India: Renaissance or Continuity?

Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi; drawing by David Levine

Gandhi lived too long. Returning to India from South Africa in 1915, at the age of forty-five, holding himself aloof from the established politicians of the time, involving himself with communities and groups hitherto untouched by politics, taking up purely local causes here and there (a land tax, a mill strike), he then very quickly, from 1919 to 1930, drew all India together in a new kind of politics.

Not everyone approved of Gandhi’s methods. Many were dismayed by the apparently arbitrary dictates of his “inner voice.” And in the political stalemate of the 1930s—for which some Indians still blame him: Gandhi’s unpredictable politics, they say, his inability to manage the forces he had released, needlessly lengthened out the Independence struggle, delayed self-government by twenty-five years, and wasted the lives and talents of many good men—in the 1930s the management of Indian politics passed into other hands.

Gandhi himself (like Tolstoy, his early inspiration) declined into a long and ever more private mahatmahood. The obsessions were always made public, but they were personal, like his—again almost Tolstoyan—sexual anxieties in old age, after forty years of abstinence. This period of decline was the period of his greatest fame; so that, even while he lived, “he became his admirers.” He became his emblems, his holy caricature, the object of competitive piety. Knowledge of the man as a man was lost; mahatmahood submerged all the ambiguities and the political creativity of his early years, the modernity (in India) of so much of his thought. He was claimed in the end by old India, that very India whose political deficiencies he had seen so clearly, with his South African eye.

What was new about him then was not the semi-religious nature of his politics; that was in the Indian tradition. What made him new was the nature of the battles he had fought in South Africa. And what was most revolutionary and un-Indian about him was what he left unexpressed and what perhaps, as an Indian, he had no means of expressing: his racial sense, the sense of belonging to a people specifically of the Indian subcontinent that the twenty years in South Africa had taught him.

The racial sense is alien to Indians. Race is something they detect about others, but among themselves they know only the sub-caste or caste, the clan, the gens, the language group. Beyond that they cannot go; they do not see themselves as belonging to an Indian race; the words have no meaning. Historically, this absence of cohesiveness has been the calamity of India. In South Africa, as Gandhi soon saw, it was the great weakness of the small Indian community, embattled but fragmented, the wealthy Gujarati Moslem merchants calling themselves “Arabs,” the Indian Christians claiming only their Christianity, both separating themselves from the indentured laborers of Madras and Bihar, all subjected as Indians to the same racial…

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