Literary Review

Gandhi demystified

The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, Navayana, Rs.595.  

To demolish the concept of Gandhi as Mahatma seems to be the singular purpose of this book. From among the voluminous research material they have studied, the authors selectively quote to prove their point that Gandhi was indeed racist. Mandela said while unveiling a Gandhi memorial in Pietermaritzberg, “...we are unveiling here the very first statue of an anti-colonial figure and a hero of millions of people worldwide. Gandhiji influenced the activities of liberation movements, civil rights movements and religious organisations in all five continents of the world.” But the authors disagree and between the covers of this book they unsuccessfully try to tear down the opinions of several who hold Gandhi in high esteem. On the cover, a quote of Arundhati Roy is highlighted. She says, “This is a big book . . . a serious challenge to the way we have been taught to think about Gandhi”. While the first part of her statement may be right, the second definitely is not. The book does not really offer any serious challenge, nor have we been taught to think about Gandhi a certain way. The authors center their study around four of Gandhi’s key campaigns: the South African War, the Bhambatha Rebellion, mobilisation against finger printing in the Transvaal and, significantly, the 1913 strike that resulted in Gandhi’s South African stay being narrated as a successful one.

In the chapter about the war, the authors take pains to show that it was brutal and against the Africans and that Gandhi extended assistance to the English, knowing that Africans were the sufferers. The authors assert, “...white supremacy that Brit and Boer could so quickly reconcile after a savage war while Indians did not garner the slightest political concession from the victors for their collective loyalty and willingness to serve the cause of Empire.” Gandhi’s initial effort had been to work with the Empire to gain leverage for Indians in Africa. Though he might not have garnered anything out of the war effort immediately, he did achieve a commanding position because of his unflinching moral strength that laid the foundation for his later efforts. Truth was more important to Gandhi than immediate gains. Gandhi says himself, “When the war was declared, my personal sympathies were all with the Boers, but I believed then that I had yet no right, in such cases, to enforce my individual convictions... Suffice it to say that my loyalty to the British rule drove me to participation with the British in that war. I felt that if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire. I held then that India could achieve her complete emancipation only within and through the British Empire. So I collected together as many comrades as possible, and with very great difficulty got their services accepted as an ambulance corps.”

Bhambatha was killed when he organised a rebellion against taxes and Gandhi felt at that time the Indians in South Africa should support the Empire. In any case Gandhi did treat injured Bhambatha’s men also, which made Mandela say “…Mahatma Gandhi risked his life by organising for the treatment of Chief Bhambatha’s injured warriors in 1906.” But the authors say, “Gandhi saw the Bhambatha rebellion as another opportunity to prove his loyalty to the British Crown as he went into battle as Empire’s stretcher bearer once again.” The perception differs from that of Mandela.

The Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Act of 1906 required Indians to register with a full set of 10 fingerprints to establish their right to reside in Transvaal. On September 9, 1906, Gandhi urged Indians to offer resistance with courage and firmness. This led to the arrest of Gandhi and others, who refused to accept the terms. However Gandhi’s acceptance to voluntarily register, under certain conditions, caused some heartburn. But when Gandhi found that the Empire had gone back on its promise, satyagraha was resorted to and the documents burnt. The authors conclude with an accusing finger towards Gandhi: “Gandhi’s main area of operation from 1906 to 1912 was the Transvaal where just 11,000 Indians lived, compared to the 110,000 in Natal. It was in Natal that thousands of indentured workers laboured under the most difficult conditions.”

The 1913 strike that resulted in Gandhi’s South African stay being narrated as a successful one is seen differently by the authors. They say, “Lost in the narrative of Gandhi’s leading role in the strike and the now emblematic gesture of crossing the border into the Transvaal are the waves of workers who took on the police across the north and south coasts, putting plantation owners on the back foot, making huge dent in the economy.” The authors seem to assert that in spite of Gandhi the workers went on with the strike and not because of him. Gandhi’s intention was to unite Indians for which he strove hard; in such a process he discouraged political unity with Africans. This is seen by the authors as racism.

The denunciation by the authors in the book, the views of Mandela or the findings of historian Guha to prove their point does not hold any water.

K.R.A. Narasiah is a writer, historian and a marine engineer. His recent book was Madras: Tracing the Growth of the City Since 1639.

The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire, Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, Navayana, Rs.595.

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Printable version | Jun 11, 2021 4:51:06 AM |

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