Perhaps there was never a Gandhi before India almost in the sense there was an India after him. Like other individuals, Gandhi was an embodiment of the cultural self of Indian society, a mirror of his homeland, and its culture to outsiders. In that sense, India is integral to Gandhi, no matter how politically flawed or morally wounded it might look to others or even to himself. Consider a title, Mother Teresa before India, which will have a qualitatively different connotation than the title under review. But this mismatch should not undermine the value of this definitive work, which together with its promised sequel could very well be the finest piece of writing on Gandhi, and his ideas, and help establish Ram Guha the foremost thinker on Gandhi.
The idea for this book germinated with a decision to offer a graduate seminar titled, Arguments With Gandhi, at the University of California, Berkeley in 1998. In the Preface, Guha offers a fascinating account of his decision and the challenges he encountered. The book covers the life of Gandhi from October, 1869 till July 1914, when he leaves for India, and the sequel covers the rest. Guha alludes to extraordinary lives and works of Martin Luther King, Aung Suu Kyi, Dalai Lama as instances of Gandhi’s growing global relevance.
Guha is completely convincing when he reminds us about inadequate knowledge of political Gandhi before he arrived in India. An interesting book titled, The Man Before Mahatma by Charles DiSalvo, Professor of Law at the West Virgnia University, with similar intellectual underpinnings, was recently published by Random House (2012).
Like Guha’s book, there is a rare cover photo of Gandhi, taken in 1905 in Johannesburg, with a tie, a starched shirt, and a three-piece suit. DiSalvo’s book, with eighteen chapters, explores how Gandhi’s experience as a lawyer help mould him as India’s leading nationalist. But Guha’s book is more intensely researched, carefully structured, and comprehensive because of his deeper understanding of South Asian history and politics. It has twenty two chapters, each unravels life and times of Gandhi, and his encounters with various individuals, and how he dealt with Africa’s oppressive regime and racist society. The last chapter is titled, How Mahatma was Made, which could have been a more convincing title for this book. Of course, Guha is not sharing a formula to make future Gandhis. Alas! There is no such formula! It will be disappointing to expect to produce Gandhis or Patels by setting up statues, or by pricey advertisements. Given that Gandhi emerged without such statues around him, it would lead to wasteful drainage of our resources. Human beings, transformative or ordinary, are product of circumstances, and to that extent, the facts and narratives of this book shed crucial insights to the making of Mahatma, especially about six people of different races, faiths and professions(two Hindus, two Jews ad two Christians)-who shaped Gandhi’s worldview and sense of humanity.
Unlike DiSalvo’s book, which was driven by the curiosity to understand the evolution of civil disobedience movement, Guha argues how Gandhi’s life and experiences embodies a political vision that has urgent contemporary relevance. He writes, “The predicament of Indians in South Africa in Gandhi’s day also anticipated the predicament of Muslims in Europe and of Hispanics and Asians in North America today.” Without doubt, contemporary discourse on diversity, inter-faith dialogue, and minority rights could profit enormously from Gandhi’s experiences.
In a nutshell, South Africa was the land which taught Gandhi the value of human dignity. It encouraged him to seek for it, and embolden him to stand for it. South Africa, like India of then or even now, was a working laboratory for widespread violations of human dignity and human rights. But Gandhi never saw India, its obvious and embedded violence, that way, which he discovered much later to some measure. For this dimension of Gandhi’s ignorance as well as inhibition, a close scrutiny of the Gandhi-Ambedkar debate is necessary. Here is a thought experiment: Had Gandhi been born a dalit, how different thdalit Gandhi would have been from Ambedkar? On his discussion about Hind Swaraj (1909), Guha recognises, and rightly so, that Gandhi was presenting a romantic view of indigenous Indian culture, and the reason is his limited exposure to India.
According to Guha, by 1888, when Gandhi left for England at the age of 19, there is no evidence he visited other parts of India, and few other visits such as in 1892 and 1902 to Bombay and 1896 to Calcutta and Madras to lobby for the rights of Indians in South Africa does not offer much evidence of his deep, or extensive contacts with Indians of different social and economic strata. But the fact is : visionary personalities do not often rely on either visit or interaction as the only basis for shaping their vision. Often they are people with a sixth sense or a third eye. Perhaps, Gandhi’s caste and class background did contribute to look at India favourably, though some of which he changed in latter years, about which we hope sincerely to learn few things from Guha’s promised sequel.