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Mainstream, VOL L, No 8, February 11, 2012

A Prejudiced View of Mahatma Gandhi Sixty Years after his Death

Tuesday 14 February 2012, by P R Dubhashi



Catching Up with Gandhi by Graham Turner; 2010; pages 344; Rs 350.
Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld; Harper Collins Publishers; 2011; pages 452; Rs 699.

More than sixty years after Mahatma Gandhi has left the scene, two of his biographies have appeared—one by Graham Turner, a British journalist, and the other by Joseph Lelyveld, a journalist in America. What purpose do they serve? Do they tell us anything remarkable to enable a significant reassessment of his life and achievement?

The special feature of Turner’s book is that while writing his account of the Mahatma’s life, he visited the places where Mahtma Gandhi lived and worked and was accompanied by his grandson, the well-known author Rajmohan Gandhi.

The special feature of both the books is a detailed account of his life in South Africa where he worked as a young lawyer but over the next two decades emerged as the Mahatma-in-the-making by standing alone at the beginning for self-respect in the face of racial, arrogant and tyrant White rulers and creating the sense of self-respect amongst the Indians, whether businessmen or indentured labour, and mobilising them to launch a non-violent struggle for their legitimate rights. Not all Indians know that Gandhi had established himself as a successful and prosperous lawyer. But he gave up all the comforts of family life for the sake of his people and their self-respect and rights. He set up two farms—the Phoenix Farm near Durban and the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg —where the inmates lived a community life as in an Ashram irrespective of caste, religion or race bringing out his humanitarian outlook. Thus all the building blocks of his struggle were ready before he appeared on the Indian scene where within a few years he emerged as the undisputed leader who led the struggle for freedom in which masses of people from all parts of India participated sacrificing their personal lives. The keynote of his struggle was the need to build the unity of the Indian people overcoming all sectarian cleavages such as religion and caste. That is why Hindu-Muslim unity and abolition of untouchability were the two causes for which he stood all his life and ultimately became the victim of a rabid Hindu assassin who felt Gandhiji was the cause of Hindu interests being sacrificed at the altar of Muslim interests.

THOUGH Lelyveld’s title of the book is Great Soul, the real objective seems to be to belittle and malign the great soul brought out partially by the subtitle of the book Struggle with India drawing attention to his life-long struggle against the insanitary habits of the Indian people, against untouchability and casteism, the two despicable features which prevented Hindu unity, and advocating Hindu-Muslim unity which Gandhiji felt had to be the bedrock of the united national struggle for freedom.

Lelyveld finds fault with Gandhiji for being concerned only with the cause of Indians in Africa and not the native Africans themselves, as though Gandhi himself had anything to do with the woes of Africans! The author, while finding fault with Gandhiji, has not a word to condemn the racial arrogance which trampled the native Africans. He has even accused Gandhi of calling Africans, kafers. He forgets that in the initial years Gandhiji was just a young lawyer who had come for some professional work and could not be expected to comprehend all aspects of racial tyranny and take up all causes at the same time. What is important was that Gandhiji was the first to create a sense of awareness among the people whose freedom was forcibly snatched away and who lay prostrate before the naked exercise of power by the Whites. He was also the one who developed techniques of resistance by unarmed people—non-violence and “satyagraha”—against the militarily powerful White rulers. The struggle inspired all the oppressed humanity of the world as acknow-ledged by Dr Martin Luthur King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. That is why Dr Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of our time, rightly said that the future generations would wonder whether “such a man in flesh and blood, lived and moved on the face of the earth”.

Lelyveld loses no opportunity to slight and malign Gandhiji. In the language and style of erstwhile White Viceroys of India like Lord Wavell and Lord Willingdon, he calls Gandhi an opportunist, sly and cunning. One does not have to read his biography only to suffer such malicious utterances of those who have yet to free themselves from arrogance of race and power.

It is a great pity that apart from many of the White race who have given favourable reviews of the book, our own Amartya Sen thought it fit to say the following. “A deeply insightful analysis of the intriguing political leader of our time—a marvellous book.” The use of the term ‘marvellous’ is entirely unbecoming for a book aimed at tarnishing and slighting the ‘great soul’.

Dr Dubhashi, IAS (Retd.), is a former Secretary to the Government of India and an erstwhile Vice-Chancellor, Goa University. He is currently the Chairman, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s Pune Kendra. He can be contacted at: dubhashi@giaspn01.

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