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Mahatma Gandhi: Saint Or Politician

By Kingsley Martin

When I first saw Mahatma Gandhi at the Round Table Conference in 1931 I asked how far he was saint and how far astute politician.  Later I realized that the question was unanswerable: the two aspects were inextricably blended in a singular complex character.  In India saints can be politicians just as they could in medieval Europe. The ascetic of sacred writings may win for himself a place in a still largely religious community which no politician can hope to achieve in the skeptical and mechanized West.  Gandhi differs from all the other unclothed holy men whom you may meet anywhere in India because his religious inspiration had survived a lawyer’s training, a wide reading of Western books, a knowledge of the world and ruthless examination by his own powerful intellect.  It is this constant testing and application of religious principle by the process of reason that fascinates me in Gandhi.   

The Mahatma never hid the process of his thought or the difficulties he found in reaching his conclusions. In private conversation he was always ready to argue, and laughingly admitted inconsistencies.  Harijan is unlike any other newspaper I know in that Gandhi here sought only truth and exposed his own inner conflicts.  I think he would have admitted that his political position was not always satisfactory particularly in the difficult period before his imprisonment in 1942, when he had parted company from his old friend Rajagopalachari, and was never sure how far he could carry his followers in non-violent resistance to an expected Japanese invasion.  He was apt to get cross with simple-minded followers who assumed that once they had subscribed to the doctrine of ahimsa everything would be easy.  He told them roundly that he had never found any of his problems simple.  The principle was clear enough; its application to the social and political tangle was an affair of the intellect.  

You could trust the Mahatma not to be caught by humbug. He at once saw through the pretensions of Oxford Groupers and advocates of “moral rearmament” who came to see him.  Listening to God, he told them in Harijan, implies “fitness to listen”.  How easy to say to oneself that one is listening-in to God!  What was the use of British imperialists telling him that India should repent?  “It does not lie in the mouth of the debtor to say he will not pay till the creditor pays or purifies himself.”  And then he made the shrewd comment, so reminiscent of Tolstoy, and so fundamental to the understanding of his own asceticism: “Peace and a high standard of living are incompatible.”  If a man encumbers himself with property, then he cannot do without police.  By the same token, an Empire implies soldiers and war. 

Gandhi’s fasts were peculiarly unintelligible to English people.  They are part of an Indian tradition; Gandhi himself remarked that he imbibed the idea of the fast with his mother’s milk.  She used to fast if one of the children were ill.  The value of the Mahatma’s fasts lay in their religious appeal; they were not intended as a method of coercion.   The first object of a fast was self-purification.  To embarrass the Government or to have effect on those against whom he fasted was a secondary consideration.  He also declared that he never fasted against his enemies; he hoped “to move to action those who bear affection towards me”.  But he said he did not really know how his fasts worked; he merely knew from experience that they did.  I suppose one would be over-simplifying if one said that the fast was to make clear the truth for which he was prepared to die, and thereby to persuade those against whom it was directed to reconsider their position and ask themselves whether they might not be wrong. As a sacrificial act the fast to death is comparable with the death on the Cross.  And yet, as with other problems raised by the unique life of the Mahatma, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between this religious act and a very effective and more mundane form of coercion.  Gandhi denied that he ever intended to coerce.  In the case of his fast which was designed to persuade Ambedkar and the untouchables, it must I think be admitted that its speedy effect was due to the knowledge that Gandhi’s death would produce extremely unpleasant results for the recalcitrants.  Gandhi, however, repudiated this explanation of his success.  His object, he said, was not to coerce enemies but “to sting into action the many who have taken a pledge to remove untouchability.”

The Mahatma could claim to have won a more remarkable and satisfying victory in the fast that ended the communal riots in Bengal.  I arrived in the East just when his fast, the object of which was to end the violence of the Hindus against the Muslims in Delhi, had been completed.  It was a fast that nearly ended in death, and the Mahatma only called it off when he had the assurance of all those in a position to ____ ____ ___ ____would ___ ____ ____ ____ ____ ____ to Muslims in Delhi.  It is not true that its only effect was to force Patel and others to pay the 50 crores of rupees owed to Pakistan.  It also changed the atmosphere in Delhi.  Muslims were able to walk about in Delhi, at any rate by day, without fear from a Sikh kirpan in the back, and I was myself present at the Muslim festival at Mehrauli, which could not have been held if Gandhi had not made its untroubled celebration a condition of ending his fast.  The last time I saw Gandhi alive was at the prayer meeting he held at Mehrauli, with an audience of some four thousand eager and anxious Muslims.

I had my last talk with Gandhi on the Monday before his assassination.  He had completely recovered from his fast; his mind was as agile as when I first knew him.  He was perhaps rather more authoritative, and less legalistic, in argument.  As always, he was prepared precisely to explain the nature of his doctrine.  He had publicly expressed his deep disappointment, and indeed his misery of soul, at the revelation of the Indian mind after the withdrawal of British control.  I asked him whether his recent confession of failure, as expressed in Harijan, involved any revision of his doctrine of ahimsa.  He explained that his doctrine had never changed, but that he had discovered to his sorrow that passive resistance, designed to dislodge the British from India, had been merely the weapon of the weak and not the genuine ahimsa which relies only on truth, love and sacrifice.  He had made this distinction, he told me, as early as the days of his first struggles in South Africa when he repudiated the idea that he supported “passive resistance”.  He never believed in passivity, nor did he ever believe in what is today called “appeasement”.  His advice to mankind is that in any dispute one must first establish the truth and purify one’s own motives.  Then one must stand by the truth, by ahimsa, if one believes in it and has trained oneself for that method of resistance.  He more than once surprised the world by saying that for those who are not ready for ahimsa, violent resistance is better than cowardly submission to evil.

Whether ahimsa is extremely successful clearly depends on whether the opponent has a conscience.  I read in Harijan, “Our triumph consists in being in prison for no wrong whatever.”  In the struggle against the British, persecution had to become a regular part of life.  In the absence of violent resistance “the wrongdoer wearies of wrongdoing”.  So when Bernard Shaw remarked that “the vegetarianism of the sheep makes no appeal to the tiger”, Gandhi replied that he did not believe that “the British are all tiger and no man”.  He was willing to admit the peculiar difficulty of applying ahimsa in a case like that of the Nazis who were trained to enjoy the suffering of others, and who killed six million Jews who did not threaten them.  But he could fairly claim that even the non-violence of the weak had its effect when used against the British people who disliked the use of lathis against unarmed resisters.  Indeed, British officials have admitted that if the technique of passive resistance had been more constantly and persistently used by the Indians, the British might have been driven out of India at an earlier stage.  But this, the Mahatma had discovered, had never really been ahimsa.  Passive resistance is a weapon which can be used with effect by those who have not arms, but ahimsa is a spiritual effort, best used by those who could resort to force, to persuade the aggressor to desist from evil.  Ahimsa, in a sentence, involves first personal purity of motive and the complete admission of the truth; secondly, after all concessions that should be made in justice to the opponent have been made, ahimsa requires a completely firm stand on a point of principle where the opponent is clearly in the wrong.  Victory may then be achieved by love, even if the individual who uses ahimsa may have to die before he has convinced his enemy.  This doctrine, the Mahatma admitted, had not been generally understood by the millions who had passively resisted the British.

At this point I raised what has always seemed to me the essential weakness of Gandhi’s philosophy.  I said that while fully appreciating this doctrine, which was not very different from the teaching of Christ as I had learnt to understand it in my childhood, it still appeared to me in its most perfect form to provide no answer for those who undertook the task of government.  I could see well enough that ahimsa could defeat an aggressive power, but when those who had won were confronted with the task of government, they would be taking over a machine which by its very nature involved the use of force.  How would the Mahatma, for instance, use ahimsa in the immediate issue of Kashmir?  He replied that he believed it possible for a government to use ahimsa, and quoted Tolstoy’s story of Ivan the Fool.  He added that Sheik Abdullah could use ahimsa in Kashmir if he believed in it.  “I would use it,” he said, “against the tribesman and I believe successfully.  But Sheik Abdullah does not believe in ahimsa.”  “Do you not,” I asked, “sometimes give practical advice on political matters where the doctrine of ahimsa does not arise? He laughed. “I most certainly do”, he said, and the conversation switched into a highly realistic and practical discussion of the political issues in Kashmir.

This was very characteristic of the Mahatma.  Conversation with him about political matters did not follow the normal course because he insisted on getting the principle straight and refusing to compromise upon it.  He would apparently stand pat on a point of principle until he was sure either of the goodwill of his adversary―which happened when the Cabinet Mission finally persuaded him of its sincerity―or as in this case of Kashmir, until agreement had been reached that the ideal solution must be, for the moment, left out of the question.  He would then suddenly, and often to the surprise of a Westerner used to laying down principles only to compromise in their application, switch off completely to a highly realistic discussion in which the principle appeared to be forgotten.  Perhaps the right way to put it is that he was more determined than other people are to consider a problem on two levels.  He took, as it were, his bearings by laying down the principle.  He could always return to it.  If that course was blocked he would trim his sails, with the result that while still pretending to seek the ideal he might find that he had lost sight of his objective: he preferred, if he could not sail straight to the goal, to accept the lower level of practical politics and frankly give advice on the basis of expediency.  Not having lost his bearings by tacking, he could always start again on the true course.

Two things were at once borne in upon me during the dramatic days followings the Mahatma’s assassination.  The first was the dependence of other Indian leaders on his advice and consultation.  His prestige was so great, his position so impregnable, that the leaders of every political persuasion regarded him as their guru.  They relied on him perhaps too much, and some of them may find a greater political stature of their own now that they have lost their mentor.  One remarkable and I think unique feature of his position as “father of new India” was that he possessed an extraordinary intelligence service, since everyone from the humblest to the greatest came and poured out to him their troubles, both personal and political.  I know of no similar case in politics.  A junior civil servant could complain to Gandhi of the misbehaviour of his Minister, who could raise no objection to the criticism having been made without his knowledge, and through these unofficial channels.  This strange, personal and unifying influence has now disappeared from Indian politics, with results that are not easy to assess.

Hindu–Muslim peace was only one of the causes to which the Mahatma devoted his life.  He had dedicated his life earlier to the causes of untouchability, khadi, and village regeneration.  He died, I know, with a sense of failure.  Too few of his followers understood ahimsa, and too few of them were sufficiently trained in its application.  He has had many converts to nonviolence, but with the departure of passive resistance of the weak and not the nonviolence of the strong.  That British had left India without violence was, he admitted, a remarkable achievement.  He had made, he told Edgar Snow in the last weeks of his life, “a kind of contribution” to the world by showing that nonviolence was a political means and not only a matter of personal ethics.  He was aware that the forces of passion and violence were growing in the new India.  Ahimsa, he said, could never be defeated since it was a state of mind which was in itself a victory and which could have only spiritual results in others even if it did not win external victory.  But the immediate challenge was the communal struggle.  When he had recovered from his Delhi fast, he wished to go to Pakistan and appeal to his friends there.  He was well aware that he might not live to do this: the bomb that was thrown during his fast was sufficient warning of the fanaticism of the extremer sort of Hindu.  He remarked only the day before his murder that it would always be easy to kill him at one of his prayer meetings.  So it proved.  But his death started a legend and Gandhi today stands among the celestial hierarchy in the minds of Indians.  In his remarkable broadcast, spoken with deep emotion on the night of the assassination, Pandit Nehru used the occasion to rally all the forces of tolerance and righteousness.  For the moment at any rate the Mahatma’s death confirmed the lessons of his fasts and reinforced the hopes of communal peace.  Whatever happens in India and Pakistan, Gandhi’s “contribution” will not be lost.  There is a danger of course that his legend may be perverted: when the saint dies there are always those who glorify his memory in order that the world may all the more readily forget what he taught.  But they never wholly succeed.  Even in the case of Christianity, where the wrangles of the Church and the pronouncements of Popes have done so much to pervert the lesson of the Cross, the contents of Christ’s teaching have continuously broken through ecclesiastical obscurantism, inspiring and refreshing his disciples.  Gandhi’s life and death will similarly remain a witness to the faith that men may still overcome misery, cruelty and violence by Truth and Love.