Bengaluru: Ramachandra Guha’s two-part biography of M.K. Gandhi comes to a close this month with the publication of its magisterial conclusion, Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World, 1914-1948 (Penguin-Allen Lane, 999). The first volume, Gandhi Before India (2014), traced the subject’s early life in India and his years in South Africa as a lawyer and activist. In the second part, Guha packs in 1,200-odd pages the story of Gandhi’s transformation from a relatively obscure figure to one of the luminaries of the nationalist struggle.

Apart from combing through Gandhi’s vast collected works, running to 100 volumes in English, Guha has accessed, for the first time, papers that were in the safekeeping of Pyarelal Nayar, who was personal secretary to Gandhi in his later years. Pyarelal planned to write a biography of his mentor but died in 1982, leaving this stash to his sister, Dr Susheela Nayar, who had been the personal physician to Gandhi. Although she was persuaded to transfer the papers to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi, she usually withheld permission to public access. After her death, the embargo was lifted, though it took a while for the documents to be put into the public domain.

In an interview, Guha spoke about the challenges of writing about the life of a man who has left a lasting impact on the world and whose ideas still find resonance. Edited excerpts:

Gandhi’s alignment vis-à-vis the left, right or the centre is never easy to establish. Was he a political pragmatist?

Gandhi was a pragmatist in his politics and is hard to categorise in conventional terms. But he did have strong moral and social concerns: inter-religious harmony, abolition of untouchability, and non-violence in word and deed form the core of his political philosophy. He adapted and changed his views throughout his life. He started movements, called them off, he was always willing to negotiate and begin discussions. His boycotts, too, were based on principles, never against individuals. For instance, he shunned British goods but not British people.

What problems do his ambivalent personality pose for the biographer?

The answer lies in one of the epigraphs at the beginning of the book, where Gandhi says: “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."

The situations of his life changed rapidly, so did his views. If you consider his attitude to caste, you cannot freeze it. Out of carelessness or malevolence, some scholars claim he was a defender of the caste system, which is untrue. In the early 1920s, Gandhi was a defender of an idealised caste system, based on division of labour, though he never supported its hierarchy. From the late 1920s, with his advocacy of inter-dining, inter-marriages, and the right of “untouchable" people to enter temples, he completely rejected the caste system.

For this reason, I have been sceptical of scholars who take Hind Swaraj as a “holy text". Gandhi wrote the book on a ship, in a great hurry, but he modified his views later. As a historian, I have tried to show his evolution, and the importance of studying him within a context.

Gandhi refused to allow the Depressed Classes a separate electorate, which B.R. Ambedkar lobbied for. Did that make Gandhi an idealist-optimist?

Absolutely. He over-estimated the capacity of caste Hindus to rid themselves of their prejudices as also the openness of his own Congress to his radical views on untouchability. Of all his major political colleagues—Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Abul Kalam Azad, Sarojini Naidu, Rajendra Prasad, J.B. Kripalani—only C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) understood the importance of his campaign against untouchability.

From 1915 till the end, Gandhi was clear-minded about how obnoxious this practice is, why it ought to go, how it disfigures Hinduism and delegitimises India’s demand for independence.

How can Indians claim freedom from British rule when they suppress a section of their own society so ruthlessly? Gandhi’s commitment and clarity on this question is indisputable and it’s unfortunate that some left-wing ideologues have tried to muddy the waters.

In 1928, Gandhi initially objected to his son Devadas marrying Rajaji’s daughter Lakshmi. Was it partly due to concerns of it being an inter-caste marriage?

Gandhi’s initial resistance was influenced by several factors, including his fear of further offending conservative Hindus already angry at his campaign against untouchability. His attitude also smacked of moral sanction, given his strong views on brahmacharya (celibacy), and some old-fashioned patriarchy.

Gandhi had also stepped in when his other son, Manilal, wanted to marry a Muslim. He was organising 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 Gandhi’s towering stature, Ambedkar stands out in the book as a brilliant mind and visionary far ahead of his time.

Without a doubt. When I first read The Annihilation of Caste many years ago, I was struck by the sheer clarity of his thinking. It took a great deal of moral courage for Ambedkar, who was at the time a leader of the depressed classes not known much beyond Maharashtra, to stand up to the Mahatma, many years his senior and acknowledged as a messiah all over India.

Was Gandhi’s relationship with Rabindranath Tagore’s niece Saraladevi Chaudhurani bordering on a platonic love affair, which you write about at length, relatively unknown so far?

There is a lot of material about it in the collected works, which most commentators have treated rather prudishly. I have tried to lay bare the details. For instance, in his diaries, Gandhi notes that he is dreaming of Saraladevi. While I have quoted from several letters of hers, which are available at Sabarmati, the rest that were in the possession of Gandhi’s family were burnt by them.

There are also newspaper and archival accounts that speak of their relationship. When Gandhi was arrested for the first time in 1922, for instance, the papers noted that Saraladevi travelled from Lahore to Ahmedabad to be close to him. From these different sources I have tried to piece together a fuller account and be frank in the process. Gandhi was besotted by her and she was also flattered by his attention. It’s a human story that needed to be told, without being salacious.

What are the papers in the custody of Pyarelal and Susheela Nayar which you had access to for the first time?

Those papers include hundreds of letters written to Gandhi, government documents, reports from state committees, newspaper clippings of the salt march, and his correspondence with eminent foreigners, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These are not only going to be useful to future Gandhi scholars but also to economic historians or to those interested in the development of the Congress as an organisation.

Gandhi had socialist leanings but did not hesitate from taking money from the capitalists. What was the core of his economic model?

Again, over the years, Gandhi moved away from the ideas he wrote about in Hind Swaraj, where he romanticised the rural economy. Through the 1920s and 1930s, he continued putting emphasis on khadi and spinning for several reasons. He wanted to break down the boundary between manual work and mental work, so integral to the caste system.

He believed spinning and weaving were important subsidiary activities in villages that must be revived. But he also cautiously supported industry. He clearly stated he isn’t opposed to it so long as it did not impoverish people, provided dignified employment, and was in Indian hands. In that sense, the alliance of Indian capitalists such as G.D. Birla with Gandhi was tactical, even instrumental. It was a clever way to overcome the hold of foreign capitalists.

In contrast, industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj, who gave it all up and went to jail, besides joining the anti-untouchability movement, went a step further.