The days leading up to the 68th Indian Independence Day this year were marked – in London, at least – by a furious debate about the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, arguably the most well known of the innumerable men and women who fought for Indian freedom.
The debate was sparked by comments made by author and historian Dr Kusoom Vadgama, founder of the Indo-British Heritage Trust, who described a proposed statue of the Mahatma in London’s Parliament Square as “wholly inappropriate” given Gandhi’s treatment of women and what Dr Vadgama described was his “obsession with sex”.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Dr Vadgama stated that Gandhi’s “experiments” with women – sleeping naked beside young girls and women in a bid to test his ‘commitment to celibacy’ – could no longer be ignored, particularly in light of the continued mistreatment of women in India that have generated headlines around the world.
Dr Vadgama, once an admirer of Gandhi, said: “I find it particularly disgusting that he was proud of what he did, of overcoming his own ‘temptations’ by using his great niece as some sort of sexual experiment.
“This is a man who was obsessed with sex on the one hand whilst on the other he was constantly talking about the concept of ‘Brahmacharya’ or chastity. I cannot equate the two at all. I think his mind was utterly confused and the world should wake up to this reality.”
Sex wasn’t the only thing that has caused apparent confusion for the Mahatma and the millions around the world who continue to promote his legacy of non-violence and self-sacrifice.
Economist Lord Meghnad Desai, chairman of the Gandhi Statue Memorial Trust, earlier this year raised questions about Gandhi’s supposed admiration for Adolf Hitler and his endorsement of the Hindu holy text Bhagvad Gita which Lord Desai claimed promoted violence.
Admiration for what Mahatma Gandhi achieved has often overwhelmed any attempt at scrutiny of his beliefs and principles.
Nevertheless, there have been numerous individuals – including Gandhi’s contemporaries – who have had the courage to question the morals and mores of a man many consider to be a saint.
One of the first was Cornelia Sorabji, the brilliant lawyer, reformist and social campaigner who was the first female graduate of Bombay University and the first woman to study at a British University after reading law at Oxford.
The following is a wonderfully insightful piece about Gandhi written by Cornelia and published in the then Boston-based literary magazine The Atlantic Monthly in April 1932, some six months after Gandhi visited London to attend the Round Table Conferences, a series of meetings organized by the British government in the wake of the independence movement that was gathering pace in India.
In September 1931, Mr. Gandhi had arrived in England for the Round Table Conference, and I had obtained an interview with him in order to give him an opportunity of explaining himself to one who was honestly trying to understand him.
He slept at the East End London Settlement in the slums – a fact (that) widely advertised in the press – but his days were spent between St. James’s Palace and a charming little flat in Park Place, St. James’s.
It was at the flat that I saw him. He had chosen an after-dinner hour, and I took with me an American friend who happened to be my guest at the moment.
Mr. Gandhi was dressed in his usual loin cloth with a Kashmir shawl thrown over his shoulders. He sat cross-legged on the hearth before a collapsible, Western-made spinning wheel. On a table beside him were fruits of various kinds, fresh and dried, and in a bowl of water reposed a set of false teeth.
I had heard of a disciple who had insisted on giving him a set decorated on the palate with the Congress National Flag in colours, but I could not bring myself to look into the bowl and see whether these were the ones that lay among the dates and bunches of grapes beside him.
Mr. Gandhi kindly stood to receive us, remarking as he did so that it was not his custom to stand for visitors.
As everyone knows, he has a most genial and welcoming smile.
In earlier life he had not learned that a hair on the head is worth two in the brush, nor had his nurse taken care, earlier still, to make him wear earcaps. But it is only in retrospect that one thinks of these things. His toothless smile made me feel that he really wanted to be friendly, and this was my dominant impression of the moment.
He went on spinning as we talked, breaking and mending his thread. It is almost a trick with him now, this spinning, like the trick of the public speaker who twists a watch chain or knots and unties a bit of string.
I began by reminding him that he was “my learned friend” (he was educated for the bar, as I was), and suggested that during the interview we should treat one another as fellow professionals, speaking our minds without fear of offense given or taken.
He consented, but remarked, “You know they have disbarred me. I am not ‘your learned friend’ any longer.”
I said we would nevertheless pretend that he was, and added, “I have been studying you since 1916, as if you were a brief.”
His face lit up and he said, “Have you? What is your conclusion?”
“It is because I cannot come to a conclusion upon certain aspects of you that I am here tonight. I want to give you an opportunity of explaining yourself, if you will be so kind. I have studied you as Mahatma, Politician, Economist – three of the roles in which you have presented yourself to the world. The Mahatma need not detain us. As you are aware, I know a good deal about Orthodox Hindus, and have met the genuine Hindu Holy Man. You are not that, are you? You are not a Saint, Mr. Gandhi. You and I are lawyers.”
He laughed, and a woman disciple sitting by uttered an exclamation of horror. “Mr. Gandhi understands me,” I said. “For one thing, no Hindu Mahatma, or Holy One, would use a spiritual appeal to attain a temporal end. That is what Mr. Gandhi has done. The term ‘Mahatma’ has been used to attract Orthodox Hindus and swell his following in a programme of political self-government or dictatorship or complete independence. To the true Mahatma, all things temporal, all these ends, are like ‘maya’, or illusion. So we won’t waste time on the Mahatma. I understand that. Let us turn to other things – to Gandhi as a Politician.”
Addressing him directly, I asked: “What did you mean, Mr. Gandhi, when you said the other day that you wished and demanded ‘a partnership’ with England, and in the same breath that you wished and demanded ‘complete independence’? What did you mean by ‘complete independence’”?
“I meant control of the army, of finance, of foreign relations – of everything.”
“The British, in fact, as your disciple put it, ‘kicked out,’” said I.
“Yes; everything in our own hands, complete freedom and independence.”
“Just so. Now what I want to know is this: when you said this, were you speaking as a lawyer or as a politician.”
“As neither,” he said. “I was speaking as the Man-in-the-street.”
“But even the Man-in-the-street knows that partnership and complete independence of your partner in the business of the partnership are incompatible. The Man-in-the-street will tell you that partnership means sharing, not kicking the other fellow out.”
“But I have said that often,” replied gandhi, “and no one has objected. I said this very thing to the House of Commons the other day, and no one said a word. I was understood.”
“But I do not understand, and I should like you to explain. You must have some explanation.”
“When I use those words,” he replied, “I know what I mean.”
“Then please, Mr. Gandhi, tell me what you mean. I want to understand. I did not come here to condemn you.”
“Well,” he said, “suppose the English and Americans were partners. They would still be entirely independent, the one of the other.”
“But they are not partners. Do you mean allies, or members of the League of Nations?”
“No, I do not mean allies. I have nothing to do with the League of Nations. I use those words in a sense that I myself understand. I know what I mean.”
I said: “Yes, Mr. Gandhi, that is just what you seem to do. You use words which have an accepted meaning, but you appear to use them in a sense all your own, with reservations which you do not disclose. Isn’t this a kind of intellectual dishonesty – yes, and moral dishonesty as well?”
He shrugged without replying, so I went on to inquire how many disciples he had. “You are always saying that you speak for ‘the dumb millions of India.’ Of course you and I know that this cannot be so. You speak for a certain number of English-educated Indians who are most extraordinarily vocal themselves. What is your real following, Mr. Gandhi?”
“Three hundred and fifty millions.”
“Ah, do be serious. I want to know the number of your disciples, not the population of India.”
He repeated, “Three hundred and fifty millions.”
“Deduct at least one individual from that total,” I said, indicating myself. “Come, now, what is your following?”
“Three hundred and fifty millions, whether you like it or not.”
It seemed hopeless to pin him down, so I tried another tack. “What is the membership of the Congress of which you are the accepted leader?”
“We have no list of members – all India.”
I tried again. “How many people were imprisoned when you came to Delhi last year to negotiate with Lord Irwin?”
“The entire Congress.”
“Yes; I remember you said so at the time. How many people would you say were then in prison?”
“Lakhs and lakhs.”
“And why were they in prison? Didn’t you invite them to qualify for prison by breaking the law? Yes, I heard you myself. They obeyed you, and committed acts of violence punishable under the Indian Penal Code – murder, assault, the wrecking of trains, arson, the burning of imported or mill-made cloth, which ruined the poor, smaller Indian merchants. How was it that the apostle of passive resistance had disciples who committed violence?”
“I deny that cloth was burned.”
“But it was, Mr. Gandhi. Your disciple here,” said I, indicating a wealthy cotton merchant and mill owner who sat beside me, – a mill owner who is commonly believed to have been excused from Gandhi’s ban because, like the mill owners of Ahmedabad, near Gandhi’s home, he is said to subsidize the Congress, – “your disciple here knows that this is true.”
“Yes, Mahatmaji,” he said, “cloth was burned in Bombay.”
“Well, I never commanded violence. I repudiate all who committed violence.”
“You can’t repudiate your followers and agents. ‘What you do through another you do yourself.’ You and I are familiar with that principle. You certainly commanded picketing. The cloth burners said they were picketing. What did you mean by picketing?”
“I meant for them to fall at the feet of the persons using or selling foreign cloth or mill-made cloth, and say, ‘Please do not do this.’ That is not countenancing violence.”
“But surely you knew that that was not the way they would do it. And those who committed violence said that you paid them to do it. That was revealed when they were let out of prison in 1931 after the Irwin-Gandhi Pact. They complained that if the boycott could not be renewed they would starve, since they would lose both their wages from you and their gains from looting. You held a meeting to decide how many of these people you could continue to pay.”
“Yes, I paid them. But I repudiate those who committed acts of violence. They were hooligans.”
“Exactly. Many people have thought all along that your following was swelled by the hooligans who live on the edge of social unrest in all countries, but I didn’t expect you to say the same thing. However, deduct the hooligans from the ‘lakhs and lakhs’ – how many are left whom you would regard as your followers?”
“Thank you, Mr. Gandhi. When I am asked in America, ‘What is the number of Mr. Gandhi’s real discipleship?’ I shall say, ‘Thirty thousand; he told me so himself.”
Reverting once more to the question of non-violence, I asked Mr. Gandhi to recall the case of Bhagat Singh, who in 1931 murdered two policemen, a Sikh and an Englishman, in cold blood. “Do you remember saying, Mr. Gandhi, ‘Let there be thousands of Bhagat Singhs’?”
“Yes, I said that.”
“What did you mean?”
“I meant that I admired the self-sacrifice of a man who committed for his country a deed which he knew, if discovered, would cost him his life.”
“But that argument would apply to any murderer. And your disciples did not understand what you meant. Cawnpore (riots) in February and March, 1931, was the result.”
A woman disciple spoke up: “The Congress did not stir up the Cawnpore riots. The British did that.”
But Gandhi said: “You should not bring that up against me. I fasted, and God has forgiven me.”
At this moment I caught sight of Dr. Ambedkar, the leader of the Untouchables. “What have you done for Dr. Ambedkar’s community?” I asked.
“I have an outcaste girl at my Ashrame. You will see her when you come to Allahabad.”
“What is that? The missionaries take hundreds of thousands of outcastes under their protection, clothe and educate them, and fit them to stand on their feet. Besides, you are an outcaste yourself now. What credit can be claimed by an outcaste for adopting an outcaste child?”
Horrified disciple: “She calls you an outcaste.”
“Are you not one, Mr. Gandhi? You boast of eating with them. Any Orthodox Hindu will tell you that by that act alone you have lost whatever caste you once possessed.”
“Yes, I have eaten with them. They are my people.”
“You have told them, have you not, that you would admit them to caste temples and the use of caste wells? And they have joined your ranks, relying on your word. But you know that none of the priests and Brahmans of Orthodox Hinduism could so admit them, and the day they grant this privilege Orthodox Hinduism will be dead. And here let me ask you something that has puzzled me very much. You speak of your ward, the outcaste, and your championship of the outcaste is part of your most fruitful propaganda; yet you talk and write of your belief in caste.”
“When I say I believe in caste, I mean I believe in the original occupation divisions of caste.”
“We all believe in that. It is a matter of history. But, since the second century, caste has becoming something more than that. It is now no longer a trades guild, but a religious incident, the very basis of Hinduism – a water-tight compartment into which a man is born, and out of which he cannot climb during his life. The Orthodox Hindu understand you to mean this last alone when you use the word.”
“Well, I use it in its occupational sense,” he repeated, “when I say that I believe in caste.”
“Let us go back to my question about Dr. Ambedkar. What are you going to do for his community? Will you do for the Untouchables and the depressed classes the one thing which it is in your power to do? Are you prepared to secure to them in the new Indian Parliament the separate representation which they now have under the British Government?”
A woman disciple again intervened. “Gandhiji,” she said, “will discuss that with Dr. Ambedkar himself. He is here for that purpose.”
But Gandhi spoke up. “They cannot get separate representation. In their own interests I deny them this.”
The woman disciple was anxious for us to go, and I could say only one more word.
I asked whether India could really be said to be fit for complete independence, having no indigenous army and no sufficient body of men trained for the affairs of government. “What will be our end?” I inquired.
The answer that Mr. Gandhi gave was the same that he had often made before, publicly: “Destruction, perhaps. But even if destruction is the end, I believe that it is better than what is offered us. A nation cannot attain freedom with the alien in the country.”
We rose to leave, and I was saluting him Indian fashion when he seized my hand and took it in his own. “No, I will have your hand,” he said, and invited me to become his disciple. We parted laughingly, he threatening that he would yet convert me. He indicated clearly by his manner that he held no grudges in his heart for the candour which I had felt bound to use in questioning him.
From my interview with Mr. Gandhi I came away with the impression of a man exploited by others – by the extremists, by his immediate domestic entourage, and by his admirers outside India. From my talk with him, as well as from other evidence, I gather that he is undoubtedly vain.
When an interviewer asked him, “Are you glad that you came to London?” he replied: “Yes. Before, I was a myth and a legend here. Now they know me.”
But his vanity is not offensive; it is that of a child or of a person who is irresponsible. In my opinion he lacks the power to lead the Indian Congress in its present mood – the “war-to-a-finish” section is too strong for him; yet he has not moral courage enough to extricate himself. It would be hard indeed for him to give up a position which he certainly enjoys.
Up to now he has succeeded because of his shrewdness as a lawyer and his clear-sightedness in knowing what appeal to use to win over any section of the public whose support he needs.
For the Orthodox Hindu he plays the role of Mahatma. For freedom lovers everywhere he is the “Liberator” of the outcastes and the oppressed. He is the symbol of Peace for the Society of Friends, and of Prohibition for one section of America.
But his shrewdness would have availed him little if he had not had behind him the best publicity board in the world – a board which has been unceasingly active while Great Britain just looked on and smiled and allowed misrepresentations to crystallize.
To his shrewdness he adds an effective effrontery, waving paradoxes in the face of a world hypnotized by his oratory. Let us glance at some of them. The Apostle of Liberty, he has coerced the most defenseless of Indians in regard to their occupation, their business dealings, even the intimacies of their wardrobe.
The Apostle of Love, he has stirred up hatred and suspicion among the different sections of the Indian population.
He preaches a return to the seventh century in matters of economics, while as a man of the world he knows that the end which he proclaims to be his object – the placing of India in her proper rank among free and progressive nations – can only be attained by modern equipment and modern methods.
He condemns Great Britain because education does not travel faster and farther, and he incites schoolboys to leave their studies and inflames them so that they burn down their schools. He teaches defiance of law and order, although he knows that it will not be many months before Indians themselves, and not the British, will be responsible for maintaining law and order in India.
A business man himself, both by caste and by education, he stands in the position of a promoter who has tried to wreck a business concern just as it was about to change hands and come under the control of his client.
“Since May 1930,” wrote an editor in an Indian paper, “India is poorer; has more unemployed on her streets; is lawless; excites less sympathy.”
These are the feathers in Mr. Gandhi’s cap.
It was to protect India from a repetition of his 1930 programme that the Government of India has been compelled to take strong measures. No one can doubt that the general belief in Mr. Gandhi’s great influence for good has helped him to achieve much that is good, but a government cannot afford to experiment with the soul of an individual, however great his personality, at the risk of endangering public safety.
About that soul – the soul of the Great Soul (Mahatma) – one hesitates to speak. “Is he sincere?” “But surely he is sincere.”
How often have I heard that affirmed! I can only answer: “How can I know? How can anyone know but God?”
Yet this much of my meditation upon this puzzling man as a great spiritual world leader and Messiah I will permit myself to articulate: Mr. Gandhi says by wireless and through his publicity board, he shouts from the housetops, what you and I would hardly dare whisper in our hearts even to God.
(Edited by Viji Alles)