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Mumbai: In January 1949, a year after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was assassinated, the English writer George Orwell wrote a sobering, if somewhat harsh, assessment of the Mahatma’s character in the Partisan Review. “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent," began his “Reflections on Gandhi". The avowed atheist then went on to ask two searing questions about the man who had enjoyed widespread veneration for most of his life and continued to do so after his death. “[T]o what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity—by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying-mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power," Orwell wondered, “and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering into politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud?"

In the 70 years since Gandhi’s death, many unsavoury truths about his life and philosophy have been papered over by the near-universal deification of his persona. However, as the world is poised to commemorate his 150th birth anniversary in 2019, uncomfortable questions, such as the ones raised by Orwell, are being increasingly asked by scholars and the public at large. Recently, students of the University of Ghana in Accra removed a statue of Gandhi to protest against his racist views of the black community during the years he lived and worked as a lawyer in South Africa. Besides, though he is revered as the Father of the Nation in India, the image of Gandhi as a figure of unblemished rectitude is coming under scrutiny, especially for his views on caste and women, for several years now.

The Gordian knot that is Gandhi’s belief system and the impassioned responses his politics still provoke come alive in one of the most thoughtful books to have appeared this year. Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World, 1914-1948 (Penguin-Allen Lane) by Ramachandra Guha is the sequel to Gandhi Before India (2013), which traced its subject’s life from birth till the end of his years in South Africa. Running into almost 1,200 pages, the latest volume is a magisterial chronicle of Gandhi’s rise to eminence after he returned to India from South Africa in 1915, his unshaken belief in the power of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (non-violent agitation) as weapons to liberate India from the British Raj, ending with his death at the hands of Nathuram Godse and the impact of his philosophy across the world thereafter.

In India, Gandhi’s messages have been appropriated by players across the political spectrum for generations to promote their vested interests, even as his core beliefs in communal harmony and the abolition of untouchability remain unrealized a century after he articulated them. For the current ruling party, Gandhi is the mascot for the Swachh Bharat campaign for a cleaner India, which sounds right in theory. However, given Gandhi’s vociferous criticism of the filth on the premises of the Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi in a speech in 1916 and the sorry state of the centre’s Clean Ganga Mission in the city till now, the irony of the situation is obvious. Even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has historically been on rocky terms with Gandhi, has sued Congress president Rahul Gandhi for alleging that the organization played a role in Gandhi’s murder. Banned for a brief period by the government after Gandhi’s death, RSS plans to celebrate his 150th birth anniversary next year.

Guha’s telling of Gandhi’s life, warts and all, dims the halo of saintliness around the Mahatma and also makes us reflect on the complex turns of his character, which have been flattened by the smiling visage ubiquitous on our currency notes. “The situations of (Gandhi’s) life changed rapidly. So did his views," Guha told Mint in an interview earlier this year. This truth is echoed by Gandhi himself, who is quoted in an epigraph to Guha’s book as saying: “I make no hobgoblin of consistency. If I am true to myself from moment to moment, I do not mind all the inconsistencies that may be flung in my face."

Gandhi’s attitude to caste, for instance, which is widely criticized as being one of a defender of the system, is difficult to fix. As Guha shows, in the early 1920s, Gandhi did defend an idealized caste system, based on division of labour, though he never supported its hierarchy. From the late 1920s, as Gandhi began to advocate inter-dining, intermarriages and the right of the so-called “untouchables" to enter temples, he rejected the entire system. Yet, when it came to according the “depressed classes" a separate electorate, he fell out with B.R. Ambedkar and coerced him to retract his demand by threatening to fast unto death.

In Guha’s account, it is Ambedkar, then a young and relatively unknown leader of the Mahars, who comes out as the real hero of the moment. Gandhi was far too optimistic about the ability of orthodox Hindus, especially of his comrades in the Congress, to rid themselves of prejudices that had festered through the ages. Ambedkar, in contrast, had the foresight to realise that the evil of caste wouldn’t be eradicated by naive idealism but by pragmatic policies and legal interventions.

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Gandhi has never lacked the attention of scholars. As early as 1946, Ambedkar was complaining, “The number of books that people write on this old man takes my breath away." More than half a century later, when Guha began his research, the literature on him had swelled considerably—Gandhi’s own output (in English and Gujarati) alone ran to a staggering 100 volumes.

Guha’s coup in this book involved gaining access to Gandhi’s papers that have not been made public until the early 2000s. Jealously guarded by Pyarelal Nayar and his sister Susheela Nayar, who were close associates of Gandhi for many years and later his biographers, these documents include letters, reports and clippings that shine new light on Gandhi’s life, especially on his relationship with eminent foreigners (such as the German pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer), as well as his negotiations within the Congress over the years.

One of the revelations the papers throw up is Gandhi’s charged relationship with Saraladevi Chaudhurani, Rabindranath Tagore’s niece. By the time the two met, in 1919-20, both of them were married to other people for years, and one of them (Gandhi) had kept a vow of celibacy for 13 years. Although the contours of the relationship remained platonic, Gandhi was besotted with Saraladevi. He called her his “spiritual wife" and described himself as her “law giver". Gandhi’s abject adoration caused consternation within his close circle, especially when he decided to write about the relationship in an article. C. Rajagopalachari managed to persuade him against it and saved him potential public humiliation. Years later, Rajaji would also prevent a profoundly distressed Gandhi from writing about sullying his long-standing vow of self-control by accidentally ejaculating in his sleep. No wonder Gandhi came to call Rajaji the “keeper of my conscience".

While the story of Gandhi’s fondness for Saraladevi is not a secret, Guha fleshes it out in all its flaws and human details, including the somewhat embittered circumstances in which the two eventually drifted apart. As Guha shows, even as Gandhi sought to dismantle gender hierarchies, advocated for the abolition of the purdah, and promoted women’s education, he was a conflicted patriarch till the very end, when he created a furore among his followers by making his young grandniece, Manu Gandhi, sleep with him in the same bed to test his resolve of celibacy.

As the world reckons with the #MeToo movement, it is impossible to gloss over the glaringly sexist views Gandhi held. In another instance, Guha writes of an article in the Harijan, dated December 1938, where Gandhi launched “an unprovoked attack on the modern woman". To a complaint from a young woman from Punjab about being teased by “prowling young men", Gandhi suggests a twofold course of action: that the names of the offenders be made public in newspapers, and that “well-behaved young men (should) chastise the deviants among them". But he didn’t stop there.

“I have a fear that the modern girl loves to be Juliet to half a dozen Romeos," Gandhi went on. “She loves adventure…. The modern girl dresses not to protect herself from wind, rain and sun but to attract attention…. The non-violent way is not for such girls." The article justly received a sharp riposte from a group of women readers from Calcutta. “Strength of character and chaste behaviour are necessary not only for modern girls but for men as well," they wrote, ripping into Gandhi’s patronizing sermon. The tenor of this exchange still resonates 80 years on. Shaming of the victim, especially the woman, remains the quickest defence of the troll army on the internet, as also in real life. In societies across the world, but more so in Asian countries, the woman’s right to feel desire, or to act on it, continues to be largely frowned upon.

In a trenchant review in The Guardian, historian Faisal Devji wrote that Guha’s project in the two-volume biography is to turn “Gandhi into a liberal icon for a new generation". He explains: “The problem with this laudable goal is that Gandhi was not a liberal, and Guha can only make him so by sticking to a familiar script."

However, a careful reading shows Guha constantly veering away from the “familiar script" of an idealized Gandhi. He not only probes the recesses of Gandhi’s often dark and disturbing views on sexuality, he also reveals him as a political pragmatist whose early oppositions to interfaith and inter-caste marriages did not necessarily betray a communal or casteist mindset. In 1915, for instance, Gandhi decided to open the doors of his Satyagraha Ashram in Ahmedabad to an “untouchable" family, displeasing not only his patron, Mangaldas Girdhardas, a devout Hindu, but also his wife Kasturba and the rest of his family. Although he faced imminent withdrawal of financial support and a boycott by those closest to him, Gandhi held his ground.

Yet, even as he shattered Brahminical notions of purity and pollution, Gandhi had considered inter-caste marriage to be an aberration, which demonstrated a lack of self-control. He initially opposed his son Devdas’ marriage to Rajaji’s daughter Lakshmi for this reason, just as he did not want his other son, Manilal, to marry a Muslim. As Guha said in the Mint interview, at the time, Gandhi “was organizing a political campaign to bring Hindus and Muslims on the same platform and worried that if his son married a Muslim girl, Muslims would say Hindus are mixing with them only to capture their girls, which is the reverse of the view the Hindu Right takes today". Despite such prudence, Gandhi failed to prevent Partition, his faith in religious harmony was challenged by M.A. Jinnah who, along with Ambedkar, proved his most cherished ideals wrong.

In the present political climate, Gandhi’s legacies may be twisted and turned to serve selfish agendas, but he remains notoriously difficult to classify in terms of conventional categories. By examining Gandhi within the context of his time, Guha’s book allows us to rediscover his appeal. It doesn’t whitewash and deify him, but presents him as a flawed genius. Gandhi, as Guha put it, was neither a socialist nor a conservative, or a liberal. “He was a true original."

Tomorrow: The Speech

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