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Perry Anderson on Mahatma Gandhi from the London Review of Books


All countries have fond images of themselves, and big countries, inevitably, have bigger heads than others. 

The subcontinent as we know it today never formed a single political or cultural unit in premodern times. 

The ‘idea of India’ was a European not a local invention, as the name itself makes clear. 

When the British arrived, it was the sprawling heterogeneity of the area that allowed them, after a slow start, to gain such relatively swift and easy control of it, using one local power or population against the next, in a series of alliances and annexations that ended, more than a century after the Battle of Plassey, with the construction of an empire extending further east and south, if not north-west, than any predecessor. 

The mutineers in Delhi having sought restoration of Mughal power, Muslims were suspect as recruits thereafter, becoming the exception in an army based on particularist identities – no all-Muslim units were ever allowed within it. The key groups on whom the British came to rely most were, as Wood indicated, Sikhs and Gurkhas, both relatively small and marginal communities, joined later by Pathans and Punjabis. Recruits came from among the least literate groups in the countryside, with a preference for poor peasants.

Mustering a peacetime strength of some 200,000-250,000, the Indian army was the largest employer in the Raj, and always absorbed a third to a half of its revenue. 

The modernising force of the Raj was not limited to its locomotives and law books. It was official policy to produce a native elite educated to metropolitan standards, or as Macaulay famously put it, ‘a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect’. The confident prescription overlooked the fact that common among such opinions were liberal verities capable of being inconvenient in the Oriental Seas. Two generations later, a layer of articulate professionals – lawyers, journalists, doctors and the like – had emerged, the seedbed of Congress nationalism. The British had taken over the subcontinent with such relative ease because it was politically and socially so tangled and fractured, but in imposing a common infrastructural, juridical and cultural grid on it, they unified it as an administrative and ideological reality for the first time in its history. The idea of India was theirs. But once it took hold as a bureaucratic norm, subjects could turn it against rulers, and the nimbus of empire dissolve into the charisma of nation.

Finally, though no great orator, he was an exceptionally quick and fluent communicator, as the hundred volumes of his articles, books, letters, cables (far exceeding the output of Marx or Lenin, let alone Mao) testify. 

What was his attitude to caste? He had set it out while Non-Cooperation was surging, in 1920-21. Untouchability was a heinous crime. But it was an excrescence that had nothing to do with caste itself, which was not a human invention, but an immutable law of nature itself. There was no element of hierarchy in it. ‘The caste system is not based on inequality, there is no question of inferiority,’ for ‘if Hindus believe, as they must believe, in reincarnation, transmigration, they must know that nature will, without any possibility of mistake, adjust the balance by degrading a Brahmin, if he misbehaves himself, by reincarnating him in a lower division, and translating one who lives the life of a Brahmin in his present incarnation to Brahminhood in his next.’ There was no need to adjust the balance in this life: ‘Interdrinking, interdining, intermarrying, I hold, are not essential for the promotion of the spirit of democracy.’

On religious grounds, it was essential to preserve the division of society into four fundamental castes, for it was this that had saved Hinduism from disintegration. ‘If Hindu society has been able to stand it is because it is founded on the caste system. The seeds of swaraj are to be found in the caste system.’ To destroy it would mean that ‘Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation which is the soul of the caste system. The hereditary principle is an eternal principle. To change it is to create disorder. I have no use for a Brahmin if I cannot call him a Brahmin for my life. It will be chaos if every day a Brahmin is to be changed into a Shudra and a Shudra is to be changed into a Brahmin.’ Caste, indeed, was not just the cornerstone of Hindu India. Properly respected, it might be a universal balm: ‘It can be offered to the world as a leaven and as the best remedy against heartless competition and social disintegration born of avarice and greed.’
Over time, he would tone down such claims. Trying to fend off Ambedkar’s attacks, he would later explain that the fourfold order of varna was not to be confused with subdivisions of jati, which were a deplorable corruption of it, disavowing the latter as ‘nothing to do with religion. It is a custom whose origin I do not know and do not need to know for the satisfaction of my spiritual hunger,’ while continuing to uphold the former: ‘Varna and ashrama are institutions which have nothing to do with castes. The law of varna teaches us that we have each one of us to earn our bread by following the ancestral calling.’ In due course, he would try to dilute varna itself with successive adjustments to make it more palatable to egalitarian opinion, at the cost of emptying it of any content save the irreducible core of its identification with Hinduism itself, as religious belief in the moral duty of hereditary avocation and its bearing on the transmigration of the soul. This he never abandoned.
When Birla made his feelings known, Gandhi put his foot down, and the Congress high command duly scuppered Bose’s inter-communal initiative. Not long afterwards Bose, whose fearless militancy and commanding intellectual gifts had made him hugely popular in the party, was nonetheless elected president of Congress. In the following years he was re-elected, defeating Gandhi’s candidate in the first contested election for the presidency in the party’s history. This was an unprecedented affront, which Gandhi, who was not prepared to let democracy get in the way of his will, swiftly punished, toppling Bose in an inner-party coup, and then forcing him out of Congress altogether. In the late 1930s, his sporadic interventions more often blocking than taking initiatives, such was more or less the sum of his achievements.

When the Second World War broke out, however, he took centre stage again for the last time. With limited knowledge of, or interest in, the outside world – admiring Hitler as, in his way, a fellow ascetic, since ‘he has no vices. He has not married. His character is said to be clean’; ‘although he works all his waking hours, his intellect is unclouded and unerring’ – he zigzagged from initial support of the British declaration of war on Germany in 1939 to requiring individual demonstrations of satyagraha against it in 1940, to a sudden decision that the British must be driven forthwith from the subcontinent, come what may, in 1942. The Quit India movement was imposed by Gandhi on a reluctant Congress leadership, which was not convinced by it. It was his final throw, and this time he not only called for a tax strike but accepted in advance that violence might break out. Riots erupted across the country, police stations were attacked, railtracks torn out.
For a wave of younger fighters, it was an insurrection for independence. But Congress had never prepared for one, indeed envisaged any such thing, and the Raj was now on a war footing – the Indian Army would swell to two million troops after 1939. The rebellion, without training or leadership, was put down with fusillades on the ground, strafing from the air, 60,000 arrests, 4000 casualties. After the event, Gandhi described it as a calamity. His third and last campaign against British rule had ended in a failure as complete as those of the first two. By 1945 he was politically speaking a back number. Of the anti-colonial leaders of the 20th century, few ended their careers with much glory, many among the ruins of their hopes or reputation: Nasser and Nehru broken by posturing and rout on the battlefield, Sukarno dying a prisoner in his palace, Ben Bella in exile and oblivion, Makarios with his country truncated and occupied for the duration. An assassin’s bullet spared Gandhi a comparable fate, embalming him in the martyr’s death that by then he wanted. ‘Had that stupid and shortsighted fellow allowed Gandhi to live his natural life, and die a natural death like all mortals,’ one compatriot wrote, ‘he would have, I am quite certain, grown weightless like, say, Vinoba Bhave,’ his futile epigone. The verdict is overstated. But the part of truth in it is written in what would become of his ideals today: a face on a banknote.
Satyagraha had not been a success: each time Gandhi had tried it, the British had seen it off. His great achievement lay elsewhere, in the creation of a nationalist party, whose road to power forked away in another direction. For in the end independence did not come from passive resistance, let alone sexual abstinence, individual or universal. It was the result of two other dynamics. The first was the broadening of the electoral machinery first introduced by the British in 1909, and expanded in 1919. Designed originally as a safety valve to co-opt a native elite, and disregarded by Congress as long as Gandhi set its course, it remained the standby of the Raj as nationalist pressures mounted. In 1929, a scheduled ten-year review of the system set in place after the First World War fell due and, undeflected by civil disobedience, issued after three Round Table Conferences in the Government of India Act of 1935, the longest bill ever passed by the British Parliament. At the outset, Halifax had made a public promise of eventual dominion status, lifting India to the position of Australia or Canada as a self-governing state within the empire, date unspecified.

That could be crushed. Yet the offer of proximate dominion status, once made, was difficult to revoke. It had been conditional, and the condition not met. But withdrawal of it became politically impossible, not least because of the formation of a Provisional Government of Free India by Bose, who had escaped arrest in Calcutta and via Russia and Germany had reached Singapore, where he took command of the 60,000 Indian prisoners of war there as an ally of Japan. Under Bose, the dedication and courage of the Indian National Army – uniting Hindu, Muslim and Sikh combatants – in battle against the British in Manipur and Burma won such widespread admiration in India, not least from Gandhi himself, that prosecution of its officers had to be dropped after the war in the face of angry mass demonstrations. Superior American might overpowered Tokyo by 1945. But the blows the Japanese army and its allies had dealt European colonialism in South-East and South Asia were irreparable. At war’s end, the independence of the subcontinent was a foregone conclusion. What was not decided was the form it would take.

All in all, shows Gandhi in very poor light. I don't know how much Indian historians share this view. It is a very interesting perspective at any rate.


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