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A Different Gandhi

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Gandhi with his grandnieces Abha and Manu, whom he called his ‘walking sticks,’ Birla House, New Delhi, 1947

The eradication of “untouchability” became a cardinal point of his campaign; the other three of the “four pillars” being the alliance of Hindus and Muslims, promotion of handloom fabrics to promote a self-sustaining industry, and nonviolence in both tactics and discipline. This was to be his dharma, what the historian Judith Brown has called “morality in action.”

In his usual way, he established an ashram, a commune, with family and friends, in Wardha, where he insisted on his rules being observed scrupulously, but there were many rebellions: his wife Kasturba found it hard to live with members of the “untouchable” caste and especially objected to cleaning their chamber pots, a defiance Gandhi found unforgivable. He also berated her severely for entering a temple that refused admission to “untouchables.” He himself rarely visited a temple and never to pray. He led a march to the ancient temple of Vaikom in Travancore that not only forbade “untouchables” from entering but from walking on roads that led to it. Gandhi could not even get past the signs excluding them. He was granted an audience with the priests but it had to be held elsewhere and his demands were firmly set aside. He left defeated and it was more radical leaders like T.K. Madhavan and George Joseph who carried on the campaign.

Ironically, too, Gandhi failed to make a partner in the fight against “untouchability” of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, himself an “untouchable” but a highly educated one with degrees in law and economics who was, like Gandhi, invited to a Round Table Conference on India in London in 1931. Gandhi immediately alienated him by offering “to share the honor…of representing the interests of untouchables.” Ambedkar responded icily, “I fully represent the claims of my community.” He believed that “untouchables were keepers of their own destiny and deserved their own movement.” Gandhi could not approve of a separate electorate for them. He feared that “special representation for untouchables would work to perpetuate untouchability…. ‘Will untouchables remain untouchables in perpetuity?’” In exasperation, Ambedkar finally advocated mass conversion from Hinduism to a religion with no caste system as a solution; this only baffled Gandhi.

As chief executive of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi saw that to create a national party with one national aspiration it was necessary to include the Muslim minority in pursuing the common ground of swaraj, or self-rule. In South Africa he had had good relations with Muslims, but in India he struggled. He had, Lelyveld writes, acquired early Muslim supporters in the Ali brothers, Muhammad and Shaukat, and sympathized with their cause, the return of the Ottoman Caliphate, although this was considered quixotic even by some Muslims and certainly displeased the British. They put the brothers in jail, and in Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk dissolved the Caliphate and sent the last sultan into exile, spelling the end of the so-called Khilafat movement in India. As for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, a partnership could have developed—both men were from Gujarat and had been trained as lawyers in England—but they had little else in common and Jinnah could not conceal his suspicion that the Congress Party was interested only in the establishment of the Hindu raj.

Then there was Gandhi’s ardent espousal of the spinning wheel as an instrument of release from the enforced import of British-made cloth. It provided a popular symbol, but it also set off violent riots when mobs took to burning imported goods, and, as Lelyveld writes, no less a patriot than the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore pronounced it a misguided and doomed campaign. It was Tagore who had given Gandhi the honorific of Mahatma—Great Soul—and Gandhi in return had named him the Great Sentinel, but for all their praise of each other, they had little in common—one an artist and aristocrat, the other an ascetic and a populist. Tagore was appalled by Gandhi’s illogical and unscientific claim that the earthquake that struck Bihar in 1934 was punishment for the sin of untouchability.

As leader of the Congress Party it was for Gandhi to reconcile all these factions and their jostling demands and conflicts. An occasion for unified action was provided in 1919 when British police fired on an unarmed gathering of protesters in Jallianwalla Bagh, an enclosed space in Amritsar, killing many hundreds. The reaction was widespread, and Gandhi launched his non-cooperation movement, asking judges and lawyers to boycott courts, students their schools, and soldiers their units while recipients of medals and honors were asked to return them—as Tagore did his knighthood forthwith. In their effort to halt the movement the British placed Gandhi in prison.

They continued to do so for his acts of defiance, but this in no way diminished his influence. He would start to fast in prison and the nation would hold its breath till he agreed to suspend it. As his body dwindled, Lelyveld observes, his political and spiritual power increased. The fast joined the spinning wheel as a distinctly Gandhian symbol of protest. In 1930 his genius for the inspired and inspiring gesture made him lead a march of two hundred miles from his ashram to Dandi on the Arabian Sea, crowds lining the road to cheer him. With “the beauty and simplicity of a fresh artistic vision,” Lelyveld writes, he bent to pick a handful of salt on the beach in defiance of British taxation of even so lowly and indispensable a commodity. Sarojini Naidu cried, “Hail, Deliverer!” The police arrived with batons, heads were cracked, and Gandhi was sent back to prison in May 1930. Jawaharlal Nehru, the future leader of the Congress Party and India’s first prime minister, commented, “What the future will bring I know not, but the past has made life worth living and our prosaic existence has developed something of epic greatness in it.”

Moments of triumph contain in them the seeds of disintegration. Gandhi, released from prison in January 1931, could not hold the movement together with such gestures, however powerful. A weary Gandhi sought a kind of self-imposed exile, retiring to a small village in the west of India in the summer of 1936, but an ashram (Sevagram, or “Village of Service”) quickly sprung up around him.

At the outbreak of World War II he proposed to support the British war effort, but this was rejected by the Congress Party, which offered no more than support conditional on Britain granting India independence. That was turned down by the Tory government, Churchill making his famous comment that he had not become prime minister to preside over the disintegration of the British Empire. Calls for the British to “Quit India!” then became the rallying cry for one last hard push to obtain freedom. Gandhi was once again placed in detention—in the Aga Khan’s former palace near Poona; his poor wife, still loyally following, was to die there.

Gandhi was released in 1944 and the British government, exhausted by the war and soon to be under a Labour cabinet, hoped for a compromise to which all factions in India would agree. Gandhi left immediately for Bombay to negotiate with Jinnah, who now saw a separate Muslim nation as the only solution. Crowds stoned the train carrying Gandhi, trying to prevent him from making concessions; but Jinnah remained adamant and the partition of India became inevitable. Riots and mob violence between Hindus and Muslims raged through the country. Instead of staying in the capital for the victory celebrations set to take place in August 1947, Gandhi left for Calcutta, leaving it to Nehru to unfurl the national flag at the Red Fort and give his famous speech about a “Tryst with Destiny,” saying that the joyful cries of “Jai Hind!“—Glory to India!—“stink in my nostrils.”

One of the last and most moving sections of Lelyveld’s book has Gandhi in early 1947 walking barefoot from village to village—forty-seven in all—in the Muslim-majority area of Noakhali with his followers, now a small band, singing the Tagore song “Ekla Chalo”—“If no one answers your call, walk alone, walk alone.” The strangest act in this drama, as Lelyveld makes clear, is Gandhi’s choice of such a time for one last “experiment with truth”: he requested the presence of a nephew’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Manu, to come to the stinking, blood-stained scene of carnage and minister to his physical needs—overseeing his diet, giving him his daily bath and oil massage, but also to sleep beside him on his cot, wearing as little clothing as possible, if any, to test his commitment to celibacy. He seems to have thought that if he could subdue the impulse to animal arousal in his body, then the country could subdue its lust for violence. Unable to follow the connection Gandhi had always made between sex and violence, abstinence and nonviolence, even his most devoted followers were shocked, and many left.

The end came in 1947 when Manu asked for permission to leave and Gandhi was persuaded to travel to Delhi, where the new constitution was being drawn up—under the guidance of no other than Dr. Ambedkar. Gandhi seemed to have no interest in making a contribution. Instead, he spent his time praying and fasting in the house of his old friend, the rich industrialist G.D. Birla—for security reasons, he could not stay as he usually did in the scavengers’ colony—while outside Sikhs who had lost their lands to Pakistan were chanting “Death to Gandhi!” and “Blood for blood!” At the nightly prayer meetings that he held in the garden, the orthodox Hindu editor Nahuram Godse, who had been writing fiery articles denouncing what he saw as Gandhi’s pandering to Muslims, brought with him a concealed weapon—Gandhi had refused to let the police search those who attended these meetings—and, pushing aside Manu, who accompanied Gandhi, shot him point-blank. It is said that he fell with the name of God, “Rama, Rama,” on his lips as he had told Manu he hoped to; in fact, he had seemed to be courting death. If ever there was A Chronicle of a Death Foretold, it was his.

He was cremated amid scenes of unparalleled chaos, confusion, and grief, millions attending his funeral—the ultimate irony: it was a state funeral with full military honors—and his ashes were scattered across India and, in 2010, a small portion off the coast of Durban in South Africa. Nehru took over the leadership, making it clear that “Congress has now to govern, not to oppose government.” Central to his vision were a modern military and rapid industrialization. But even he could not have foreseen how thoroughly his vision would overtake Gandhi’s.

When Lelyveld went in search of what might remain of Gandhi, what he found, aside from many archives and letters, were a few pathetic objects in dusty museums—a creaky spinning wheel, garlanded photographs of “The Father of the Nation”—and a few loyal Gandhians still living lives of sacrifice and service against all odds. Yet much remains that Gandhi would recognize as the “eternal India” of poverty and tradition. In the district of Noakhali Lelyveld found the village of Srirampur, where Gandhi had taken refuge, becalmed as if time had come to a halt. Sunlight filters through the palms, rice paddies surround it, men lounge around the tea shop. At the mention of Gandhi’s name, someone steps forward to point out the sites associated with him—this was where his hut once stood, this the shrine under a banyan tree where he had lingered:

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