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Misunderstanding Gandhi
By Antony Copley*

ALL THE EVIDENCE suggests that Mohandas Gandhi today is more keenly followed outside of India than within. He has been appropriated by western concerns. Within India he has become more of a figurehead/ so much so that even rightwing and communal political movements such as the BJP see fit to claim him as one of their own. Within this configuration a very real question is raised, just where does the real Gandhi come from? Are we right to claim him as a sympathiser of western liberal and progressive causes? Or should we not rather search for an explanation of Gandhi in terms of his Indian and above all Hindu background? The risk here is of course of annexing him to the Hindutva agenda. At the outset we can safely recognise that Gandhi belongs to both west and east but it remains important to raise the question, where should the emphasis lie? The approach of this essay is historical and it will address just a few of the extensive recent publications on Gandhi.

Just how impressionable was the young Gandhi who arrived in London in 1888 at the age of 18 to the cultural life of the imperial capital?

He was clearly exposed to what we can now see as the beginnings of a lively alternative culture. In all kinds of ways English intellectuals were reacting against a dominant Victorian culture. Doubt was corroding old values and into the vacuum all kinds of new beliefs were flooding. Historians by describing Gandhi's encounter with these new beliefs suggest that Gandhi became a part of this western counter-culture and could be claimed as one of its own. Indisputably Gandhi was attracted to the new vegetarian movement, fell on the vegetarian restaurant, the Central, he discovered, in St Bride's street with delight and relief, read Henry Salt's pamphlets, though at this point Henry Salt did not become a significant friend, but did befriend Josiah Oldfield and became an active member of the London Vegetarian Society. The degree of his exposure to Theosophy is equally contentious.

But one wonders if this attempt to connect Gandhi with these expressions of an alternative culture is not the root of the misunderstanding between Gandhi and the English left.

This is part of a larger story which has been thoroughly explored by Nicholas Owen in his The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti- Imperialism 1885-1947 (OUP 2007). Owen's study reveals the extent to which British critics of imperial rule tended to project onto the Indian situation the kinds of concerns that shaped their own struggles and expectations of reform within the British context. They constantly came up against the limits, 'buffers' is Owen's suggestive word for it, of their imaginative grasp of the Indian situation. In the early days of Congress, set up in 1885, Indian liberals accepted the need for a pressure group to be set up in London to influence metropolitan attitudes, and subsidised the British Committee. However tactful British liberals might be there was always a tendency for British liberal sympathisers of Indian reform to impose their own values on India. There was always a tendency to talk down to Indians and tell them that the liberal constitutionalist path was the one for them. This was a paternalism that was to become increasingly resented.

This was a projection even more evident in the emergent Labour party and amongst the Fabians. Owen shows how the labour left were bemused by the kind of new Indian politics emerging during the Swadeshi protest aroused by the partition of Bengal in 1905.To quote Owen: 'they were quite unlike the forms with which British politicians were familiar, relying as they did on pre-modern methods of mobilisation and on the authority of caste and class'(p. 84). Ramsay Macdonald, for example, could not cope with an India that he saw as 'the other', an India dragged down by its culture and climate (Here he anticipated Naipaul's Area of Darkness). He would have nothing to do with Aurobindo Ghose and the Extremists. The Fabian Webbs were readier to reach out to aspects of the Indian renaissance, warmed to Dayanand Saraswati and the Arya Samaj with its reformist attitudes to caste, and also to Gokhale's The Servants of India. But they could not discover within India those reforming local institutions -though labour leader Keir Hardie had expectations of the panchayat- that had furthered the left within Britain and fell increasingly back on a state bureaucracy as the necessary agency for change. Owen sums this up well: 'What each most admired in the mirror of Indian nationalism was the reflection they saw of their own ideals. At the heart of the problem, however, was confusion over the marks of authenticity' (pp. 104-5).

There is another dimension to this cultural exchange. Edward Said reinterpreted this interaction of ideas between Empire and Colony in terms of what he named hybridity. It is important to recognise the contribution that the colonised made to such imperial discourse. The colonised were not mere passive recipients of such goodwill but active contributors to these ideas. It is a key additional reason why the Indian left would predictably become so increasingly irritated by the condescension of the British left.

And here of course were the further beginnings of their misunderstanding of Gandhi. He failed to fit into western expectations of Indian socio-economic and political development. But to explain why we have to explore the way Gandhi's outlook evolved, initially on his attitudes to religion, before we tackle the nature of his political leadership.

Gandhi came out of a Hindu culture. As a child he was immersed in reading from the Ramayana, morally impelled by the texts on Shravana's devotion to his parents. Admittedly he was no worshipper in the haveli, the Vaishnavite temple, and through his essentially reforming outlook eschewed much of the ritual of Hinduism. Much has been made of the way Theosophy brought him to a kind of religious pluralism but this can be exaggerated. He acquired a sense of different faiths by sitting in on his father's conversations with those of other beliefs. I am more and more convinced that the best interpreters of Gandhi are those like Bhikhu Parekh and Anthony Parel who can locate Gandhi in this Hindu context and explore its Sanskritic vocabulary. Margaret Chatterjee, in another of those highly intelligent collection of her essays Inter-Religions Communication: A Gandhian Perspective (New Delhi and Chicago, Promilla and Co. ,2009, suggests a multi-faith approach far more rooted in the give and take of religious encounter than through any more theological approach. Gandhi set out to discover what mattered to those of other faiths. In his 'uncanny awareness of the barriers to inter-religious understanding', Gandhi, she writes, 'was too much of a realist to set much store by either an original Alpha ground or an Omega point of ultimate convergence.' The validity of other faiths would be found in their working alongside one another, in, for example, the constructive programme(See pp. 51-4). Christians in South Africa tried to convert him but Gandhi could not accept a Christ as an exceptional incarnation of God and was resistant to the idea of atonement; man, he felt, had to redeem himself from sin. Conversion was unacceptable; we have to pursue our religious life in the faith into which we were bom. Anthony Parel has radically reorientated our understanding of Gandhi by demonstrating how his real quest was to live out the Hindu values of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. (See his Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony, CUP, 2006.) Pavel's originality lies in the claim that Gandhi privileged artha and sought in politics the means of salvation. Clearly Gandhi was heading in an entirely different direction to western politicians.

Only by situating him in the context of the Hindu Renaissance and the Religious Reform movements (though not wholly interchangeable concepts) will Gandhi make sense. He was horrified to discover that protagonists of violence were trying to highjack that Hindu reformist movement. This was why his encounter in London with Savarkar, exponent of a violent form of Hindu nationalism, was so disturbing and prompted Hind Swaraj (1909, after his Autobiography his longest text. He had to demonstrate that adopting the culture of violence was simply to ape the culture of the west and that the only truly Indian path to independence lay through ahimsa or non-violence. All through the years in South Africa he was aware of the Hindu Renaissance working its way out in India. He was to contact some of the religious reform movements. In 1901 in Calcutta he contacted the Brahmo and Sadharan Samajs, the liberal and radical wings of the Hindu reform movement inspired by Ram Mohan Roy. He tried to visit Vivekananda, leader of the Ramakrishna Mission, but he was too ill at the time and indeed died in 1902. Here was a figure who must have provided Gandhi with a role model as social reformer and political patriot. But the figure who must have loomed the larger was Aurobindo. You need luck to become a political leader and Gandhi was to be spared the rivalry of Gokhale and Tilak by their deaths in 1915 and 1920 respectively. Annie Besant, never a serious threat, had peaked by 1917. But Aurobindo was always there and, had he not chosen to go into internal exile in Pondicherry in 1910 and divert his extraordinary powers of leadership into an internalised yogic quest, it's hard to see how Gandhi could have outmatched him as leader.

The religious reform movements had been reluctant to engage in politics, largely out of fear of the reprisals from an overbearing colonial state. But Mrs Besant believed that the death of Colonel Olcott in 1909 released her from his agreement to keep the Theosophical Society out of politics and became an active participant. For Gandhi it took the massacre at Amritsar in April 1919 to release him from that curious sense of loyalty to the Empire and to embark as leader of Congress on the non-cooperation campaign. This is where the originality of Parel's interpretation comes into play. Gandhi was the one Indian religious reform leader to see politics as the way to salvation or moksha. Could left-wing British politicians respond to this new style Indian leader?

For now we can see the scale of misunderstanding. The Labour party in their bid for power were increasingly taking on the trappings of an establishment movement. As Nicholas Owen puts it: 'thus as Congress made its way from respectability to agitation the Labour party was moving in the opposite direction'(p. 128). One Labour MP, Josiah Wedgwood, was shocked by Gandhi's tactic of non-cooperation, seeing it as 'a stupid blunder' which robbed Congress of governmental experience: he saw Gandhi's movement as 'more a movement against western civilisation than against western rule' (p. 122). Ramsay Macdonald was even more repelled. Writing to a supporter of Gandhi in 1930 he asked; 'Is it your idea of democratic government that whoever is responsible for it is to allow social fabrics of order and civic relationships to go to wreck and ruin because somebody comes along claiming to be inspired by God?(quoted in Owen, p. 179). The Trade Union movement was equally alienated, strongly committed to politicised and class-based trade unions, and quite unable to grasp Gandhi's attempts to reconcile labour and capital in the Ahmedabad 1917 textile dispute. Gandhi later told some students in July 1934: 'Have we not our own distinctive Eastern traditions? Are we not capable of finding our own solutions to the question of labour and capital? (quoted in Owen, p. 185). Gandhi was impatient with all advice coming from the metropolis and in 1920 abolished the British Committee. He asserted: 'as in the political so in the labour movement I rely upon internal reform i.e., self-purification' (quoted in Owen, p. 184). Later he was to be morally repelled by the coalition politics of the National Government. One writer, George Catlin, summed all this up, and what Owen himself sees as an 'irreducible clash of moralities'; 'His religiosity offended their Fabian commonsense, their Marxist prejudices and indeed their Bloomsbury good taste. A God in a drawing room is always liable to say things in bad taste. There is a collision of two worlds.’ (quoted in Owen, p.p 192-3). Despite a sympathy for Indian independence the dialogue between the British left and Gandhi had broken down.

Not that Gandhi lacked for true non-Indian Gandhian friends. There were his Jewish friends in South Africa, Hermann Kallenbach and Henry Polak. Amongst committed followers in India there were Charlie Andrews, Madeleine Slade and Verrier Elwin. I sense Gandhi was less happy with British followers such as Fenner Brockway, just because this entailed some form of dependence on those from outside. Yet Gandhi's friendship was always conditional. Both Andrews and Slade felt that Gandhi did not return their love. Though they had grasped his ideas maybe there always was a misunderstanding as to the extent of Gandhi's affection.

One explanation for Gandhi's drawing back is contained in the autobiography. It lies in the account of his friendship with the young Muslim, Sheikh Mehtab. It was a friendship that led him in ruinous directions, meat-eating, visiting brothels: 'My zeal for reforming him had proved disastrous for me', Gandhi reflected, "and all the time I was completely unconscious of the fact'( M K Gandhi, An Autobiography, Ahmedhabad: 1963, p. 14). Oddly, Gandhi invited him to be a steward of his house in Durban in 1896 only for Mehtab to be caught in flagrante with a prostitute. Admittedly Mehtab joined in the 1908 satyagraha in Johannesburg but a lesson had been learnt. You should not fully trust a friend. I think Gandhi always held something back, friends should not become too dependent, they had to work through to their own salvation. There was an inner austerity, almost cold in its character.

This story of cultural and personal misunderstandings has, of course, an obvious moral for our times. Can we be sure that we do not project onto Gandhi our own moral perspectives? Are we sure Gandhi would have endorsed our own ideals? Would he, for example, be supportive of our variants of a multi-faith world where we are tolerant of conversions from one faith to another? I think we have to live with a Gandhi who was clearly intolerant of all forms of sexual permissiveness and of alternative sexualities. Maybe, whether or not our ideals can be shown to be truly Gandhian, the point Gandhi would make is the need for us to be absolutely sure that we have internalised these and they have become part of our own pursuit of the truth. Gandhi cannot become a crutch and ours has always to be a personal struggle.

Gandhi Marg, Volume 32, Number 3, October-December 2010

ANTONY COPLEY (1 July 1937 - 18 July 2016) was a British historian. He was an honorary professor at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and specialised in nineteenth century French history and modern Indian history.