March 2024

A man for all ages

William Crawley assesses a new work on Gandhi that aims to revive interest in the Mahatma, his achievements and philosophies among India’s younger generations

There is no shortage of books about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi –apparently some eleven thousand, and counting –and the emergence of another one may call for a brief explanation. MJ Akbar’s own scholarly and insightful contribution on the Mahatma, Gandhi’s Hinduism; The Struggle against Jinnah’s Islam, was published only three years ago and reviewed in these very pages at the time.

So why more?

An Indian Muslim, Akbar is a prolific journalist and author, co-founder and influential editorof two successful national newspapers. He then turned politician and legislator, successive lyre presenting both the Indian National Congress –historically Gandhi’s former fief –and the confessedly Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Kunwar Natwar Singh, who wrote the Foreword for this book, turned from diplomacy to politics, first with Congress, then breaking, moving back and breaking again, with a career  peak as Foreign Minister from 2004-5.

Neither Natwar Singh nor MJ Akbar would be described as ‘Gandhians’ in the usual sense of followers who adopt both Gandhi’s principles and way of life. But they share a deep interest in Gandhi’s life, personality, religious beliefs, political tactics and achievements. They believe ayounger generation of Indians – the 18-35 age group – have forgotten or neglected Gandhi’s moral influence and largely lost interest in him.With this in mind, their idea was to collaborate in writing a book which could help revive that interest.

In his Foreword, Natwar Singh explains that, for reasons outside his control (perhaps that he is now almost 95 years old), his own desire to contribute more could not be realised, and he commends Akbar for fulfilling their joint objective.

Natwar recalls the one occasion when he saw Gandhi in person. It was June 1945 and the train in which Gandhi was travelling stopped for five minutes in his home town of Bharatpur. Wearing the white khadi hat of a true Congressman, Natwar had dodged the crowds andscrambled over the bogeys of Gandhi’s train to catch a darshan of the great man. He had hoped for the Mahatma’s autograph but it was Gandhi’s day of silence and the young Natwar was chased away by Gandhi’s forbidding secretary Pyare Lal. It was a treasured moment.The 16-year-old Natwar had a different perspective on politics from his father, a scion of the ruling Jat family of the small princely state in what was to become the state of Rajasthan. We are told that he respected Gandhi but was not a follower or advocate of Gandhi’s political methods.

In telling this story, Natwar underlines the appeal that Gandhi had for his generation. To persuade the current generation of young Indians, he and Akbar emphasise the humanity and humour of Gandhi’s character, along with his iron determination and moral strength. This strength was founded on his religious conviction. His invention of the concept of Satyagraha, or ‘truth-force’,and appeal to the older concept of ahimsa(non-violence)is often equated with ‘passive resistance’.Yet Gandhi rejected that firmly as implying that it was a strategy born of weakness.

Gandhi A Life in Three Campaigns by MJ Akbar
Gandhi: A Life in Three Campaignsby MJ Akbar;Foreword by K Natwar Singh) Published by Bloomsbury India 2023 h/b, pp xvi +250, £13.99 ISBN HB 978-93-56404-07-6; also available as an e-book

Although they are in large measure Gandhi’s heirs, few of those who organise peaceful protests today, either globally or in India itself, put religion at the heart of their strategy. In presenting Gandhi for a new generation, this account aims to show that the three major political campaigns of his life – Non-cooperation from 1921-22, the Satyagraha against the Salt Tax in 1930,and the Quit India movement of 1942 –were transformative. But they were not the whole of Gandhi’s contribution to Indian independence and his belief in them was not unchallenged.  As Partition and independence approached, Gandhi’s political authority was openly ignored, Other central tenets of his life – spinning, vegetarianism. sexual abstinence –  had a powerful symbolic importance, but many of his followers ceased to pay more than lip service to them.

Gandhi’s sharp wit and sense of humour, as well as the personal touch that he brought to his relationship with friends and enemies alike, are amply demonstrated in this book.It draws heavily on Gandhi’s own voluminous personal correspondence and the record of conversations preserved by those who were closest to him. His autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, written in 1927, is almost uniquely frank about the most personal aspects of his life, and this overwhelming openness – even to the embarrassment of his family and friends – continued throughout his life. Few public figures have matched it then or since.

Without impugning Gandhi’s motive, Akbar’s previous book fully described the controversies over Gandhi sharing a chaste bed with his 19-year-old grand-niece as a test of his ability to control his own powerful sexual drive. This new book includes an account, previously omitted or not widely known, of what is described, appropriately in modern terms, as a ‘mid-life crisis’.When Gandhi was fifty he became, by his own account, infatuated with the beautiful and talented niece of Rabindranath Tagore, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani. She was only three years younger than him and married. Although he contemplated divorce from his wife, the devoted and long-suffering Kasturba, the friendship with Sarala remained platonic and eventually died down, though it left a lasting effect on both.

Few willtry to imitate Gandhi’s saintliness, but theopenness and humanity of this extraordinary and often infuriating man can be appreciated by readers of any age and culture. The book is thought-provoking and a pleasure to read.

William Crawley is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London