June 27, 2020
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‘Several Accidents Helped Make Gandhi’

The historian and writer on the formative years Mohandas Gandhi spent in South Africa, the people who influenced him and how his later philosophy was formed there

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‘Several Accidents Helped Make Gandhi’
Narendra Bisht
‘Several Accidents Helped Make Gandhi’

Gandhi Before India is a play on words of his earlier book, India After Gandhi. In this book, historian and writer Ramachandra Guha talks about the formative years Mohandas Gandhi spent in South Africa, the people who influenced him and how his later philosophy was formed there. It’s about little-known people who were his mentors, friends and followers in Joha­n­n­esburg, who are never given eno­ugh space in the Gandhi story. Vinod Mehta spoke to Guha.

 Let’s start with this Joseph Lelyveld book which you dismissed out of hand as a bazaar gossip. How does it get such critical acclaim etc?

There is a footnote in my book saying that it is not really an important book. I don’t want to talk about it. There is a footnote and readers can read it. That’s it.

What about these letters – the Kallenbach letters? Did you play a role in that?

Yes, I did. Because I heard of them.

"In 1897, 50 years before Gandhi and Jinnah became fathers of nations, they almost became partners. Can you believe that?”

Are they thousands?

No, there are hundreds. I will tell you a story about it, which is in a sense linked to your previous remark. I heard of them and went to Israel. I looked through them and they were incredibly rich. Our ambassador in Israel Navtej Sarna was convinced that they were important. I wrote a proposal. He forwarded it to the ministry and the ministry was offering $ 1,00,000 for it, which was fair. Meanwhile, Lelyveld’s book came out saying that Gandhi was gay and the old lady who controlled the letters died and her son increased the price by a million bucks more. If the government of India had acted immediately on my and Navtej’s recommendations you and I would have been paying less taxes today. They were really very interesting letters. In fact what I have tried to do in this book is to talk about all Gandhi’s friends—Kallenbach, Pollard, Pranjivan Mehta, this Gujarati merchant who supported him. In fact, people only read Gandhi’s letters, they don’t read letters to Gandhi and about him. And people like Kellenbach, Pollard, Pranjivan Mehta and his circular friends, the Gujarati merchant in South Africa and the way they sustained him, the way they inspired him, the way they criticised him when he was mistaken. I think that is quite striking.

Could you use some of that material in your book?

Lots and lots of that. Pranjivan Mehta is a really interesting person.

Today, that material lies in the archives?

Some lie in the archives, some lie in Ahmedabad, some in South Africa. The materials were gathered from all around the world.

I also went to South Africa, and went to that station, Pietermaritzburg. Was it the defining moment in his life? Did he get beaten up when he took the coach to Pretoria?

Not really. That was an important incident, but it was not defining. Attenborough makes it defining in his film and we saw Attenborough’s film. More important than that was an account in my book of a white mob attacking Gandhi in 1897. He comes to India to take his family back to South Africa. That is the second trip he was making to South Africa and he decides to make his home there. Kasturba and children are going. And there is a rumour that Gandhi is bringing 3000 Indian to immigrate into South Africa. The white mob comes and beats him up black and blue— physical beating. The book has details. That is defining. Here is a man who is 26. In the train incident he faced just one conductor who threw him out. Here there is a mob of thousands of white people abusing him, newspaper editorials calling him names— traitor, a money grabbing lawyer and so on. I think that is defining because that is the first time he meets such hostility and he faces it with courage and equanimity. That is the first thing. It is a demonstration of Gandhi’s courage in the face of a violent mob attack. 

“Gandhi’s character, courage and commitment was appealing to many. His best friend Polak’s sister was in love with him.”

The other thing is that he is saved from the mob by a white couple. The police superintendent’s wife was just there. She said: Why you are attacking him? He is a good man and he is a well- known lawyer. Meanwhile, the commotion attracts the police superintendent himself. This convinces Gandhi although the white mob is racist, still there are some good, decent people. One of great aspects of Gandhi’s philosophy is that imperialism is bad British people are not necessarily bad.

We can see in those pictures the working class...

Absolutely. They adore him. I think that is developed in South Africa.

How does it relate to his philosophy? 

Very much so. I think South Africa is the place in which he has developed his philosophy. He is an insular Bania. He grows up as an insular Bania. If he had succeeded in Rajkot as a lawyer he would not have been more than a Bania. But he fails in Rajkot, so he goes to South Africa. He first comes across Gujarati merchants. He starts his Satyagraha and Gujarati merchants back out as the merchants are conservative people, as you know. Then the Tamil radicals, labourers come in.

How does his philosophy of Satyagraha develop in South Africa?

It develops partly as an opposition to this racist movement, but the important thing is that in the course of this he understands the diversity of India— of language, of caste, of religion— and also the fact that the white people can be on your side. The ecumenical, broadminded, cosmopolitan universalist worldview which emerges in South Africa. I pose a question in my book: if he had never left Kathiawar, if he had succeeded as a lawyer in Rajkot he would simply have been another Gujarati Bania.

That the imperial power must be confronted with non-violence—where does that come from?

“Gandhi started a journal in Durban called Indian Opinion. It was striking that it appeared in Hindi, English, Gujarati, Tamil.”

That comes from several sources. He had two mentors. One was a Jain scholar called Raychandbhai who influenced him greatly and carries out long correspondence. Raychandbhai was also a proponent of religious tolerance, pluralism and of course non-violence. The other was Tolstoy. He had Tolstoy early. Tolstoy talks about non-resistance to evil, he does not call it non-violence. Tolstoy was an activist in Russia encouraging young people not to enrol for the Czar’s army in the war. So the conscientious objection comes from Tolstoy. There is long section of Gandhi’s correspondence with Tolstoy which is quite fascinating because Gandhi never read Anna Korenina or War and Peace. He was impressed by his moral philosophy by the fact that a rich aristocrat gave it all up to work with peasants, the fact that a sexual philanderer became a celibate, and by his religious faith. The most important work of Tolstoy that influenced Gandhi is called The Kingdom of God is Within You, inside you. Then he comes back to India and attacks untouchability, the Sankaracharyas say, "Who the hell are you to attack untouchability?" Gandhi says: I am a Hindu because it is inside me. That’s how I feel." So, Tolstoy is a major influence on Gandhi.

So this philosophy started from South Africa and fine-tuned it in here?

That will the subject of a sequel. I am just looking at him in South Africa. Most of his ideas— his political ideas, his noble ideas, his spiritual ideas— were developed in South Africa.

There is some charge of racism against him when he was in South Africa that he didn’t engage with black movement. How valid is that?

It is not completely invalid, but he was not a blind racist. Like any human being, as a young man, as his predecessors of his time, when he first goes to South Africa he sees Africans as kaffirs— as uncultivated kaffirs. The more he lives there, the more sympathy they acquire with him. In my book you will see I talk about how he calls them uncivilised kaffirs to begin with but then he empathises with that discrimination. He writes editorials about how badly they are treated, how they are thrown out of railway carriages as he had been, and later he says they will also adopt Satyagraha to fight racial oppression. He meets several important African leaders. The founder of African National Congress, John Dube, was an acquaintance of his. So he slowly evolves. In South Africa, Gandhi was a community leader, he was an activist for the Indian diaspora. It is much later that he becomes a universal leader.

Gandhi likes Muslims, if I can put it as simply as that, and there were charges that he had fondness for the community. Did this develop because he was called from India to South Africa by the Gujarati Muslims and his initial interaction was with these people—Bohris?

There were Memons, Bohris, Surtis. And it is true that in South Africa he developed an understanding of Muslims. They sustained and supported him. As for his so called love for Muslims, it was not simply a payback for the fact that they helped him in his career. It was a deeply felt moral philosophy. His moral philosophy was that every religion is partly true and partly false. And the only way to become a better Hindu is to engage with Christians and Muslims and correct your faults. He was a religious pluralist and not a religious supremacist. He did not believe that Hindus are superior to Christians or to Muslims or to Jews and that again emerges through his South African experience.

Gandhi has always managed in India and South Africa to collect white friends. Were they drawn to him or was he consciously making sure that he was not just supported by the Indian community?

"A great aspect of Gandhi’s philosophy is that imperialism is bad, but British people are not necessarily bad.”

I think both. One, he was clear that in any system of racial exploitation, not all the people exploiting you are bad. So he cultivated white friends. They were also attracted to him. One of the discoveries in my book is his best friend Henry Polak. Henry Polak’s sister was madly in love with Gandhi. Gandhi goes to London to lobby for the rights of Indians and spends four months talking to the secretary of state, chasing the imperialists to change their laws, and this Polak says his unmarried sister would act as his secretary. She is absolutely captivated by him. She wants to follow him back to South Africa where he has a wife and children. Gandhi was embarrassed and flattered by this. He was embarrassed by it, and it was not reciprocated. Lots of people found him to be appealing because of his character, courage and the extraordinary commitment. One another important character in this book is his Jewish secretary Sonia Schlesin who is actually a feminist who admired Gandhi but kept on chastising him for not recognising the rights of women. So he has an uncanny capacity for making friendship across boundaries— whether it is race, gender, religion, caste etc.

Had he something to say to all of them?

He listens. The important thing is that unlike the politicians of his time and the politicians of today, he listens to everyone. He was a good listener too. He was not a demi-god giving long speeches.

One of the other things said about Gandhi is that he was a great communicator, who knew about how he could interest the media in himself. For journalists, he provided very good copy.

He was also a great journalist. That is why South Africa becomes important because he starts a journal called Indian Opinion. He funds most of it, he writes quite a lot of it. It’s in Indian Opinion that he practices and perfects his skills as a good communicator. One of the striking things about Indian Opinion is that it is in four languages. Tilak’s Maratha came out in Marathi and English. Gandhi brings out a journal in Hindi, English, Gujarati and Tamil, catering to all sections of the population. So he knew if you want to effectively communicate you have to communicate in that person’s mother tongue. English was not enough, unlike the other elite nationalists like Naoroji  and Gokhale. For Tamil, he had a Tamil editor. He was good in Gujarati and English. He had editors for Tamil and Hindi. This shows an extraordinary capacity for understanding the facets of effective communication. If you want to communicate to as wide a spectrum as possible, don’t restrict yourself to English. The Indian nationalists of the time, like Naoroji and Gokhale, wrote in English and sometimes they wrote in their mother tongues, like Tilak wrote in Marathi. But he said, "I've got to produce it in four languages". The masthead of his paper he produced was beautiful— one newspaper in four scripts. It was first started in Durban city, and a few months after it was started he shifted the printing press. He took it, dismantled it and carried it in four bullock carts to the Phoenix farms and reassembled and it was run there. Of course, I have been to the Phoenix Farms and the shed is still there, the printing press is not there...

I went there also. It is in bad shape...

It's in bad shape

Are we doing anything to...

They say one of the Gandhi’s granddaughters was trying to revive it, but...

I just wanted to ask you in South Africa of today many people are attacking his farms etc. Is he a sort of a forgotten figure?

“Gandhi is remembered in South Africa now as an important leader of the second rank...who inspired the African movement.”

Not really. The farmers attacked it in 1980s. As for the attack on the Phoenix farm, it was not attacked because people disliked Gandhi. It was because the Africans were displaced from Durban by the apartheid regime went in search of land and overran the farm. Part of it is reclaimed. Gandhi today is remembered in South Africa as, I would say, an important leader of the second rank. He started the Indian National Congress and inspired the African National Congress, so he is remembered for having inspired the African movement. Many of the early leaders of the African National Congress like Chief Albert Lutuli who got Nobel Prize was a Gandhian and believed in non-violence. Mandela realised non violence would not work, so took to armed struggle. He admired Nehru in fact more than Gandhi in some ways. After he came back he realised, that like Gandhi, he has to reconcile with the whites. Gandhi is remembered in India as a father of the nation, in South African he is one of the many important leaders in their freedom struggle not of the status of Mandela or Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and son on. Not on the same level, but a little below, but he is remembered with affection. They often tell you. I don’t know if you had the same experience? Several South Africans told me you gave us a lawyer we gave you back a Mahatma. He went as a lawyer and came back as Mahatma.

How do you view Attenborough film, the South Africa portion? Does that romanticise it?

Every film has to have a neat directorial line. Attenborough film had to have a very simple plot line. Forget South Africa, even when you come to India there is no Ambedkar, there is no Subhash Chandra Bose. If you introduce Ambedkar and Subhash Chandra Bose, the narrative becomes too messy. In the book you can introduce all this and show the disagreement. It is useful film for its time. It brought Gandhi back into public debate.

So you think the 15 years he spent in South Africa, if he had not spent those 15 years in South Africa, he may not have been the person he came back as when he came back.

Without question. There were a series of accidents. He failed as a lawyer in Rajkot in 1893, so he went to South Africa. In 1904, he offered Lord Milner who was the governor general a compromise. He said, just assure rights to Indians of property and practising their profession. Lord Milner said I am going to kick out all these people. If Lord Milner accepted his compromise in 1904, Gandhi would have come back to India, because he was worried about his children’s education— children were young and he wanted to educate them in Gujarat. If that compromise had been accepted in1904, Gandhi would have never tried Satyagraha, would have never gone to jail. So South Africa did a big favour to us. 

Rajkot and Bombay High Court have done a favour by failing him as a lawyer. He says I used to doze at the high court because I couldn't get briefs and he used to joke about it— a brief-less lawyer. He jokes about it in his autobiography of 1920s. If you are famous you can joke about your failures. I have also speculated something else in my book. His father dies. After his father dies, he decides to go to London. His uncle says: 'Your father would have never allowed you to go, your father was totally opposed to crossing the kaalaapaani, your father was totally opposed to Englishmen wearing suits and drinking whisky. I will not allow you to go.' Then the mother takes an undertaking from him. Then he begs his mother: 'Let me go'. She allows him: Go, with an undertaking. If his father was alive that chap would not have allowed him to go. So there is a series of accidents that allow Gandhi to become what he was. If Bombay High Court had given him more clients, if Lord Milner had accepted his early compromise in 1904, you know...

What kind of a lawyer was he in South Africa? Was he a successful lawyer? Was he practising in white courts?

He was a successful lawyer because he had a monopoly. He was good, he was hardworking. He was the only Indian. He was extremely hardworking and spoke the language Gujarati. So, that helped. His clients couldn’t speak English, they spoke Gujarati. He was successful. He had a captive clientele. He was good. One discovery in my book is that in 1897 Gandhi was looking for a partner. He said the burden of representing all the Indians was too much. He wrote to a Parsi called Talyarkhan to come out and join him. He said: I can’t come. Then two letters were written from Jinnah to Gandhi at the same time. In Gandhi’s office log book, which I found in the Sabarmati Ashram, there are two letters received from M.A. Jinnah— letter received on: dated 21st January 1897 and 24th July 1897. So here is the speculation: I know Gandhi is looking for a partner. I know Gandhi was looking for a partner. I know that Jinnah was a struggling lawyer in Bombay in 1897. I know that Jinnah is a Gujarati Muslim and Gandhi is a Gujarati Hindu. I can only draw the inference, I can’t conclusively demonstrate it. It is a fascinating thought. In 1897, 50 years before Gandhi and Jinnah become the respective fathers of nations of divided India and Pakistan, they almost forged a legal partnership. It is a lovely thought.

He was not very successful lawyer in Bombay High Court. How then when he goes to South Africa develop as a successful lawyer? How does it happen? Is it because there is no competition? That too practising in hostile white courts.

It is partly so. Clients needed it. Legal system was just coming. Clients only spoke Gujarati. They barely have the knowledge of English and Hindi. He won cases. Lot of these cases were in courts. Lot of these courts were drafting memorials. Like: 'Get me a permit.' ' I want to cross from this territory to that territory.' ' I want an extension of this lease.' So it was that kind of language. He appeared in courts, but court appearances were not many.

Last question on South Africa. There is some suggestion that he was some sort of a domestic tyrant? Is that true?

“The surge for Modi is due to desperation—caused by Manmohan’s weakness, and Rahul’s reluctance to take a major role.”

That is true. And particularly with regard to his elder son, Harilal. I have got some very fascinating letters exchanged between them. He had his children early— Harilal was born when he was 18. Abstinence vow was taken in 1906 when he was 35. He had his first child when he was 18. When he took his abstinence vow he was 36, he had midlife crisis. He said, like Tolstoy, I will give up practice. I will live simply. I am a Brahmachari. While Gandhi was having his midlife crisis his son was having his adolescent crisis. Son wanted to go to London to become a barrister. Gandhi said you can’t go. He treated his son quite shamefully, particularly Harilal (Manilal also). Kasturba gradually achieved a kind of accommodation, understanding. Harilal went eight times to jail in South Africa as part of Satyagraha. He was a heroic Satyagrahi. He joined his father’s movement. Not much is known about all this. I have found in the South African archives his finger prints— convict Harilal’s five smudged fingers. He went eight times to jail. After the Satyagraha got over, he said I want to educate myself. You are educated yourself, let me get educated myself. Gandhiji said, no. Gandhiji was stern and completely not understanding. Harilal fell in love with Gandhi’s friend’s daughter. Gandhi opposed it because, like an old fashioned patriarch, Gandhi said, I will choose your partner. So he was profoundly unsympathetic to Harilal. In many ways, despite his moral greatness, colossal social and political achievements, like many great men, he was an indifferent father. He let himself get better. I think with Ramdas and Devdas— his younger children— he was more understanding. So he learnt from his mistakes. He treated Harilal really abominably.

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

What do you make of Narendra Modi? Do you feel there's a surge for him from the ground?

I think there is a surge. I think the surge is largely because of desperation. I think it is due to the weakness of Manmohan Singh and, of course, the reluctance of Rahul Gandhi to take a major role. The surge is not because of default. Narendra Modi is a profoundly compelling speaker in Gujarati and Hindi. So there is a surge. I have my personal reservations. I have apprehensions about the prospect of him, which is not to do with of 2002. My personal reservations have to do with — Ashis Nandy has also written about it— he has a really authoritarian personality. It is all about I, me, myself etc. I will give you one illustration of this. His coming out speech, which was the speech he delivered in Sri Ram College. You would recall he talks about how the milk in Delhi comes from Gujarat. Now a wise man would have said that there was a man called Verghese Kurien. Then he would have said,  that the Communists in Kerala would not allow him to do his work, so he came to Gujarat and in its hospitable soil, he created this. But he can't say this Probably because Kurien is a Christian, he didn’t want to say it. Secondly, he didn’t want give credit to Kurien.

What about this 'dehati aurat' remark? Your friend Ananthamurthy says he will leave the country if Modi become PM...

I will stay and fight him and so will all of us. And in some ways it is good if he becomes the prime minister because in nine months he will expose himself.

And the Gandhi family. You've said Congress is great party but it must be rescued from the Gandhis

My fantasy is BJP without the RSS and the Congress without the Gandhis.

So we are heading towards strange times.

Yes, we are heading towards strange and difficult times, but we will come out of it in 10-15 years.

A shorter, slightly edited version of this interview appears in print. Mr Guha pointed out the correct dates of Mr Jinnah's letters to Gandhi to us later, which are reflected above. Also, the name of the Parsi lawyer whom Gandhi hoped to make his partner was erroneously mentioned as Dalia Khan in the print version of the interview.

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