Daily Archives: 9 November 2008

Gandhi: Obstacle to National Independence?

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 96-97:

But probably the most surprising obstacle to Indian independence was the man who was widely supposed to be leading the campaign for it: Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi’s need for spotless moral perfection hamstrung his party’s progress. His principal object was to make the Indian people worthy of freedom in the eyes of God. The object of actually achieving freedom from the British was secondary. Gandhi’s most influential work, Hind swaraj, published in 1908, set out very clearly his point of view: that European civilization was corrupt, atheist and destructive, but that merely driving the British out of India would not serve to make India free. To be free, Indians needed to relinquish violence, material possessions, machinery, railways, lawyers, doctors, formal education, the English language, discord between Hindu and Muslim, alcohol and sex. It is for this reason that his campaigns so often faltered. Gandhi stood for virtue in a form purer than politics usually allows. Whenever he had to make a choice between virtue and politics, he always chose virtue. He strove for universal piety, continence and humility, regardless of the consequences. Even if a person were faced with death, or a group with obliteration, he would sanction no compromise of moral integrity. It is impossible to assess how the Indian nationalist struggle might have proceeded without Gandhi, but there are ample grounds for thinking that a more earthly campaign led by a united Congress, perhaps under the joint leadership of Motilal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, could have brought dominion status to India in the 1920s. Gandhi ‘s spiritual style of leadership was a source of inspiration to millions, but, politically speaking, it was erratic. Within Congress, too, it created divisions. Congress was not a church, and Gandhi’s mystical judgments were often difficult even for his closest followers to accept.

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Gandhi: Too Saintly for the Good of Others?

From Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Emperor, by Alex von Tunzelmann (Picador, 2008), pp. 40-41:

Few political figures have been so widely misunderstood as Gandhi, in his own time or today. He emerged at a time when monarchies were falling and communism loomed; he was contemporary with Lenin. To many listeners, aware of the march of events in Russia, Gandhi’s speech sounded like a rallying cry to Indian socialism, with its talk of the casting off of jewels and the power of the workers. This was, indeed, the reason that young radicals like Jawahar [Nehru] were so attracted to him. But a closer examination of Gandhi’s words reveals something different, and much more profoundly religious. He had confronted the moral behavior of society, not its structure. Gandhi called for the princes to stop wearing their finery and instead “hold it in trust” for their subjects. This is not the same thing at all as telling the masses to rise up and seize it. Gandhi was not challenging the princes’ right to hold wealth, nor even their right to reign. He was asking for a change of heart.

Gandhi’s condemnation of princely luxury was part of a much broader preoccupation with returning India to what he supposed had been a prehistoric “golden age” of godliness, simplicity and humility. He had begun to reject Western ideals of progress and technology, and insisted that India’s future lay in a return to simple village life, not industrialization. As a symbol of this, he adopted hand-spinning on a wooden wheel and used only khadi—hand-spun—textiles. He developed a distaste for the synthesized drugs and surgery which he associated with Western medicine, describing them as “black magic.” Doctors, he believed, “violate our religious instinct” by prioritizing the body over the mind and curing diseases that people had deserved by their conduct. Lawyers, meanwhile, had propped up British rule by espousing British law and were like “leeches” on the people, their profession “just as degrading as prostitution.”

This position had fueled continual conflict in his own family life. Unsurprisingly, he was far from supportive of his sons’ ambitions to pursue careers in medicine or law. “I know too that you have sometimes felt that your education was being neglected,” Mohandas wrote to his third son, Manilal. But, he contended, “education does not mean a knowledge of letters but it means character building. It means a knowledge of duty.” His eldest son, Harilal, fared worse. After Mohandas denied him a legal scholarship to London, he ran away from home, married a woman without his father’s consent, was disinherited and ended up unemployed, destitute and bitter. When Manilal tried to lend Harilal money, Mohandas was so furious that he banished Manilal from his presence for a year. Manilal ended up homeless, sleeping on a beach.

It is not easy being a saint, and it is perhaps even less so to live with one. “All of us brothers have been treated as a ringmaster would treat his trained animals,” Harilal wrote to his father in the course of a twelve-page letter deploring Mohandas’s treatment of his wife and sons. And yet, to a wider audience beyond his immediate family, Gandhi’s charisma, determination and fearlessness were inspiring.

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