The book stands out for its precision, depth of analysis and, more importantly, its perspective
The history of nationalism in India is at once intricate and complex. And, there is no dearth of books on the subject. Yet, Irfan Habib's book stands out for its precision, depth of analysis and, more importantly, its perspective. The perspective is Marxian, but in many places it makes remarkable departure from the current Marxist studies.
The first essay, “Gandhiji: A Life”, which traces the happenings that eventually led to Gandhi evolving into a “great man”, starts with his fight for the basic rights of the Indian settlers in South Africa in the last decade of the 19th century. In Habib's view, it was a remarkable instance of mobilisation of the poor on modern lines, “the like of which had not till then been seen even in India.”
During this period, the non-violent struggle took different forms — strikes, picketing, boycott and passive resistance — but Gandhi made them “a full-fledged faith in ahimsa and sarvodaya.” Even in Hind Swaraj, which reflected Gandhi's strong criticism of western civilisation and idealisation of the pre-British India, “his own picture of an ideal civilisation had roots not in Indian, but in western, thought,” as Habib says. In terms of mobilisation, the non-cooperation movement in the early 1920s was distinctive. “Gandhi, even in the ‘Instructions', throughout identifies himself with the peasants, who appear in the first person plural [‘we'], while the zamindars are treated as outsiders [‘they']”.
Gandhi's ‘civil disobedience' movement was heralded by an 11-point moderate statement, which singled out the monopoly in salt manufacture as the initial target of the agitation. He was largely successful in spreading the movement.
However, the ‘Quit India' resolution of 1942 was based on an understanding of the world situation that proved to be wrong. In the last phase of his life, Gandhi did his best to save people from communal riots. “If one has to choose any single act as the most singularly consequential by that great man, this was surely it”. He gave his life for this.
In the second essay, the author identifies the crucial achievements of Gandhi. He grew up as a boy in a family that always addressed Gandhi as ‘Mahatmaji' and R.P. Dutt's references (such as the “mascot of the bourgeoisie”) came as personal shock to him. Later on, he realised that Dutt did recognise that Gandhi alone could enter the huts and hearts of the Indian poor.
Habib will not call the national movement an “elitist movement”, as the subaltern scholars have done, but would identify three parties in it: “imperialism, bourgeois nationalism, and the working class movement”. As regards Gandhi, Habib asserts that he is a modern thinker and his own writings are not always the best source for an understanding of the origin of his (Gandhi's) thought.
Secondly, he says, Gandhi tried to unite the national movement with economic struggles. With Gandhi's entry into the national movement, mobilisation for the rectification of the economic grievances became a part of it. The third point was his immediate identification with the peasantry. Fourthly, the Karachi resolution of the early 1930s, which advanced the modern political idea of bourgeois ‘Welfare State' was endorsed by Gandhi. Indeed, Gandhi “had unleashed forces, the direction of whose movement was so different from what he wanted it to be.” However, he “recognised the direction, even while he criticised it.” Finally, Gandhi did not make any compromise with communalism in the last phase of his life.
The third essay, “Jawaharlal Nehru's Historical Vision”, is based on a study of his three books — Glimpses of World History, An Autobiography, and The Discovery of India — all written during Nehru's days in prison in the 1930s and 1940s. The first book showed Nehru as an intense analyst of international affairs and as a vehement critic of imperialism. In the second, he was seen applying Marxist sociological methods to understand developments in the nationalist struggle and coming out strongly against communalism. In the third book, nationalism prevailed over internationalism, which was a backward step for Nehru.
In the fourth essay, Habib examines in detail how ideas and action meshed to produce the civil disobedience movement during 1930-31, which marked its initial phase. The fifth analyses the contributions made by the Left, especially the communists, to the national movement. The author brings out the complex relations between the two, especially in the last 30 years of the movement, where each benefited from, and, at the same time criticised, the other.
While appreciating the critical perspective and the wide-angle view Habib offers us, one is struck by his distance from some of the recent studies on India's nationalist struggle. For example, Shahid Amin's Chauri Chaura finds no mention at all in the text. However, it is quite possible to show that some of Habib's arguments related to Gandhi are partly endorsed by Amin.