The Enigma of Mahatma Gandhi

9a9723334c51907c86aa7db19698.jpeg Sugata Bose in Harvard Magazine:

Gandhi led mass agitations against the British raj in roughly decennial cycles. Lelyveld mentions the civil disobedience movement launched in 1930 with the salt satyagraha (protesting the government’s tax on salt) as its centerpiece, but his narrative thread for the Depression decade is supplied by the debates on the caste issue between Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, a member of and spokesman for the “Depressed Classes.” Ambedkar, who stood for the destruction of the caste system, found Gandhi’s attitude toward the “untouchables”—Harijans, or children of God, as he dubbed them—a trifle patronizing. Lelyveld skillfully unravels the story of Gandhi’s fast in 1932 against separate electorates for the “Depressed Classes,” his anti-untouchability campaign of 1933, and his stunning characterization of the Bihar earthquake of 1934 as divine chastisement for the sin of untouchability. The unreason inherent in that statement elicited a rebuke from none other than Rabindranath Tagore, the poet who had granted Gandhi the “Great Soul” epithet.

Lelyveld’s analysis of Gandhi on caste and of the vexed Gandhi-Ambedkar relationship is brilliant. But his lack of interest in covering what he describes as “the political ins and outs of the movement” entails a loss and a missed opportunity to explore Gandhi’s ties with younger radicals like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. Gandhi was, after all, primarily the leader of India’s anti-colonial movement and had vigorous debates with these compatriots on the social and economic reconstruction of free India.

Lelyveld is right on the mark in suggesting that Gandhi was “never more elusive or complex” than in the final decade of his life, as he sought to balance his values with “the strategic needs of his movement.” The decision to call upon the British to “quit India” in August 1942 reveals, in Lelyveld’s words, “a flash of the fully possessed ‘do or die’ Gandhi, the fervent commander.” “Your president,” Gandhi had said to Louis Fischer, a young American journalist and future biographer, in June 1942, “talks about the Four Freedoms. Do they include the freedom to be free?”