GANDHI: The Editor
- By B.R. Nanda*
Gandhi's stay in South Africa was virtually a laboratory for him for his political evolution. Till the end of his life he was conscious of what he owed to South Africa. When some politicians from South Africa met him in the last days of his life, he told them that 'though he was born in India, he was made in South Africa'. It was a piece of good fortune for him that he began his professional and political career in South Africa. He had gone there as a junior counsel for a commercial firm in that country for £105 a year. He stayed on to command, and then to voluntarily give up, a big practice of £5,000 a year. In Bombay, as a young lawyer he had a nervous breakdown while cross-examining witnesses in a petty civil suit; in South Africa he had founded a new political organization with the sure touch of a seasoned politician. The hostility of the European politicians and officials and the helplessness of the Indian merchants and labourers had put him on his mettle. 'I am the only available person who can handle the question', he had written to Dadabhai Naoroji. The National Indians, who had no franchise and hence no representation in the legislature, had to be saved from being pushed over the precipice; Gandhi decided to give them a helping hand. No glittering rewards awaited him; the perils ranged from pinpricks to lynching.
It is now well known what Gandhi did for the liberation of South Africa from racialism. However, the struggle in South Africa was very important for the maturity of his personality and ideas. Dwarfed as he had felt by the great lawyers and eminent political leaders in India, it is unlikely that he would have developed much initiative in his homeland. When he founded the Natal Indian Congress at the age of twenty-five, he was writing on a tabula rasa and evolving his own code of conduct. His incursion into journalism was an offshoot of his struggle on behalf of the immigrant community of Indians in South African colonies. He made as much use of the European press in Natal and the Transvaal as was possible by writing letters to the editors of newspapers. He was able to interest the British-owned papers in India, such as the Times of India and the Statesman, and some of the papers in Britain, such as the Times, to comment on the disabilities and humiliations from which Indians in South Africa suffered. By 1903 he felt that it was necessary for him to educate his own people on the issues at stake. Thus was born Indian Opinion, the precursor to Young India, Navajivan and Harijan, which he edited in India after returning from South Africa. These papers are important for understanding Gandhi. Through them he was able to communicate not only with his colleagues but the general public on the crusade he was leading on political, social and economic issues.
How he was able to edit his journals in the midst of his other activities seems a miracle. Most of the articles, even those which made up his autobiography, were written during short intervals between two engagements; some were written in moving trains because it was more important for the manuscript to be dispatched from a particular station so that it was in Ahmedabad at the right time for printing. Thankfully, the post office in India in those days was more efficient than it is today ! In Mahadev Desai, Gandhi had a most valuable asset. Poor Mahadev sometimes had to retire into the toilet of the third-class compartment and in the faint light had to give finishing touches to the manuscript. It was sometimes a race against time. One wonders how articles written by Gandhi in such circumstances could turn out to be at once so powerful. An American scholar, Phillips Talbot, who stayed in the ashram at Sevagram for a few days in 1941, describes the scene after lunch: Gandhi was lying on a mat, Kasturba was massaging his feet while he was dictating to Mahadev.
Gandhi's journals were read by his political opponents and by the British officials as well as the Congress leaders because Gandhi used his journals for loud thinking. As Louis Fischer once said Gandhi did not have a blue pencil; he made few revisions, he wrote as thoughts came to him. The importance of the journals edited by Gandhi-Indian Opinion, Young India, Navajivan and Harijan - is that he used them to propagate his views through persuasion, discussion and debate. He opened up the columns of these journals even to his critics. He published their criticisms and then answered them. Once Jamnalal Bajaj complained that the Mahatma gave more time to his critics than to his adherents; Gandhi answered that he did not have to convert the converted and preferred to listen to his critics to try to remove their doubts.
Gandhi was a genius in spotting talent and harnessing it for the causes for which he fought. In South Africa, Chhaganlal Gandhi managed the Gujarati section of Indian Opinion. Albert West, a European journalist, switched to Indian Opinion, which drew self-sacrificing loyalties of persons like Henry Polak and his wife. In India Gandhi acquired the life-long assistance of able and devoted men like Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal.
Mahadev Desai was among the select band of disciples, mostly centered in Gandhi's ashram's, who completely identified themselves with the Mahatma. His complete faith in the Mahatma's judgement spared him the dilemna's and heartaches that the Nehru's, C.R. Das, Abul Kalam Azad, C. Rajagopalachari, Subhas Chandra Bose and other Congress leaders experienced from time to time. When Gandhi abruptly called off civil disobedience and switched on to the spinning wheel or went on a fast, Desai did not waste his time in arguing with him. Instead, he concentrated on the nuances of the Mahatma's decision and explaining it to the country. It was not an easy task to interpret Satyagraha, which Gandhi sought to apply to individual, social and political problems; it was neither a well-defined doctrine nor a precise technique; it was, as Gandhi once said, 'a science in the making'. His ideas were not developed in his study, but in the course of social and political struggles waged by him. Not infrequently, his insights came to him as he was trying to grope his way out of complex situations. This was why Desai was so keyed up to record every syllable that the Mahatma uttered. There were occasions when Desai did not have a piece of paper with him; undaunted, he jotted his notes on the palm of his hand, on his nails, or even on the back of a currency note, and transferred them later to his diary.
Source: The Editor Gandhi and Indian Opinion, 2007.
* B R Nanda (1917-2010), was the preeminent Indian biographer of Mahatma Gandhi and the first Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, New Delhi.