Making of the Mahatma

Last Updated 27 September 2014, 16:38 IST

Gandhi joined the Indian freedom struggle only at the age of 49! The experiences of his active years in England and South Africa shaped his personality and politics in crucial ways. As we observe Gandhi Jayanti this week, Salil Misra traces Gandhi’s journey towards greatness...

Mahatma Gandhi is generally associated with India’s struggle for independence. He was the unquestioned leader of this struggle for three decades, from 1918 to 1947. Being its leader, he formulated the strategy of the struggle. It was to be based on non-violent non-co-operation with British imperialism. In the process of the struggle, Gandhi mobilised the people. Mass participation was a major strength of the struggle. The struggle also had some interesting features. Gandhi maintained high moral standards during the course of the struggle. As he himself said, the struggle was essentially for the minds and hearts of the people, not for simple victory.

It is generally not realised that Gandhi joined the Indian freedom struggle rather late in his life, at the age of 49. Before that he had spent most of his active years outside India, in England and in South Africa. Not much is generally known about these years. This period is treated either as a prelude to his active political life or as a kind of a pre-history to Gandhi’s major involvement with the Indian freedom struggle. But, upon closer examination, it should be clear that these years were integrally connected to Gandhi’s political life. Far from being a pre-history, this period shaped Gandhi’s personality and politics in fundamental ways.

From very early in his life, Gandhi seems to have decided that it was pointless to live just for the sake of living. Life did not constitute its own justification. It had to have a meaning larger than itself. Gandhi found that meaning in a life of service. He, of course, gave importance to many individual virtues such as honesty, integrity, courage and compassion. But even these virtues were not important in themselves.

You could live a life of honesty and integrity and yet be of little value to others. The important thing was to place these virtues for larger causes — service of the community. His notion of community was somewhat restricted initially — his ashram inmates at Phoenix near Durban in South Africa, or the Indians in South Africa. But at crucial moments, his notion of community included all humanity. His struggle against British imperialism was as much for the people of India as for the people of England. He admired the British people and felt that they had been corrupted by the evil system of imperialism. It was necessary for the British people to get rid of their imperial domination. Gandhi said in an appeal to the British: “Please get off our backs so that we may all walk together.”

It is important to emphasise that Gandhi was constantly growing and incorporating new experiences into his life and practices. All his previous experiences were like crucial investments for his future ventures. As he himself said in 1933: “...I am not all concerned with appearing to be consistent. In my search after truth, I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things. Old as I am in age, I have no feeling that I have ceased to grow inwardly, or that my growth will stop at the dissolution of the flesh. What I am concerned with is my call to obey the Truth, my God, from moment to moment, and, therefore, when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine, if he still has faith in my sanity, he would do well to choose the later of the two on the same subject.” Yet, even as he grew and incorporated new experiences into his practices, two major traits remained constant throughout — a primacy accorded to moral considerations in socio-political life and a deep commitment to non-violence. Apart from these two, his subsequent life underwent great changes based on his early experiences.

Major influences

Both England and South Africa, where he spent his early years, shaped Gandhi’s personality and politics in crucial ways. England exposed him to the great contrast between a powerful modern industrial civilisation and a traditional world of rural simplicities. Gandhi spent considerable time in studying this contrast and then built his Utopia of a village republic. In South Africa, he led a struggle against discriminating laws against the Indian community and perfected his techniques of Satyagraha. Both the Utopia and the technique stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The years spent in England affected him profoundly. He witnessed an industrial society going through rapid changes. He saw the remarkable accomplishments of the new order and the enchantment it created in human mind. He encountered the new converts to progress and also some sceptic pessimists. The optimists saw the key to human happiness in the possibility of limitless growth. The benefits of affluence were bound to reach every society, sooner or later. The pessimists bemoaned the loss of culture and meaning, the simplicities of traditional life, the loss of cosy cocoons. They looked at the new order with distaste and concluded that the past was better than present. Industrialism had created a cold and arid world, devoid of all warmth and ‘pastoral care’. Loss of culture and community was too great a price to pay for affluence.

Gandhi came into contact with both, but was instinctively drawn towards the sceptics. He later read Tolstoy and Ruskin and was profoundly influenced by Ruskin’s Unto His Last, a book he read in a train journey from Johannesburg to Durban in 1904. The book was a powerful critique of industrialisation and a plea to return to traditional social ideals. In Gandhi’s own words, the book cast a “magic spell” on him. He paraphrased it into Gujarati and again re-paraphrased it back into English.

Even though Gandhi identified himself with the sceptics, there was one major difference. Both the optimists and the pessimists looked upon the new order as fait accompli. The optimists celebrated its inevitability and the pessimists expressed helplessness before the juggernaut of industrialism. Gandhi refused to go under. He grew more and more convinced that through collective human intervention, major wrongs could be set right.

 Any system, however much brutal and unjust, was in the end a sum total of the individuals who lived under it. They should be able to change it. Gandhi was determined to demonstrate that an alternative life was possible, and also desirable. He bought 100 acres of land near Durban and set up the Phoenix Ashram in 1904. Soon a community grew in the ashram. It became a place where he could carry out his experiments in community life. If an alternative to industrialism was to be found, it had to begin by a small community life. The life at Phoenix was kept uncontaminated, as far as possible, from modern amenities. At Phoenix, Gandhi developed a taste for ashram life. Later he built three more ashrams — Tolstoy Farm outside Johannesburg in 1910, Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad in 1915, and Sevagram near Wardha in 1936, where he lived through most of 1930s and 40s. The organising principles of social life remained the same in all the ashrams.

Points of reference

The refusal to treat any unsatisfactory situation as ‘given’ became an important trait in Gandhi’s politics and he practised it during his leadership of the freedom struggle. He was even ready to fight, at the age of 76, against the partition of India, but he found very little support for his ideas.

It was however South Africa, where Gandhi lived for 21 years, that provided Gandhi with a framework for his struggle against injustice. South Africa virtually became a political laboratory where Gandhi made experiments with his techniques of Satyagraha. Gandhi initially went there to work as a lawyer for a trading firm of an Indian Muslim. However, he was soon drawn towards the racial discrimination being practised there.

The South African society was in some ways similar to India and would have reminded Gandhi about the caste system in India. It was a hierarchical society and practised graded inequality — the Whites treated Browns as inferior and the Browns treated Blacks as inferior. The inequality was also connected to class and occupation — the Indian traders were treated differently from the Indian indentured labour. Gandhi also soon discovered that equality in formal political rights was not the way out. Social recognition of equality was more effective. He also realised very soon that discrimination in South Africa was not based simply on wealth or power, but on deeply held prejudices that had taken deep roots in the mind. Gandhi, therefore, came to the conclusion that the fight for civic rights was bound to be more effective than a simple fight for political rights. 

Gandhi formed a Natal Indian Congress in 1894 and started a campaign against anti-Indian racial laws. At the same time, he also organised a volunteer force of Indians to help the British in the second Anglo-Boer War in 1899. This was clearly an attempt to put moral pressure on the British and to persuade them to take Indian demands seriously. In 1903, he started a journal, Indian Opinion, and started a press of his own, International Printing Press (IPP), to mobilise opinion against discriminatory laws. Soon he launched a civil disobedience movement against racial laws. He visited London as part of the Indian delegation to make an appeal to British people. It was around 1908 that he organised a mass burning of registration certificates by all Indians.

(Published 27 September 2014, 16:38 IST)

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