Venu Madhav Govindu


Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914–1948 by Ramachandra Guha, Gurgaon: Penguin Allen Lane, 2018; pp xx + 1129, ? 999.


Ever since he came to dominate Indian public life a century ago, M K Gandhi has been a source of endless interest and fascination. He played a fundamental role in India’s freedom movement, and in turn, enabled the demise of the idea of empire.


As important as his leadership of the Indian struggle for swaraj was, Gandhi’s position in history was doubly assured by his invention of a new idiom of non-violent political action—satyagraha. This twin legacy ensured that Gandhi’s life achieved salience beyond our national borders. Indeed, as the subtitle of the volume under review suggests, through his work in India, Gandhi changed the world.


As if this were not enough, Gandhi crammed many more vocations into one life. As the author writes in an earlier volume Gandhi before India (2013), in South Africa, Gandhi was at once a “writer, editor, leader, bridge-builder, social reformer, moral exemplar, political organiser and political theorist.” Back in India, he was to further expand on this dizzying array of callings.


The significance of his achievements and the abiding interest in the message of his life have ensured that Gandhi continues to have a presence in the public imagination both within India and without. Gandhi also evokes controversy and disdain amongst those who disagree with his views or disapprove of his methods. Decades after his death, interest in Gandhi remains undiminished resulting in a large body of literature that scrutinises every aspect of his life and work at great length. A two-volume bibliography prepared by the scholar Ananda Pandiri lists almost 7,000 entries and the size and scope of Gandhiana continues to grow. This voluminous exegesis of Gandhi, in both flattering and critical keys, has been greatly aided by the fact that his life is amongst the most meticulously documented in history.


Throughout his public career in South Africa and India, Gandhi maintained one or more journals. He wrote copiously and frankly on ethics and moral values, autonomy and freedom, politics, culture, spirituality and religion, society, community, economics, agrarian issues, diet, sex and a myriad other profound and mundane things. He also corresponded with an unusually large number of individuals across the world on matters of great historical importance as well as private and personal concerns. In the Indian years of his public life, Gandhi—undoubtedly with a clear understanding of his own significance—ensured that he had the help and assistance of able secretaries. Chief among them was Mahadev Desai, who was Gandhi’s comrade in the political struggle for freedom but also a confrère in a more intimate and personal quest for a higher truth. Their commitment to truth and veracity meant that almost nothing that Gandhi said or did was excised from the public record. Indeed, much of the criticism of Gandhi is based on the availability of the written evidence unflinchingly recorded by Gandhi and Desai.


The wide-ranging scrutiny and evaluation of the Mahatma’s life has also been greatly aided by a monumental exercise of over four decades that has resulted in the hundred volumes of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Aided by the Collected Works, decades of scholarly interest has afforded us much insight and understanding of the texture and meaning of the many dimensions of Gandhi’s life and work.


Biographies of Gandhi also have a long and rich lineage. The first biography was written by the Baptist minister Joseph Doke as early as 1909, when Gandhi was 40 years old. Ever since, there has been a veritable deluge of biographies with no sign of abatement. An important eight-volume labour of love is Mahatma by D G Tendulkar (1951–54), written at a time when the archival material on Gandhi was not yet consolidated and many official records were not yet open for public scrutiny. Gandhi’s devoted secretary Pyarelal and his sister Sushila Nayar authored multiple volumes, whereas Narayan Desai wrote a four-volume narrative in Gujarati that is also available in English translation. Other works of enduring interest are those of the American journalist Louis Fischer and admirable volumes by B R Nanda, and more recently, by the distinguished historian Rajmohan Gandhi. All of these narratives remind one of the argument made by the scholar A K Ramanujan who wrote that no Hindu reads the Mahabharata for the first time. One may also say the same about any retelling of the story of Gandhi’s life.


Substantial Empirical Detail


While there is much of value in the large body of writing on Gandhi, some writers have erected ponderous arguments on rather slim textual evidence culled from the smorgasbord of material that is the Collected Works. Others have set themselves the task of demolishing the image of the Mahatma. While criticism has helped correct much hyperbole, some of the debunking is rather exaggerated as it bears no reference to the historical record. In Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha has sought to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of hagiography and denunciation. His device has been to tell a story rich in empirical detail but also eschew an interpretive apparatus. Having spent an inordinate amount of time in the archives, Guha has drawn from as many as 60 archival collections, including a large tranche of Gandhi’s papers made available in recent years at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. The diversity and richness of material drawn upon makes the present volume pre-eminently the story of the archival Gandhi.


Given the eponymous title, throughout Gandhi will refer to the individual, whereas the italicised term Gandhi will refer to the volume under review. At more than 1,100 pages, Gandhi is a doorstopper of a book. However, the richness of its subject’s life and the author’s fluent narration and spare prose makes it an easy and engaging read. The narrative itself is shaped by the author’s methodological choices. First, while the Collected Works tell us much from Gandhi’s own perspective, Guha has mined all manner of material to show us how Gandhi was perceived and represented by others through the contemporaneous record. Second, the book recounts the events and debates in Gandhi’s life by means of reconstructing the “arguments as they unfolded at the time, regardless of how they have subsequently been interpreted” (p xiii; emphasis added). Third, for the most part, the narrative device is one of “show don’t tell,” whereby an episode or event is recounted in the simplest of terms while refraining from analysing or passing judgment on the same. All of these attributes bring much value to the story, but they also militate against a fuller comprehension of the complexity of Gandhi’s life and times.


Even for an extremely well-examined life, Gandhi demonstrates that diligent trawling of the archives has its rewards. To take just one example, consider Gandhi’s first significant public speech upon returning to India in 1916 on the occasion of the foundation of the Banaras Hindu University. This speech is well known for his unusually harsh criticism of India’s princes. But the unexpurgated version available in the archives also details Gandhi’s criticism of Thomas Macaulay and, more significantly, his arguments on India’s fate being tied up with that of its agriculturalists and artisans. Gandhi would reprise these views and pursue his agenda for rural India throughout his life. But it is striking that he had actually given notice of his views on the matter right after ending his year of public silence in 1916.


Missing the Broader Context


All biographies have to contend with taming the inherent conflict between theme and chronology in the narrative. In Gandhi’s own life, he ranged over a wide array of ideas and issues with ease. But large-scale political events and personal, contemplative and intimate moments need treatment in different registers. In part, Guha tackles this challenge by means of two chapters wherein he examines Gandhi’s personal faith and morality (Chapter 12, “The Moralist”) and the intent of Gandhi’s memoirs Satyagraha in South Africa and Autobiography (Chapter 13, “The Memoirist”). While this device addresses the period of the 1920s, throughout the volume, Guha’s methodological choice of a contemporaneous narrative with little by way of commentary poses a challenge of comprehension. While Gandhi traverses great swathes of biographical territory that is rich in texture and detail, in a number of instances, the relentless press of events that crowd Gandhi’s life overwhelms the narrative thread. In some cases, important milestones and watershed events are briskly recounted and the narrative marches ahead. As a result, the sharpness and significance of such episodes cannot be fully apprehended.


Moreover, situating Gandhi’s thought and actions in the wider context would have greatly aided the reader’s understanding. This point is evident when we consider an exception to this pattern—the discussion on the growth of the influence of the Muslim League and the early years of the World War II period (1939–41). In this instance, Guha provides much by way of background and commentary. This enables the reader to understand the swirling flow of events and Gandhi’s presence within it and makes for a far more interesting and enriching read than a straightforward narrative of Gandhi’s thoughts and actions. Arguably, given its fine-scale reading of the subject’s eventful life, Gandhi would have benefited from being further enriched with material delineating the broader context within which the Mahatma’s life was enacted.


All through his lifetime and ever since, Gandhi has been subjected to a range of criticism from multiple perspectives. The approach of using contemporaneous sources and allowing the evidence to speak for itself works well in a number of such contexts. Gandhi is particularly effective in addressing such vexed questions of contemporary controversy as to whether Gandhi had tried to save Bhagat Singh’s life or establishing Gandhi’s long-term opposition to untouchability. By the same token, some of the older chestnuts such as the charge by some leftist scholars that Gandhi was an arch-representative of Indian capital and zamindars remain unaddressed in the present volume.


Scattered throughout the volume, we have vignettes that taken together present a compelling pen-portrait of Gandhi. We learn much about Gandhi’s outsized self-belief and sense of purpose in the early years when he was new to Indian politics. His appetite for healthy debate and sense of humour show through. Throughout his adult life, Gandhi engaged with an unusually large number of individuals. These included ashram inmates, associates involved in constructive work, political colleagues and adversaries, public figures, correspondents as well as the wider public. Through his speeches, articles, interviews, public appearances and personal correspondence, Gandhi remained at the heart of a number of social networks. Also notable was his willingness to directly engage with a number of individuals, including a large number who wrote to Gandhi with their personal problems and often got a reply. Through this unusual modus vivendi, Gandhi influenced the world around him and was also shaped by his formidable engagement with it.


Beyond Familial Relations


At a more personal level, Gandhi was no longer as harshly demanding of his family as he was in South Africa. But we also learn of Gandhi’s vexed relationship with his eldest son Harilal and interference in the life of another son, Manilal. Here, we need to remember that long before arriving on the Indian scene, Gandhi had widened his domestic ambit beyond blood relations. Of the many individuals in this wider network of familial relations, Guha pays particular tribute to Gandhi’s secretary and alter ego, Mahadev Desai. Desai had joined Gandhi in 1917 when the latter was as yet an untested quantity in Indian politics. From that day on, he played a self-effacing and fundamental role in every aspect of Gandhi’s life. A quarter of a century later, Desai died prematurely and unexpectedly while incarcerated in the Aga Khan palace following Gandhi’s arrest in 1942. Gandhi presents a poignant and utterly moving description of Desai’s cremation and the outpouring of grief and sympathy from all over India at his death. In the compass of four pages, Guha elevates Mahadev Desai to his rightful place as a foundational figure of modern India.


On the opposite end to such close relationships, as it were, was Gandhi’s unusual relationship with Indian people at large. While they recognised his significance, the public response to Gandhi’s call was not always positive. Thus, in Kheda, where he had led a successful campaign, Gandhi’s attempt at recruitment for the army was a dismal failure. Gandhi was opposed by many throughout his public life but also inspired many more. He earned the abiding respect of millions of people and remained a revered figure. As Gandhi recounts, a most moving demonstration of his place in the Indian heart is recorded by the Australian Governor of Bengal Robert Casey and his wife Maie. In 1945, Gandhi met Casey over a number of days. Each time he departed the governor’s mansion, the entire staff of 150 Hindus and Muslims lined up to pay their respects to the man who had spent a lifetime fighting their employer, the Raj. Another ocular demonstration—to use a phrase often used by Gandhi—of his public approbation is the fact that in February 1946, when Gandhi spoke at a public meeting in Madurai, more than five lakh people turned up.


Gandhi pays close attention to the controversial aspects of its subject’s life. While Gandhi took the vow of brahmacharya or celibacy in South Africa in 1906, throughout his life he wrestled with a persistent anxiety over his sexuality. Celibacy was part of a larger project of overcoming all form of desire in a belief that it elevated one’s physical and moral capabilities. Gandhi demanded it from the residents of his ashrams and commended it with varying degrees of insistence and success to his sons and some of his colleagues. While we learn of Gandhi’s constant interest in various aspects of the celibate life throughout the volume, his life in India was bookended by two controversies.


Amidst the political chaos of 1919, Gandhi was deeply attracted towards Saraladevi Chaudhurani, a niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who was unusually accomplished and self-willed. Gandhi struggled to reconcile his reaction with his objective of conquering his passions. Eventually, urged by some of his intimate associates, he ended the relationship. While earlier accounts have elided this story, in recent decades, it has received attention from scholars such as Martin Green and Rajmohan Gandhi in Gandhi: Voice of a New Age Revolution (1993) and Mohandas (2006), respectively. With frankness and care, Guha provides a fuller account of this very human response of a man struggling with himself. Of some curiosity is the telling detail that amidst the stalwarts of the Congress, present at Gandhi’s 1922 trial in Ahmedabad, sat Saraladevi Chaudhurani.


In 1946, as India lurched towards partition and the accompanying carnage, Gandhi faced the deepest psychological crisis of his life. Having lost some of his strongest personal moorings following the deaths of his wife Kasturba and Mahadev Desai in prison, Gandhi now watched in dismay as his dream of an India inspired by non-violence fell apart. The final part of the book provides an extensive and poignant treatment of Gandhi’s valiant attempts to deal with the communal furies unleashed in the lead-up to India’s independence and partition and after.


An Experiment Examined


Gandhi’s lonely march in Noakhali for communal amity has been much commended for its salutary lessons. As is well known, during this period, Gandhi slept naked with his grand-niece Manu to test his sexual continence. While individuals who had joined in Gandhi’s endeavours were deeply disturbed, many of his long-term intimates were horrified by the exercise. Ever since these fated trials, Gandhi’s actions have been roundly denounced for what is seen as his moral turpitude and reckless behaviour towards a young woman in his care. Guha devotes a chapter to this episode and the reactions it elicited from Gandhi’s closest colleagues and fellow spiritual seekers. The author also retrieves a remarkable letter from the archive between two Quaker admirers and supporters of Gandhi. This letter sheds fresh light on the matter and challenges the received wisdom that Manu Gandhi was a helpless victim of Gandhi’s imposition. Rather, it is argued, she might have played an active—albeit lesser—role in what Guha calls “The Strangest Experiment.”


The book also pays close attention to Gandhi’s fraught relationship with three adversaries in the public sphere: the Raj, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and B R Ambedkar. The colonial officialdom was hostile and suspicious of the Congress and Gandhi himself. While some of them, such as the Viceroy Lord Irwin, recognised the shifting winds, as Guha demonstrates, India was ill-served by the choice of his successors. Between 1931 and 1943, the Raj was represented in India by Willingdon and Linlithgow, two colonial hands who were churlish and illiberal in their approach and lacked political foresight and wisdom. They refused to recognise the changing nature of India’s aspirations that Gandhi had helped create.


In the 1920s, Gandhi had argued that social stability and peace required “inter-religious harmony, inter-caste equality, economic self-reliance and non-violence” (p 594). If Gandhi failed to establish Hindu–Muslim amity, it was not for lack of trying. Right from the early pages to the tragic denouement of his assassination, we see Gandhi working steadfastly against the tortuous currents of sub-continental politics that eventually resulted in the creation of India and Pakistan. Gandhi is particularly effective in demonstrating the range and variety of Muslim opinion that prevailed in the early 1920s. The short-lived alliance over Khilafat and its effectiveness is detailed as is its rapid dissolution. In retrospect, we can recognise that by the early 1930s, Hindu–Muslim relations in India had turned a corner. This was, in turn, followed by the meteoric rise of Jinnah to prominence as the “sole spokesman” for Muslim opinion.


By the early 1940s, Jinnah insisted on viewing Gandhi and himself as the leaders of parties representing Hindu and Muslim interests respectively. Thus, “Gandhi was keen to see Jinnah as more than a Muslim leader. Jinnah, on the other hand, was determined to see Gandhi as a Hindu leader alone” (p 95). While the Raj played a role in legitimising this dubious parity, Jinnah’s obduracy helped achieve his strategic objective. One may also note in passing here that Jinnah’s strategy has a contemporary resonance. As many democracies around the world—India included—are discovering, unreasonable positions and outright lies can sometimes afford significant political advantage. It is in this context that Gandhi’s unqualified insistence on clinging to the truth has great relevance.


While it is well recognised that there was a significant shift in Muslim opinion by the time of the Civil Disobedience campaign of 1930, it would have helped to provide the reader some understanding of the underlying reasons. In its middle bits, the book is particularly effective in describing this change of fortunes. Through a steady accrual of events and their consequences, we can see how during the World War II period, the initiative of the Congress and Gandhi was eroded. In this context, Guha also pays special attention to C Rajagopalachari’s arguments against Gandhi’s decision to launch Quit India. Rajaji’s intelligence and political acumen are well recognised as is his shrewd appraisal of the manner in which the political cards were stacked. But we may then ask, why did Gandhi not heed Rajaji’s advice? The answer lies in the years of social and economic strife and dislocation unleashed upon India entering World War II.


In the face of British obduracy on the fate of India’s future, the political mood in the country was clamouring for redressal. It may be reasonably argued that, by 1942, caught between an unyielding Raj and a restive people, the clock on patience had run out and Gandhi’s hand was forced. The signs of a potentially explosive situation were clear and it was no longer tenable to contain the multiple crises that beset India.


Gandhi–Ambedkar Contention


The British left Indian shores in 1947, Jinnah’s Pakistan was also created and then sundered. But in India, caste and its attendant evils have endured and even enjoy a new-found revival of fortunes. It is in this context that caste and Gandhi’s position on it have been subjected to an even greater scrutiny. The revisionist dimension of this body of literature is also shaped by an approbatory evaluation of Ambedkar’s significance. In this regard, some of the tendentious criticism of Gandhi has produced more heat than light. A central feature of Gandhi is an extensive treatment of both the evolutionary nature of Gandhi’s position on caste as well as the Gandhi–Ambedkar equation. Through a number of examples, Guha clearly establishes that “[o]f Gandhi’s long-standing commitment to ending untouchability, there could be no question” (p 433). But he also argues that Gandhi’s approach was patronising in its tone.


The Gandhi–Ambedkar debate has been discussed threadbare in the literature and cannot be addressed at any length here. For the sake of brevity, we may caricature it as follows. The nub of the debate was the ontological relationship between untouchability and caste. Like many of his era, Gandhi presented a historically incorrect argument that the original Varna order had a sound sociological footing and that untouchability and other sins were excrescences of a later date. He went on to revise his position over time and by 1935 wrote essays with titles such as “Caste Must Go” and also came to advocate inter-caste marriage. Speaking from experience, Ambedkar simply and correctly argued that “(t)he outcaste is a maintain bye-product of the caste system. There will be outcastes so long as there are castes” (p 450).


While his narration of the Gandhi–Ambedkar debate centred on the Poona Pact and its aftermath is rich in archival detail, Guha is also fair-minded in his assessment. Guha also notes that “(i)n his struggle to abolish untouchability, Gandhi was caught between radicals and reactionaries” (p 454). While Ambedkar felt it was inadequate in tackling caste inequality, many sanatanists vigorously opposed what they saw as an encroachment on tradition sanctioned by religion. Others, including most of the Congress stalwarts, felt that this issue was an unwarranted distraction from the goal of freedom. We may also recognise here Gandhi’s view that Hindu society was as yet unready for a radical position on caste. This was validated by the resistance to his message during his 1933–34 nationwide campaign against untouchability and an assassination attempt by those opposed to his position on caste.


Another salient aspect of the book is Guha’s superb use of archival material to diligently pursue the contentious relationship between the two men beyond the controversies of the 1930s. Thus, we learn of Ambedkar’s characteristically intemperate attack on Gandhi in 1944 calling the latter “a man who has no vision, who has no knowledge, and who has no judgment, a man who has been a failure all his life” (pp 740–41). The pièce de résistance is a 1946 letter that Gandhi wrote to the Quaker campaigner Carl Heath and has not appeared in the Collected Works. Till date, there has been much discussion and speculation on how Ambedkar came to occupy vital positions in the Constituent Assembly and in Nehru’s government. The letter to Heath lays out Gandhi’s unwillingness to attempt a rapprochement with Ambedkar and throws important light on the reasons that led Gandhi to his decision. This is a singular piece of archival evidence pertaining to a pivotal period of modern Indian history.


In simplified terms, Gandhi’s life may be considered along political, personal and social terms. Through its lengthy and extensive treatment, Gandhi covers significantly more territory than other biographical exercises. However, there are some significant aspects of Gandhi’s life and work that are either under-emphasised or not considered in the volume. In his early years back in India, Gandhi very rapidly transformed the Congress into a mass organisation. Unlike many other leaders in other contexts who reigned supreme over their parties, Gandhi also effectively fostered an entire generation of political leadership. His long-time associate, J B Kripalani, had once remarked that Gandhi made men out of clay. Indeed, Gandhi nurtured—and was nurtured by—the multiple social networks mentioned above. While the adversarial equations help us understand how Gandhi forged his work in the face of opposition, Gandhi should have provided a deeper understanding of his relationships in all of these vital contexts. We also note that there is much more that can be said about Gandhi’s spiritual or “interior” life but perhaps that is not amenable to a historical enquiry.


It is also important to recognise that Gandhi’s relationship with the Congress was a contingent one. While they shared in the objective of political freedom, the Congress and its leaders were either unenthusiastic or indifferent to Gandhi’s vision for a new social order. But for Gandhi, there was no peace or freedom without justice in its multiple forms. Thus swaraj, with its twin meanings of self-rule and “rule over the self,” was incomplete without the requisite social and economic transformations. While he devoted a very significant part of his life to the task of  constructive work, in the 1930s, Gandhi turned towards these issues with a sense of urgency. Thus, during this period, Gandhi’s arguments and struggles were not as much with the colonial edifice as with his fellow Indians about the vision for a future free India.


Life as Lesson


In Gandhi’s time, the overwhelming majority of Indians lived in villages and depended on the rural economy for their livelihood. Gandhi also argued that the exploitative relationship of the city and the countryside was a form of organised violence. We may see this equation as homologous to the relationship between the metropole and the colony. It is for this reason that Gandhi advocated for the village and a decentralised economy. Indeed, the environmental aspects of Gandhi’s thought emerge directly from his quest for justice for those who labour in the agrarian economy. However, the middle class and elite within the Congress and outside it remained indifferent to the fate of agrarian India. This attitude and a number of other extenuating factors led to his resignation from the Congress and move to Sevagram to devote his time to address the needs of village India. With his faith in the transformative capacity of social action, Gandhi sought to further his objectives through various measures of constructive work that included khadi, village industries and basic education. While Gandhi notes some aspects of these dimensions of the life of its subject, a substantial and deeper consideration is missing. However, Gandhi’s arguments on these matters and his measures and organisations for constructive work are as important as his political activities. Our understanding of the man is incomplete without adequately reckoning with both of them.


Gandhi achieved more in one lifetime than perhaps any other individual. At the same time, he failed in many other instances. In the ultimate analysis, the extraordinary verity of his life remains an object lesson on what is humanly possible. A deeper understanding of the meaning of freedom and democracy, the method of satyagraha, the centrality of non-violence in our actions and an insistence on truth and justice in its many manifestations, these are Gandhi’s legacies.


In today’s world, many nations increasingly find themselves under the thrall of populism and demagoguery. The attendant social strife comes in conjunction with a rapidly worsening mix of economic inequality and multiple environmental crises. In India, the present ruling dispensation poses a most significant threat to the paradigmatic values of Indian nationalism that Gandhi did so much to shape and define. But Gandhi’s life-work also offers us resources and understanding that will help in contending with these overlapping crises.


Finely textured, archivally rich and written in an accessible manner, Gandhi provides a resolutely balanced treatment of its subject’s life, his achievements, limitations and failings. It will remain an important resource for those who wish to learn about one of the most fascinating and consequential lives in history.


Venu Madhav Govindu ( is writing a thematic history of Gandhi’s life centred on the 1930s. He teaches at the Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

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