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India: Renaissance or Continuity?

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 laws.

If it was in London as a law student that Gandhi decided that he was a Hindu by conviction, it was in South Africa that he added to this the development of a racial consciousness, that consciousness without which a disadvantaged or persecuted minority can be utterly destroyed, and which with Gandhi in South Africa was like an extension of his religious sense: teaching responsibility and compassion, teaching that no man was an island, and that the dignity of the high was bound up with the dignity of the low.

His Hindu nationalism spoils everything,” Tolstoy said of Gandhi in 1910, while Gandhi was still in South Africa. It is obvious in Gandhi’s autobiography, this growing, un-Indian awareness of an Indian group identity. It is there in his early dismay at the indifference of the Gujarati merchants to proposed anti-Indian legislation; in his shock at the appearance in his office of an indentured Tamil laborer who had been beaten up by his employer; and the shock and dismay are related to his own humiliations during his first journey to Pretoria in 1893, when he was twenty-three. Gandhi never forgot that night journey to Pretoria; more than thirty years later he spoke of it as the turning point of his life. But the racial theme is never acknowledged as such in the autobiography. It is always blurred over by religious self-searching, “experiments with truth,” attempts at the universal; though for twenty years, until early middle age, he was literally a racial leader, fighting racial battles; and it was as a racial leader that he returned to India, an oddity among the established politicians, to whom “Indian” was only a word, each man with his own regional or caste power base.

Indians were not a minority in India; racial politics of the sort Gandhi knew in South Africa would not have been understood. And at least some of the ambiguities of his early days in India can be traced back to his wish to repeat his South African racial-religious experience, to get away from the divisive politics of religion and caste and region: his seemingly perverse insistence that India was not ready for self-government, that India had to purge itself of its own injustices first, his mystical definitions of self-government, his emphasis on the removal of untouchability, his support of trivial Moslem issues in order to draw Moslems and Hindus together.

He had no means, in India, of formulating the true racial lessons of South Africa; and perhaps he couldn’t have done so, any more than he could have described what he had seen as a young man in London in 1888. The racial message always merged in the religious one; and it involved him in what looked like contradictions (against untouchability, but not against the caste system; a passionate Hindu, but preaching unity with the Moslems). The difficult lessons of South Africa were simplified and simplified in India: ending as a holy man’s fad for doing the latrine-cleaning work of untouchables, seen only as an exercise in humility, ending as a holy man’s plea for brotherhood and love, ending as nothing.

In the 1930s the Moslems fell away from Gandhi and turned to their own Moslem leaders, preaching the theory of two nations. In 1947 the country was partitioned, and many millions were killed and many more millions expelled from their ancestral land: as great a holocaust as that caused by Nazi Germany. And in 1948 Gandhi was killed by a Hindu for having undermined and betrayed Hindu India. Irony upon irony; but the South African Indian had long ago been lost in the Hindu mahatma; and mahatmahood in the end had worked against his Indian cause.

Jamnalal Bajaj, a pious Hindu of a northern merchant caste, was one of Gandhi’s earliest financial backers in India. He gave the land and the money for the famous ashram Gandhi founded at Wardha, a village chosen because it was in the center of India. Bajaj died in 1942; and his window, honoring his memory, gave away a lot of money to cow-protection societies. Ved Mehta recently went to interview the old lady for his book Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles. After Gandhi’s death in 1948, Mrs. Bajaj said, she had transferred her loyalty to Vinoba Bhave, the man recognized as Gandhi’s successor. “I walked with Vinobaji for years,” Mrs. Bajaj told Mehta. “Ten or fifteen miles a day, begging land for the poor. It was very hard, changing camp every day, because I never eat anything I haven’t prepared with my own hands. Everyone knows that Moslems and Harijans [“God’s children,” Gandhi’s word for untouchables] have dirty habits.” And the old lady, who had been chewing something, spat.

But the end was contained in the beginning. “For me there can be no deliverance from this earthly life except in India. Anyone who seeks such deliverance…must go to the sacred soil of India. For me, as for everyone else, the land of India is the ‘refuge of the afflicted.”’ This passage—which is quoted by Judith M. Brown in her study of Gandhi’s entry into Indian politics, Gandhi’s Rise to Power (1972)—comes from an article Gandhi wrote for his South African paper in 1914, at the very end of his time in South Africa, just before he returned to India by way of England. After the racial battles, the South African leader, with his now developed antipathy to Western industrial civilization, was returning to India as to the Hindu holy land: even at the beginning, then, he was already too various, and people had to find in him what they wanted to find, or what they could most easily grasp.

Judith Brown quotes a letter to a relative, written a few months before the newspaper article: “The real secret of life seems to consist in so living in the world as it is, without being attached to it, that moksha [salvation, absorption into the One, freedom from rebirth] might become easy of attainment to us and to others. This will include service of self, the family, the community, and the State.” This declaration of faith, apparently a unity, conceals at least four personalities. The Hindu dreams of nonattachment and salvation; the man exposed to Western religious thought thinks that the conduct of the individual should also make salvation easy for others; the South African Indian preaches the widest social loyalty (the community, the Indian community); the political campaigner, with his respect for (and dependence on) British law and institutions, stresses service to the state.

It was too much. Something of this complex South African ideology had to go in the holy land of India; and many things went. The racial intimations remained unexpressed; and what was utterly consumed—by holiness, the subjection of India, the lengthening out of the Independence struggle, and the mahatma’s hardening antipathy to the machine, at once the symbol of oppression and the West—what was utterly consumed was that intrusive and unmanageable idea of service to the state.

For Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s successor in independent India, the Gandhian ideal is the “withering away” of the state. Or so he said many years ago. What does it mean, the withering away of the state? It means nothing. It means this: “Our first step will be to get Gram-Raj (government by the village): then lawsuits and disputes will be judged and settled within the village. Next it will be Ram-Raj (the Kingdom of God): then there will no longer be any lawsuits or disputes, and we shall all live as one family.” Bhave said that more than twenty years ago (the quotation is from an admiring biography by an Italian., published in London in 1956). And something like that is still being said by others today, in the more desperate circumstances of the Emergency. “Wanted: a Gandhian Constitution” is the title of a recent article in The Illustrated Weekly of India, which, since the Emergency, has been running a debate about the Indian constitution. The writer, a former state governor and ambassador, merely makes the plea for village government; he also takes the occasion to talk about his acquaintance with Gandhi; and the article is illustrated by a photograph of the writer and his wife sitting on the floor and using a quern, grinding their daily corn together in pious idleness.

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