I have just finished reading a 660 page biography of Mahatma Gandhi. Its author, Rajmohan Gandhi, is one of his grandsons, a noted historian.
Gandhi was an idealist with a highly original mind. After a childhood in Gujarat (part of western India), he studied in London and became a barrister. After a brief return to India, Gandhi set off for South Africa to dwork as a barrister. He remained in South Africa for many years, managing his legal practice and fighting for the rights of Indians living in the country – actually, countries as South Africa was only unified in 1910. His struggles for the rights of the Indians was the proving ground for methods of non-violent revolution which he brought to India when he returned there for good in 1915.
It is no exaggeration to claim that Gandhi’s activities and his saintly persona, more than anything else, prepared the Indian masses for a desire to become liberated from the yoke of British imperial rule. Rajmohan Gandhi describes and explains this lucidly. So great was the respect for Gandhi all over India, that he was able to resolve numerous problems with the government or between different communities simply by fasting. He was willing to starve himself to death, but neither the British authorities nor most Indians were prepared to lose him. So, they gave in to his not unreasonable demands. His mass non-violent protests that were joined by thousands of ordinary people, who were prepared to be imprisoned or to be beaten by the police without offering resistance, often achieved their aims.
By the mid-1940s, the situation in India was such that the British began planning to leave it. During the lead up to Independence in August 1947 and after the Partition of India and the formation of the new state of Pakistan, India was plagued by excessively violent inter-communal conflicts: Hindus vs Muslims and Sikhs vs Muslims. Despite numerous fasts, Gandhi was unable to keep the peoples of India unified.
Gandhi’s ideals included seeing India achieve its independence. He was also keen to maintain harmony between members of India’s different religions. He did witness India’s freedom from the British, but had to suffer in the knowledge that despite his efforts, Independence was achieved whilst inter-communal violence kept increasing.
There were many in India who did not share Gandhi’s desire for inter-religious harmony. Amongst these were the so-called ‘Hindu nationalists’. It was a group of them who assasinated the Mahatma in 1948 at one of his prayer meetings in New Delhi.
Rajmohan Gandhi’s account of his famous grandfather is thorough. It gives a good idea of the Mahatma’s personality and his brilliance with dealing with everyone from the humblest harijan (‘untouchable’ or ‘dalit’) to the most pompous of politicians both Indian and British.
In brief, this book is first class and I can strongly reccommend it.
The book described above deals with the Mahatma’s rather eccentric, to put it mildly, relationship with women. However, it avoids mentioning his prejudices aagainst black Africans during the first few years of his sojourn in South Africa. No one is perfect! As he grew older, he could no longer be accused of holding racist views.