Ramachandra Guha is one of the foremost Indian historians of this era. In his latest book Gandhi Before India (Allen Lane, Rs 899) he chronicles the early life of Mahatma Gandhi. The book focusses on the years Gandhi spent in London and South Africa and how they shaped his ideology and philosophy. Indians who have grown up watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi are largely unaware about this part of his life. Hence, the book is a must read for every Indian who wants to know what turned a lawyer called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into Mahatma Gandhi.
Guha feels none of the political parties of today follow the principles of Gandhi, even though they claim so. “Various politicians and political parties claim to speak in the name of Gandhi: the Congress because he was in that party for a very long time, Narendra Modi because he was also a Gujarati, the Aam Admi Party(AAP) because its main leaders were, like Gandhi, professionals who became social activists. All these claims are dubious. The cronyism and corruption of the Congress is worlds removed from Gandhi or Gandhism; as is the megalomania and sectarianism of Mr Modi. As for the AAP, their claims to be Gandhian in inspiration are nullified by the negative nature of their politics, which is based so completely on carping attacks on other parties,” he told Firstpost in an interview.
Intellectually who are the people who had the foremost impact on Gandhi in the years that he spent in South Africa?
Gandhi’s main mentors were a Gujarati poet and thinker, Raychandbhai; the pioneering Indian nationalist and social reformer, Gopal Krishna Gokhale; and the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. He had an extensive correspondence with all three. Gandhi also spent a great deal of time with Raychand in Bombay in 1891-2, and with Gokhale in Calcutta in 1902 and again in South Africa in 1912. Tolstoy he never met, but perhaps it was the Russian who had the greatest influence on his moral and social philosophy. The idea of religious pluralism was common to all three of Gandhi’s mentors; the idea of ending caste and gender discrimination he got from Gokhale; the practice of abstinence and a simple life from Raychand and Tolstoy. Non-violence was in part an adaptation and refinement of Tolstoy’s pacifist ideals.
You also point out that Rabindranath Tagore was not the first man to call Gandhi a Mahatma. It was his doctor turned jeweller friend Pranjivan Mehta. Can you tell us a little bit about that as well as the kind of relationship Gandhi shared with Mehta?
This remarkable associate of Gandhi has been treated most casually in earlier biographies. But, as I show, their relationship was absolutely fundamental to the making of the Mahatma. Gandhi and Mehta spent time together in London, Rangoon, Durban; and wrote to one another at least once a week all through the period he was in South Africa. Mehta was the Engels to Gandhi’s Marx: that is to say, his closest friend, his most steadfast and consistent patron, and the first man to recognize and proclaim his greatness.
One of the most moving parts of the book is the relationship that Gandhi shared with his sons particularly Harilal, his eldest son . Do you think he failed as a father?
Gandhi had excessively high expectations of both Harilal and his second son Manilal. He wanted them to be perfect satyagrahis, perfect brahmacharis. He can certainly be said to have failed as a father. This is not uncommon—writers, artists, activists obsessed with their calling often their spouses and children very badly indeed.
You write in great detail about the family of Gandhi being a very close part of his struggle in South Africa. Even his wife went to jail for the cause. What intrigues me is that none of his sons or nephews played an active part in Indian politics once Gandhi returned to India. Why did that happen?
Yes, in the context of Indian politics today, Gandhi’s refusal to promote his family to positions of power and authority is remarkable. He even willed all his writings to a Trust of which none of his sons were members, thereby denying them any financial benefits from what he knew could be a very profitable legacy.
Would it be fair to say that Gandhi wasn’t born great, but became great through a series of events and experiences?
Gandhi certainly had great physical and moral courage. He had a tremendous capacity for hard work. He had an unusual ability to cultivate friendships across social boundaries. He was curious about other ways of living and thinking. Even so, had he succeeded as a lawyer in Bombay he would never have become a major political figure. Had he not lived in the diaspora he would not have appreciated the religious and linguistic heterogeneity of India. So, in this sense, it was a series of accidental encounters that helped grow Gandhi as a leader, thinker, and social activist.
Has Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha been abused in independent India (particularly politicians deciding to go on a fast for anything and everything)? How relevant is the philosophy of Gandhi in India of today?
Yes, of course, politicians have made a mockery of Gandhian techniques of protest by their one-day fasts and their dharnas and rasta rokos. However, Gandhi’s ideas do in many ways remain relevant to India and the world. His principled opposition to violence, his promotion of inter-faith harmony, his precocious environmentalism, and his practice of an open and transparent politics are all worth studying, and perhaps emulating in some part, today.
Do you see any political party in India being close to the principles that Gandhi had espoused? Various politicians and political parties claim to speak in the name of Gandhi: the Congress because he was in that party for a very long time, Narendra Modi because he was also a Gujarati, the Aam Admi Party because its main leaders were, like Gandhi, professionals who became social activists. All these claims are dubious. The cronyism and corruption of the Congress is worlds removed from Gandhi or Gandhism; as is the megalomania and sectarianism of Mr Modi. As for the AAP, their claims to be Gandhian in inspiration are nullified by the negative nature of their politics, which is based so completely on carping attacks on other parties.
But there must be some people who still follow Gandhian principles?
The spirit of Gandhi animates many non-party social movements and groups. Remarkable Indians such as Chandi Prasad Bhatt, founder of the Chipko movement, and Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA, are outstanding exemplars of Gandhian practice. Other activists working away from the media gaze in the spheres of rural health, primary education and similar spheres are also deeply inspired by Gandhi. A flavour of how Gandhi lives on in civil society movements in India is captured in Rajni Bakshi’s excellent book Bapu Kuti.
In a recent interview you said “My fantasy is BJP without the RSS and the Congress without the Gandhis.” Do you see the country getting anywhere close to that fantasy?
Not immediately, but there are some slight signs and indications that my fantasy is perhaps a few small steps closer to being realized. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is clearly on its last legs. The charisma of the family is fading: fewer and fewer voters remember Indira or even Rajiv. Rahul Gandhi lacks ideas as well as energy. Many people in the Congress are exasperated with his lack of initiative and his penchant for making howlers. If the Congress does very badly in the next elections, then it will be hard for the family to assert its leadership in the manner it has been accustomed to in the past.
What about the BJP?
In organizational and ideological terms, the BJP remains closely tied to the RSS. But again, young voters have no time for the medievalist mind set of the RSS. Many of them are flocking to the BJP because of their disgust at the corruption of the Congress, not because of any attraction for the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. In my lifetime (I am now 55) I may not see my fantasy being fulfilled. But I hope the Indian experiment with democracy and pluralism extends into the lifetimes of my children, grandchildren, and beyond. So I am not so despairing!
In the first chapter of your book you write that “of all modern politicians and statesmen, only Gandhi is an authentically global figure.” Could you please elaborate on that?
Gandhi’s name is still invoked, often positively and sometimes negatively, all across the world, sixty-five years after his death. His ideas on non-violence, religious harmony, and environmental prudence are actively debated in countries he never even visited. No other 20th century leader, not Churchill, not Roosevelt, not Stalin or Lenin, has had anywhere this kind of salience or influence. That is why I maintain that Gandhi is the most interesting and important political figure of the modern world.
The interview originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on November 6, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)