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

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

Volume XLVIII of the Collected Works covers from September 12, 1931 to January 3, 1932. (Gandhi turns 62 during this time.) It begins with Gandhi’s arrival in England for the Round Table Conference that was to discuss the possible transition to independence of India, covers his whole time there both in and outside of the conference, continues with his brief stops in Europe on his way home, and closes just as he is arrested almost immediately upon his arrival back in India (where Nehru and other leaders had already been recently arrested).

The conference itself for the most part is a failure. From this book, from this series of books, we’re getting Gandhi’s take on things almost exclusively, but at least as he sees it, the British designed the conference to fail. (Not that any of this comes as a surprise to him. He was openly pessimistic in the run-up to this conference as well as throughout the conference itself.)

Instead of recognizing the Indian National Congress as entitled to speak for the Indian people, the British invited Congress to send one or more representatives (they chose to send only Gandhi), but also picked their own representatives of various other groups. So there were Muslims, but only non-Congress Muslims who were very wary of an independent India with a dominant Hindu majority. Same with non-nationalist Sikhs. Dr. Ambedkar was there to argue for special provisions to be made for the Untouchables. There were representatives from the Indian princely states, the semi-autonomous areas of India that the British didn’t run directly. And others.

Predictably, at the end of the conference the British lamented that the Indians couldn’t even decide amongst themselves what they wanted, and so they’d just have to plan to continue talking and put off any independence until further notice. So basically divide and rule.

That wasn’t the only stumbling block. The British were also pushing for an independent India to take responsibility for any and all debts India had run up under British rule, whereas Gandhi’s position was that each such item of debt had to be considered on its merits in terms of whether it had been undertaken for the betterment of India and not just its temporary British masters. He suggested each item that the Indians objected to should be submitted to an international body or independent arbiter of some kind.

Gandhi’s in an interestingly delicate position as far as the Untouchables. For decades the eradication of Untouchability has been one of his great causes, one of the three to five issues he hammers away at most frequently in his writings and speeches. Clearly he wants to be seen as the champion of the Untouchables, to be trusted as a leader who will always have their best interests at heart.

But some Untouchables, led by one of their own, Dr. Ambedkar, in effect are outflanking him, calling for, among other things, having Untouchables vote separately for a certain reserved number of seats in any independent Indian legislature, as is already planned for the Muslim and Sikh religious minorities.

Gandhi’s position is that the set aside of special electorates like that for Muslims and Sikhs is a bad idea and divisive, but that he’ll grudgingly refrain from opposing it due to the present state of affairs in India and the fact that Congress has already agreed to it. So he’ll accept it for now as a necessary evil. But he strongly opposes extending this divisiveness any farther to any other groups.

In the case of the Untouchables, he believes treating them as a special, separate group like that will only perpetuate Untouchability, not facilitate its demise. For unlike something like race or gender, which for all intents and purposes is unchangeable, or religion, which it would be wrong to pressure or require people to change, Untouchability is a temporary, horribly wrong status imposed by misguided people. The solution to Untouchability is not to agree that certain people are Untouchable and then grant them certain concessions to somehow make up for how horribly they’re treated, but to refuse to regard anyone as Untouchable.

It’s unfortunate to have to tell a person “You vote in this separate electorate because you’re a Muslim,” but it’s worse to tell a person “You vote in this separate electorate because you’re an Untouchable.” The system shouldn’t acknowledge that anyone is an Untouchable.

On the other hand, Gandhi is willing to accept a system that he insists is vastly different in principle but a lot of people would argue isn’t. He says if just letting everyone vote together for whomever they please turns out to result in the Untouchables being effectively shut out, then he’d be in favor of a rule that a certain minimum number of seats would go to their candidates even if they didn’t otherwise get enough votes.

At least that’s how I understand his position, in a very abbreviated, oversimplified way. Hopefully that’s not too importantly inaccurate.

So it’s like the position represented by Ambedkar is loosely akin to rigid affirmative action quotas, and Gandhi is opposing that, but not because he’s anti-Untouchable, but because he’s looking to support the betterment of the Untouchables in some other way.

I’ve read elsewhere that even to the present day Gandhi is something of a villain to the Untouchables—that in time the Untouchables not only mostly supported the kind of identity politics represented by Dr. Ambedkar but came to regard Gandhi as their enemy.

That makes me feel sad and frankly defensive on Gandhi’s behalf. Gandhi is not like some American racist conservative opposing civil rights based on insincere appeals to “states’ rights” or other principled abstractions. His sincerity and his compassion are so palpable that even if the Untouchables or anyone else wants to disagree with him on his position on its merits, it’s way out of line to hate him, to demonize him as an enemy, to think he is “anti” Untouchable or any other group.

I mean, I’m not sure what I think on the merits of the issue. Maybe Gandhi’s arguing for some kind of idealistic change of heart on the part of caste Hindus that isn’t realistically going to happen in the foreseeable future, and some of these other ways of improving the lives of Untouchables are unfortunately necessary, as he sort of accepts in the case of the conflicts with the religious minorities. Or maybe he’s right, and the divisiveness of separate electorates and such is a terrible idea that’s contrary to the interests of the Untouchables specifically and the country as a whole. I don’t know. But what I am very confident of is that he’s not some wily caste Hindu arguing tendentiously in order to keep the Untouchables in their place.

But it’s an interesting issue, and I know there’s a lot of stuff coming up about this very conflict in the next volume or two, because I remember from my other reading of Gandhi that it’s around this time that he tries to popularize the term “Harijan” (“children of God”) for the Untouchables and changes his newspaper’s name to that and makes raising consciousness about the evils of Untouchability an even bigger issue in his public life, and it’s also around this time that he undergoes one of the major fasts of his life against this very notion of separate electorates for Untouchables.

Returning to the Round Table Conference, Gandhi’s position is that though the conference is largely useless, he’s doing some good by meeting with various people outside of the conference.

For one thing, he appears to have been surprisingly well received in Lancashire, which is heavily dependent on the cloth trade, which in turn is heavily dependent on exports to massively populated India. Gandhi and the Congress, of course, for years have been boycotting foreign cloth and trying to get Indians back into the habit of spinning their own cloth domestically, in order to give the rural poor an occupation for those months of the year when they’re not farming. With the whole world in a depression, and cloth exports to India greatly reduced, Lancashire has been economically devastated.

But Gandhi purposely went to Lancashire to put his case directly to the workers themselves, and to community and industry leaders. I’m sure not a hundred percent were won over by him, but it certainly seems like he got a surprisingly high amount of support and sympathy there, and all over the country for that matter.

Gandhi was urged even by his close friend of several decades Father Charlie Andrews to encourage Indians to resume importing cloth from Lancashire due to the unemployment and suffering there. But Gandhi stuck to his position. He explained to the people of Lancashire that while his heart went out to them, they had to understand that the kind of suffering and starvation of the Indian rural poor was vastly more severe than that of even the poorest workers in England, and that he couldn’t soften his efforts to alleviate that poverty in India out of charitable motives toward the poor of another country. He also assured them that insofar as an independent India did need foreign cloth in the future, he would want to see England favored over other nations, though in effect he told them not to get their hopes up that trade would be anything close to what it had been, since he expected India to be pretty close to self-sufficient in cloth.

And they seemed to respect his sincerity and his courage in coming to face them and speaking openly to them.

Gandhi also met various dignitaries and celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin, whom he admitted he’d never heard of.

Which is interesting, because you don’t have to be particularly interested in a person’s field of endeavor to have heard of them when they reach that level of fame. I mean I’m sure I’ve never heard of a lot of hip hop artists and great ballet dancers and top rugby players of the world and such, because as famous as they no doubt are in certain circles, my attention doesn’t intersect with those circles. But to not know Chaplin is like an educated, literate, world leader in the 1960s or 1970s or so having never heard of the Beatles or Muhammad Ali.

There’s famous, and there’s famous.

It’s almost quaint the way Gandhi makes it a point to visit Lord Irwin, to keep in touch with him, and to always praise him as such a sincere man wanting the best for India. (Lord Irwin being the viceroy during the “salt satyagraha” that Gandhi negotiated a truce with, who then retired back to England and was replaced by Lord Willingdon). Gandhi’s like that in how he talks about his adversary General Smuts from his days in South Africa as well.

Maybe Irwin’s a good guy, but I just remember from earlier volumes that he seemed in his communiqués back to England to be pretty eager to assure them that he was consistently defeating Gandhi in the negotiations, that Gandhi’s positions rarely had any merit and that he pretty much had to concede that when Irwin argued it out with him. I didn’t see him as particularly sympathetic toward the cause of Indian independence, nor all that cooperative with Gandhi. But Gandhi insists on seeing the best in him.

On his way home, as mentioned Gandhi makes a few stops in Europe, including spending some time with the French pacifist intellectual Romain Rolland. (They had long been in contact, and Rolland had written a book about Gandhi.)

Gandhi also passes briefly through Italy, sees the Vatican, and meets with Mussolini. But unfortunately there’s virtually nothing about any of this. There is no transcript of his talk with Mussolini, he didn’t write an article about it, etc. (Except for occasional appendices and footnotes, the volumes contain only the writings and public statements and speeches by Gandhi. So if he doesn’t address something, or at least if there’s no surviving record of his having done so, it isn’t included.)

As I read these volumes, I know one thing that’s always in the back of my mind as far as his relation to major historical events and figures is “Please don’t say anything that’s going to look really stupid with the benefit of hindsight.” So I’m curious, and trepidatious, about what he might say about someone like Mussolini.

In the very little bit he addresses stuff like that in the volumes I’ve read so far, it seems to me he’s trying to say something more favorable than unfavorable if he can, that he’s very humble and tentative about not having an informed opinion, and that he’s trying to avoid accepting a framework that the British and those most like them in Europe and America and such are good, and their adversaries—whether communists, fascists, people in the colonies, whatever—are bad.

So in reference to Mussolini about all he says is that Mussolini seems to be very popular and loved by his people, and that he is surely doing some good for them, but that his regime is too based on violence and oppression to be a worthy path to emulate.

He says quite similar things about the Soviets the few times he’s mentioned them so far in these volumes. He partly agrees with their many supporters in India and on the Left around the world that they’re doing a lot of good in trying to improve the lot of their poor people, but he adds that he has to part ways with them insofar as they are relying on violent and non-democratic means in pursuit of their ends.

So his assessments are far from the kind of thorough condemnations of totalitarian dictatorships that one might expect or hope for, but they’re not exactly ringing endorsements either. They’re really not much different from what he would say about “good” countries like England or the United States. And almost always he qualifies any remarks by pointing out that his knowledge of any of these things going on in other countries is really minimal.

In fact, my inference is that he may well not be a particularly well-informed person about “the news.” I wonder if his focus is so obsessively on India and their struggle, that he rarely if ever looks at a newspaper, reads a book, has a conversation, etc. about things not clearly, directly related to that. It’s not just that he’s never heard of pop culture figures like Charlie Chaplin; I doubt he keeps up with “important” news either.

There’s something strikingly insular about his attention as I read these volumes. It’s really rare for him to mention—in writing or speaking—world events. Almost never does he make a remark about Prohibition in the U.S., or Communism in Russia, or the Depression, or something like that. And when he does address such matters, it’s in passing and doesn’t generally seem the product of much study and thought.

One final thought I had in reading this volume: Gandhi always makes a distinction between those, like himself, who believe violence is inherently wrong regardless of the (apparent, identifiable) consequences, and those who believe violence is wrong on a given occasion or in a certain limited area precisely because it has worse consequences—what he calls nonviolence as a “creed” versus nonviolence as a “policy.” So most of Congress, he acknowledges, accepts nonviolence only as a policy for the purposes of achieving independence (and some don’t even accept nonviolence to that degree), which is better than nothing but still not the position he adheres to, which is nonviolence as a creed.

It’s always seemed to me that a direct implication of being a believer in nonviolence in his “creed” sense is that you could not participate in or countenance state violence either, that you’d have to be, in that sense, a philosophical anarchist. You wouldn’t have to oppose voluntary adherence to group rules and such, but your philosophy would be opposed to states insofar as they rest on the coercive enforcement of their rules.

Now there’s a sense in which almost everyone is an anarchist like that, as in, “Yes, yes, if this were an ideal world and people did what they should do without coercion, then there would be no need of coercive state power. But they don’t, so there is.” It’s similar to the sense in which virtually everyone on the planet is antiwar: “If there weren’t bad guys doing bad things, then of course it would be wrong to ever go to war. But we don’t live in that hypothetical world, so sometimes war is a necessary evil.”

But that’s clearly nonviolence as a “policy.” That’s being nonviolent when the anticipated consequences of doing so warrant it, but using coercive law and military violence and such when you allegedly have to use violence to prevent the bad consequences of criminals and foreign enemies running amuck.

Gandhi’s philosophy, it seems to me, doesn’t allow for this picking and choosing of when violence is warranted, whether state violence or individual violence.

It doesn’t follow from this that a Gandhian can’t, for instance, predict that an independent India will have a conventional coercive government with soldiers and police and such. It doesn’t follow that one can’t say that one sort of state is less bad than another. It doesn’t follow that one has to oppose all states and all state coercion equally, that given one’s finite time and resources one can’t pick one’s battles and nonviolently protest (coercive) laws mandating sterilization of Jews and not (coercive) laws against rape.

But it does follow, I think, that you can’t participate in state violence, and that you can’t endorse it, including in the qualified way of “I wouldn’t endorse it in an ideal world, but in this world I do.”

And I’ve always attributed that position to Gandhi. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve said here that he’d disagree with.

Gandhi strongly opposes alcohol consumption and thinks it’s been a terrible thing for India. So what then should his position be on the legal prohibition of alcohol? I would think it would be something like this: “Using violence, whether from the state or individuals, to coerce people to not drink is wrong. A prohibition law is wrong, then, in the sense that all coercive laws are wrong. So I won’t use violence to enforce such a law, I won’t encourage others to enforce such a law. However, I know the world consists mostly of people who don’t believe in this philosophy of mine, and who will continue to use violence selectively when they think it’s right, and will continue to create and sustain coercive states. My first choice is that they change their minds and adopt my philosophy instead. For those who don’t do that, there are some uses of violence on their part that I oppose a lot less than others. I oppose all violence, but I’d much prefer seeing people, for instance, using violence to prevent drinking rather than using violence to compel drinking. So, if you insist on having states and having coercive laws and such, until I can wean you from that, I prefer you direct your coercion against bad things that hurt people, like murder and rape and alcohol and such. In that very qualified, very hypothetical sense, I ‘favor’ prohibition.”

But the thing is, one time out of a hundred he’ll word it anything like that. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred he’ll just say flat out that he favors prohibition laws (or whatever the example might be).

Now, is he just abbreviating it those ninety-nine times, and really even on those occasions he means what he says on the one occasion? I still want to say yes, but I won’t claim to be certain.

I was especially taken aback, though, that on one or more occasions—unless I’m misinterpreting his remarks—when he’s asked whether he expects to be the prime minister or president or whatever of an independent India, he gives a non-committal “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” sort of answer.

But surely his response should be a flat no, that it’s incompatible with his moral philosophy to wield governmental power. Unless the independent Indian state is some sort of non-coercive voluntary association like the Congress today, which he has no problem participating in and accepting leadership positions in. But he’s stated clearly on multiple occasions that he knows that’s not going to happen, that the bulk of India that’s accepted nonviolence at all has only accepted it as a policy in the fight for independence, and that once independence is won, they’ll have a regular state (though hopefully a democratic one that’s enlightened in its policies compared to most states).

Unless I’m missing something, he can’t be in charge of a conventional state like that. So why he would give an ambiguous answer to that or leave the door open puzzles me.


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