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

The Collected Works of <a href="">Mahatma Gandhi</a>, 1958-c.1988/1999, 98 vols in one, 47006 pages

Volume LXV of this extraordinary series chronicling the life of Gandhi through his own writings and spoken words, covers March 1937 to July 1937. It is one of the less eventful volumes. The bulk of it consists of personal letters, often about the most mundane matters. The second most of the selections are articles Gandhi wrote for his Harijan newspaper.

Gandhi remains living in the small village of Segaon, where he had earlier more or less retired from public life so as to go into semi-seclusion and work directly with the rural poor of India. The retirement never really took—in this volume he is still away from Segaon a fair amount of the time meeting with Indian National Congress officials and others—the seclusion absolutely never took as he is constantly surrounded by an entourage, reporters, curiosity seekers, etc., and the village uplift has been more failure than success, still showing minimal at best positive results.

The main “action” of this volume concerns a dispute between the Congress and the British. Under the current constitution governing India, Indians are allowed a certain limited autonomy in that they can elect their own local representatives to govern them, with the British always allowed to intervene when they feel it necessary.

Congress had contested the recent elections, and done quite well, commanding a majority in many Indian states. However, oddly they had decided to participate in the elections before deciding whether to take office if elected. Since the Congress goal is full independence from Britain, some, including Nehru, have taken the position that they should not cooperate with the current constitution. For them, participating in the elections was a purely symbolic act, showing that the people are behind the very party that does not recognize the legitimacy of the elections. Other Congress members argue that they should accept the offices, and use them to serve the Indian people as best they can while continuing to push for full independence.

Gandhi seeks some kind of understanding that will bring all sides together. He wants the British to issue a formal commitment that they will not veto what the elected Indian officeholders do on a day-to-day basis whenever they don’t agree with it, but will limit their intervention to gross violations of the constitution, and will in such instances dismiss the Indian elected officials (the idea being that they won’t want to take that extreme a step except in the most high stakes cases where they are willing to pay the price of dealing with the inevitable backlash).

They go back and forth for a while, the British budge minimally if at all, and Gandhi announces that they have compromised enough that he feels able to recommend that the Indians accept the offices that they were elected to. Nehru goes along with it out of respect for Gandhi.

This seems to be pretty common in Gandhi’s career, at least as best as I can interpret it, that the British typically concede little or nothing, but Gandhi reacts like both sides have compromised enough that the Indians need not maintain their stance of opposition. I wonder how much of that is a psychological matter that the more times the British are willing to bargain with Gandhi (and Nehru, etc.) and to claim to be making significant concessions with the Indians’ well-being always being their overriding motive—as much as that’s bullshit—the more the common people in India and other folks will see the Indian leaders as respectable, equal negotiators with the British, thus making it seem more natural and appropriate that in the long run the Indians will manage their own affairs.

As far as other things that come up in this volume, Gandhi remains steadfastly against birth control, declaring himself unmoved by stories of the plight of unwed mothers, unplanned children, etc. “Sufferings of unwanted children and of equally unwanted motherhood are punishments or warnings devised by beneficent nature. Disregard of the law of discipline and restraint is suicide. Ours is a state of probation. If we refuse to bear the yoke of discipline we court failure like cowards, we avoid battle and give up the only joy of living.”

He supports making Hindi or Hindustani the national language, over the option of treating the huge number of languages in India equally, or worse yet relying on English as the national language. He argues that strengthening Hindi and encouraging more people to learn it will actually help the local vernaculars. In fact, he believes that besides learning Hindi, everyone ought to learn at least one of the vernacular languages in addition to their own.

He also wants Hindi as a national language written in the same script throughout the country, the Devanagari script. (At present, some write it in Devanagari, and some in Urdu, with Devanagari being used primarily by Hindus and Urdu by Muslims.) Devanagari is by far the most common script used, and most of the vernaculars either use Devanagari or their own script which is closer to Devanagari than is Urdu, just as Hindi or a language that overlaps considerably with Hindi is spoken by far more Indians than is any other language. So it will be the smoothest transition for people. (Though as he points out, at least when it comes to the written language, only 7%-10% of the population is literate anyway, so you’re starting with almost a clean slate.)

The problem is that movements to strengthen the position of a majority language and give it some kind of official recognition are nearly always—no matter how well disguised—acts of hostility toward minorities and their languages. Think of the “English Only” types in the United States. I’m sure a tiny number of them are genuinely motivated by efficiency and such, but it’s undeniably an anti-immigrant, anti-Spanish speaking people thing.

I don’t doubt at all Gandhi’s sincerity as far as being one of the exceptions in his motivations, but the Muslims and other minorities are understandably suspicious of the movement to enshrine Hindi—written in the Devanagari script—as the national language.

Gandhi says two interesting things in a conversation with a Christian missionary.

One is that there is no such thing as moral rights, only legal rights. He gives examples to illustrate his point, but I still can’t make sense of what he’s claiming.

I assume it’s more a semantic point than anything substantive, but what exactly is that point?

Is he perhaps collapsing the distinction in the other direction, and just expressing it in a peculiar or paradoxical way? That is, maybe he’s a “natural law” theorist and holds that manmade laws only truly count as “laws” if they are consistent with objective moral truths. Thus there are not two kinds of (legitimate) rights—legal and moral—but only legal rights (which are moral, or they wouldn’t count).

Or perhaps what he’s getting at is that morality is best expressed not as a system of rights or a system of rights and duties, but as a system of duties only.

Frankly neither one of those interpretations feels very likely. So I still don’t know what he means.

The other thing he mentions in this conversation is that he does not believe that miracles—in the literal sense of violations of natural laws—ever occur. This may seem surprising, coming from someone as religious as Gandhi. But he says the only miracles are metaphorical or non-literal ones, like the “miracle” of Jesus’ teachings—or truth in general—reaching people’s hearts and affecting them. But he doesn’t believe Jesus (or anyone) did things like literally raise the dead. They must, he says, have been people who were mistakenly believed to be dead. “The laws of Nature are changeless, unchangeable, and there are no miracles in the sense of infringement or interruption of Nature’s laws.”

On another occasion, he is interviewed by a “Captain Strunk,” identified as a German journalist and “member of Hitler’s staff.” Among other things, they talk about modern medicine, with Gandhi offering the observation:

The West attaches an exaggerated importance to prolonging man’s earthly existence. Until the man’s last moment on earth you go on drugging him even by injecting. That, I think, is inconsistent with the recklessness with which they will shed their lives in war. Though I am opposed to war, there is no doubt that war induces reckless courage. Well, without ever having to engage in a war I want to learn from you the art of throwing away my life for a noble cause. But I do not want that excessive desire of living that Western medicine seems to encourage in man.

He then goes on to make Strunk squirm by introducing him to his long-time friend and current visitor Herman Kallenbach, a German Jew, and asking him for an explanation of the Nazi persecution of Jews. Strunk sort of tries to justify it, but then admits that the Nazis have “overdone it,” because revolutionary movements always go too far in their heady early days.


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