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

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

This volume of the Collected Works covers all written material and all spoken public statements by Gandhi from June 18 to September 11, 1931.

For almost this entire volume, Gandhi is traveling around India, having meetings, including with the Viceroy and his people (not Lord Irwin, but his replacement Lord Willingdon), making speeches, and writing articles in his newspapers, desperately trying to hold together the truce that ended the “salt satyagraha” civil disobedience movement.

He had been chosen by the Indian National Congress party as the sole representative for the upcoming Round Table Conference on India’s political status to be held in London. However, it is touch and go up to the last second if he will actually go, as he contends that his presence may be needed more urgently in India itself.

Earlier he set as a condition that there be some significant lessening of the discord between Hindus and Muslims, but Congress overrode his objection and voted that he should go to London even if that condition were not fulfilled, and he acquiesced. But after that he contends that he should not go if the truce is not being honored on both sides (there were far more violations by the government than by the Indians fighting for independence, in Gandhi’s estimation), and Congress goes along with his wishes.

As in the preceding volumes, I again am impressed how Gandhi comes across as so sincere, even on political matters, and again I note that the British concede virtually nothing. He tries to be as reasonable as he can be, he (naively?) attributes a decent amount of sincerity to the British as individuals and seems to think he’s succeeded in making a personal connection with some of them, and they politely and tactfully refuse him time after time after time. And in their communiqués back to London (reproduced in the appendices), though they don’t so much laugh at him and disparage him, they consistently report that they defeated him in argument and he had to back down because he had no answer.

But is he still playing a long term game that they don’t see? Does he keep pushing them to negotiate with him and Congress not so much because he thinks they’re going to give in on much now in those negotiations, but because of the long term effects of the fact that negotiating at all means the British are providing de facto recognition and legitimacy to him and Congress and the Indian movement for independence?

What Gandhi will recognize as sufficient evidence of cooperation from the government in order to justify leaving India for the London conference seemingly gets less and less as time goes on, but the British still don’t budge. Both privately and publicly, for weeks he states that there’s virtually no chance of him attending the conference. Ultimately (after he and Congress declare officially that he is not going, and the ship he was supposed to leave on sails), the British agree to some probably powerless fact-finding commission in one area of India on one small set of issues of concern to Gandhi, and he reluctantly agrees to go to the conference after all. He departs a week or so later than intended.

Even though in certain respects he comes across as unrealistically trusting and prone to paint inaccurately favorable pictures of those he opposes, really Gandhi remains very pessimistic in a lot of respects. He doesn’t assume by a long shot that unity between Hindus and Muslims and the other groups will come without a lot more bloodshed, hard as he is trying to avert that. And he consistently lowers expectations about this upcoming conference in London, because he doesn’t sense that the British are very close at all to agreeing to any kind of substantive independence for India.

I’m reminded how when you’re in the middle of events, they’re not “history.” When you look back at something it all feels so inevitable, like the way it happened is the only way it could have happened. But at the time, everything’s up in the air. Gandhi doesn’t know where violence will break out, what the British will say or do, whether he’ll be assassinated, whether independence will come this year or in a decade or longer, etc. What he does know is that the decisions he makes now could have a huge influence on such matters.

And this is the most I remember that getting to him in the material I’ve read so far. There’s an anguish in some of his letters, an indication that the intensity of constantly trying to find what is both the morally best path and the strategically wisest path when the stakes are this high is a great burden to him.

To the point that he actually breaks down at the Congress convention where the decision is made (soon reversed) that he will not attend the conference in London. His speech on that occasion goes beyond his usual boilerplate about choosing homespun khadi over imported cloth, an end to Untouchability, Hindu-Muslim unity and his usual themes, as he bares his soul in a somewhat rambling way talking about the gravity of this decision. He is overcome by emotion at one point in the speech and must pause for a minute or two to collect himself.

In a conversation with Mahadev Desai around the same time, Desai reports “In deep sorrow he said: ‘I do not feel like going anywhere. How I wish I could shut myself up here and cry out my grief. There is so much violence in the air, so much falsehood, that I often wonder if it is worthwhile my going, even if other circumstances make it possible.’”

At the end of the volume, Gandhi is on board the S.S. Rajputana, about to arrive in England.

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