Thoughts on Gandhi

Thoughts on Gandhi

  by Alain Danielou

The following is an extract from “A Brief History of India”:

At the time there appeared on the Indian scene an enigmatic character – shrewd and ascetic, ambitious and devout – one of those gurus who seem to exercise an incredible magnetism over the crowds and often lead them to disaster. This character was called Mohan Das Gandhi. A sentimental religiosity tied to a lack of scruples appears to favor the creation of personages who exercise this kind of magnetism over the masses. Gandhi had much in common with the gurus who, in our time, fascinate so many otherwise reasonable people. Within a few years, Gandhi eclipsed all other Congress leaders and became a kind of symbol of India. Practically, it was with him alone that the British Government ultimately decided the future of India, in which independence came about in the most disastrous way imaginable, leading to the partitioning of the country, one of the greatest massacres in history, the elimination of social system and traditional culture, the suppression of the princely caste, the genocide of primitive tribes, and the ruin of the artisan castes and their transformation into a miserable proletariat. All this was presented as progress. Hindu scholars look upon Gandhi as some sort of Antichrist, and made thanks-offerings when he was assassinated. But it was too late. While he was alive, none dared oppose his baneful influence. A great deal of time had to pass before the victims of his charisma, in India as in the West, dared draw up the balance of his action.

In order to understand Gandhi’s character, it must be remembered that he was a Bania, a member of the merchant class. In India each caste has its own peculiar moral, intellectual, and religious concepts, making them a kind of sect. In the West the group that is mentally closest to the Indian merchants would be the Anglo-Saxon Quakers. The characteristics of the caste from which Gandhi came include extreme puritanism, the strictest vegetarianism, a total absence of metaphysical preoccupations and philosophical culture, offset by the grossest religious sentimentality, expressed by a Sunday school sort of art whose colored images are nowadays everywhere to be found. Charity is among the virtues that justify the merchant’s avidity for gain, but not for social justice. An icy puritanism masks dishonesty in all money and business matters. Wherever they maybe, Indian merchants sooner or later end up owning everything.

His origins explain why this apparently ascetic person could always count on unqualified support of major Indian capitalists such as the Birlas and the Tatas and why, at the same time, the social reforms he undertook were always to the advantage of the merchant middle class and the landed proprietors. Caste solidarity played in his favor, whereas the Brahmanic and princely world regarded this fanatical Bania with distrust and occasionally with certain disgust. The policy of the Congress party, guided by this strange ascetic, led to the triumph of the merchant, industrial, and capitalist caste.

Mohan Das Gandhi (1869-1948) was the son of an official in the service of one of the minor princes of Kathiawar. He studied to be a lawyer in England, becoming a barrister in London. Clothed in black frock coat and stiff collar of an English lawyer, he went to South Africa where he lead a movement demanding equal rights for Indians and Europeans. After a short term in the prisons of Pretoria, he arrived in India in 1914 and at once began to play a role in the political agitation that reigned during the First World War.

Gradually, Gandhi changed his character and appearance. The young revolutionary anglicized lawyer from South Africa was transformed into an Indian monk, half-naked and wearing rough homespun. It was claimed that this transformation was suggested to him by the Muslim leader and member of Congress, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Gandhi’s look of a Biblical prophet won the trust of the Indian masses and impressed the Westerners. His companions gave him the title of Mahatma (Great Soul). But he never convinced the elite of the traditional Hindu world, who considered him an impostor and a dangerous politician. Gandhi slowly took over the Congress Party, displacing the great moderate leaders, who had included Tilak, Lajpat Rai, S.N.Banerjee, Gokhale, and Annie Beasent. The little white cap adopted by the members of the Congress was a copy of the prisoner’s forage cap that Gandhi had worn in the prisons of South Africa.

The Turkish Empire was dismembered at the end of the 1914-1918 war and the sultan deposed. The sultan was the caliph of the Muslim believers and the downfall made a profound impression on the Muslims of India. Great Britain was the principal beneficiary of the breaking up of the Turkish Empire and the humiliation suffered by the “Commander of the Faithful” exacerbated anti-British felling among Indian Muslims. Gandhi took over the leadership of a movement in favor of the sultan. The All-India Khilafat Conference, presided over by Gandhi, threatened to launch a non-cooperation movement if Great Britain did not find a solution to the Turkish problem that was acceptable to the Muslims. This allowed Gandhi to rally to the nationalist cause the Muslim masses, who until then had been very indifferent. On 20 August 1917, the secretary of state for India announced in the House of Commons that “The policy of His Majesty’s Government, with which the Government of India is in complete accord, is to encourage the association and progressive development of independent institutions, with a view to establishing representative government in India, within the framework of the British Empire.” However, the governor general retained exclusive authority over “reserved subjects,” such as the police, justice and prisons, irrigation, forests, land revenues, and the inspection of Industries. The Indians were disappointed by the English proposals and – under the leadership of Gandhi, who had taken over the Congress – a general strike (hartal) was decreed throughout the country in 1919. It completely paralyzed industry, administration, and transport.

In 1928 a commission chaired by Sir John Simon recommended the establishment of responsible government in the provinces. As a result, the British Government set up a conference in London, with the aim of establishing a project of constitutional reform for India. Gandhi took part in the second session, from September to November 1931. In 1935 the British parliament voted a constitutional bill that was ultimately only partially implemented. It envisaged a federation of the provinces and the princely states in which the governors would retain their powers of absolute veto. By July 1937 Congress had formed governments in most of the provinces. Guarantees were given to the princes, assuring them that the treaties that bound them to the Crown would not, without their agreement, be transferred to any new government of India, responsible to an Indian Parliament. These promises were not to be kept.

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