A Privileged Peep Into Gandhi’s Inbox, The Telegraph

Mohandas K. Gandhi’s own writings are well known to the world: through a series of books and anthologies under his name that appeared in his lifetime; and, more authoritatively and substantively, through the ninety-seven volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, published between 1958 and 1994, and put together and lovingly edited by a team of scholars headed by K. Swaminathan and C. N. Patel.

These Collected Works are a vital resource for present and future assessments of Gandhi the writer; Gandhi the political activist; Gandhi the social reformer; Gandhi the religious pluralist; Gandhi the prophet; Gandhi the husband, father, and friend.

Although the CWMG is both impressive and indispensable, the series does have one limitation. It gathers together the letters, articles, speeches written or made by Gandhi. It occasionally refers to a letter written to Gandhi in the footnotes, and sometimes reproduces a few such letters in the volumes’ appendices. By and large, though, the CWMG presents a portrait of the world from the point of view of Gandhi himself. For a fuller understanding of the man, his times, and his legacy, we need to juxtapose, to the material collected in the CWMG, letters to Gandhi as well as letters about Gandhi.

The largest collection of letters to Gandhi exists in the archives of the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad. Here lie thousands of letters, in Gujarati, English and Hindi, dating from the 1890s, and mostly unread since Gandhi himself received and read them. Now, through an ambitious project directed by the literary scholar Tridip Suhrud and the archivist Kinnari Bhatt, the ‘Inbox’, (as it were) of Gandhi’s correspondence is being collated in a series of carefully annotated volumes, the first of which is to be published next month.

I have been granted a privileged peep into the early volumes in the series, that deal with Gandhi’s South African years. In his two decades in the diaspora, Gandhi correspondend with a staggering range of people. Those who wrote to Gandhi belonged to different religions, social classes, countries and continents. From his earliest years as a lawyer and activist, Gandhi was in touch with Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jews and Parsis; with Gujaratis, Tamils, Anglo-Indians, and Europeans; with officials, merchants, lawyers, and indentured labourers—these spread across Natal, Transvaal, the Cape, India, and England. There is even one correspondent from Canada!

A fair amount of this correspondence is professional, dealing with his legal practice.

Another large chunk is political, namely, his dealings with the Governments of Natal and Transvaal and (after 1910) the Government of a united South Africa. The CWMG carries the other side of this correspondence; Gandhi’s own petitions and pleas with regard to racially discriminatory laws and practices. Now, through this series, we shall also have the replies of the officials he wrote to; these variously brusque, curt, exasperated and unhelpful.

The Sabarmati collection has a large number of letters from Gandhi’s closest associates in South Africa. They include H. O. Ally, who accompanied him on his trip to London in 1906; his long-serving (and perhaps long-suffering) secretary Sonja Schlesin; his long-time collaborator L. W. Ritch (whom he first met in Johannesburg’s Theosophical Lodge in about 1895), and, above all, his friend, housemate and crucial second-in-command, Henry (H. S. L.) Polak. Of particular interest are the long letters written by Polak to Gandhi from India in 1909, when Polak was touring the subcontinent, publicizing and raising money for his friend’s struggle. Another set of fascinating letters were written by C. F. Andrews, who first met Gandhi in South Africa in January 1914, and was to become his closest English friend. Andrews’s letters provide keen insights into Gandhi’s moral and religious philosophy.

The correspondence housed in Sabarmati fleshes out key incidents narrated in Gandhi’s autobiography, as for example the role played by the Police Superintendent of Durban, R. C. Alexander, and his wife in saving Gandhi from a murderous mob in 1897; and the returning by Gandhi of jewels gifted to him by the Natal Indians in 1901. Many letters deal with Gandhi’s 1909 trip to England, when he had gone to lobby with the Imperial Government against the racial laws in South Africa. (It was on this visit that Gandhi met V. D. Savarkar and other young Indians committed to a cult of violence, the discussions feeding into his famous tract, Hind Swaraj, which he wrote on the ship taking him back to South Africa).

Most of the letters written to Gandhi in South Africa dealt with serious subjects. But one finds the occasional flash of (albeit unconscious) humour, as in a letter from an European acquaintance, who wished to address the Natal Indian Congress on ‘The Moral Principle of the Temperance Movement’. The speaker asked Gandhi to ensure a good turn-out for his lecture, since ‘talking to an imaginary audience is a profitless undertaking, and mahogany chairs and teak wood benches are things upon which even the most eloquent speaker can make no impression.’

Although many of the letters are short and routine, others are longer and more substantial. They help provide a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Gandhi’s manifold activities and concerns in South Africa. And they also sometimes anticipate his later work in India.

In this regard, I was particularly struck by two letters on the iniquities of caste. In 1908, one K. R. Dapthary from Bombay wrote to Gandhi that so long as notions of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ derived from the mere accident of birth, ‘the Indian deserves to be kicked, and all his talk of Swarajya and Swadeshi is mere froth which none need take seriously’. In Dapthary’s view, ‘the first thing we [Indians] have to do is revolt against the caste [system] which to my mind is at the bottom of most of the evils we suffer from’.

Dapthary was most likely a passing acquaintance. Six years later, one of Gandhi’s close associates in Natal, a Tamil Christian named J. M. Lazarus, wrote him an even more powerful letter on the subject. Gandhi had just departed from South Africa, to build a political career in India. Lazarus warned Gandhi that the Indian National Congress was dominated by Brahmins and other high-caste men who had ‘not done anything to elevate the oppressed classes’. From his own experience, he recounted the situation in his native Madras, where ‘even today, a Pariah dare not walk into a Street inhabited by Brahmins, nor will he even wear his Dhotis below his knees before his Brahmin Lord, nor will he even draw his drinking water from a well used by the Brahmins’.

Lazarus agreed that the growing movement for Self-Government led by the Congress was welcome. But, he wondered, where did it place the Untouchables? The worry was that if India got political independence ‘the Brahmins could again pursue their old Steam Roller Policy upon this much neglected and wretched community’.

Lazarus asked Gandhi to pay this ‘great question’ his fullest attention. He understood that ‘by bringing this question forward it may hamper Congress’s aims in some respects and so it behooves us to find some solution of the difficulty’. For if a solution was not found, felt Lazarus, ‘the realisation of the ideal of a National India is an utter impossibility’.

In his South African period, Gandhi dealt rarely with the problem of caste discrimination. But on his return to India, the abolition of Untouchability became a core element of his social and political programme. It is entirely possible that the influence (and chastising) of his friend J. M. Lazarus played a part in his taking the subject far more seriously than he had previously done.

Among the facts these letters reveal is the trust placed in Gandhi’s abilities and leadership qualities by a wide cross-section of Indians in South Africa. A Gujarati fish merchant in Cape Town wrote to Gandhi that with him in charge, ‘the cause of the Indians is in good and able hands’. A set of moving letters from a Tamil indentured labourer, describing in detail the harsh treatment the labourer received at the hands of his white masters, appealed to Gandhi to use his ‘famous’ name to help and protect the persecuted victim. A letter from the Indians of Port Elizabeth, signed by both Gujaratis and Tamils, praised Gandhi’s ‘lifelong devotion to procure justice and privileges for your countrymen’.

The archivists at the Sabarmati Ashram are at once superbly skilled and totally self-effacing. Their modesty and devotion to their work is at odds with an age marked by self-praise and self-promotion. Yet what they are doing by publishing these volumes of letters to Gandhi deserves to be far better known. For theirs is a major historical exercise of recovery and retrieval, that will more fully flesh out the life and times of arguably the greatest Indian since the Buddha.



Ramachandra Guha

1st October 2016, The Telegraph

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