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The story of a lovingly planned Gandhi anthology

Republishing the 1945 original would be a fine homage to the two swadeshi journalists and Englishman behind it

Ramachandra Guha   |   Published 12.10.18, 09:30 PM

A remarkable, yet little known, Englishman who made India his home was the publisher, R.E. Hawkins. He came to this country in 1930 to teach in a school in Delhi and when that school closed down during the Non-cooperation Movement, joined the Oxford University Press in Bombay. In 1937, he became General Manager and for the next 30 years ran the OUP’s Indian operations successfully and profitably, publishing textbooks, dictionaries, as well as the works of (among others) Jim Corbett, Salim Ali and Verrier Elwin.

Hawkins greatly admired Mahatma Gandhi. Shortly after moving to Bombay, he began wearing khadi. A little later, he persuaded Gandhi’s remarkable secretary, Mahadev Desai, to produce an abridged edition of The Story of My Experiments with Truth for schoolchildren.


While working in the archives, I found some fascinating (and, so far, unreported) correspondence between Gandhi and Hawkins. The publisher was in Bombay during the Quit India movement of 1942 when Gandhi was arrested and taken to prison in Poona. A World War was on, and the British press was very active in vilifying Gandhi and the Congress. They alleged that by opposing the raj they were playing into the hands of Hitler and the Axis Powers. In this context, Hawkins decided to do an anthology of Gandhi’s writings, to set the record straight on the man and his ideas.

When Gandhi published his first book, Hind Swaraj, in 1909, a line on the title page read: “No Rights Reserved.” At this stage, Gandhi did not believe in copyright. But, as the legal scholar, Shyamkrishna Balganesh, has shown in his essay, ‘Gandhi and Copyright Pragmatism’ (California Law Review, 2013), over time he adopted a more nuanced attitude to the subject. Gandhi wrote mostly in Gujarati, and worried that translations into other languages by other hands would distort his meaning. Then, when he published his autobiography in India in the late 1920s, his American disciple, John Haynes Holmes, persuaded him to hand over world rights to Macmillan, arguing that a globally-renowned publisher would make the book more widely available. Gandhi agreed, on the grounds that “there might be no harm in getting money for the copyright and using it for the charkha propaganda or the uplift of the suppressed classes”.

From the late 1920s, the copyright in Gandhi’s works vested in the Navajivan Trust. In 1943, when R.E. Hawkins of the OUP wished to do an anthology of Gandhi’s writings, Gandhi was in jail. In August of that year, Hawkins wrote to the Mahatma, saying that a scholar he trusted — R.K. Prabhu — would make the selection. Prabhu, who was from South Kanara, was jailed during the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930-31, and had spent the years since as a journalist and in studying Gandhi’s writings.

The letter was not forwarded to the authorities, so Hawkins wrote to the Navajivan Trust instead. They replied refusing permission. Hawkins now quoted Gandhi as saying that all writings in journals he edited were common property since “copyright is not a natural thing”. He told Navajivan that he wished to publish this book “in the belief that it would serve to interpret Mr Gandhi’s mind to Westerners and to many of his own countrymen, and we consider its publication would be particularly timely now”.

Navajivan was unpersuaded. They told Hawkins that he had misrepresented Gandhi’s views, since the quote he offered was actually followed immediately by a sentence where Gandhi says of copyright that “it is a modern institution, perhaps desirable to a certain extent.”

In May 1944, Gandhi was released from prison. Mahadev Desai had died, and was replaced as Gandhi’s secretary by Pyarelal Nayyar. Hawkins now wrote to Pyarelal, enclosing his correspondence with Navajivan and asking: “If Mahatma Gandhi claims copyright permission for his writings and objects to the publication of this book we shall of course abandon any idea of publication. If however he does not claim copyright protection we hope he will clearly say so, and will authorise us to proceed. We believe the compilation has been well made, and that the publication of the book will be timely now, especially in England and America, where many biased accounts of his ideas have been circulated.”

In July 1944, Gandhi wrote to Hawkins, saying that OUP could publish the anthology, provided it acknowledged Navajivan’s copyright, gave it 100 copies free, allowed it do its own English edition, and to have rights to all Indian language editions as well. Hawkins agreed to all other requests, except the one about a separate English edition by Navajivan, as that would make the OUP edition unfeasible in the Indian market.

Gandhi was unmoved. As he wrote to Hawkins, “the only inducement to the Navajivan Trust, and for that matter also for me, to have a well-known concern like yours publishing Shri R.K. Prabhu’s compilation can be to acquire the widest publicity possible outside India for it.” So, he said, Navajivan must be allowed to do a cheaper Indian edition in English if it so chose.

Gandhi also wrote to R.K. Prabhu along the same lines. He had, he argued, offered “the fairest terms” to OUP. For “if the main source of revenue is India, then there is not much in seeking publishers with a foreign fame. I am quite clear that we in India must sell at the lowest price. Will the Oxford Press be satisfied if the Navajivan Trust cover the costs hitherto incurred and let us have what they have printed. I write this subject to confirmation by the Trust. Do not be agitated. Come to see me if necessary.”

In September 1944, Gandhi was in Bombay, and arranged to meet Hawkins and Prabhu together. “I should be delighted if we can discover a way out,” he wrote to them. They did, as a letter written by Hawkins to the secretary of Navajivan Trust after the meeting shows. Here the OUP publisher says: “Mr Gandhi asked me to write to you regarding the terms agreed upon in conversation this afternoon”, these being: 100 copies to be provided to Navajivan of every printing of the OUP edition (which would itself specify it was done with the permission of Navajivan Trust); with Navajivan meanwhile free to issue an edition of its own in English at any price, and also to have exclusive rights to Indian language translations, but with OUP having exclusive rights to all foreign editions of the work.

In March 1945, the anthology lovingly planned by R. E. Hawkins finally appeared. It was called The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, and was jointly edited by R.K. Prabhu and his fellow journalist, U.R. Rao. Prabhu went on to do other Gandhi-related stuff, including a pioneering anthology of the exchanges between Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi, published under the title, Truth Called Them Differently.

The exchanges between R.E. Hawkins and Gandhi show both men in good light. Hawkins wished genuinely to make the Mahatma better known to the English-speaking world; at the same time, he was determined to protect the interests of his own employer, the Oxford University Press. Gandhi was happy to trust Hawkins with this task; at the same time, he was determined to protect the interests of his own Navajivan Trust. Starting from their individual and at first divergent paths, they met and found common ground, thereby illustrating what Gandhi himself liked to call ‘the beauty of compromise’.

Sixty years after his death, Gandhi’s writings fell out of copyright. So, after January 30, 2008, anyone at all was free to bring out any anthology of his works. Several have since appeared, of extremely variable quality. Someone with good taste and good sense should now republish The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi. That would be a fine homage to two swadeshi journalists and to the India-loving Englishman who published their work. And the book itself remains one of the best single-volume introductions to the Mahatma’s oeuvre. It deserves a new readership.

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