The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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In Search of Gandhi: Essays and Reflections By B.R. Nanda, Oxford, Rs 595

As in his lifetime, so after his death, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was the one figure in Indian politics who was grossly misunderstood and misrepresented. He was an enigma to his compatriots and anathema to his political opponents. Doggedly defiant of Western modernity in his lifestyle, political philosophy, food habits and even dress, he also refused to toe the line of the hard core nationalists who scornfully rejected Western culture.

As Ashis Nandy shows in The Intimate Enemy, colonialism is more a mental construct than a political one. Gandhi of course saw it as a moral disease infecting both the colonizers and the colonized, and sought to resist it not by being pre-modern or anti-modern, but by projecting himself as “non” modern. For him, political struggle was meaningless if unaccompanied by battles on the moral front. For this reason, along with his political movements he also sought to dismiss the ethical legitimacy of colonial rule, question the superiority of the colonizers and emphasize passivity, tenderness, non-violence, generosity and values like these which the colonizers tended to underplay.

Gandhi was accused by critics of “introducing religion into politics”. He did “spiritualize” politics, because he saw both religion and politics as sharing a common ethical premise. For example, fasting, a standard religious ritual, was converted by Gandhi into a tool of political protest.

These and such other strands of Gandhian politics are to be found in the 29 essays compiled by B.R. Nanda in In Search of Gandhi. Divided into three sections, “The Making of the Mahatma”, “Freedom’s Battle” and “Towards Understanding Gandhi”, the book focuses on the moral basis of Gandhian politics. It also examines Gandhi’s personal relationships with Jawaharlal Nehru, C.F. Andrews, Jamnalal Bajaj, Pyarelal, and others.

At their best, the essays in this book are cogent and reflective; at worst, they are sketchy and fragmentary. Themes overlap, or are left undeveloped or underdeveloped. For example, in “Gandhi and Vivekananda”, Nanda pits the two great spokesmen of Hinduism against each other without going into the fundamental differences between them. The one difference that Nanda does mention — involvement in politics — is a rather superficial one.

Nanda should also have included a survey of Gandhi’s ideas on a village-centric small industry based economy for India. He touches on the subject only casually, although the subject merits far more attention. Many details of Gandhi’s political career have been discussed but is strangely silent on the subject of Gandhi’s views on women and sexuality, especially female sexuality, an issue Sudhir Kakkar tackles from the psychoanalytic standpoint in “Gandhi and Women”. There is also no analysis of Gandhi’s perception of community life, though a description of life at Sevagram in “I have become a villager” may provide readers with some clues. Gandhi, the educationist, is also sadly neglected.

Even so, the book remains a worthwhile attempt at representing Churchill’s “half-naked fakir”. Any reading of colonialism cannot be complete without a reference to Gandhi, who was among the first to diagnose the disease as well as detect its many symptoms and predict its after-effects. The 20th-century largely ignored Gandhi — will the 21st century be any better' Will we ever realize the truth of what Martin Luther King said: “The choice is no longer between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence.”

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