Gandhi Before India


“Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the twenty-first century.”

  • Nelson Mandela –

Ask any avid reader and lover of books. Books should be cherished. They are also frightfully expensive, particularly the longer and exceptionally good tomes. An earlier visit to my local library was the setting for a rare find. Public libraries are bereft of funds and worthy donors, but there are occasions when there is a rare spurt of generosity. Finding Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha displayed prominently during my search for other biographical works, was a gift. While it was already published by Allen Lane in 2013, this book was resplendently brand-new when I clutched it for the first time. I had written some notes towards other essays where I touched briefly on the monumental contribution Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi made to human history over two centuries. I was already familiar with aspects of his life through the film medium, and re-watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi remains an occasion.

But, Guha’s work towers far higher than Attenborough’s award-winning opus. Attenborough was a director of note and as a life-long opponent of apartheid was well-qualified to produce such a tribute to the Mahatma. But, that is all it remains when compared with Guha’s contrite work. There is much to learn and gain after a dedicated reading of Gandhi Before India. Over five hundred pages long, it is merely the first part of an extensive biography of the life, times and philosophies of Gandhi. And Guha has already produced India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. By dint of that book’s title, I remain convinced that the legacy that Gandhi left us remains alive and well. Forget for a moment the ominous signs to the contrary. While most nations’ politicians and leaders have selfishly manipulated and abused their countries’ constitutions to the detriment of the citizens that they are designed to serve and aid, freedom and democracy still seems to be the better solution to a troubled and divisive world.

Today’s India is ruled by Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, originally a Hindu Nationalist party. His realm stretches across twenty-nine states and a melting pot of many cultures and religions, particularly the sects of Hinduism and Islam. In comparison to previous years since independence from the British Empire, this country of over a billion people has enjoyed a period of relative peace and phenomenal economic growth. But, the MAN Booker Prize-winning author, Arundhati Roy will argue otherwise. The problems of inequality, poverty and religious and cultural oppression still run deep and won’t be overturned in the near future. But, comparatively speaking, Indians are slowly but surely growing more tolerant of each other. Gandhi, born into a relatively prosperous middle-class Hindu family, became aware of these blights later in his life. Perhaps it was fortuitous, or divine intervention itself, that Gandhi, a loyal subject of the British Empire as a newly qualified barrister, experienced racism first hand during his earliest travels through South Africa.

There is a famous scene in Richard Attenborough’s film where Gandhi, dressed impeccably in an English-tailored suit, is brutally thrown off a train by a racist conductor and his complaining passenger. Gandhi insisted that he had every right to sit in the first class compartment of that train’s car since he was the rightful owner of a first class ticket. But, little did he know at that time of how inherently divided along racial and economic lines South Africa already was. Guha writes that Gandhi would have to endure many similar train journeys before realizing just how bad it all was. But, before Gandhi’s awakening to the problems of racism, oppression and inequality, the reader must learn what shaped this mystical, unusual and eccentric man.

As we already know, Gandhi, through the prejudices of his Hindu religion and culture, had a premature marriage to Kasturba foisted on him. The peculiarities – as he would describe it – of his religion and culture would also affect his relationships with his children. It would trouble Gandhi throughout his life that he could never shake off the yolk of patriarchal traditions. Surprisingly we learn of who and what influenced Gandhi the aesthete, never mind the religious mystic. It was none other than the Russian literary giant, Leo Tolstoy, that would assist Gandhi in seeking out a life which is inherently harmonic and peaceful, if practised. One would have to travel all the way back to Gandhi’s time in England while studying law, to learn of his decision to become a life-long adherent of vegetarianism. While he may not have known it then, and Guha does not mention this in his biography, much of what Gandhi practised and preached is more urgently valid to us in the second millennium encumbered with the critical problems of global warming and environmental degradation, all consequences of inequality, mass production and over-consumption.

By the time Gandhi was a prominent activist in South Africa, the arch-colonist and oppressor of South Africa’s indigenous people, Cecil John Rhodes had already left the scene. But he made his mark. While his dreamed of Empire did not stretch across the whole of Africa, his dream of a Union of South Africa did come to be. Designed to rally white Anglo-Saxons and Afrikaners into a peaceful co-existence towards realising common goals, the Union of South Africa’s earliest years would be presided over by two Afrikaner Generals of Anglo-Boer War fame, Louis Botha and Jan Christiaan Smuts. These two men were Gandhi’s greatest rivals in the struggle for equality for Indian men and women originally brought to South Africa to serve the white population’s labour needs. Smuts was every bit the unusual aesthete that Gandhi was. This is peculiar, because he was inherently racist.


Safe from the vagaries of his own culture, Gandhi was free to do as he pleased during his years in England. He would, however, not be tempted by strange, foreign mores. He consumed much in a literary sense. After being introduced to the London Vegetarian Society, Gandhi immersed himself in  alternative thoughts on culture and religion. What was  illuminating to him at the time, would also profoundly influence his later years as an activist in South Africa and as India’s liberator was the Bible’s New Testament stories on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The young Gandhi could not believe that such generosity of spirit and servitude was possible given his own Indian background.

The most important aspect of Gandhi’s many philosophies was surely the adoption of the practice of satyagraha, passive, non-violent civil disobedience and resistance. In view of the oppression meted out by the South African regime, this was a just cause, but it was never violent. The extent of Gandhi’s charisma and influence over the many people who chose to follow his example remains astounding because of Gandhi’s modest stature, both physically and personally. It was always difficult for him to speak before large crowds, but they heard him and listened to him. They would willingly go to prison in the hope of contributing towards their eventual emancipation. During Gandhi’s time in South Africa, it never came, but it took root and had a profound effect on Indians living on the sub-continent and it reverberated across most parts of the world.

A painful aspect of Guha’s narrative is the detailed narration of the continuous trails of letter writing and meetings with Smuts which were all to no avail. But, it is necessary because it is evidence of how resilient both Gandhi and his oppressors were. Neither would budge. While Gandhi represented the interests of the Indians in South Africa, Smuts always argued that his reluctance to concede to their demands was in the best interests of his white English and Afrikaans-speaking constituents. The popular belief, still to this day and with justification, was that most white South Africans were racist. But within Gandhi’s entourage of many helpers and followers were a number of white men and women, Christian and Jewish, who would influence Gandhi immeasurably. Much like Mandela in later years, Gandhi learned that there was much that was good about the so-called white race and there was much to be gained and learned from them.

A critical aspect of Gandhi’s saintly and mythological life in South Africa often spoken about among South Africans is his ignorance of the indigenous Africans who were regarded as lower in status and class by his own followers. The excuse is always bandied that Gandhi was “a product of his times” and this much is clear in Ramachandra Guha’s biographical writing. The emphasis on the Indian population is necessary to tell the true story of Gandhi’s growth as a human being and leader. But, Guha does mention Gandhi’s belated awareness of the Africans’ plight. Gandhi’s forthright decision to leave South Africa for good and return to his motherland to address the – at that time – greater cause of the liberation of India was understandable and necessary. It was also welcomed by Smuts who famously hoped aloud that Gandhi had indeed left South Africa for good.

But, by the time Gandhi had left South Africa, the seeds for practising passive resistance among the African people had already been planted. No-one can argue that Gandhi would fail to address the injustice against all South Africans had he stayed longer in the country. Even to this day, Gandhi’s legacy remains alive for many South Africans who argue in favour of peaceful co-existence and equality. The consequences of those alternatives are also clearly felt today. A new debate has surged, arguing for the re-writing of South Africa’s history since long before the first European settlers arrived. But the danger of erasing it entirely remains alive while there are those who wish for it. No-one need be a saint like Gandhi to realise that it only requires common sense to at least begin to follow the example laid at the foot of Africa by Gandhi. In recent years, it was Nelson Mandela who came closest to emulating the Mahatma, but like Gandhi, both history and time was against Madiba.

Conflict in any form always sows contempt and hate. Mediation and co-operation, fair and just, equal no matter what the citizens’ circumstances and status is the only solution. During the National Party’s rule of the country after defeating Smuts at the polls in 1948, the practice of Gandhi’s passive resistance continued mainly under the leadership of the Pan Africanist Congress’ Robert Sobukwe and the African National Congress’ Albert Luthuli, the first of four South Africans to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Around the time of the ANC’s fateful decision to abandon peaceful protest against apartheid, Luthuli remained firm in his belief that non-violent forms of protest remained the better option towards gaining emancipation from oppressive rule. When Mandela took the decision to take up an armed struggle against the NP regime, he remarked that it was not taken lightly and it was no doubt taken with a heavy heart.

There will always be those who favour armed resistance as the ultimate and most effective measure for overthrowing an oppressive regime. But, long after the dust has settled when this measure has succeeded, more conflicts, old, unresolved problems and new issues, will arise. And where armed or violent conflict as a means to an end is contemplated elsewhere, it is quickly suppressed by a militarily strong government. At the time of South Africa’s formal emancipation from legislative apartheid, the South African regime had one of the strongest military forces in the world. Today, while South Africa’s military structures corrode, its police force, corrupt and inefficiently managed, is used to suppress the physical manifestations of anger and frustration felt by many impoverished South Africans.

Had South Africans decided to take advantage of the lessons and actions of Mohandas Gandhi, I am certain that a better and brighter future would beckon for their children in a land as rich as Gandhi’s homeland. While I believe in Gandhi’s way, it seems to me that at this present time, the legacy of Cecil John Rhodes is alive and well. And this is not the fault of the newly oppressed minorities.


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