Gandhi Before India
Ramachandra Guha
Allen Lane   672pp   £30

Mohandas Gandhi has always generated partisan feelings. Gandhi was barely 37 years old when a follower christened him Mahatma, the great souled one. The term is now so universal that in India those who do not use it are seen as anti-Gandhi and anti-Indian. However, many have never bought into this saint-like picture. During the war, after Gandhi called the British to quit India, the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, told Winston Churchill that he had always considered Gandhi a ‘humbug’. As for Churchill, such was his obsession to prove that his Indian nemesis was a cheat that in his memoirs published in 1951, four years after India was free and three years after Gandhi’s assassination, Churchill claimed that during his 1943 fast, while in a British jail, Gandhi mixed glucose with water. Only vehement denials from Gandhi’s doctors forced Churchill to withdraw the allegation from future editions. Even George Orwell, no friend of empires, wondered if Gandhi was a modern-day Rasputin. More than a generation later the passions have not cooled. So while Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi burnished the image of the Mahatma, there are many keen to prove that the saint had clay feet. Indeed in 2011, following lurid comments in a book suggesting Gandhi might have had a homosexual relationship with his Jewish friend Hermann Kallenbach, the Indian government considered banning its publication.

Guha approaches his subject as an admirer, although yet another book on Gandhi seems an overkill. Guha argues that, while we know much of what Gandhi thought, we do not know enough of what the world around him thought. This volume deals with his first 45 years, from his birth to his long sojourn in South Africa, to his return to India in 1915, hence the title. Guha argues that too little attention has been paid to this phase of his life despite the fact that it was crucial in the making of the figure we came to know, not least in developing the all-important concept of Satyagraha, passive resistance, as an instrument to fight oppressive legislation.

Guha’s research cannot be doubted and he does not gloss over uncomfortable facts. So Gandhi went to South Africa because, despite being an Inner Temple lawyer, he could find no work in India. And for all his talk of loving his enemies (he formed remarkable friendships with many Europeans, even as he fought European racism) in private he found it impossible to love his sons. While Gandhi made the Asians believe that they had some dignity as human beings and should not meekly submit to serfdom in a land eternally ruled by whites, Gandhi accepted that Europeans were the superior race. Also he had little time for the Africans, who, in keeping with the usage of the times, he referred to as kaffirs. However, as Guha rightly emphasises, Gandhi’s views on Africans evolved. Having begun by accepting a racial hierarchy of Europeans on the top, Indians second and Africans at the bottom, by 1908, after nearly 15 years in South Africa, he hoped that there could be a ‘co-mingling’ of races. If this was not quite the rainbow nation that Nelson Mandela created nearly a century later, Gandhi did see Satyagraha as a vehicle for Africans.

Gandhi was also in advance of Churchill, who in 1906 made it clear to him that ‘the practice of allowing European, Asiatic and native families to live side by side in [a] mixed community is fraught with evils’.

However Guha does not sustain his thesis that Gandhi’s Satyagraha is a ready answer to all oppressive regimes, from racism in the US Deep South to those seeking to bring down the Berlin Wall and the battles for democracy in the Arab Spring.

Passive resistance works only when an oppressive regime does not use unrestrained force. So, even as the white South Africa leader, Jan Smuts, jailed Gandhi, he confessed he could not use brutal force. In contrast, Hitler advised Lord Halifax to shoot Gandhi and keep on shooting until passive resistance was crushed. Gandhi did not understand the difference and Guha does not even tackle the question.


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