The 69th volume of all of Gandhi’s known writings, speeches, correspondence, etc. covers the period from March 1, 1939 to July 15, 1939. So World War II is very, very close. Independence for India is still almost a decade away.
President of the Indian National Congress at this time is Subhas Chandra Bose, considered more radical in certain respects not only than Gandhi, but Nehru and other prominent Congress figures. His presidency is a turbulent one, as not only does he have fierce opposition from within Congress, but major health problems limit how well he can function in his office.
Bose is for a more forceful and immediate push for independence. He’s fine with nonviolent tactics, though he has no principled objection to violent tactics if necessary.
But Gandhi does not agree. Bose really wants to push on the accelerator, but Gandhi is certain this is a time for applying the brakes.
The people are not ready, Gandhi contends, for mass civil disobedience. In fact, he has more regret about times he has impatiently pushed too soon for nonviolent action rather than times he has held back. “I formerly compromised non-violence in the belief that thereby India would progress further on the path of non-violence, but that belief was not fulfilled.”
He sees Indians’ nonviolence to this point as having mostly been “nonviolence of the weak,” which has not been completely ineffectual, but is too flawed to bring about more than minimal progress. He opposes moving forward with mass action until the population has developed a commitment to a much purer, principled “nonviolence of the strong.” Independence and autonomy must be won by nonviolent means and sustained by nonviolent means; if they jump the gun by initiating mass action now, it will either fail to bring about independence or will result in a flawed independence that is mired in violence.
As he puts it in a letter to Bose, “I wholly dissent from your view that the country has been never so non-violent as now. I smell violence in the air I breathe. But the violence has put on a subtle form. Our mutual distrust is a bad form of violence. The widening gulf between Hindus and Mussalmans points to the same thing.”
Although many of those considered “Gandhians” in Congress are actively opposing Bose and hoping to push him out, Gandhi himself, in spite of his differences with Bose, tells him that he should choose for his cabinet those who side with him and should take Congress in the direction he sincerely believes is best, rather than governing through some kind of coalition or compromise cabinet with his opponents. Gandhi’s attitude is that Bose as president has the right to run things as he sees fit, and others have to make their own choices whether to cooperate or leave Congress. (Gandhi himself resigned from Congress years earlier, and has been only an unofficial advisor since then.)
It’s striking how consistently friendly and loving Gandhi is toward Bose in his communication, despite their being political enemies of a sort. When Bose’s health is particularly bad, Gandhi wires to him: “I suggest your coming here and living with me. Undertake nurse you to health while we are slowly conferring.”
A significant amount of Gandhi’s time and attention in the period covered by this volume is devoted to events in the princely state of Rajkot.
The princely states constituted the areas of India not directly ruled by the British. Until recently I had assumed that there were maybe a few dozen such princely states. (I’m sure I was influenced by the United “States,” where a “state” is the largest political entity other than the entire country, and where there are comparatively few of them). But actually there were hundreds of them—565 when India transitioned to independence. So in size they were more like our counties or Congressional districts—mostly quite tiny things.
Anyway during this period there was a lot of tension and conflict about the fate of the princely states. Did Congress and the independence movement speak for the Indians of the princely states as they did for those in British India? Would the princes retain any authority, any formal role, if and when independence came to India?
In Rajkot, there had been controversy and conflict for a while about how the local prince was running things. Or maybe not even the prince so much as his dewan (a title for I guess the chief administrator of the state, who in this case had great influence over the prince, whom I infer was young and irresponsible). There had been agitation over reconstituting a popular assembly that the prince had abolished. Following a successful movement of strikes and boycotts and such led by Congress leader and Gandhi ally Vallabhai Patel, the prince had agreed to the reconstituting, but then he had backtracked, quibbling over the makeup of the commission that would work out the details. The agreement had been that Patel would appoint a majority of the members of the commission, but the prince (or his dewan) decided that he wasn’t OK with that after all. He insisted on expanding the commission in such a way that he would end up appointing a majority of the members, pretending that his motive was to ensure that the state’s Muslims and bhayats (a term for a certain type of noble) would be adequately represented on the commission.
So the parties reach an impasse, and Gandhi decides he needs to intervene. When his communication with both sides fails to bring about a reconciliation, he embarks on a fast in an effort to appeal to the heart and conscience of the prince to do the right thing and stop the deception and bad faith.
But it doesn’t go well. The prince gives mixed signals. Gandhi appeals to the British to persuade the prince to abide by the agreement. Though the British do not directly rule the princely states as far as internal matters, they do have varying degrees of influence over the princes in different states. Gandhi gets what he thinks are sufficient assurances from all concerned that they’ll work together to implement the agreement, but the prince reneges again.
Bending over backwards as much as possible, Gandhi says the prince should just name whomever he wants to the commission, as long as the commission that would have resulted from the original agreement (where Patel would have appointed a majority) has the right to issue a dissenting report if it believes the official commission has not faithfully discharged its duty. That doesn’t fly either, so basically he surrenders, announcing that the prince should just do as he pleases, and he’ll trust him to do the right thing.
The fast ends with Gandhi and Patel left empty-handed.
Gandhi writes that he is losing hope and confidence, and that he feels very old. Just as he is calling on the nation to slow down and to avoid confrontational tactics, he seems himself to—temporarily at least—be moving toward a “nonresistance to evil” rather than a “nonviolent resistance to evil” approach. He decides that in a case like that of Rajkot, the best thing to do is to err on the side of being too trusting of one’s opponents.
In retrospect, he is concerned that he made an error in appealing to the British. He had thought of it as merely calling on them to fulfill certain responsibilities they had acknowledged were theirs—to defend the rights of their Indian subjects, including those residing in the princely states—but now he thinks that relying at all on their influence over the situation meant not trusting that the voluntary self-suffering of satyagraha could convert his opponents. His means, thus, were not pure nonviolence, and the least bad option once he realized this was to call off the fast.
Even some of his strongest supporters are aghast when he backs down. “Jawaharlal [Nehru] is quite convinced that I have put back the clock of progress by a century or thereabout by my Rajkot misdeeds. I am equally sure that I have rendered great service by my good deeds in Rajkot. We have not found an umpire. Therefore we are none the wiser for our assertions. He thinks I am impossible for an organization. He is right there.” One can imagine the puckish grin on the face of Gandhi as he writes those last two sentences, as well as the frustrated expression of poor Nehru as he once again must deal with Gandhi’s idiosyncrasies. What love they had for each other through it all, though.
It’s interesting too, though, that Gandhi admits he is experiencing greater and greater reluctance to embark on fasts, and increasing difficulty in sustaining them. Aging and various health issues have left his body much less able to handle the strain:
I have become a coward of late for fasting. My fast in August 1933 though short-lived was a perfect torture to me. I had prepared for death the very day I was discharged. I had made over many of my medical stores to the nurse in charge. Since then I have dreaded fasts. The twenty-four hour annual fasts of 6th and 13th April have shown me since then that my system is ill able to undergo any protracted fasting.
In one of the appendices is an account of a confrontation that occurred while Gandhi was in Rajkot. The prince and his dewan had succeeded in convincing many Muslims and bhayats that they were trying to safeguard their rights, while Gandhi and Patel were trying to stack the commission with Hindus who would ignore their interests. One day, Gandhi was driven to an open area where he was in the habit of conducting a prayer meeting. An unruly crowd of Muslims and bhayats was there to stage a protest. Gandhi proceeded with his prayers in spite of their attempted disruption.
When the prayer session was over, Gandhi told his people that he would not return to the residence where he was staying by car, but would instead walk, which meant he would be walking directly into the mob. He turned down any protection from his people.
He paused upon commencing his walk, overcome by a sudden severe pain. The report notes that at his advanced age he had recently sometimes suffered this pain in moments of high stress. Gathering himself, he walked unsteadily to one of bhayats on the edge of the mob, and asked him for assistance, requesting that he escort him through the crowd. Gandhi leaned on the larger man’s shoulder, and the bhayat complied with Gandhi’s request.
Gandhi is reported to have commented as they walked, “This is the way of satyagraha, to put your head unresistingly into the lap of your ‘enemy,’ for him to keep or make short work of just as he pleases. It is the sovereign way, and throughout my half a century of varied experience it has never once failed me.”
In discussing the incident later, he compared it to other times he’d risked his life with mobs, starting in South Africa, and how it had always won over his opponents. He concluded, in a foreshadowing of his own demise, “But should the worst happen after all, what privilege can be greater for a satyagrahi than to fall with a prayer in your heart for those whom you wanted to serve but under a delusion took you for an ‘enemy’?”
I’ll close with a couple other things I noted in this volume.
Gandhi asserts here, and elsewhere, that one has to believe in God in order to be a satyagrahi. But what does he mean by this?
I believe he’s making an empirical observation based on many decades of leading, participating in, and observing satyagraha campaigns. I don’t think he’s saying it’s essential in the sense of being part of the definition; I think he just means that in his experience it is those with the strongest faith in God who are able to remain firm even in the face of great risk, provocation, and intimidation.
In other words, I don’t think if he came across an atheist or agnostic who was a terrific satyagraha his reaction would be, “That doesn’t count. By definition you can’t be a satyagrahi.” I think it would be, “OK, you must be a rare exception. Generally the best satyagrahis believe in God.”
Or actually his reaction might well be, “Regardless of how you label yourself, you believe in God in the sense I’m referring to,” since the next question is what does he mean by “God” and by “believing in God”?
Surely one needn’t believe in the kind of anthropomorphized personal God most familiar to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, because while Gandhi was comfortable with such believers and sometimes referred to God in personal terms like that himself, his own conception was generally a more abstract, philosophical one.
“Truth is God,” he often declared, and in fact he stated a preference for putting the terms in that order rather than saying “God is Truth,” because even though as a relationship of identity the equation was commutative, he believed that “God is Truth” was more easily misunderstood as a reference to a personal God, as if the claim was “‘God exists’ is true,” or “the most important truth is that God exists” or something like that. By “Truth is God,” he seemed to mean something more along the lines that to believe in God meant to recognize that one’s highest duty is to conform one’s beliefs and behavior to reality, including moral truths.
Someone striving to do that and living a principled life, even in the face of adversity, I think would count as a believer in God to him, even if according to ordinary language the person was an atheist or agnostic.
I’m not positive about that. Maybe he did indeed think that only believers in a personal God could be true satyagrahis. But if so, I part company with him here.
Also, it’s interesting that he advises against a request from South African blacks that Indians in South Africa join forces with them in fighting for their rights. He says they have different interests and that each group should do what they need to do on their own.
He doesn’t take this position due to a racist disinclination to associate himself with blacks, or at least he doesn’t say anything to indicate that. I’m sure, though, that critics would interpret it as precisely that.
I’m not sure what to think of this. I suppose you can’t rule out that subconscious racism is playing some role here. I would need to see more to better understand his position and whether it is defensible. I’m vaguely uncomfortable with what he says, but really it just comes up in passing in I believe one letter or document, so I’ll withhold judgment for now.