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The Gandhi Delusion

The Life of
Mahatma Gandhi

William Marshall Goetsch
June 2010

LOUIS FISCHER
 Harper & Row
ISBN 0-06 – 091038 – 0

 

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T’s not an easy job to demystify a saint; they have so many admirable qualities, this saint in particular:  humility—a highly underrated quality—honesty, unimpeachable morals, a Christ-like regard and understanding for one’s enemies, and most especially, in my view, an overarching acceptance of nearly all moral views.  Though Gandhi was of born a Hindu, he seemed comfortable with, and respectful of, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other faiths.  For his brotherhood with Muslims he was often criticized by fellow Hindus who were—and largely remain—antagonistic to their Islamic countrymen.  Finally, he was murdered by a young Hindu who thought him dangerously over-friendly with the enemy.  This biography by Louis Fischer begins with this assassination and then doubles back to the beginning of Gandhi’s life.

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The author at work

The book is smoothly written and easy to read.  The author, Louis Fischer (1896-1970), was an American Jew born in Philadelphia.  He wrote for a number of years for the magazine Nation, then as now a left of center, “progressive” journal.  He was for many years pro-communist, but time spent in Ukraine and Russia, seeing its effect on the ground as it were, turned him into an anti-Stalinist and he and the magazine soon parted company.

During the writing of this book he spent considerable time with Gandhi in his ashram in India.  He reports that it was 110° outside and like an oven inside the buildings.  He was fed, as were all the others in the community, a sort of vegetable mush and wheat cakes, day after day.  He tells us that his time trying to write-up his notes concerning his conversations at the ashram with Gandhi and Nehru was the worst:

Stimulated by Gandhi’s suggestion to sit in a tub, I placed a small wooden packing case in one of the tin washtubs filled with water, put a folded Turkish towel on the packing case, then set a somewhat larger wooden packing case just outside the tub and placed my portable typewriter upon it.  These arrangements made, I sat down on the box in the tub and typed my notes.  At intervals of a few minutes when I began to perspire, I dipped a bronzed bowl into the tub and poured the water over my neck, back and legs.

An academy award winning movie was made based on the book.  Certainly one can learn a great deal about this time in history from this 500+ page book.  During this period, India’s most crucial modern moment, she was being decolonized by Britain, and in the process Pakistan was being contentiously split off from what has become India.  Gandhi strongly opposed this bifurcation and went to great lengths, and exposed himself to great personal danger, to attempt to stop the unstoppable.  Near the end he himself felt he had failed in his life’s mission, but this seems nearly a required characteristic of saints, does it not?

India, at that time, had a great many very poor people; it still has.  But Gandhi was not at all the poorest of the poor.  Fischer tells us that Gandhi belonged to the third-ranked Indian caste, the Vaisya, that of “shrewd businessman”.  The word “Gandhi” means grocer, though the father and grandfather were each “prime ministers” of a minor Indian Province.  Gandhi, for a time, sought for himself—unsuccessfully—the continuation of this family fiefdom. 

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Mohandas and his wife Kasturbai

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in 1869 in Gujarat, India.  He married when he was thirteen, while still attending high school.  It had been arranged long before by his parents.  The marriage continued for 62 years, not all of them smooth-going; occasionally he sent his wife, Kasturbai, back to her family as chastisement for some flaw that he perceived.  Hindu wives, like those of Muslims, were subject to their husband’s command and according to Fischer he wielded this license firmly.  Gandhi, later, came to castigate child marriage.  Nevertheless Fischer tells us that he loved her fondly, and that he also loved her carnally with avid desire.  He maintained the fondness until she died, but the carnality was terminated prematurely by Gandhi as he began to assume the role of saint; he didn’t think “the shackles of lust ” fitting for this, his budding profession.

When he was eighteen, a few months after his wife had given him the first of two sons, Gandhi left them in India and sailed for England with the somewhat reluctant financial support of an older brother.  There he studied law and was thereafter admitted to the British High Court.  Then, lonely, he quickly returned to India and home.  While he was in England he had of course adopted English dress, and manners suitable for an aspiring barrister, though he kept his vow to his mother to remain a vegetarian, and to eschew alcohol and women.  In attire he became something of a dandy spending considerable time in the mornings dressing carefully. 

Gandhi seemed somewhat lost as a lawyer back in India, not really getting very far; he was shy and found it difficult to speak, certainly a severe flaw in such a profession.  But finally a Musselman (Muslim) firm offered to send him to South Africa for a year as their attorney in some matter.  With things otherwise looking bleak, he took them up on it for a chance at success and to see more of the world.  Leaving his family in India once again, he boarded a ship, this time for South Africa.  This was a crucial time for Gandhi and, properly understood, it became his training ground for his future career as saint.

The lawsuit he was involved in required him to travel to Pretoria, the capital of British South Africa.  The company provided him with a first class train ticket but, it seems, only white people were permitted this luxury in British South Africa.  As the train was preparing to leave Gandhi took his seat in first class.  When a white man then entered the compartment Gandhi was seated in, he complained to the conductor.  But Gandhi refused to leave; he said he had a first class ticket.  No matter.  They threw him off the train and rather than boarding again, this time in third class, he spent the night shivering in the train station in the mountains.  This was a seminal occurrence in his life; for some reason, here in South Africa, he became personally and vividly aware of the color barrier, which seems strange to me, since there were certainly similar barriers in India.  My guess is that the Whites in South Africa struck a firmer color-line there because of the largely uneducated Black population; the Indians, neither white nor black, were simply classed with the Blacks insofar as segregation was concerned.  In any case he became fired up politically for the first time in his life and thereby found his tongue and his true career.

Over a period of a year or so, he developed the saintly techniques that he would use and perfect over the rest of his life: non-resistance, non-violence, non-cooperation, fasting to publicize his point of view, and other more subtle methods of suasion, mixed in a recipe that seemed best suited to the needs of the occasion.  In the process, using these tools, he became the leader of a major movement in South Africa aimed at undoing much of the color discrimination exercised against Indians in South Africa.

In this effort, as in those to follow in India, he had cautious support from certain of the more liberal of the ruling Englishmen.  It was not his aim to eliminate discrimination, which he knew instinctively would take considerable time, but rather to reform the laws restricting Indians, both Hindus and Muslims, most of whom had been brought to South Africa as indentured servants for a fixed time frame, after which they could return or choose to stay.  The Indians filled an important niche in the economic infrastructure; many were hardworking clerks and some were themselves commercial businessman, usually at a retail level.  It is not obvious from Fischer’s writing that Gandhi was especially concerned with the situation of the Blacks in South Africa, certainly more fraught than that of the Indians. 

Interestingly, Gandhi enlisted with the English as an ambulance driver and nurse in their war against the Zulus.  He was criticized for this by many of his fellow Indians who felt that the English themselves were more fitting as adversaries than the Zulus.  But Gandhi felt that he owed the British something; he respected their legal system even though he criticized the portions concerning discrimination.  He considered them as friendly adversaries, and appealed to their good sense.  Though he was only partially successful in this program, he became famous in the process, even in India.  He was twenty seven years old.  As he developed these techniques he also worked as an attorney and, since his tongue seemed to have been loosened by his newfound radicalism, he now became quite successful as an attorney.  Fischer tells us that he made nearly $30,000 a year from his legal work, “a gigantic income in those days in South Africa.”  But this was not to continue; his new calling now came to the fore.

A large meeting of the Indians in South Africa was assembled to develop their response to new discriminatory laws intended by the English to finally limit the number of Indians brought into the country; they were becoming increasingly successful, and thus became competition for the Whites:

Nearly 3000 persons filled the Imperial Theater in Johannesburg.  The big hall throbbed with the din of voices which spoke the Tamil and Telugu languages of Southern India, Gujarati, and Hindi.  The few women wore saris.  The men wore European and Indian clothes; some had Hindu turbans and caps, some Moslem headgear.  Among them were merchants, miners, lawyers, indentured laborers, waiters, ricksha boys, domestic servants, hucksters, and poor shopkeepers.  Many were delegates representing the eighteen thousand Indians of the Transvaal, now a British colony; they were meeting to decide what to do about pending discriminatory enactments against Indians.

Gandhi, addressing the meeting eloquently, now became instrumental in focusing this heterogeneous group on passive resistance to the new laws.  He named his method “Satyagraha”, meaning love and firmness, or love-force:

Satyagraha, Gandhi said, is ‘the vindication of the truth not by infliction of suffering on the opponent but on one’s self.’ The weapons of the Satyagraha are within him.  Satyagraha is peaceful.  If words fail to convince the adversary perhaps purity, humility, and honesty will.  The opponent must be ‘weaned from error by patience and sympathy,’ weaned, not crushed; converted, not annihilated.

Initially this Christ-like method was difficult for its practitioners, and many weakened, yet many, including Gandhi, went to jail.  And the more brutality was inflicted upon them, the more riled up the others became, and were thus confirmed in the method.  Satyagraha was, in a sense, self reinforcing; today we might say that it had a “network” effect.  And the method was subtle; one did not “blame” one’s adversaries, one merely suffered willingly, thus pointing out only with words and by example, the error of their ways.  This made their adversaries aware of their own brutishness in the infliction of their punishments.  Thus one used their own strength against them, a sort of jujitsu of the soul.

After a number of years, and considerable time in prison, Gandhi came to see some success.  He did not expect what could not be given, and he seemed satisfied with a loosening of the strictures.  More important I think was the impression left on the British themselves, many of whom ultimately came to question the usefulness of Imperialism.  And this set the stage for the freedom of India from the British after the Second World War.  It seems to me that the Indians were very fortunate in their choice of adversary; my guess is that Stalin and the Russians would not have been terribly impressed by these passive methods. 

 

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lement Attlee, a socialist, became prime minister of Britain just before the Second World War was completely finished.  Winston Churchill, a confirmed Imperialist, who had guided the war effort, was out.  This, and the severe impoverishment of the British empire as a consequence of the war, made a great difference in British views of their dominance over India.  Many now began to wonder whether India was a drain or a benefit to Her Majesty.  Yet the struggle took several years, during which Gandhi became the pivotal, if nonviolent, force for change in India.

Gandhi was not anti-British.  He respected them, especially their system of law and their relative incorruptibility.  Though he most certainly wanted them out of India and disrespected their many brutal, imperial acts, “…  he did not want India to quit England.  He cultivated cultural and other ties with Britain.”  In Fischer’s portrayal our saint seems much of the time something of an anglophile.

Nevertheless, even now with the British fundamentally willing, they moved only reluctantly in nervous, mincing steps.  This was for two separate reasons: the first of course is that not everyone in Britain was convinced to abandon their empire, most notably Winston Churchill.  But the second, and equally important reason, was the difficulty they foresaw in leaving, and this was not a selfish matter; the inherent conflict in India between the Muslims on the one hand, and the Hindus and the Sikhs on the other, now began to accelerate as actual power grew near; and Gandhi, working desperately against separation of the two factions, favoring brotherhood and equality for both Hindu and Muslim, stood—usually calmly—in the very center of this maelstrom, taking time out only to go to jail occasionally as the British required.  In jail he was handled with considerable dignity.

Both Gandhi, and initially the British, thought that physical (geographical) separation of Hindu from Moslem would be a terrible mistake, and that bloodshed was a great risk if the British were to leave precipitously.  As Britain began to cautiously address this dilemma, the Congress party of Hindus developed politically, with Jawaharlal Nehru at its head; the Muslims moved similarly, with Mohamed Ali Jinnah at the head of the All-India Muslim League. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

200px-Portrait_Gandhi.jpgThe British we’re by now determined to leave, and the Congress party itself, now somewhat independent of its founder, increasingly felt the will to power.  They had waited a long time for this and they were ready, at any conceivable cost.  Throughout this portion of the book we see slowly aggregating, like an amoeba, this unavoidable, ineluctable and seemingly unending conflict, much like those centered about Belfast and Palestine.  Though Gandhi was not apolitical (he was in fact a rather shrewd manipulator, not always an unsaintly quality), his powers were insufficient, or perhaps unsuited, for the task, though it seems to me probable that no one could have reconciled this dilemma that continues even today.

Importuning people to be good and to get along has rarely been effective historically and saints very often pay a dear price for their good works.  Gandhi was no exception.  On January 30, 1948 as Gandhi was on his way to confer with the two heads of the Congress Party, Nehru and Patel, who did not always see eye-to-eye, he was shot dead by one of his co-religionists, who said at his trial, before he was hanged:  “Before I fired the shots I actually wished him well and bowed to him in reverence.”

 

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ndia was finally chopped into three pieces by the British.  Two of them, non-contiguous, with Muslim majorities, were called East and West Pakistan, with Hindu India—replete with a substantial Muslim minority—right in the middle.  This highly combustible arrangement unsurprisingly resulted in civil war between the western portion of Pakistan and its eastern portion which was aided in its effort by India itself.  From this conflict was formed in the east the independent country of Bangladesh, a largely Muslim-populated country wedged between Burma (now Myanmar) on the east, and India on the west.  It also, subsequently, led to war between India and the western portion of Pakistan which continues to bubble away today.  The moral of this tale is that it’s hard putting them together in the first place and perhaps even harder taking them apart. Here is what they look like now.

In my view Gandhi’s delusion—though not his alone—was to view the struggle as a personal project.  He attempted to become the entire solution using personal regard for himself and for his tactics, of which non-violence and fasting was a key tool.  When Muslims and Hindus created havoc, killing and injuring each other in massive, orgiastic confrontations, Gandhi’s answer was to begin a fast “unto death”, or until a modicum of peace had been reestablished.  He was often successful.  This served two purposes: the first was to damp the flames in one part of the conflagration; and the second was to continually increase his stature as the Mahatma among the largely uneducated millions of Indians who viscerally wanted a saint-like religious leader.  The problem with this is that even as one’s reputation climbs ever higher, even to sainthood, the process is still ineffective.  The fire, damped down in one place, simply rises in others.

Fischer tells us that Gandhi who was instrumental in founding what was to become the Congress Party could have overruled any of its decisions by simply crooking his little finger; his influence was that great.  When offered its Presidency however, he preferred not to be directly involved:

“But I do not want to take power into to my hands,” Gandhi assured his friends.  “by abjuring power and devoting ourselves to pure, selfless service of the voters we can guide and influence them.  It would give us far more real power than we shall have by going into the government.

A telling quotation it seems to me; instead of Party President he preferred becoming the Saint of India, the Mahatma, Bapu, the father of the country.

Conflicts such as those that Gandhi dealt with are invariably economic, and while in some sense they are personal, they are more usefully conceived of as systemic malfunctions.  One could blame the British for not better preparing India for its independence.  But Britons wanted Britain out of India, and the Indians wanted Britain out of India—and both wanted to be quick about it; after two or three hundred years there was to be no more waiting; it simply was not in the cards.

Nor do I think that Gandhi honed his method purposely for self aggrandizement, though a cynic might easily suspect as much.  That was simply the way Gandhi thought.  He thought as the people thought; he thought he was one of the people; and the people thought that he was one of them.  Fischer goes to considerable effort to make this clear, and I for one agree with him.  It was simply natural thinking for the time.  People then—and many still—seek a charismatic leader for difficult solutions.  But charisma carries one only so far, and that for only as long as the leader survives.

It is only recently, in the 21st century, that India has finally begun to change, and in a fundamental and measurable way.  And it has done that not through some new charismatic leader but by adopting a natural system—capitalism and globalism—that had previously been viewed with great suspicion in India.  The genesis of this adoption began with two seminal events: the end of the Cold War and the redirection of the Chinese towards their peculiar form of capitalism.  The first event implied that socialism, always a significant part of Indian thinking—and especially of Gandhi’s—might not be the panacea that many had hoped it would be.  And then, when China—India’s analog in a real sense—began its recent, dramatic success story, hearts and minds in India were changed; global realignments began to occur that previously had been frozen by the regnant ideology.  And only now, some 60 years or so after Gandhi’s death, are we beginning to see the start of broad-based economic change in India.  And then there is always what I shall call the Greater British Commonwealth or, as some have called it, the Anglosphere, within which I include the United States; this remarkable and unprecedented edifice still stands and still functions brilliantly.  Though India retains a hate-love relationship with things British, this economic beacon dominates the economic landscape and India’s eyes cannot now be diverted from this light.

Gandhi followed a path that led inexorably to the brotherhood of all, the concept that our species is One.  I came much later to this position, and I must say from the opposite direction.  He followed the path of religion; I followed the path away from religion.  Curiously, both paths lead inexorably to the same point.  Gandhi was not fussy about God; one man’s God was as good as another’s; he was simply quite sure that there was a moral unity of some sort.  In my case it was only after God had become a meaningless concept that I began to see the human species in a new light—just look at what we peculiar little monkeys have accomplished, and the brilliant things we may yet do!  As I understood Gandhi’s respect for men of all varieties, of his humility and his feeling of oneness with them—even those who antagonized him—my eyes glistened more than once in the reading.