their temples to the lower castes. And as Lelyveld records in the book's most powerful chapter, the most relentless battle of Gandhi's life would be the one he fought against untouchability: over nine months between 1933-1934, he travelled 12,500 miles, campaigning from province to province, facing down mobs of orthodox Hindus and collecting mammoth sums from reluctant donors. The first attempt on his life was made during this time. Ambedkar eventually drafted India's constitution - an act whose significance can only fully be comprehended, according to the American scholar George Perkovich, by imagining "if James Madison at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention had been a freed slave".

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Had Gandhi never returned to India, Lelyveld asks, would relations between Muslims and Hindus on the subcontinent be any different today? This question, never fully answered, raises further puzzles. Did Gandhi alienate India's Muslims? In particular, was he responsible for Mohammed Ali Jinnah's abandonment of Indian nationalism? The moral responsibility for India's division - and its consequences - must rest primarily with those who actually sought, fought for, achieved and celebrated it. But not even the most charitable reading of history can absolve Gandhi of driving Jinnah out of the nationalist tent with what Lelyveld aptly describes as "breathtaking opportunism".

The pivotal moment in Indian history came when Gandhi, in an attempt to build Hindu-Muslim unity, backed the Khilafat Movement - an explicitly religious platform aimed at preserving the Caliphate in Turkey. Jinnah, whose ambition in politics had been to erase "any distinctions between Muslims and Hindus", was naturally appalled. Jinnah opposed Gandhi on principle, but with his powerful patrons in the Congress Party long dead, and devoid of popular support with which to check the Mahatma's ascent, the future father of Pakistan gradually retreated from politics. By the time he returned, his metamorphosis from secular nationalist to sectarian demagogue was complete.

In August 1946, Jinnah's call for a "direct action day" had turned Calcutta into a slaughterhouse, which in turn sparked off sectarian killings in the Noakhali district in Bengal. "I'm not going to discuss ethics," Jinnah said, settling down to negotiate the rewards of partition with Jawaharlal Nehru. Gandhi, 77 years old, cast aside from national politics and months away from his own death, decided to give satyagraha another go. Singing Tagore's "I believe in walking alone", the mahatma trudged through remote Noakhali, over 1,000 miles from Delhi. Hindus had largely fled the district and the Muslims he encountered were not the most welcoming. "Go Back," he was warned, "otherwise, you'll be sorry".

Gandhi had been accused of being an egotistical leader of the Hindus. Had he been genuinely susceptible to ego, or driven by communitarian interests as his adversaries claimed he was, the experience of Noakhali should have led him to issue a formal call for civil war. Lesser slights had provoked Jinnah to agitate for nothing less than the partition of India. "It is useless to think about those who are dead", the mahatma said as he was shown the remains of a Hindu family that had been burnt alive. "His aim", Lelyveld explains, was not to console Hindus but to touch "the hearts of Muslims who'd looked away from the carnage, or approved it". If anything proves that Gandhi had at last acquired a superhuman detachment, Noakhali does.

At India's independence on August 15, 1947, Gandhi stayed away from the celebrations in Delhi. Not long after that, he began another indefinite fast to stop the sectarian bloodletting in Calcutta. The violence abated. Lord Mountbatten, now governor-general of independent India, wrote to Gandhi: "In the Punjab, we have 55,000 soldiers and large-scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal our forces consist of one man, and there is no rioting". He had declared his intention to settle down in Pakistan, but Delhi would be Gandhi's last stop. His final fast, to force the government of independent India to release Pakistan's share of British India's assets, and the Indian cabinet's acquiescence, "lit the fuse" on the plot which the Mahatma's assassin, Nathuram Godse, and his accomplices had been hatching. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot dead.

In a moving coda, Lelyveld describes his recent visit to Noakhali in Bangladesh. "He brought peace here" a Hindu resident tells him. "The sad part is no one followed him" a Muslim adds. Not far away, he finds a small organisation dedicated to Gandhi. In Dhaka, the capital, Lelyveld finds Gandhi's 140th birth anniversary being celebrated by intellectuals and social reformers. "Verses from the Quran are read, followed by a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, then Buddhist and Christian prayers, making the event as self-consciously inclusive as Gandhi's own prayer meetings". In India, Lelyveld finds that Gandhian secularism is largely alive, except, he hastens to add, in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, a state now ruled by a party that belongs to the ideological family which produced Gandhi's assassin. Gujarat is also the only state in India where Lelyveld's book is officially banned. In a further irony, the protection of Gandhi's legacy is the stated reason behind the ban.

Kapil Komireddi is an Indian writer.