New scholarship on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi compels one to look afresh at findings and corroborate the old with the new, even if the latter are rather uncomplimentary to the persona of the “Father of the Nation”. Arundhati Roy, Ashwin Desai and Goolam H. Vahed, to name a few, have all found good reason to show Gandhiji in a bad light.
Gandhi’s opposition to untouchables being treated as a political entity and given separate constituencies and his reasons for that stance has been defended exhaustively. But even according to his supporter authors, his actions and reasoning were not always acceptable to his friends. In the context of Gandhi’s hungerstrike demanding the withdrawal of the proposed Communal Award by the British government, C.F. Andrews, who was close to Gandhi, wrote from Birmingham: “I cannot think that you are not understanding how strong the sentiment of moral revulsion to this matter of your fast-unto-death is over here.”
Gandhiji’s biographer B.R. Nanda argues that the British Prime Minister had no understanding either of the humanism or of the concern Gandhiji had for the untouchables when he objected to not just the reason for fast-unto-death and even expressed doubt about his intentions. He quotes, “To the extent I am understanding your line of thinking, you are not taking recourse to the extreme path of fast-unto-death so that untouchables get the right to vote jointly with other Hindus because this has already been provided for by the constitution — not even to keep intact Hindu unity because this has also been arranged for. You are doing it solely because the untouchables, who are acknowledged victims of huge deprivations, should not be able to elect the few representatives who, on their behalf, can raise their voice in a significant manner in the constituent assembles.” (B.R. Nanda’s Mahatma Gandhi, translated into Urdu by Ali Jawad Zaidi, Tarraqi Urdu Bureau, New Delhi, pages 374, 372.)
In his 1955 interview to the BBC, Bhimrao Ambedkar expresses similar thoughts. He asserts that because he met Gandhiji as an opponent, he understood him better. He calls for a thorough study to be done of Gandhiji’s writings in English language periodicals Young India and Harijan and the Gujarati Deen Bandhu to understand the duality of Gandhi’s public posturing.
Ambedkar states rather correctly that British Prime Minister Clement Attlee’s sudden decision to give India Independence came about more due to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose than due to Gandhi. Kingshuk Nag, in his book Netaji: Living Dangerously, also agrees with this theory.
Nag also gives us to understand that the marginalisation of Netaji in the Congress, leading to his resignation as president, was by the coterie owing allegiance to Gandhi. The issue was Netaji’s insistence on non-formation of a federal government on the grounds that it could weaken India’s bargaining power and delay Independence.
Thus Gandhiji served the British purpose well, especially around wartime.
Ambedkar felt that Gandhi wanted to instil a sense of belonging amongst the untouchables for the limited purpose of not delaying Swaraj. Swaraj, without sorting out the issue of political empowerment of the untouchables, would leave them at the mercy of the same oppressive, upper caste Hindus, Ambedkar prophesied.
Arundhati Roy feels that Gandhi worked for the removal of untouchability without the elimination of the caste system, that meant continuation of ancestral occupations like scavenging — cleaning human excreta. He even exhorted them to think of the activity as “divine privilege”.
Accusing Gandhiji of racism, Ashwin Desai and Goolam H. Vahed, authors of the book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, say that throughout his stay in South Africa, Gandhiji worked upon better aligning the interests of Indians with those of the British while being totally neglectful of the plight of indentured Indian labourers. His dislike for Africans was so intense that he, too, like the white man, used the derogatory kaffir (a form of cafri, the pre-colonial equivalent of Negro) to describe them and said they are “like animals”. He successfully agitated for the provision of an extra door in the post office for black Africans so that Indians don’t have to mingle with them as they entered and exited.
Gandhi actually beseeched the racist regime to allow him to take part in the Boer War and indeed donned the uniform of the Ambulance Corps. During World War I, he travelled in the villages of India and exhorted people to join the British Indian Army.
His condemnation of the British for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in which hundreds died, and the brutalities that followed, was muted. But the sudden and arbitrary withdrawal of the popular Non-Cooperation Movement on account of the burning down of a police station in which 22 policemen and three civilians got killed at Chauri Chora was an act which, according to Jawaharlal Nehru too, had derailed the struggle for Independence.
Gandhiji’s expression of grief for the loss of an insignificant number of British lives during the Anglo-Zulu War with primitively armed Zulus, whose casualties were in thousands, was again an act of display of allegiance to the British.
It has been remarked that Gandhi never missed an opportunity to cosy up to the British, especially during wartime. Hence, the epithet, “Stretcher-Bearer of the Empire”.
The writer is a journalist and research scholar based in Hyderabad....