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  • Nitin Vrihaspati

Book Review - "Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World"

The book traces the development of an ordinary socio-political reformer becoming the greatest patriot the land has ever known. The vast amount of literature available on Gandhi is second to none. As one of the most influential personalities, he commands academic respect. However, Guha through his specific historiographical lens, transgressed through the phases of Gandhi’s political career. The book is successful in presenting the making of Gandhi in the context of his personal experiences. The vista of events, their consequences, the implications on the various freedom movements of India as well as the change in Gandhi's belief system through all of this creates an inextricable paradox where even familiar things seem to be unrecognizable.

It could be said that the book is not just a biography of Gandhi’s political career but an essential epoch of the freedom and conception of India itself. The book tries to explore the broad contours of Gandhi’s magnanimous career. The semi-biographical written style creates a direct relationship between the reader and the chapters in the book. Gandhi's raw thoughts, his imperfections as well as what other influential people like Mahadev Desai, Rabindranath Tagore, C.F. Andrews, and Harilal thought of him make the book, not just relatable but projects the reality about Gandhi’s life. Guha who has been defined as the finest Gandhian Biographer throughout the academic spectrum leaves no stone unturned in describing perhaps the most significant period in the father of the nation’s life. Guha most importantly displaces Gandhi from the pedestal he stands on today and showcases that throughout his progressive life, Gandhi was just like a student, who made mistakes but corrected them and incorporated new things along the way.

5 Volumes: 5 Epochs of Gandhi’s Journey

The book consists of several volumes written in more than 800 pages, chronologically presenting the account of Gandhi's return to India up to his death and everything significant in between. The separate volumes act as a guide or relate to specific stages in Gandhi's role in the freedom movement. The initial volume explores Gandhi coming to terms with the socio-political landscape of India, and spending almost a year touring the same, his relationship with Gopal Krishna Gokhale (Gandhi’s spiritual mentor), his engagements with Tilak, the moderate and radical wings of the congress as well as his use of the novel mode of Satyagraha. This period up to 1922 also explores Gandhi’s success at 3 satyagrahas (Champaran, Kheda, Ahmedabad), the protest against the draconian act of Rowlatt Satyagraha, the repercussions including the Jallianahwala Massacre, and the attempt to build a relationship between Hindus and Muslims through the Khilafat-Non Cooperation issue. It's clear from the first volume that the saint was a shrewd political schemer.

The second and third volumes from 1922 to 1937 analyze Gandhi’s moral philosophy and political implications of the same. Inherently the moral philosophy originated or could be seen most clearly in the fabric of Gandhi’s Ashram. The routine for all the Ashram dwellers includes waking up at 4 am and sleeping at 10 pm. Self-sustaining principles were the ground rules, this included helping with cooking, doing all the work among the inmates and daily prayers invoked or inspired by different religions. All this proves that Gandhi was intricately attached to the idea of religious plurality and self-work.

This is also the period that Gandhi starts to openly criticize certain orthodox beliefs among the Hindu elite, especially untouchability and child marriage. He famously said that if untouchability is such a core aspect of Hinduism and if the followers of the religion don't condemn it, he won't consider himself Hindu anymore. Gandhi was also a social reformer, he went against the fancies of the upper caste, to admit Dalits into his Ashram. The most severe drawback was the benefactor of the Ashram cancelling the monthly funds for its running. In political terms, that period saw the rise of civil disobedience, just after the independence day celebration of 1930. Gandhi famously embarked towards the coastal town of Dandi from his ashram at Sabarmati to make salt and thus break the atrocious salt law the British government had imposed on the natives. This period also saw the manifestation of Indian nationalism, be it as the sense of collective identity towards the nation, movements against the authoritarian empire picking up pace as well as the formulation of the Tiranga (India’s national flag).

The fourth and fifth volumes (1931-1947) anatomize Gandhi's social and political battles with the British Empire. This includes the complete reunification of the empire's exploitative policies and measures, culminating in the Quit India movement demanding an end to the empire's rule in the country. However, this period is also scarred by the evils of communal disharmony, increasing riots as well as the joyous moment of Independence being foreshadowed a bit by the sorrow of partition. Thus reinforcing that not everyone was aligned with the sentiments of Gandhi. There were forces on the extreme which propagated religious domination over the other. Such was a common aspect of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the prerogative ideal of the Muslim League in the later stage. Pakistan was the formation of several events in the making. Gandhi personally was distraught as he thought that the ‘Idea of India’ includes space for all religions. The formation of a theocratic state on the principle of Islam made Gandhi aware that secularism is too fragile to be accepted by everyone. However, it also boldened his resolve to make India a secular republic.

Critical Features of Gandhi’s Political Journey in the Indian Landscape

The book very importantly delves into the complex nature of Gandhi's political career in the context of British India. The language, as simple as it is, elucidates important strands of Gandhi’s political voyage in his native land. All these strands become a coherent whole and act as major landmarks and determinants in formulating Gandhi's Idea of India.

The first major aspect was the books chronicling the daily routine of the Mahatma. The erratic facts about Gandhi waking up as early as 3 am, to his rigidity in sticking to a vegetarian diet, so much as risking his health due to his frugal nut-based diet. The book also gives an account of certain intricate habits of Gandhi as the effectiveness of writing from both hands, the code of discipline that he maintained in his own life, meticulous planning on various occasions or the ability to move crowds due to his gentle yet impactful speeches. Guha presents this accord of Gandhi's life as if to showcase the inner life of Mahatma and to inspire the readers.

The second major component can be described as Gandhi's dialogue, coordination as well as confrontation with influential political as well as non-political figures. The fact that Gandhi and his mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale differed to a certain extent in their ideology. Gokhale being part of the moderate wing of Congress and Gandhi's middle path being assertive yet not violent, explains perfectly that Gandhi had respect for people across the spectrum, however, also held strong to the core of his belief system. In terms of other political figures, Gandhi famously clashed with Tagore on the idea of nationalism. Tagore who was critical of the kind of nationalism that had emerged after World War 1, criticized several of Gandhi's initiatives, especially that of making and wearing home-spun Khadi clothes and banning the import of western goods. However, it was Tagore that had popularized the honorific Mahatma donned on Gandhi. Gandhi conflated with his secretary Mahadev Desai on a variety of issues, ranging from the scriptures and text of Hinduism to the whole issue of Sarla Devi being connotated as Gandhi's spiritual wife as well as enigmatic contrasting views on Gandhi’s diet.

Those who regarded Gandhi as their venerated spiritual Guru, such as Nehru, also disagreed with him on major issues. The debates between Nehru and Gandhi on the issue of ‘Modernity’ and ‘Development’ are quite famous. Nehru envisaged development from a mass scale, Soviet-style plan, Gandhi on the other wanted development to emanate from the village- perspective. Still, the most pressing debate occurs between Jinnah and Gandhi, where there is a clash of ideology, between someone who believes that people from two religions can’t exist together and another who believes India can be a plural nation only if the two religious communities exist peacefully and harmoniously. Gandhi and Ambedkar also had divergent views on issues of the caste system, Dalit emancipation as well as other social and political issues such as that of separate electorates. Gandhi even had arguments and sort of troubled relationships with his 4 sons. He seemed to be disinterested in their longness to marry, rather wanting them to fulfill their duties towards the nation. All this proves that Gandhi’s relationship with various political as well as common people was complex, and not so straightforward. However, he was able to amicably resolve them in most cases.

Retrospection and Criticism of the Book

The book, written by Guha, presents facts as they are. However, there is no profound commentary on any issue. It can be considered a subtle attempt to hide the bias of the writer as he conceals the motivation behind several topics. However in Guha's defence, maybe his doing so allows readers the critical opportunity to interpret Gandhi's political discovery in their way. Creative liberty given to the reader helps formulate a nuanced, non-enforced narrative. Thus, while the book aforementioned lacks any significant meta or grand narrative, it sure does give authentic narratives to propound its legitimacy. The book may not emphasize every critical notion of Gandhi's life or may even seem to be a little rushed, popping from one episode to another, however, it does explore questions that other biographers haven't answered as of yet. Guha represents Gandhi as a common man who is trying to direct his political epoch despite the mass obstacle which lies in front of him. So while the book could have contemplated critically the motives of several of Gandhi’s actions, it does narrate its main objective, as well as a sequential account of Gandhi's life in this period.

Conclusion: Gandhi’s life is his message, and so is the book's main objective.

Gandhi has become a political icon all over the world, and the veneration of the man and his principles of Satyagraha are well adhered to and respected. The book encompasses the entire narrative of Gandhi’s meteoric rise as an individual and a leader of millions. The constant theme running all cover is how an individual, who with all respect was a complete political and social novice in his own country, became the leading patriarch of the freedom movement. What seems to be a constant urge is the several questions that surge in the reader's head, with the book reluctant to answer them.

These questions pertain to how Gandhi had such an undying influence on not just the masses but also his political adversaries, was it because of how he dressed or how he spoke? Why did Gandhi act as a messiah to both Hindus and Muslims, was it only because of political benefit or rather deeply tied to his moral principle of pluralistic living? The fabric of the book dictates that ‘Mahatma’ was not just an honour but rather a testification of the impact Gandhi had on the history and culture of India and its independence. There are several instances to suggest that Gandhi was no perfect human, that he too got angry at various issues and wanted to control people and conform them to his way of living. However what is admirable is that Gandhi just didn't go on a political expedition but also a philosophical one, wherein he tried to fundamentally alter his conceptions and beliefs. The principles of Gandhi became an influential force in the fight for freedom. These principles or values were themselves a result of the transformation of an empire loyalist to a true nationalist. Gandhi’s life is the zenith of morals emerging out of learnings, contradictions, conflicts, agreements, and actions. Gandhi is not just a person but an ‘idea’.

The idea of Gandhi is perpetual, it will continue to inspire humankind till the end of time. As Gandhi himself said “Gently, you can shake the world.” The gentle giant did shake the consciousness of humanity for all eternity.

By Nitin Vrihaspati


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