I was once rebuked in Lahore, “ Beti, Gandhi nahi, Gandhiji kaho.” (Don’t say Gandhi, say Gandhiji.) This happened in the seventies, when I was still young enough to be rebuked, and although I did not form a very favourable impression of the Mahatma, I never again referred to him as Gandhi. That a Muslim lawyer in Pakistan should say this to me shows the extent to which Gandhi’s message, in the end, transcended religion and geographical boundaries. Although Gandhi’s earlier use of Hindu rhetoric, like the call for Ram Raj,set off Muslim insecurities and the subsequent call for Pakistan, the latter-day Gandhi achieved a kind of magnificence in his endeavours to stop the rioting and protect Muslims in India.
There have been other biographies of Gandhi, but in Gandhi’s Passion, Stanley Wolpert, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, makes a significant contribution; he demystifies Gandhi. Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi,though very moving, was simplistic and misleading. As a husband, Gandhi was an incredible tyrant; as a father he was a bully, whose eldest son turned to drink and, as a gesture of defiance, converted to Islam. In an exclusive interview for The Friday Times, Stanley Wolpert said, “Portraying a man of so much complexity of character and contradiction wasn’t easy — it was difficult to maintain a balanced picture of the man.”
Fortunately for us, Wolpert manages to give a factual and comprehensive account of the Mahatma’s (“Great Soul’s”) life, in which Gandhi’s spirituality and overarching compassion are reconciled with his shrewdness as a politician and the vagaries of his human frailties.
After acquiring his legal training at Inner Temple in London, Gandhi moved to South Africa in 1893. There, as a result of a series of racial humiliations, Gandhi initiated his particular brand of political activism based on Satyagaraha ‘Hold fast to the Truth’ and Ahmisa, ‘Love and non-violence’. Wolpert believes this was “Gandhi’s most important contribution — the message that violence can’t be silenced by more violence.”
In South Africa, the young Gandhi — initially retained by wealthy Muslim merchants to protect their rights — galvanised the Indian minority into a viable political force against the Afrikaners. He succeeded in wresting some concessions for his community. Twenty years later, Gandhi joined the much larger struggle against British rule in India. Drawing on his experience in South Africa, Gandhi spearheaded the ‘Quit India’ movement and organised mass passive resistance rallies and marches.
Early in his campaign, making it a symbol of the economic stranglehold of the Empire, Gandhi called for the boycott of British cloth. At the same time, he adopted the spinning wheel (which is displayed on the Indian flag), as a means to Indian self-sufficiency. Gandhi preached that if each Indian household spun its own cloth, the British textile industry would collapse, and the moral correctness of their position would induce British labour to champion their cause. Gandhi’s canny ability to inspire the masses was phenomenal; each neighbourhood stripped its closets and made a bonfire out of British fabric.
Shocked by the poverty of India’s starving millions and the degradation of the Untouchable castes, Gandhi transformed himself into a near saint-like figure, who mirrored their pain. Believing he could best achieve his goals through self-sacrifice, Gandhi exchanged his Saville Row suits for a home-spun loin-cloth, curtailed his sexual urges, gave up his possessions and moved to live among the Untouchables, whom he renamed Harijans (beloved of God). He set up ashrams in the slums where he and his followers dispensed food and medicine.
Although Gandhi believed passionately in several ethical and moral precepts, chief among them non-violence, love, truth, equality, abstinence and natural cures, the defining characteristic that shines off the pages of Wolpert’s biography, was his all-embracing and uncompromising compassion. A compassion that in the end cost him his life.
While drawing his material from many sources, Wolpert relies also on Gandhi’s own ample writing — which ran into 9 volumes — and permits Gandhi to speak to us in his own voice. What struck me repeatedly was Gandhi’s ability to cut through to the heart of any issue, and his political foresight — which borders on prophesy.
But the ultimate tragedy was that his political influence was undermined, and by the time it was most needed, nobody heeded him. When Gandhi suggested that the Indian Congress appoint Jinnah as the first Prime Minister of India after independence, in order to avoid Partition, Nehru, who as Gandhi’s heir coveted the position, told Lord Mountbatten that Gandhi’s advice should be disregarded as he was ‘out of touch’. Nehru also opposed Mountbatten’s suggestion to make Gandhi the Governor General, says Wolpert. Instead, he flattered the Brit by insisting that he should be the first Governor General. The fact that a royal scion of Empire was the first Head of State of independent India must have been as galling to Gandhi as it was to Jinnah.
At this time, Wolpert quotes him as wryly observing, “I am being told to retire to the Himalayas. Everybody is eager to garland my photos and statues. Nobody really wants to follow my advice.” And when he learnt that Nehru had accepted the Partition-plan, Gandhi warned, “Remember, if you divide India today, tomorrow... we might escape its consequences…but generations to come will curse us at every step for the kind of Swaraj (self rule) we shall have bequeathed to them.”
“Gandhi alone among India’s politicians accurately anticipated the tragic aftermath of Partition and its murderous legacy of more than half a century of Indo-Pak wars and hatred,” writes Wolpert, referring to Kashmir. Gandhi foresaw the danger that Kashmir, with its large Muslim majority, posed. He advised that Kashmir’s “real rulers” were its people, not its Maharaja. “If the people of Kashmir are in favour of opting for Pakistan, no power on earth can stop them from doing so. They should feel free to decide for themselves.” He went on to state that they had not battled for independence from the British for some Indians, but for all Indians.
Nehru reneged on his promise to hold a United Nations supervised plebiscite in Kashmir and since then India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the fate of the beleaguered Kashmiri people. In recounting Gandhi’s life, Wolpert presents us with a transparent picture of the politics of Partition, and of Gandhi’s helplessness in the face of the power struggles and squabbling that went on behind the scenes; and of Gandhi’s terrible agony at his failure to bring about harmony between the Hindus and Muslims, and prevent the break up of India.
Wolpert’s years of research uniquely qualify him to write about the events that led to the partition of India into several countries: India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh —to name a few. His candour and integrity have earned him much flack. His first book Nine Hours to Rama, was banned in India. His book Jinnah of Pakistan was initially banned in Pakistan, and allowed only after some offending passages had been excised. Nehru: a Tryst With Destiny has been “unofficially banned” in India, says Wolpert, and he believes that the Nehru family have had the books “removed from the shelves in bookstores.”
In 1998, India triggered five thermonuclear explosions in the Pokhran desert. “On the very day the birth of Buddha was celebrated in India,” writes Wolpert, who happened to be there at the time. In fact, it was the euphoric reaction of the politicians in India to the blasts that shocked Wolpert into narrating the life and times of India’s Apostle of Peace. “There is no miracle except love and non-violence,” Gandhi had confidently preached. “In times to come India will pit that against the destruction the world has invited upon itself by the invention of the atom bomb.”
Two weeks after the Indian tests, Pakistan also carried out its nuclear tests.
When towards the end of this gripping account Wolpert writes, “Gandhi was the greatest Indian since the fifth-century B.C. ‘Enlightened One,’ the Buddah,” I found myself jolted into giving the matter thought. There have been other great Indians, notably the Sikh Prophet, Guru Nanak. But no Indian — other than the Buddha — has come close to matching Gandhi’s universal influence. In America, Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement against racial discrimination was profoundly affected by Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy. Nelson Mandela, who was proud to be incarcerated in the same jail in South Africa as Gandhi was, wrote, “Gandhi’s strategy... of non-violent resistance inspired anti-colonial and antiracist movements internationally.”
“The end of his life was Gandhi’s finest hour: when all his strengths came to fruition and he transcended human limitations to grasp the Truth,” Wolpert said during the interview, when he dwelt at some length on describing Gandhi’s last actions and achievements. India and Pakistan gained independence in August 1947. On January 12, 1948, saying, “I yearn for friendship between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims… Today, it is non-existent,” frail and in his seventies, Gandhi began his last fast.
To placate Gandhi, Nehru’s cabinet quickly transferred to Pakistan its share of the assets of undivided India, which it had withheld. Despite the efforts of the Indian Congress to appease Gandhi, and warnings from his doctors that his kidneys were failing, Gandhi refused to break his fast until there was “complete friendship between the two dominions… and all communities can move without fear.” In Delhi, thousands of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus stood outside Birla House shouting slogans of peace and unity. The leaders of every community promised Gandhi to love and trust one another and begged him to eat again. On January 18th, after over one hundred leaders had signed a declaration promising to live like brothers, and had pledged, “We shall protect the life, property and faith of Muslims,” Gandhi at last broke his fast; he also announced his determination to go to Pakistan to equally protect the Hindu and Sikh minority there. The irony is that while many Hindus berated Gandhi for taking up for the Muslims, the Muslims, recalling his earlier Hinduism-steeped rhetoric and their subsequent alarm, continued to distrust Gandhi.
Twelve days later, as Gandhi walked through the crowd awaiting him in the Birla House garden, a young man pushed his way through and shot him. He was Nathuram Godse.
History already judges Mahatma Gandhi kindly; those who said he was ‘out of touch with the times’ have been proven wrong. When one looks at the ecological issues agitating us today and the threat economic globalisation poses to smaller economies — Gandhi comes closest to being a prophet for our times.
Gandhi lived in the hearts and minds of millions, and one is grateful to Stanley Wolpert for reintroducing this extraordinary man to a new generation — and for bringing him so compellingly to our attention before he slips away from our careless awareness.
This is an edited version of an article published in FirdayTimes, Pakistan. Most of Stanley Wolpert’s books are banned in India for his hateful depiction of history and Indian leaders. This is another one.. showing his narrow mind.