Let me say this at the outset: despite all I’m about to say, I think Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi was a great man. Of course, in the same breath, I’d say Adolf Hitler, Napoleon, or…Chingis Khan were great men, and for the same reason: I don’t like any of them at all, but they all achieved one of the defining marks of greatness. They changed the world in a fundamental way.
In the case of Chingis, Napoleon or Hitler the way they changed the world is pretty clear; conquest and political change, though in two of the three the changes came at the cost of their own nations. But Gandhi changed the world in a rather different way: he influenced the leaders of many independence movements to try the non-violent path to revolution.
What a pity that it was all a big lie.
There never was a successful non-violent Indian freedom movement. The Indian freedom movement, such as it was, had two parallel (not successive) streams, both quite unsuccessful: the violent movement, misdirected and far too small in scale to make any difference, which I’ve already discussed; and the non-violent movement, which was mostly hostage to Gandhi’s personal whims and fancies, and which was demonstrably directly responsible for the break-up of the country and most of the problems that beset us now.
Since it’s rather difficult to separate the myth of the non-violent freedom struggle and the life and personality of Mohandas Gandhi, it might be of some use to have a brief overview of that extraordinary character. Gandhi was a relatively successful lawyer in South Africa when he was, it’s said, one night thrown off a train for being in a whites-only compartment. Afterwards he (influenced by the man whom I hold to be the greatest American of all time, Henry David Thoreau) struggled for the rights of the Indian community in South Africa (if he asked for equal rights for the Zulu, Xhosa, or other indigenous peoples I haven’t heard of it). He was already relatively well known when he returned to India. Rather strangely, he helped to arrange ambulances for the British war effort in the First World War. Afterwards he began on a long, stop-start campaign of civil disobedience to British rule which he called off after an incidence of mob violence killed some (Indian) policemen at a place called Chauri Chaura (wonder who named that?). Gandhi always claimed to heed his “inner conscience” – sometimes the urgings of that inner conscience had results so disastrous that they are scarcely imaginable.
Gandhi had charm, undeniably. He also had a tremendous amount of influence on most of the politicians of the day, those belonging to the Congress Party. Also, undeniably, he was immensely popular with the people. But this popularity was a good part gimmickry, like travelling by third class train and going around half naked; the poetess Sarojini Naidu sardonically observed that it took a fortune to keep Gandhi poor. And despite his popularity with the people, they came mostly to gawk at him, not to heed his message. If they had heeded his message, if the “teeming millions” of India had actually gone on mass strike against British rule, if the factory workers and civil servants and railwaymen and policemen and the rest had all stopped working, British rule wouldn’t have lasted a day. Instead, not only did it last; it did pretty well for itself.
What Gandhi was to the British was an annoyance, no more. An annoyance with his fasts unto death and his courting arrest, a distraction from the larger business of running an empire and exploiting a colony. Yet at the same time they appreciated that he had his uses; for he served, with his antics, as a safety valve for pent up emotions. People who demonstrate in the street and feel they are getting somewhere doing this are unlikely to take up the gun en masse. And in any case, the British knew perfectly well that the mass of India’s people were apathetic to politics and indifferent to the idea of “freedom”: they were too busy earning a living. As long as the ruling class, the landlords and the feudal royals and the civil service and constabulary were on their side, Gandhi could do his worst, but the Raj was secure.
Gandhi was, as I said, a charmer when he wanted to be; on a personal level, though, he could be amazingly petty and vindictive and as unprincipled a politician as any. He was estranged from his own children; completely distrusted by the Muslim League, the only other major Indian party; and when his own candidate was defeated by Subhas Chandra Bose for the presidency of the Congress party, he virtually forced the man out of mainstream politics.
Nor was Gandhi what we’d call completely normal in his personal habits. Among his self-confessed “self-control” rituals was the habit of sleeping with naked girls (he would will himself not to be aroused). His economic theories, to put it mildly, might be politely termed Bronze Age. There would be no industries, no modern scientific methods of cultivation or modern medicine or textiles or anything; it would be back to the villages for everyone. His spinning wheel was more than a gimmick with him, though the rest of his acolytes certainly saw it that way. To him, it was an obsession.
Then came the Second World War, which for some reason drew forth another statement of support to the British war aims, first from the Congress Party and then from Gandhi himself; but, predictably, the British refused to commit either way, and in August 1942 – with the Japanese at the door – the Congress party, under Gandhi’s tutelage, launched something called the Quit India Movement, probably the single most disastrous event in modern Indian history, bar none.
Think. You’re in the middle of a war, the enemy at the gates of your colonial empire, and the people whom you’re occupying tell you that you aren’t welcome and order you to get out. Would you? Within a day of Gandhi’s call for a mass disobedience movement, the entire Congress leadership was in prison for the duration of the war – leaving the Muslim League as the only party in the business.
(In fact, as I’ve said here, Gandhi’s commitment to non-violence was somewhat suspect; if the Japanese had invaded India in 1942, he was ready to give a call for a national armed uprising against the British. Like the non-violent movement, I seriously doubt if it would have had any impact.)
The Muslim League, as I said, distrusted both the Congress party and Gandhi. Its president, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had long since adopted the idea that the Hindus and Muslims of India comprised “distinct nationalities” and that in an independent Hindu majority India the Muslims would be swamped. Therefore, he adopted the logical corollary, another idea that he had at first rejected: that in the event of independence, the country should be split into two nations, India and an independent Muslim homeland of Pakistan. Gandhi was vehemently opposed to the idea, though many of his followers were probably not averse to it, whatever their official stance. They wanted Pakistan because it would get rid of the Muslim League and its troublesome chief. But whatever they thought, it was all the same, since they were all in prison; and when they came out the Muslim League had been – and remained – irremovably ensconced in power in much of the country.
By the end of the Second World War, then, the Congress party and the Great Non-violent Struggle For Freedom had both spent the last three years in prison. Obviously, you don’t spend three years in prison without your control over what happens outside prison suffering. Especially, Gandhi, who had always gathered power in his own hands, had no network outside to carry on, because the entire Congress leadership was in jail with him; when he came out, he still had his charm, but he and his party had precious little else.
And this, to my mind, proves once and for all the utter senselessness of the idea that Indian independence was somehow won from Britain by the non-violent campaign. By 1946, when the Congress was back in business, there was no longer any doubt at all that the British were going. The only questions were, precisely when, and whether they would leave India united or split in two.
Also, the last two years before Indian independence were marked by one major event of non-violent revolution: the so-called Bombay Naval Mutiny, where large numbers of Indian sailors of the British Indian Navy rose in peaceful revolt against the British officers and refused to follow orders. The Congress, far from supporting the peaceful uprising, actually persuaded the “mutineers” to surrender and did nothing to aid them afterwards when they were court-martialled and dismissed. So much for the nonviolent struggle for freedom.
Those last two years before independence were marked by low politics, cunning, greed, and plenty of backstabbing all round, not least of Gandhi himself. When he suggested that the leadership of a united India be handed over to Jinnah to avert partition of the country, it was his own Congress that turned him down. And also those last two years were marked by bloody massacres as Hindu and Muslim mobs jockeyed for control. After independence those riots would escalate to a full-fledged campaign of ethnic cleansing, in which not less than a million people died. Probably more.
In the last two years of his life, Gandhi was increasingly a back number in the Congress hierarchy, paid lip service at the most but ignored on every substantive issue. His economic theories were derided, he had no official position of any sort, and as he himself wryly said, he would not have been surprised if the Congress leaders said that they were sick of him and why didn’t he leave them alone. He wasn’t even in Delhi when Independence came on August 15, 1947; not that he was wanted there (he refused even to acknowledge the new flag, since it didn't feature his spinning wheel). He was in what was already a new country, East Pakistan, trying to stop the rioting.
I’d say that just one thing salvaged Gandhi for history: his assassination. On January 31, 1948, a Hindunazi named Nathuram Godse shot him at a prayer meeting in Delhi. Overnight, he became martyr, national symbol, and convenient political tool, all in one. Otherwise he would have sunk deeper and deeper into obscurity, an embarrassment to those who “venerated” him. So, as the late Kurt Vonnegut would say, it goes.
Since the non-violent struggle obviously didn’t win India its freedom, what did? The answer lies in the event known as the Second World War, which left even the victors, bar one (do I really have to say which one?) ruined economically and unable further to drag along the burden of Empire. There was also the little point that having fought for the alleged rights of the people of the world to live happy and free, it was morally kind of difficult for any British government less hidebound than that of Churchill to hang on to the Empire. And as a third point: the British never ruled India directly. They could not possibly do that. Like all colonial enterprises, they depended on a comprador class of police, army, civil servants and feudal landowners to act as their proxies on the ground. After the activities of the Indian National Army, which had great public sympathy, and the Bombay Naval Mutiny, the rulers could no longer count on the military forces. And once they could no longer depend on the physical enforcement of their rule, who knew when the rest of the edifice might not crumble, and in ways the British might not like?
There was an opportunity, then, to make an advantageous exit: to leave India divided and at war with itself, both a liability shed and a public example to other colonies seeking independence: “See what happens if you give people freedom when they aren’t ready for it!” And a divided India and Pakistan played right into the hands of the Cold Warriors. We’re still suffering for it to this day.
The most remarkable aspect of the whole matter is the marketing of the Gandhi myth. Serious historians know, naturally, that the Gandhi myth is a myth; and the British who shot hundreds at Jallianwala Bagh wouldn’t scruple to wipe out many more thousands if it had been required in order to enforce their rule. But shooting many more thousands wasn’t necessary because the non-violent movement was never a threat. It had nothing to do with the final decision to withdraw. The tides of history had changed, that was all, and Gandhi was simply present at the right time to take the credit.
Today, Gandhi is – when he is considered at all – something of a joke in India, his ideals long since discarded, his Congress party mired in corruption and sleaze, his statues put up to gather birdlime and mock him. India is one of the most violent countries in the world. And, in one of the more ironical things one can think of, if you want anything in India now, non-violence will get you nowhere. In India now, violence is all that works.
Strange legacy for the Messiah of Peace.