It’s been a long day and the fatigue caused by interviews stacked one after another shows on Ramachandra Guha’s face when we meet him late on Thursday afternoon for this question-answer session. He is polite and strolls out of the interview before ours to apologise for the delay.
There is a television crew in the room and the camera has fused, the crew rush out to get a spare.
Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Guha’s latest book, Gandhi Before India that released with much fanfare in the capital on the eve of Gandhi Jayanti. After all, Guha is India’s best-known historian, who marshals his wide scholarship in contemporary and modern history with a raconteur’s lucid felicity. Guha has been working on this project, the first of a two-part biography chronicling the first 45 years of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s life, especially the years he spent in South Africa, for eight years now. The second volume will take another five to six years. Gargi Gupta reports Edited excerpts:
Born in remote Porbander, son of the Diwan of a minor potentate in Kathiawar, what led to Gandhi’s transformation from a barrister to the unquestioned leader of India’s nationalist struggle, venerated ‘Mahatma’ and prophet of resistance movements by oppressed people the world over?
The nationalist phase comes later. Gandhi Before India covers his formative decades in South Africa that has been ignored. We forget that it was while he was in South Africa that he learnt to appreciate the heterogeneity of India, its cultural, linguistic and religious diversities. His skills as a writer, propagandist, organiser and fund-collector were also shaped and developed there. I wanted to pay close attention to these decades and the interesting cast of characters he worked with — his housemates Henry and Millie Pollak; the Tamil radical Thambi Naidoo who with his fellow Tamils saved the Satyagraha movement; his secretary Sonja Schlesin who pushed him to take a more sympathetic stance on gender rights; his friend Pranjivan Mehta who funded and supported him — who played a fundamental role in shaping Gandhi. In South Africa, Gandhi had real friends, colleagues, companions; in India, he had mostly followers, disciples or rivals.
I also wanted to flesh out his life in Gujarat and London in more detail. It was while he was writing for the Vegetarian Society in London that he learnt how to craft an argument, how to make a case, to collaborate with other people in an organisation, how to build relationships — all very
important to his later work.
If South Africa was important to Gandhi’s career, has Gandhi’s contribution to the anti-colonial, apartheid struggle in that country been given the importance it deserves?
Post apartheid, there has been a modest rediscovery of Gandhi in South Africa. Gandhi started the Natal Indian Congress that inspired the African National Congress (ANC) and was in dialogue with some of its founders. After Gandhi came back (to India), the ANC adopted the charter of non-violent resistance and carried it through in the first campaigns of 1940-50. The first mass campaigns in which Nelson Mandela participated were along Gandhian lines. After the apartheid ended, the Gandhian method of reconciliation came into play. South Africans today appreciate, that in many ways, he paved the way for a more radical anti-apartheid movement. In the epilogue to my book, I quote a South African friend who said, ‘You gave us a lawyer, we gave you back a Mahatma.’
But Gandhi was focussed on the Indian community in South Africa and dismissed the native Africans as kaffirs.
Yes, but he was a leader of the Indian community. His views evolved; he gave up the conventional stereotype of kaffirs being uncivilised and came to a deeper understanding of their predicament, and how Satyagraha could be a solution to their problems too.
What makes Gandhi such an enduring and international icon, compared to Nehru
Gandhi is a universal figure. There was, for one, his interest in religious pluralism and inter-faith dialogue which in the contemporary world is crucial. Two, the transparency of his personal life. He was a public figure, but he listened and reached out to the political opposition. Third, his environmental ideas — he was an early critic of the excesses of industrialisation. And lastly, his theory and practice of non-violence. Violence breeds more violence and a truly sustainable process of social change can only rest in non-violence. That was Gandhi’s lesson followed by the civil rights movement, and later the struggle against communism.
Gandhi has extraordinary appeal to people fighting against injustice. President Obama mentioned Gandhi as the historical figure he’d like to meet the most, though, he said, it would be a frugal meal. Obama has had a portrait of Gandhi since the time he was a community organiser in Chicago. Tawakul Karman, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, too has a portrait of Gandhi and she has never been to India. The anti-corruption movement very cynically had Anna Hazare fasting like Gandhi. Even Narendra Modi feels obliged to invoke Gandhi.
Realistically speaking, how relevant are his principles of non-violence and Satyagraha today, especially in India?
They are very relevant. Look at the Naxalite movement or the Kashmir issue. If India’s government is guilty of condescension and contempt for the adivasis and Kashmiris, the cult of violence and retributive justice of those speaking on behalf of the latter are creating more problems.
Are young people today, especially in Indian cities, interested in him?
I don’t know, but my book release function had many young people. Clearly, people are curious to know about him, understand him.
Gandhi remains a very contentious figure. For instance, his treatment of his family has come under critical attention in recent years.
Yes, but his great failure was not so much Kasturba, with whom his relationship evolved; it was with his son Harilal. But he learned and his relationship with his younger sons was better. The point is that if we know about his failures as a husband, a father, or about his food eccentricities and obsession with celibacy, it is because he told us about it.
Your book has an interesting passage about Gandhi’s correspondence with MA Jinnah in 1902. Were they talking about a possible partnership?
I didn’t want to read too much into it. If I had the letters I would be on more solid ground. It is possible that they were contemplating a partnership because we know that Jinnah was not doing well as a lawyer and Gandhi was looking for a partner at that time. Jinnah was a Gujarati. It is a minor incident detail but intriguing.
Indians are said to be notoriously indifferent to history. Has that changed? Do you see a new set of readers engaging with narratives of the past, especially when they are lucidly told like in your book?
I think they are. There is a growing class of middle-class readers who want to read non-fiction. And more young historians — Nayanjyot Lahiri, Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Sriram Raghavan to name some — are responding to this change.
Book: Gandhi Before India
Author: Ramachandra Guha
Publisher: Penguin India
Pages: 688 Pages
Price: Rs 899