The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi: Volume XLV, by Mohandas K. Gandhi

The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, 1958-c.1988/1999, 98 vols in one, 47006 pages

Volume XLV of the Collected Works covers all Gandhi’s writings and speech (of which records survive) from December 16, 1930 to April 15, 1931.

At the start of this time period, he is still in prison for leading the civil disobedience campaign known as the “salt satyagraha.” The British are using a carrot and stick approach to try to calm things down. In addition to mass imprisonment and occasional police violence to break up demonstrations, the British show a willingness to negotiate, though only with “moderates” with little following, and with Muslims and other minorities who are wary of the overwhelmingly Hindu Indian National Congress.

In January, the British bend further and release Gandhi and the other leaders from prison. The Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin, meets with Gandhi one-to-one a number of times, in order to negotiate a truce and to attempt to set up a Round Table Conference in London, this time with Congress leaders instead of only the more pliable figures.

What’s interesting about the way these meetings are covered in the book is we have back-to-back the reports Irwin wrote up immediately afterwards, and Gandhi’s notes. Invaluable primary sources for a historian.

There may not be direct contradictions between Irwin and Gandhi’s accounts, but they certainly read differently. On each point of discussion, each person says something like “I stated my position firmly and he conceded that I was correct in principle, but indicated there was a limit to how much he could move in my direction due to those he had to share authority with and answer to. He was willing to set it aside for the time being and move on to the next issue, which we did, though I noted that our position was not going to change on the matter.”

My sense is ultimately Gandhi compromised a great deal more, that Irwin conceded virtually nothing (“That’s not up to us; that’s up to London,” “That’s not up to us; that’s up to the local governments,” “I’m sure we’ll do what’s right and fair in this area, but I won’t commit to specifics,” “No, but you’re free to bring that up in the future,” “That might happen sometime down the road, but only if you fully, permanently, and unconditionally call off civil disobedience,” etc.)

Certainly Gandhi faced considerable criticism, even from Nehru, for not being more defiant and insisting on more before suspending civil disobedience and agreeing to the London conference. I don’t know that Irwin faced parallel criticism from his side, but I doubt he did.

I don’t think it’s a matter of Gandhi being naïve and Irwin suckering him. Gandhi seems pretty aware of everything that’s going on.

It may be that he is just taking the long view. In a sense it’s a pretty remarkable step that a lawbreaking revolutionary is meeting the Viceroy on anything approaching equal terms, and that the Congress is being implicitly recognized as the legitimate representative of the Indian people. Nehru and others are more ready for an “all or nothing” stand, but rather than issue ultimata, Gandhi seems to want to bend over backwards to give the British every opportunity to behave honorably, and in the meantime to continue making whatever incremental progress toward independence is available. I think he is willing to do anything short of abject surrender in order to shift from a period of confrontation to one of negotiation and cooperation.

For one thing, to allow cooler heads to prevail. Already there are occasional disturbances against British rule that turn violent (with each side claiming the violence is coming all or mostly from the other side). Already there is ominous Hindu-Muslim violence here and there.

Speaking of which, Gandhi is really not very optimistic about avoiding religious violence, especially in the short run. In response to criticisms that an independent India will degenerate into Hindu-Muslim violence without British soldiers to keep them apart, he does not insist that can’t happen. Instead, he says that it’s not any other country’s business to intervene in India’s domestic problems like that, and that a period of outward violence to get that out of their systems may be the lesser of the evils compared to letting internal hatred and bitterness and distrust fester.

He laments he is powerless to do much about the religious conflicts. In principle his position (which he has to know won’t ever happen) is that the majority Hindus should concede 100% of whatever the minorities want so that there can be no suspicion they are looking to oppress them. (With the caveat that all the significant representatives of all the minorities must be unanimous in any demands. Presumably his belief is that there’s no way there won’t always be at least one reasonable such figure who’s disinclined to take unfair advantage of the generous offer, so the demands probably won’t be anything extreme.)

For the rest of the period covered by this volume, after agreeing to suspend the civil disobedience movement, Gandhi is primarily having meetings, making speeches, and corresponding with people to explain the new situation and defend himself against the charge he conceded too much. At a meeting of the Congress, it is voted that Gandhi himself be their sole representative at the upcoming Round Table Conference.

I continue to be struck as I read through these volumes by Gandhi’s extreme sincerity. There’s little if any difference between what he says in private, versus what he says in public, versus what he says in negotiating with an “adversary” like the Viceroy. That’s really rare for a regular person; it’s more remarkable for a public figure, or anyone involved in politics.

Also, when I reflect on the accounts of the salt satyagraha and these subsequent negotiations, it brings home to me how sloppy and complicated history is. If you watch the movie Gandhi, if you see televised biographies, to some extent even if you read books about his life and times, you get the impression that the Indians are close to unanimously behind him, that there are these major, unambiguous victories along the way that explain how he gained independence for India, and on and on.

But in reality, I won’t even say it’s two steps forward and one step back, because it’s more like 199 steps back for every 200 steps forward. There are always people pushing and pulling in all different directions. The “victories” are always ambiguous and very partial, and indeed it can be years or decades, if ever, before it can be known with confidence that they were victories at all.

Maybe in a war you can have something that seems like a total victory, a complete and unambiguous change of fortune (key word being “seems”), but with the methods of nonviolence Gandhi is painstakingly trying to work out, there are all different interpretations of what’s happening, where events are trending, who’s winning, what’s causing what, etc.

And that’s why Gandhi hammers home the message over and over and over of focusing on means more than ends. Be patient, do everything you can to purify yourself, do everything you can to purify your means, keep doing your best, resist all temptations to give up, resist all temptations to compromise by choosing impure means, and let the consequences take care of themselves.

He has more faith than I that if you do that then the consequences will work out favorably. I’m more inclined to say that the consequences will probably still be really shitty ultimately, but that you’ll have done your part to create a different world. Others probably won’t do their part, but that’s not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to do what you’re supposed to do, such that hypothetically if—by some miracle—others do also, then things will turn out as they should. You’re not compelling them to or guaranteeing they will; you’re just keeping the door open for them so that if they ever do start doing the right thing, it won’t be in vain.

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