Volume LXVIII of The Collected Works covers the period in Gandhi’s life from October 15, 1938 to February 28, 1939. It isn’t a particularly dramatic stretch in India’s independence movement, but that’s not to say there isn’t plenty going on. Meanwhile, Europe and much of the world is seemingly getting closer and closer to a major war. (Actually, though the start of World War II is usually deemed to be later in 1939 when Germany attacks Poland, there is plenty of war and aggression from Japan and others already.)
Gandhi remains semi-retired from politics, serving more as an advisor than a formal leader. He spends much of his time in the small village of Segaon, where he is continuing his experiment of living a simple life with the villagers and encouraging them to adopt his ways in terms of the spinning wheel, proper sanitation, eradication of untouchability, etc. (In fact, I still get the impression he is too much of a public figure for this to be going the way he intends. He’s not living as a simple villager; a simple villager doesn’t spend the bulk of the day receiving visitors from around the country and around the world, keeping up with a high level of correspondence, writing newspaper articles, etc., not to mention frequently leaving the village for extended periods.)
He visits the Northwest Frontier Province, where his friend and fellow advocate of nonviolence Abdul Ghaffar Khan has turned a substantial number of his brother Pathans, with their reputation as particularly fierce Muslim warriors, into a disciplined group of nonviolent fighters under the name “Khudai Khidmatgars” (“Servants of God”). Gandhi is quite impressed, but careful in how he words his praise, using hypothetical language to emphasize potential (if you remain true to your pledge…, if you continue to make progress in deepening your understanding of nonviolence and implementing it, etc.).
He attends various meetings and conferences. He comments on Hitler and the European situation (which is a bit unusual for him, as he tends to avoid speaking out on issues outside of India).
The Hindus and Muslims continue to conflict, much to his chagrin. His advocacy for Hindustani as a national language rankles some Muslims as they associate it with the Hindus. (He doesn’t. He notes that it can—and should continue to—be written in both the script Hindus tend to use and the script Muslims tend to use, that it will be used alongside rather than as a substitute for the myriad of local languages used in various Indian communities, and that surely it is better than using the foreign language—English—imposed on them from without.)
There is increasing agitation for independence and resulting oppressive crackdowns in the “princely states” (the areas of India not directly ruled by the British, but semi-autonomously by local monarchs).
There is no mass civil disobedience campaign, there is no violent war of revolution, there is no civil war, yet there is a lower level of turmoil and uncertainty about the future in India.
The princely states stuff sounds especially like it’s getting out of hand. In spirit, the Indian National Congress is on the side of the people demanding democratic reforms, but it doesn’t want to intervene directly and get caught up in charges of fomenting the unrest. On the other side, the British are pressuring the states to enforce law and order and resist any such reforms that could serve as an example of what is possible to the Indians in the areas of India directly ruled by the British.
Through correspondence and less often personal visits, Gandhi keeps up on these situations of unrest in the states, offering advice as to when it is and isn’t appropriate to pursue satyagraha against the state government and such. He far more often tries to influence people to go slow and stay within the law than he advocates noncooperation and civil disobedience, but he looks at each situation on a case-by-case basis.
His wife Kasturbai is actually arrested and imprisoned for defying a state government in one of these cases. Gandhi doesn’t try to use his influence to get her released, but instead praises her for being willing to go to prison, and writes to her regularly to remain firm.
I’ve commented when writing about one or more previous volumes in this collection that I wasn’t at all sure she could read and write. His letters to her are quite infrequent even when they are physically apart, and though there is sometimes an implication that she has written to him (writings to him are not included in this collection, only his own writings) that too seems quite infrequent. I speculated that maybe someone else reads to her his letters to her, and that someone else takes dictation from her and writes her letters to him.
In this volume he actually describes her in a newspaper article he writes as “illiterate.” So assuming he means that literally, I guess that settles it.
During this period, Subhas Chandra Bose is elected the new president of the Indian National Congress. I don’t know much about Bose, but in some respects he is at odds with Gandhi. He is described as being of Congress’s “left” and quite radical, though he later ends up allying himself with Hitler and the Fascists. He is not committed to nonviolence in the struggle against British rule.
You could see his election as an indication that Congress or Indians as a whole are losing patience with Gandhi and his nonviolence, and moving toward more immediate, radical methods for achieving their ends.
Gandhi makes no secret of where he disagrees with Bose, and clearly sees Bose’s election as a defeat of sorts, but on the other hand he describes it ironically as a kind of victory as well. He left the Congress himself some time earlier, sensitive to the possibility that the body was giving in to his influence in spite of their best judgment because they didn’t want to cross such a revered figure, and believing that he’d be better off pursuing his projects and methods on his own, and retaining only informal ties with Congress as an unofficial advisor. With the election of Bose, he no longer has to worry that Congress is following a path it doesn’t sincerely believe in just to placate him.
Rather than try to block Bose’s authority within Congress, or to set up some compromise governing structure where those of the “right” or “center” retain some influence, he invites Bose to name all his own top party officials, and suggests that those who have a problem with the direction Bose seeks to take the party withdraw like he has and do their work independent of Congress.
As far as his advice to Jews, and other targets of the Nazis, the Japanese, and other aggressors, it’s not the kind of stance that would be popular today, or was back then for that matter, but it is consistent with what he has always said about victims of evil: The best thing to do is to oppose the wrongdoing nonviolently, to defy it, to noncooperate with it, but to love even the perpetrators of it and refuse to return evil for their evil. If one is unable or unwilling to do that, the second best thing is to oppose the evil violently. Worst is to succumb to it in cowardly fashion.
To the response that nonviolence is inappropriate because all that will happen to people who oppose Nazis and their ilk nonviolently is that they will be slaughtered, Gandhi’s response is that we can’t predict exactly what will happen, but nonviolence has worked out better than skeptics would have expected in prior cases and we should have faith that if conducted firmly, bravely, and with pure hearts it will ultimately be successful, though it might take a while and though many might die along the way (as would happen, by the way, with violent resistance as well).
He says that if the Jews or other critics tell him that his nonviolent movement in India has itself neither been pure nor produced the desired consequence of independence and the end of oppression, and so he’s in no position to tell others to adopt such methods, he would confess that it is quite true that he and the movement are very flawed and have not been fully successful, but that he would want to see others surpass his efforts in India, to make further advances in the very, very young science of using nonviolence in the political sphere.
On this and other issues, he consistently downplays the importance of death, and insists that it really shouldn’t be feared or lamented the way it almost always is.
That makes sense for devout religious folks, who believe, or at least purport to believe, that death is not an end but will in fact be followed by a permanent sojourn in Heaven or by reincarnation into a new life, but it’s interesting that the actual percentage of religious folks who are neutral toward death or welcome death is in fact very close to zero.
Indeed, as Gandhi admits, he himself is not always able to maintain that attitude that he believes is most justified. He at times manifests an attachment to life that is not consistent with his philosophy. But his position is that, yeah, that’s all true, and it’s why I keep telling y’all that I’m not a mahatma, that I’m not this moral superman you’ve built me up to be, but the fact that I’m a work in progress, that I’m still struggling to overcome my own inconsistencies and weaknesses, and hypocrisies, doesn’t change the principles, doesn’t change the truth.
On the idea of creating a new country for Jews—Israel—Gandhi is firmly opposed. Every Jewish person, he says, already has a country. If a Jew is born in, or chooses to live in India as their home, then they are Indian. Similarly, American Jews are American, French Jews are French, German Jews are German, etc. They need to insist that they are a full citizen of their country, no less than is any other citizen of that country, and it is morally obligatory that they be accepted as such.
To insist on creating an Israel would be a move in the opposite direction, a way of affirming the criticism that Jews aren’t really committed to the country where they live, but are sort of half-citizens of that country and half-citizens of this new Israel country. They should demand their rights where they are, not live with one foot out the door.
Plus, we’re not talking about creating a new country in some sort of empty space. A new Israel in the Middle East will unavoidably be located where a large number of non-Jews, or Arabs, already live. They would have to be displaced or accept living in a formally Jewish state if Israel were created, which is unjust.
My take on all this is that aside from the merits of it—and there’s plenty to be said for and against Gandhi’s position—the context of it is that Gandhi has always bent over backwards to be pro-Muslim in order to foster better relations between Hindus and Muslims in India. Maybe not as a conscious strategy—I don’t want to say I somehow know he’s being insincere—but he always wants to cooperate with Muslims, to show that he is on their side in their struggles with third parties.
Like for years back in the ’20s he was a major activist for that “khilafat” thing, which had to do with post-World War I British policy toward defeated Turkey and its key role in Islam. That’s the kind of obscure foreign controversy that he normally has little or nothing to say about, but he made it a big part of his public life for no discernible reason except that a lot of Muslims in India cared deeply about it, and he wanted to ally himself with them and their concerns.