Lit for Life 2015 Lit for Life

I love my books equally: Rajmohan Gandhi

Rajmohan Gandhi: author, biographer and human rights activist. Photo: S. Subramanium  

Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, is a celebrated author, biographer among others of Gandhi and Sardar Patel, ex-parliamentarian researcher and a human rights activist engaged in battles against inequalities and corruption. He contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections on Aam Aadmi Party ticket. Excerpts from his interview:

Which of your work is closest to your heart?

A parent always loves the newest child. The story of Darbar Gopal Das in The Prince of Gujarat is my newest child. I am also very fond of my Sardar Patel biography. To be honest, I love them all equally.

In your recent book, Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten, and other works, you keep returning to the theme of India’s Partition and the Hindu-Muslim relationship.

The events of 1947 took place when I was 12. Gandhiji’s assassination happened when I was 12-and-a-half. I have grown not only with India’s independence, but also with the unfinished question of the Hindu-Muslim relationship of which the India-Pakistan dimension is another manifestation. It features in my studies because it featured in the lives of the people I have written about including Gandhi and Sardar Patel.

You wrote Sardar Patel’s biography 30 years ago?

For a compelling reason. He was neglected…

That is what the BJP also feels….

My brother Gopalkrishna (Gandhi) had a very good line about Sardar Patel: the misuse of Sardar Patel is a consequence of the disuse of Sardar Patel by the Congress. It is totally correct. Now no one is perfect. Nehru was not perfect. Sardar was not perfect. But Sardar was an amazing man. Yes, in the mid-1980s I said this man deserves to be properly understood.

I was able to get from Maniben Patel (his wife) all the diaries and it still remains possibly, the most detailed, the most comprehensive study of the man’s life. I wrote in the preface that Gandhi was recognised ‘dutifully’ by the government, Nehru ‘most enthusiastically’ but Patel, who was also a very important element, was kind of ‘neglected’.

Now the BJP is eulogising him for political advantage and to somehow fit him into its Hindutva agenda.

Yes, the BJP would undoubtedly like to use Patel not just to underline great things he did but also to use him to somehow diminish Nehru. The questions to ask is: will the BJP leadership really follow Sardar’s way of life and how he dealt with the people and identified himself with the people. Yes, he had dealings with businessmen and capitalists but he kept them at a firm distance. He kept his son away from Delhi.

What was his position on religion?

Now Sardar Patel definitely did not have the kind of interactions with the Muslims of India like Jawaharlal Nehru, because of historical circumstance where Sardar Patel was raised and where Nehru was raised. So Sardar Patel’s interaction with Muslim world was limited. He was a staunch Hindu at heart but as an administrator (Home Minister) he was impartial.

Clearly the Nehru-Gandhi-Patel relationship is worth highlighting.

Yes. There were differences and such incredible love and loyalty with each other and remaining a team. The team work of these three was the high point of a higher team work across India. Today we have a very successfully marketed personality (Narendra Modi) who undoubtedly is extremely capable and hardworking, and committed to certain goals but where is the team, where are the colleagues? Gandhiji was not a small man, but he did not feel that he himself could change India. He needed Patel, he needed Nehru, Maulana Azad… he needed so many others.

BJP has been accused of trying to appropriate Mahatma Gandhi… 

(Laughs heartily) If the BJP really comes close to Gandhi it can only be good for the BJP and good for India. And the Swachch Bharat campaign, if it is a start of understanding Gandhiji by the BJP, it’ll be wonderful. Let the understanding also extend to Gandhiji’s understanding of Hindu-Muslim relations, his understanding of the need for India to have an equal society, and for the weakest person to be uppermost in our consideration. So, if they come close to Gandhiji, it’ll not do them any harm.

You contested against Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi in 1989 on Janata Party ticket and it’s interesting that you’ve never been a part of the Congress Party.

The Congress probably thought I was not worthy of them. 

Probably because the party could not have had another Gandhi from another lineage?

The bigger factor was that I was against dynastic politics. I felt the Congress, at different points of time, was weak on the issue of corruption. I opposed the Emergency. I had strong differences with the Congress. 

In hindsight, do you think that Arvind Kejriwal should not have resigned as Delhi’s Chief Minister and contested against Narendra Modi from Varanasi?

The wisest person is Mr. Hindsight. When Modi was so strong and people had many worries about him, Arvind contesting against him did make many in Delhi unhappy. On the other hand, many people in India felt that at least this man is standing up to Modi and that was a trust factor all across India so I don’t say that it was a mistake.

And now?

It will be tough because the Modi wave still seems to be intact and many people will want a state government that will have good connections with the central government. But some people I have talked to say that black money will be a factor and many people in Delhi have a love for Arvind.

About Rajmohan Gandhi

Rajmohan Gandhi is a historian and biographer who served as Research Professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois, the U.S., until end 2012. His latest book is Prince of Gujarat: The Extraordinary Story of Prince Gopaldas Desai, 1887-1951. His Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten was published in 2013. An earlier book, Gandhi: A True Story of a Man, His People and an Empire, received the prestigious Biennial Award from the Indian History Congress in 2007. In 2002, he received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his Rajaji: A Life. His other books include Patel: A Life; Revenge & Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History; Eight Lives: A Study of the Hindu-Muslim Encounter; and Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pakhtuns. In the early 1990s, Rajmohan Gandhi served as a Member of the Rajya Sabha. Before that he was Resident Editor, Indian Express, in Chennai, and Chief Editor, Himmat, Mumbai.

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