Biography of an idealist

gandhi blog

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.

 

Postscript:

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.

Gandhi to Hitler

GTO H 2

On the 24th of December 1940 Mohandas Gandhi (the ‘Mahatma’) wrote to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Amongst other things that he wrote in his letter, the following extracts suffice to give the gist of it:

I hope you will have the time and desire to know how a good portion of humanity who have view living under the influence of that doctrine of universal friendship view your action. We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark. I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts. But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms.

But ours is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny. Our resistance to it does not mean harm to the British people. We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field. Ours is an unarmed revolt against the British rule. But whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation…

…During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attended to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.” (see: https://www.mkgandhi.org/letters/hitler_ltr1.htm).

I do not think that this unbelievable letter ever reached the Führer. However, it formed the basis for a film, which was on general release in India briefly.

G TO H

[Source: MensXP.com]

In 2011, an Indian film, “Gandhi to Hitler”, was put out on general release in India. One newspaper accorded it a rating of half a star out of five. We were staying in Bangalore when it was showing, and I was dying to see a film whose name juxtaposed the peace-loving Gandhi with the war-mongering Adolf Hitler.

Only one cinema was showing the film in Bangalore. It was a long way from where we were staying. We arrived for the 10 am performance and joined a long queue of school-aged children waiting at the box office of the cinema multiplex. When we reached the ticket office, I said to the ticket seller:

“Two for the Gandhi/Hitler film.”

“Not possible, sir,” came the reply.

“Why not?”

“I must sell three tickets before we can screen a film, and you are only two.”

“But,” I protested, “we have come all the way from London to see this film.”

I thought for a moment, and then said:

“Sell me three tickets, and then you can screen the film.”

The seller was happy with this. We walked over to the lift that would take us up to the cinema. While we were waiting, the ticket man came rushing up to us, waving one of the notes with which we had paid for our tickets. He had managed to find a third taker for the film and refunded our third ticket.

Apart from an usher, there were only three of us in the large auditorium. The film was so dreadful that it was quite amusing. The plot had three main strands that ran in parallel. The first was Gandhi and his followers walking endlessly around a lovely garden. One of the followers was the wife of a man, who appears in the second strand. This aspect of the plot revolved around a group of Indian soldiers who had joined the German Army but were trying to desert from it. For those who are unaware of it, some Indian soldiers did actually join the Wehrmacht during WW2, hoping that a German defeat of the British might hasten the independence of India. Throughout the film, this forlorn band of soldiers trudged through a snowy mountainous landscape that was supposed to be the Alps but looked more like the Himalayas. Somehow, quite inexplicably, the woman in India was able to correspond by letters with the soldier tramping through the ‘Alps’.

The third strand of the film, which had no obvious connection with the other two strands, was set in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin during the last days of the Third Reich. Anyone who has watched the excellent film “Downfall” (2004) would be able to see that the bunker in the Indian film is a very crude copy of that in the German film. Unlike Adolf Hitler, the man portraying him in the Indian film is a true Aryan, an Indian. Goebbels is played by a character who looks like an elegant Italian. The Indian Hitler kept forgetting which of his arms was supposed to be lame.

There was an interval half way through the film. We left the auditorium to stretch our legs. When we returned for the second half of the film, my wife and I were the only people left in the auditorium.