Ramachandra Guha: “I hope this book restores Mahadev Desai’s central role in Gandhi’s life and in the freedom movement”

[ An abbreviated version of this interview was published in India Today magazine on September 14, 2018. This is the extended version. ]
Historian RAMACHANDRA GUHA has been examining the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for the past 15 years. His latest book Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (1914-1948) completes a biographical trilogy that will cover a foot on your bookshelf. Apart from other sources, it draws from the Pyarelal papers, which were not available even in the archives till a few years ago. Excerpts from an interview with SOPAN JOSHI


Give us a glimpse of Gandhi’s influence on the wider world.

It comes up in the most unexpected places. As I mention in the book, I was at a hotel in New York City. I had with me a copy of the previous book, Gandhi Before India. It had an unusual photo of Gandhi as a lawyer, in a suit. A waiter saw it and he said, “Isn’t that the young Mr. Gandhi.” I said yes. He said they admired him in his country. Which country, I asked. He said the Dominican Republic. Gandhi’s truly a universal figure. A friend recently sent a photo of Gandhi’s statue in Rio, Brazil. In the West and in Latin America, while people may not know the rich details of Gandhi’s life, they think he is cool!

Gandhi? Cool?

The singer Joan Baez tells a wonderful story. Her father was a peacenik and an admirer of Gandhi. She asked him if Gandhi had a vagina. The father said no, Joan little girl, he was a man, so he had a penis. Joan said he was so nice, she thought he had a vagina too. Clearly, he is seen as a nice guy, a cool figure. Other people took his ideas more seriously. He’s influenced many non-violent movements and protests, from the American civil rights movement, to the solidarity in Eastern Europe to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Outside of India, he’s not as controversial a figure.

How does India see him?

Here, he is the focus of debate, argument, contestation, even revulsion. There’s lots of people who hate Gandhi. It’s open season on Gandhi. The Marxists attack him, the Hindutvawadis attack him, Ambedkarites attacked him, feminists attack him… The West’s view of him is more cute and cuddly.

Is he really the most written about human being in the world?

Probably not as much as Jesus, but that’s a valid comparison. He is definitely the most intensely examined modern life. He is a universal figure. I taught a course in Berkeley on ‘Arguments with Gandhi’, and it drew a diversity of students. You cannot teach a course on ‘Arguments with (Thomas) Jefferson’ in Delhi University and get many students. Gandhi’s figure does transcend many boundaries, which is why so many biographies are written on him. I wrote this one because I had new things to say, new material to excavate. This book is about Gandhi the historical figure, not about how he is perceived or misperceived today. It’s about his life, his struggles, his relationships, his family, his rivalries…


What do the Pyarelal papers show?

All kinds of material. For example, there’s an intriguing figure in this book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a radical Christian priest in Germany who opposed Adolf Hitler. He’s famous in Germany because he was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler in the early 1940s; he was jailed and he wrote these letters from there which were widely circulated. He is this exemplary moral figure who had the courage to take on Hitler. Now in Pyarelal’s papers, I found that in the early 1930s – a decade before he organised a violent plot out of desperation against Hitler – he was in touch with Gandhi. He wanted to come and learn satyagrah from Gandhi, and he almost came here. Bonhoeffer is a legendary figure in the West and Gandhi is a legendary figure in the East, and nobody knew that they were in correspondence. Gandhi replied that he might be travelling but that Bonhoeffer was welcome, describing the costs involved. Finally he did not come. But suppose had come here and talked with Gandhi, and then organised a satyagraha against Hitler before the Nazi regime got established…

What do the Pyarelal papers show on historical figures in India?

There’s a great deal there on Mahadev Desai (Gandhi’s first secretary who died in 1942). One of the contributions of my book, I hope, is to restore Desai to his central role in Gandhi’s life and in the life of the freedom movement. Without doubt, he was more important to Gandhi than even Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. He was his interlocutor, his advisor, his window to the world because Desai was learned about global politics and political philosophy. Unlike Nehru, he shared Gujarati with Gandhi. Unlike Patel, he had this wider cosmopolitan outlook.

How did the papers end up with Pyarelal?

After Gandhi’s death, Pyarelal went to Sewagram and collected all the papers and brought them with him to Delhi, including papers that Mahadev Desai had kept. Through those papers, you get a sense of how much Gandhi trusted Desai. There’s lots of Desai’s correspondence with not just Nehru, V.S. Srinivasa Sastri and Rajaji (C. Rajagopalachari), but also with the viceroy in the crucial years of 1939-40, when Gandhi is making up his mind about how to deal with the British. Through all of this Desai is the main interlocutor going to meet the viceroy. He’s a person of great charm, wit, humour. Had I not had access to those papers, perhaps we’d not know as much about this remarkable person in Gandhi’s life. In 1938, when Desai fell ill, Gandhi said he will have to wind up three-fourths of his work. Mahadev was indispensable.

What should the reader expect in this book?

It’s more the details and the nuance. Gandhi is so minutely examined, the main facts have always been in the public domain. But there is greater detail on, say, Desai, or his relationship with Saraladevi Chaudhurani, which I explore more fully than earlier biographers. There are more details and perspectives. For example, in 1916, Gandhi gave a speech in Varanasi, at the BHU’s inauguration. It’s a well known incident. But in the Lucknow branch of the Uttar Pradesh archives, there is a fat file on this speech; it has what the British said, what the nationalists said, how they tried to get it censored, there was a long debate on whether he should be arrested. Annie Besant writing in to say she’d been misrepresented. A whole range of unknown views and material on an otherwise well known event. People talk about Internet research; what Internet research? You don’t know what those old dusty archives will throw up. I went to Israel to meet the niece of Herman Kallenbach, a great friend of Gandhi’s, who had letters that Gandhi’s children had written to Kallenbach, who was like an uncle to them, complaining about their father.

Other sources?

One of the things this book does is it relies on newspaper reports; historians generally shy away from newspaper accounts. But if you take the Salt March, there’s a great difference between how the British press covers it and how the nationalist press covers it. I’ve tried to flesh out this man from as many different perspectives as possible, which are often contradictory and contentious, which don’t show him at his most attractive, even. I’ve brought in everything and left the judgement to the reader.

How differently did Gandhi tackle his modernist critics from the way he handled the orthodox ones?

He engaged with people like Ambedkar, the Hindu orthodoxy he refuses to engage with beyond a point, because he sees them as absolutely bigoted and benighted. From the perspective of 2018, you’ll be told by the admirers of Ambedkar that Gandhi was moving too slow in dismantling the caste system. But from the perspective of 1928, the main challenge to Gandhi was from the Hindu Right, which told him he was going too fast; that untouchability is part of our scriptures and how dare a bania like you who doesn’t know any Sanskrit tell us how to manage our faith. You recognise Gandhi’s dilemma only when you place the modernist critics like Ambedkar on the one side and the Shankaracharyas on the other. Hindu orthodoxy was totally opposed to him. The Shankaracharyas tell the British that Gandhi must be excommunicated. The Hindu Mahasabha ensures that he is met with black flags everywhere he goes as part of his tour against untouchability. He had to negotiate his path with great skill; it took colossal courage to confront the entire might of your religious institutions. As he gets more assured about his control over the national movement in the Hindu social mind, he becomes more critical and radical in his approach to caste. So it’s unfair to criticise Gandhi for being incremental in his approach to caste, because he has to deal with the bulk of Hindu orthodoxy before he frontally challenges the caste system, which he does, provoked by Ambedkar. Gandhi’s path in unappealing to both the radicals and the reactionaries, because his path is unappealing to both. It’s his own path.

What are his big failures?

On the personal side, he was an indifferent father and an unfeeling husband for most of the time. Only after about four decades of marriage did Kasturba and him attain some degree of companionship. With his sons, he had something approximating a normal relationship only with his youngest son, Devdas. He was a traditional, overbearing, Hindu patriarch when it came to his wife and children. I’ve talked about that at great length in this book. It’s true of many driven figures like artists and scientists, who are so consumed by their work and their calling. His family paid the price of his extreme commitment.

Is there such a thing as Gandhi fatigue?

Not at all. He is endlessly fascinating. He touches every aspect of Indian life. He talks about caste, gender, technology, state, politics, culture, about inner reform, he talks about sex. He’s travelling all the time. There’s an extraordinary range of correspondence with friends and rivals. No Gandhi fatigue for me. I’ve written a book on his South Africa years, now one on his Indian years. At the moment, I’m not writing any more on Gandhi. But after a while, maybe five years from now, I’d like to write a short argumentative book about him. For a historian of modern India, there cannot be a more compelling figure.


Categories: Books, Politics

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4 replies

  1. Thank YOU, oh silent one. I needed your advice and maybe help, but it is too late now. Nice interview with some strange but revealing answers. best = k

  2. I am glad the interview is in ENGLISH 😉 People with limited linguistic skills such as me are able to read and benefit from it.


  3. शुक्रिया भाई साहब

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