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Gandhi's Struggle Revisited

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld (New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers), 2011; pp xv+425, Rs 699.




Gandhi’s Struggle Revisited

Usha Thakkar

reat Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India recently grabbed the media limelight and created a furore, more for its reviews than for the content. The book is an interesting and readable volume, sensitively written in impressive prose and lucid style.

Gandhi remains one of the most written about and photographed persons of the last century. His name and methods are often evoked during people’s struggles and protests against authoritarian rule, with Tunisia and Egypt being only the latest examples. Many acknowledge their debt to him. He set high, almost impossible, goals during his life, ranging from freedom for India from the yoke of British rule to wiping every tear from every eye. It is not easy to assess him, to understand his trials and tribulations, or to identify his successes or failures. Lelyveld takes up this difficult task, and sets out to write about the Mahatma who tried all his life to identify himself with “the most illiterate and downtrodden” (p xiii).

We have some notable biographies on Gandhi written by authors like Louis Fischer, Pyarelal, B R Nanda, and Rajmohan Gandhi, each throwing light on the life of this remarkable man. Lelyveld wants to take a different path in presenting his own portrayal of the Mahatma. He prefers to “touch on or leave out crucial periods and

Economic & Political Weekly

september 10, 2011

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld (New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers), 2011; pp xv+425, Rs 699.

episodes” (p xiii) in an attempt to take a fresh look at and understand Gandhi’s life as he lived it.

Lelyveld’s own experience as a correspondent for The New York Times covering South Africa and India and as a writer of the Pulitzer Prize winning book on apartheid Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White comes to his help. He rightly concentrates on Gandhi’s four pillars on which the structure of swaraj stands. Gandhi identified these soon after returning to India in 1915. They were: the end of untouchability, Hindu-Muslim unity, the principle of non-violence for freedom, and transformation of villages by spinning and other self-sustaining methods. Lelyveld examines each of them and shows how they could not be achieved.

Four Pillars of Swaraj

Gandhi’s life, spread over South Africa, I ndia and partly in England, is a fascinating study of the journey from the ordinary to extraordinary. He realised his “vocation in life” in South Africa. As he started charting out a new path for himself and others, he encountered a deeper social malaise. Lelyveld rightly observes that “the

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--phenomenon of indentured labour, a system of semi-slavery as he branded it, had fused in Gandhi’s South African years” (p 132) with the question of caste discrimination. Assessing Gandhi’s work in South Africa,

Lelyveld comments that towards the end of his stay, Gandhi had lost the support of most of the Muslim traders who had been his original backers, and the situation of Indians in South Africa got worse, not better, after he turned his attention to India.

Gandhi had crucial differences with Ambedkar on the issue of separate electorates for the untouchables. He believed that separate electorates would perpetuate the vice. He wanted to build an inclusive society, where each person would have her/his place. Ambedkar, on the other hand, was firm on his stand that there was no justification for furthering the injustice perpetuated for centuries. He wanted abolition of the unequal caste system, and for untouchables to be the masters of their own destiny. Gandhi’s pronouncements and work appeared to be mild in comparison to the seriousness of the issue, and his stand in the Vaikom Satyagraha seemed to be ambivalent to many. For Gandhi, removal of untouchability and swaraj had close and at times complex links. The n ationalist movement had its political compulsions, often pushing one of his causes to take precedence over others and giving an appearance of ambivalence. Exploring Gandhi’s work for the removal of untouchability, the author brings out the sincerity and intensity of Gandhi’s efforts, and points out the limitations of such efforts in shaking a sturdy Hindu caste hierarchy.


Hindu-Muslim unity was high on Gandhi’s agenda from his South Africa days. His involvement in the Khilafat movement was meant to reassure the Muslims of his support. This, however, did not lead to the desired result. Many Muslims remained suspicious and hostile to his policy and ultimately M A Jinnah, a nationalist Muslim earlier, succeeded in getting a separate state of Pakistan for the Muslims. On the other hand, Hindu resentment towards him for being pro-Muslim surfaced on many occasions, ultimately ending in his assassination on 30 January 1948.

Partition Violence

The violence that erupted during the partition of the country displayed the widening chasm between and accelerating militancy on the part of both communities. Lelyveld counts this as Gandhi’s failure. When Gandhi took his journey to the disturbed areas of Bihar and Bengal, he realised that his trusted lieutenants were busy with a power game, while the suffering of the people was entangled with politics. Large sections of Muslims as well as the Hindus felt alienated from him. It is, however, a fact of history that the “Calcutta miracle” (p 329) is engraved in the pages of history.

Gandhi’s experiments in brahmacharya with women during this period have been much debated and criticised. However Gandhi, by his own admission, was striving to find the streak of violence within himself to understand the prevalent violence; self-purification haunted him. His views on sex, marriage, and diet may be called illogical or absurd; his relations with his family are also not easy. However, it is important to note that the women i nvolved never breathed a word about them. Women had a special powerful bonding with him that did not fit into the conventional modes of male-female relations. He was a close friend, a father and at times, a mother.

The chapter “Upper House” has received much attention from the media, more than warranted, and even led to a ban on the book in Gujarat. Lelyveld des cribes in detail the closeness between Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach and refers to James D Hunt’s characterisation of the relationship as “clearly homoerotic” (pp 88, 369). It is important to bear in mind that when Gandhi was busy with his mission in South Africa, he was also expanding the circumference of his family. Tolstoy Farm and Phoenix Ashram were laboratories for collective work and living. He was very close to persons like Kallenbach, Henry Polak and Maganlal Gandhi. Gandhi always valued friendships and personal bonding and never believed in hiding his feelings, be it with Saraladevi Choudharani or his own son Harilal. His intensity is reflected in thousands of his letters. It is not uncommon to come across Gandhi writing to his women disciples in the ashram and elsewhere about daily prayers and diet or writing to the politically seasoned Rajkumari Amrit Kaur as “my dear idiot” and ending with “tyrant”. If Sarojini Naidu could call him Mickey Mouse, for Manu Gandhi and many others, he was “Bapu”. He engaged in political negotiations with opponents like Jinnah or Ambedkar but always respected them as persons. Gandhi had many friends, and his relation to each of them, man or woman, was intense and personal, and worth exploring. There is undiluted transparency in his expression, and amazing effortlessness in maintaining human relations. We may find some of his expression hyperbolic. However, let us remember that though his intensity in all relations is obvious, the language and the meaning attached to words have changed over the years.

For Gandhi, constructive work was another side of the political struggle. Naturally rebuilding villages, in accordance with the principles of self-sufficiency and decentralisation, was of crucial importance. His vision included productive employment for India’s millions, schemes for rebuilding villages, promotion of khadi and local handicrafts, village industries, and ensuring equality of opportunity for all. Lelyveld argues that India, even in Gandhi’s lifetime, could not accept his ideas of village regeneration, and Gandhi felt the agony of his failure. However, Lelyveld also writes that today in India there are issues like poverty, scarcity of water and healthcare. And “Gandhian economics needs to be viewed in that sobering perspective before being written off as irrelevant in the era of globalisation” (p 264).

Gandhi had many facets to his life. Attempts to view him from one particular

september 10, 2011

angle will present only a partial perspective. He evolved with each situation, moulding politics and people around as well as himself. The prevalent parameters for measuring success through tangible gains in the form of material prosperity or acquisition of territory or recognition or victory in the elections may fall short in evaluating what he thought and what he did. For Gandhi, life was indivisible; there could not be compartments in life. Satyagraha, civil resistance, removal of untouchability, Hindu-Muslim unity, spinning, u plift of village industries, sanitation, brahmacharya, and women’s emancipation were not separate issues, but were closely interconnected with each other; all of them needed to be pursued with dedication.

According to Lelyveld, the tragic element in Gandhi’s life was that “he was ultimately forced, like King Lear, to see the limits of his ambition to remake his world” (p 27). It is difficult to agree with this. He was no tragic hero of a Shakespearean play. Gandhi, in his last days, was aware of the fact that people around were not in tune with him, but that did not deter him from his chosen path. He wrote in a letter on 2 July 1947 that “God is humbling my pride. I am being severely tested. But still my heart is full of joy” (Gandhi 1983: 259). He did not achieve all he had visualised in his lifetime. In the last phase of his life, he was lonely and anguished, and yet he emerged triumphant by being true to himself, through his empathy for the devastated and his intense desire to identify with the victims of mindless violence. Commenting on the biggest challenge of non-violence by the end of his life, the author observes that here, the Mahatma seems to be deliberately striving for pathos. It is “a favourite posture, that of the isolated seeker of truth, and it is not untinged with moral and political pressure and a whiff of emotional blackmail; his closest associates are left to feel guilty over their failure to measure up to his high ideal” (p 283).

However, in all fairness, Gandhi may have been “never more elusive or complex” than he was in this final decade of his life. But this Gandhi was human to the core and hence very close to suffering humanity. He retained his ability to think and act i ndependently as he travelled barefoot in atonement in riot-stricken areas; he

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thought of future plans like dissolving the Gandhian norms, and sadly, there are Congress, and travelling to Pakistan. a huge number of illiterate and poor.

Negating the prevalent axioms and However equally there is the increasing practices of political wisdom, Gandhi pre-partnership of women in panchayati raj sented a radically different paradigm in his institutions, legislation like the Right to movements and brought unusual mean-Information Act and the National Rural ings to usual words. Sensitive to situa-Employment Guarantee Act, action for tions, he remained contextually engaged. human rights, the social mobility of His alternatives retain constructive ele-various castes and a ttempts at self- ments and his aim of a better life for the reliance. The practice of untouchability is poor and deprived remains the aim of all a legal offence and dalits are making democratic governments. their presence felt. Lurking behind all

Gandhi’s struggle to strengthen the four these is Gandhi’s vision. pillars of swaraj went beyond immediate Though Lelyveld succeeds to a large gains. His method of non-violent struggle extent in his attempt to understand Gandhi’s was not just for political independence. life as he lived it, he often downplays As he wrote in the Harijan of 25 March many of Gandhi’s human achievements. 1933, Gandhi’s ambition was to see “a He chooses to be sceptical at times; at complete regeneration of humanity”. The o ther times, he admires human elements outbreak of violence did not deter Gandhi in Gandhi and at the same time, makes from his way of non-violence. Villages him look very vulnerable and inadequate. in India have not developed strictly on He does, however, acknowledge Gandhi’s

Books Received

Ahmed, Ishtiaq (2011); The Punjab Bloodied, Parti-Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xx + 433, tioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy Rs 895. through Secret British Reports and First Person Accounts (New Delhi: Rupa Publications); pp liv + Habib, Irfan (2011); The National Movement: Studies in 754, Rs 995. Ideology & History (New Delhi: Tulika Books);

pp 119, Rs 150. Ajith, K N (2011); Corporates & Social Responsibility (Chennai: Eeswaar Books); pp xvii + 121, Rs 150. Jain, Jasbir (2011); Indigenous Roots of Feminism: Culture, Subjectivity and Agency (New Delhi: Sage

Chalam, K S (2011); Economic Reforms and Social Publications); pp xiv + 340, Rs 695. Exclusion: Impact of Liberalisation on Marginalised Groups in India (New Delhi: Sage Publications); Lodhi, Maleeha, ed. (2011); Pakistan: Beyond the pp xx + 224, Rs 550. Crisis State (New Delhi: Rupa Publications);

pp xxv + 391, Rs 495.

Das Gupta, Sanjukta (2011); Adivasis and the Raj: Socioeconomic Transition of the HOS, 1820-1932 (Hy-Mohan, Rakesh (2011); Growth with Financial Stability: derabad: Orient Blackswan); pp xvi + 367, price Central Banking in an Emerging Market (New Delhi: not indicated. Oxford University Press); pp liii + 500, Rs 950.

Deshpande, Ashwini (2011); The Grammar of Caste: Nair, T K (2011); Ageing in an Indian City (Chennai: Economic Discrimination in Contemporary India Eeswaar Books); pp xii + 150, Rs 200. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xxi + 295, Rs 695. Nanda, Satyajeet, ed. (2011); Healthcare Communica

tion and Services for Mother and Child (New Delhi:

Enamul Haque, A K, M N Murty and Priya Shyamsun-Konark Publishers); pp xvi + 197, Rs 600. dar (2011); Environmental Valuation in South Asia (Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp xxii + Pant, Harsh V (2011); The US-India Nuclear Pact: Policy, 477, Rs 795. Process, and Great Power Politics (New Delhi:

Oxford University Press); pp xii +150, Rs 450.

Engineer, Asghar Ali (2011); A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace, Harmony and Social Change – An Auto-Pfaff-Czarnecka and Gerard Toffin, ed. (2011); The biography of Asghar Ali Engineer (Hyderabad: Ori-Politics of Belonging in the Himalayas: Local Atent Blackswan); pp xii + 345, price not indicated. tachments and Boundary Dynamics (Governance,

Conflict, and Civic Action; Vol 4) (New Delhi: Sage

Ganguly, Sumit and Rahul Mukherji (2011); India Publications); pp xxxviii + 346, Rs 850. Since 1980 (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp xii + 201, Rs 495. Prasad, T G C (2011); Perspectives on Poverty in India

(New Delhi: Oxford University Press); with World

Goswami, Chhaya (2011); The Call of the Sea: Kachchhi Bankm, pp xx + 270, Rs 695.Traders in Muscat and Zanzibar, c.1800-1880 (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan); pp xiv + 343, – (2011); Unusual People Do Things Differently (New price not indicated. Delhi: Penguin Books); pp xiii + 296, Rs 399.

Govindaraj, V C (2011); The Conflict of Laws in India: Rao, Somasundara, ed. (2011); Medieval Andhradesa Inter-Territorial and Inter-Personal Conflict (New AD 1000-1324 (Comprehensive History and Culture

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september 10, 2011 vol xlvI no 37

contributions. He observes that Gandhi a lways demanded a response in the form of life changes. “Even now, he does not let Indians – or, for that matter, the rest of us – off easy” (p xv).

“This unsatisfied Gandhi, who does not know how to pretend, still makes a claim on the Indian social conscience” (p 277). A fine portrayal of this Gandhi is the strength of the book. It catches Gandhi’s anguish and disappointments, conflicts and emotional upheavals and is a welcome addition to the expanding literature on Gandhi.

Usha Thakkar ( is with the Institute of Research on Gandhian Thought and Rural Development, Mumbai.


Gandhi, M K (1983): The Collected Works of Mahatma, Volume 88 (New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting).

of Andhra Pradesh, Vol IV) (New Delhi: Tulika Books); pp xx + 552, Rs 995.

Roy, Tirthankar (2011); The Economic History of India 1857-1947 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xvi + 348, Rs 395.

Sahay, Anjali (2011); Indian Diaspora in the United States: Brain Drain or Gain? (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan); pp xii + 248, Rs 725.

Sen, Sukomal (2011); International Working Class Movement: Dynamics of Class-Struggle vs Class-Collaboration (Kolkata: National Book Agency Pvt Ltd); pp 532, Rs 700.

Sivaramakrishnan, K C (2011); Re-visioning Indian Cities: The Urban Renewal Mission (New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xxvi + 278, Rs 695.

Sodhi, J S, ed. (2011); Tracking Globalisation: Debates on Development, Freedom and Justice (New Delhi: Penguin Books); pp xxxii + 167, Rs 499.

Srinivasan, T N (2011); Growth, Sustainability, and India’s Economic Reforms (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xix + 152, Rs 195.

Subramanian, Arvind (2011); Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China’s Economic Dominance (Washington: Peterson Institute for International Economics); pp xvii + 216, price not indicated.

Sur, Abha (2011); Dispersed Radiance: Caste, Gender, and Modern Science in India (New Delhi: Navayana Publishing); pp 286, Rs 495.

Thomas, Pradip Ninan (2011); Negotiating Communication Rights: Case Studies from India (New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xxi + 252, Rs 695.

Toor, Saadia (2011); The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan (London: Pluto Press); pp xii + 252, price not indicated.

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