Gandhi’s fatal flaws

New Statesman
By Jad Adams

In the #MeToo era, a new biography examines the Indian leader’s strange relationships with women.

Mohandas K Gandhi continues to perplex: was he the father of his nation or the architect of Indian disunity? Since he was always a controversial figure it comes as no surprise that, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of his birth next year, he is under scrutiny again, this time in the context of the #MeToo movement because of his relationship with the women of his entourage.

It is always worth revisiting Gandhi, in a way in which it is not enriching to return to the British viceroys who were his adversaries. Herein lies the challenge: the sheer volume of material written by or about Gandhi makes the work of a biographer particularly daunting. There are not only the 100 volumes of the Collected Works, but also a ten-volume biography written by his principal secretary, Pyarelal Nayar, and Nayar’s sister Sushila, who was Gandhi’s doctor (and also took baths with him, which might be thought to have been beyond the usual physician’s remit – or even that of a biographer). Other biographies have come out at a rate of what seems like one a year.

Ramachandra Guha, a noted historian, declines to engage with other biographers, which is just as well, for this book is long enough; it follows his shorter Gandhi Before India, on his subject’s life before 1914. Guha begins with a Gandhi almost all of whose adult life had been lived in South Africa or England. Touring India, Gandhi introduced the notion of a nationalist revolution that would be based on peasant and craft traditions, not the industrialism of the West. It was an idealised version of peasant life from a man who knew very little of it.

One area Guha illuminates is Gandhi’s approach to caste. He eventually came to support an end to untouchability, though there were plenty of reforming Hindus who reached that humanitarian conclusion before he did. Gandhi was to bend to orthodoxy by suggesting it would be better to “improve” the caste system rather than uproot it, and believed restricting marriage to a man’s own caste would reduce the number of potential objects of lust (it was characteristic of him not to ascribe lust to women).

His opponent was the untouchables’ leader Dr BR Ambedkar, who was a member of this despised group and so had rather better credentials as someone who spoke for the poor than Gandhi ever had. Ambedkar wanted adult suffrage for all of India’s population but if the British would not grant that, then he wanted a separate electorate, like the one given to the Muslims. Thus he smartly converted the Hindus’ contempt for the untouchables as a supposedly separate group of humanity into political advantage. Gandhi meanwhile fasted to prevent the untouchables receiving separate electoral status from higher-caste Hindus, and Ambedkar had to concede because the death of the “Mahatma” (holy person) would have led to a massacre of the outcastes.

Ambedkar was later to draft the constitution of the newly independent India, conferring universal suffrage, a rather more valuable legacy for the nation than anything left by Gandhi. Guha shows a great deal of sympathy with Ambedkar, who deserves a good biography himself.

Those brought up on tales of a sweet-natured saint would do well to read this book to see the able politician deftly cultivating his power base and edging Indian rivals off the stage. One of the viceroys with whom he sparred, Lord Willingdon, wrote of him: “At the bottom of every move he makes, which he always says is inspired by God, one discovers a political manoeuvre.” His form of battle with the British was to retreat from the field of constitutional reform to a place where his ideas dominated. One of these was economic self-reliance: asked what his lesson for the people of India was after the Amritsar massacre in 1919, he said, “I want every man, woman and child to learn hand-spinning and weaving.” Gandhi was genuinely committed to non-violence and passive resistance, his supporters less so. Some viewed it as a tool which could be set aside for more martial endeavours if it failed to bring the desired result.

Guha describes Gandhi as “the traditional overbearing Hindu patriarch” to his family, for example consistently refusing to allow his son Harilal the legal education he himself had benefited from. Harilal was angry at Gandhi’s bullying of the family and his obsession with trivia: “I cannot believe a salt-free diet, or abstinence from ghee or milk indicates strength of character and morality,” he wrote in an angry letter.

Gandhi was all for Hindu-Muslim unity until his son Manilal wanted to marry a Muslim girl and he forbade it: “It will be like putting two swords in one sheath… You cannot forget nor will society forget that you are my son.” Guha notes that the conversion of the intended bride Fatima would have led to fury among Indian Muslims who would claim that Gandhi’s nationalist campaign was just a devious camouflage to destroy Islam by capturing its women.

Gandhi was also upset that Manilal, by now 34, was not following his rules on chastity. Gandhi, who had enjoyed sex from his teens and had a family of four surviving children, decided not only on celibacy for himself, but for everyone around him. The retention of semen, “the vital fluid”, was essential to his nationalist and spiritual mission. The true ascetic would “remain passionless”, he felt, even when faced with “the most beautiful damsel on earth”.

Gandhi’s literally self-centred view of politics reached its zenith in the months around independence in 1947. Late in 1946 he asked his 19-year-old great-niece Manu to sleep with him to test his sexual desire; connecting the worsening political situation to his own failure to be perfectly sexless. As Guha writes, “He had come round to the view that the violence around him was in part a product or consequence of the imperfections within him.”

Manu had lost her mother early and had effectively been adopted by Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba (who had died before Gandhi started sleeping with girls). Manu seems to have been a willing participant, though even without #MeToo, the vast differences of age and power between her world-famous great-uncle and a girl in a traditional society were glaringly apparent.

Guha suggests that Manu herself might have felt the practice spiritually necessary. He does not cover the Mahatama’s decision in mid 1947 to supplement Manu with Abha, his great-nephew’s wife, so he was sleeping with both girls as independence day approached. No one supported his behaviour and several explicitly expressed their disapproval.

Gandhi is a great tragic hero; his fatal flaw is his profound religiosity. Had he not made the Indian independence movement so emphatically Hindu, the disaster of partition might never have occurred. However much he might praise Jesus or Muhammad, he was at heart a religious reformer, not one of the secular nationalists with their take-it-or-leave it attitude to religion. His talk was ecumenical, but his walk was Hindu.

Guha’s is a thoroughly researched and well-written account and a faithful chronicle, though it lacks an overwhelming motivating force. It does not present a grand trajectory of the life, and there is no burning question for which it gives the answers. Most of the information here is in the public domain, though I was surprised by a few things. How charming, for example, to think of Gandhi in jail in Poona reading Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which he had borrowed from the prison library. I wish the great man had told us what he thought of them, rather than another disquisition on divine truth. 

Ramachandra Guha