India is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its independence. Stephen Haggard writes about the role of Mahatma Gandhi

  • The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. I: Civilisation, Politics and Religion edited by Rhagavan Iyer
    Oxford, 644 pp, £40.00, February 1986, ISBN 0 19 824754 0
  • The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. II: Truth and Non-Violence edited by Rhagavan Iyer
    Oxford, 678 pp, £50.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 19 824755 9
  • The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. III: Non-Violent Resistance and Social Transformation edited by Rhagavan Iyer
    Oxford, 641 pp, £55.00, May 1987, ISBN 0 19 824756 7

Every morning at dawn for most of his life Mahatma Gandhi would seat himself on the ground and write until lunchtime. His collected writings are a daunting prospect – even the 90-volume set published by the Government of India is incomplete. Gandhi wrote as a political propagandist, original and candid at all times, never insidious. As part of the campaigns he waged in both South Africa and India he founded, managed and edited a number of important journals about current issues, including Young India, Indian Opinion and Harijan. In their pages he would expound his principles, report on their practice, engage in debate with his critics, and publish his speeches and interviews. In addition to this, he conducted a voluminous private correspondence, writing as many as ten letters a day on subjects ranging from family news to philosophical problems. And once a week his daily verbal output was committed to paper: this was the day of silence that he had vowed to observe.

Raghavan Iyer’s three-volume selection is the first serious attempt to present and interpret selectively this enormous corpus. The reasons for the neglect until now of the writings of so famous a man (Mountbatten said that history would place Gandhi on a par with Christ and the Buddha) are worth considering. It has been Gandhi’s fate to prove most memorable as a symbol and as a visual phenomenon. His charismatic attire – a homespun loincloth and blanket, his ‘minus-fours’, as he called them – at the London Round Table talks in 1930 and 1931 is better remembered than his verbal contributions. His remarkable appearance and personal manner are illustrated more effectively in photographs and memoirs by friends and eye-witnesses than in his own writings – which may be what Gandhi intended: he declared that after 1920 his life was public property. Biography of Gandhi tends to hagiography, and for such purposes judgments about him have served better than judgments by him. Second, Gandhi, like Socrates, had trained himself to listen to an inner voice, and he pronounced upon every moral and political issue accordingly. He could respond to a daunting range of issues, often without expertise, but working from simple moral principles. This gives his writings an inconsistency and breadth which make them hard to organise. The sustained movement towards a clear goal which one sees in the writings of Nehru and Jinnah is not present in Gandhi’s work.

Finally, one may note that the centre of gravity for studies of 20th-century India is her struggle for political and economic independence, and that while Gandhi as the quasimythological figure of Attenborough’s film is easily retained in this context, the same cannot be said of his writings. They record a far greater dedication to other concerns, Independence often lying only on the fringes of his activities. Gandhi devoted himself to projects like spinning and the abolition of untouchability on his ashrams, and in the world at large he was concerned with the ‘constructtive programme’ of better sanitation and cow-breeding, the improvement of village life, religious unity and the spread of non-violence. He detested power politics, and involved himself only sporadically and often critically with the political leaders of the day. Of the independence which India sought and achieved, Gandhi said in June 1947: ‘This is like eating wooden ladoos; if they eat it they die of colic; if they don’t they starve.’ For Gandhi, ‘independence’ would have been the eradication of village poverty and unemployment through individual and social self-reliance. The writings show a Gandhi who runs against the Independence-current of modern Indian history.

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Recent books about Gandhi include:

Gandhi: Against the Tide by Anthony Copley. Blackwell, 118 pp., £3.25, 12 February, 0 631 145141
The Myth of the Mahatma: Gandhi, the British and the Raj by Michael Edwards.
Constable, 270 pp., £12.95, 29 June 1986, 0 09 466070 0
Gandhi in India: In his Own Words, edited by Martin Green. University Press of New England, 384 pp., $20, October, 0 87451 390 1