A PROPHET ANNOUNCES HIMSELF, Times Literary Supplement

In the third week of September 1909, The Illustrated London News published a withering attack on the idea of Indian nationalism. Its author was G. K. Chesterton, who was then writing a weekly column for the magazine. The Catholic novelist was not especially known for his interest in Britain’s colonies; indeed, this may have been his only essay on the subject. Yet it had a profound impact, prompting a book-length rejoinder by a forty-year-old Indian then visiting London from South Africa.
Chesterton had been reading a journal called The Indian Sociologist, run by young men in London and Paris who sought India’s liberation from British rule. He thought their ideas unoriginal; as he wrote, ‘the principal weakness of Indian Nationalism seems to be that it is not very Indian and not very national’. There was a world of difference between ‘a conquered people demanding its own institutions and the same people demanding the institutions of a conqueror ’. The Indian nationalists Chesterton was reading (and meeting) ‘simply say with ever-increasing excitability, “Give me a ballot-box. Provide me with a Ministerial dispatch-box. Hand me over the Lord Chancellor’s wig. I have a natural right to be Prime Minister. I have a heaven-born claim to introduce a Budget. My soul is starved if I am excluded from the Editorship of the Daily Mail”, or words to that effect’.
If, on the other hand, one of these men had demanded a return to a pre-British past, on the grounds that ‘every system has its sins, and we prefer our own’, Chesterton would have considered ‘him an Indian Nationalist, or, at least, an authentic Indian’. This kind of Indian might have defended dynastic politics, on the grounds that ‘I prefer dying in battle to dying in hospital’. He would have chosen Maharajas over civil servants, on the grounds that ‘I prefer one king whom I hardly ever see to a hundred kings regulating my diet and my children’. Admitting the existence of religious differences in India, he would nonetheless have insisted that ‘religion is more important than peace’. ‘Life is very short’, he would have pointed out: ‘A man must live somehow and die somewhere; the amount of bodily comfort a peasant gets under your best Republic is not so much more than mine’. ‘If you do not like our sort of spiritual comfort’, this authentic Nationalist would have told the alien ruler, ‘we never asked you to. Go and leave us with it’.
In September 1909, Mohandas K. Gandhi was in London, to press the Imperial Government to grant freer rights of residence, travel, and trade to members of the Indian diaspora in South Africa. That he read Chesterton’s article when it appeared seems quite evident, for he refers to it in an essay he despatched to his own journal, Indian Opinion, published from Durban. The essay was posted by Gandhi from London in October; but for some odd reason it did not appear until January 1910. By then Gandhi had answered Chesteron’s plea by writing an extended defence of the virtues of ancient Indian civilization.
Hind Swaraj (to give this book its name) was completed in ten days flat, aboard the ship that, in November 1909, took Gandhi back to South Africa. Written in the author’s mother-tongue, Gujarati, it was published in that language and English (under the title Indian Home Rule) in Durban in 1910. With the exception of two volumes of autobiography, it was the only book (qua book, as opposed to collections of articles or speeches) written or published by Gandhi. This gives it a special status; since scholars look for and work with texts, this book is the most accessible and handy way to approach Gandhi. It must be its position as the single, non-personalized, book ever written by Gandhi that encouraged the Cambridge University Press to include Hind Swaraj in its prestigious series, ‘Cambridge Texts in Modern Politics’.
The Cambridge edition of Hind Swaraj was put together by the political scientist Anthony Parel. All Gandhi scholars are in Parel’s debt, for having written a careful introduction locating the intellectual influences on Hind Swaraj, and for having so extensively annotated the book itself. That said, I must admit to somewhat mixed feelings about Parel’s placement of Hind Swaraj in Gandhi’s oeuvre as a whole. Parel claims that ‘all serious studies and biographies of Gandhi… unfailingly recognise that this book is the indispensable tool for the study of Gandhi’. As ‘Gandhi’s seminal work’, he says, contentiously, ‘Hind Swaraj is the seed from which the tree of Gandhian thought has grown to its full stature. For those interested in Gandhian thought in a general way, it is the right place to start, for it is here that he presents his basic ideas in their proper relationship to one another. And for those who wish to study his thought more methodically, it remains the norm by which to assess the theoretical significance of his other writings, including the Autobiography. It can also save them from the danger of otherwise getting drowned in the vast sea of Gandhian anthologies’.
Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj in 1909, at a time he scarcely knew India at all. In 1888, when, at the age of nineteen, he departed for London, he had lived only in towns in his native Kathiawar. There is no evidence that he had travelled in the countryside, and he knew no other part of India. Later, in 1892 and again in 1902, he came to spend several months in the city of Bombay. He also visited Calcutta and Madras to lobby for the rights of Indians in South Africa. However, at the time of the writing of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi may never have spoken to a single Indian peasant or worker (or landlord or moneylender) living or working in India itself.
Withal, Gandhi writes here of the ‘ancient civilisation of India which, in my opinion, represents the best the world has ever seen’. A little later, he claims that ‘We were one nation before they [the English] came to India. One thought inspired us. Our mode of life was the same’. About half-way through the book, he insists again that ‘the civilization India has evolved is not to be beaten in the world.’ He goes on to say that ‘the tendency of Indian civilisation is to elevate the moral being, that of the Western civilisation is to propagate immorality. The latter is godless, the former is based on a belief in God. So understanding and so believing, it behoves every lover of India to cling to the old Indian civilisation even as a child clings to its mother’s breast’.
This love of the old is coupled with a distaste for the new. ‘Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization’, insists Gandhi: ‘It represents a great sin’. And, again: ‘I cannot recall a single good point in connection with machinery’. Railways are chastised for their emphasis on speed, which encouraged greed. ‘God travels at a snail’s pace’, while ‘evil has wings’. Modern professions such as medicine and the law also come in for criticism. In Gandhi‘s view, lawyers fomented quarrels in order to charge high fees, while doctors promoted self-indulgence, so that they could profit from curing its consequences.
If such passages seem to be a direct response to Chesterton, other parts of the book answer other provocations. There had been a series of bomb attacks on British officials in India, the work of revolutionaries who believed that freedom from colonial subjection would come about only through armed struggle. In himself advocating non-violence, Gandhi argued that the view that ‘there is no connection between the means and the end is a great mistake’. He spoke of how the wrong means produced an escalating cycle of violence and counter-violence, using the example of a robber who comes and steals from your house. If one then mobilizes one’s neighbours, the robber will in turn call on his mates, and the two factions will fight, and fight. If, on the other hand, one keep one’s windows open for his next visit, the robber may be confused, and repent, and stop stealing altogether.
Gandhi did not want to suggest that all robbers would act like this, but ‘only to show that only fair means can produce fair results, and that, at least in the majority of cases, if not, indeed, in all, the force of love and pity is infinitely greater than the force of arms’.
The British claimed that there existed an ‘inborn enmity between Hindus and Mahomedans’. This nationalist answered that ‘the Hindus flourished under Moslem sovereigns, and Moslems under the Hindu. Each party recognised, that mutual fighting was suicidal, and that neither party would abandon its religion by force of arms. Both parties, therefore, decided to live in peace. With the English advent the quarrels recommenced’. In Gandhi’s view, the different religions were merely ‘different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads, so long as we reach the same goal? Wherein is the cause of quarrelling?’
Despite its defence of non-violence, Hind Swaraj caused some alarm in British India. Its criticisms of Western civilization could turn impressionable minds towards the path of protest. The import of the book was banned, with copies seized by Customs both in Bombay and in Madras. When Gandhi heard of this move, he wrote a letter of complaint, which is worth reproducing for its intrinsic value, and additionally because it escaped the attention of the editors of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Lying forgotten in the bowels of the National Archives of India, it was recently discovered by the septugenerian historian S. R. Mehrotra, who shared it with this writer.
Dated the 16th of April 1910, and written from Johannesburg, the letter was addressed to the Home Secretary of the Government of India. Enclosing an English translation of the book, Gandhi says:

‘I do not know why the Gujarati copies have been confiscated. If the Government will kindly favour me with their views and their advice, I shall endeavour, so far as possible, to carry them out. In writing “Hind Swaraj” it has not been my intention to embarrass the Government in so far as any writing of mine could do so, but entirely to assist it. This in no way means that I necessarily approve of any or all the actions of the Government or the methods on which it is based. In my humble opinion, every man has a right to hold any opinion he chooses, and to give effect to it also, so long as, in doing so, he does not use physical violence against anybody. Being connected with a newspaper which commands some influence and attention, and knowing that methods of violence among my countrymen may become popular even in South Africa, and feeling assured that the adoption of passive resistance as I have ventured to do in “Indian Home Rule” was the surest preventative of physical violence, I did not hesitate to publish [the book] in Gujarati. The English edition has not been circulated by me in India except among officials and the leading newspapers. At the same time, I am aware that some buyers have sent it on their own account to India also.
I need hardly say [Gandhi continued] that the views expressed in “Indian Home Rule” have nothing to do with the struggle that is going on in the Transvaal and in other parts of South Africa, intimately connected though I am with it; and I am not in a position to know how many of my countrymen share those views. At the same time, no matter where I am placed, I consider it my duty to popularize them to the best of my ability as being in the best interests of India and the Empire’.

Gandhi is here acting as both loyalist and rebel: suggesting that his advocacy of non-violence may come to the aid of the Raj, but reserving to himself the right to say what he wished about the Raj’s policies and actions. The letter held out an offer of compromise; that he might even consider revising passages considered provocative. The offer was refused, with the Government choosing to keep the ban in place. As the Director of the Criminal Intelligence Branch wrote on the file, ‘we must, I think, aim at destroying the open market for imported seditious publications of all kinds: we cannot afford to pick and choose very much according to the degree and quantity of the sedition’. He continued, tellingly: ‘More real perversion of ideas in the direction of sedition is effected by moderate seditious publications than by those breathing violence and revolution in every line’.
Hind Swaraj was moderate in its politics, if immoderate in its condemnation of Western civilization, this, ironically, based mostly on Western authorities. The Appendix lists twenty books or pamphlets consulted by Gandhi in writing the book, of which as many as six are by the Russian, Leo Tolstoy. Other works are by the Italian, Mazzini; the American, Thoreau; and the Englishmen Carpenter, Ruskin, and Maine. Only two of the twenty books are by Gandhi’s fellow countrymen, these being Dadabhai Naoroji’s and Romesh Chunder Dutt’s studies of the economic exploitation of the sub-continent under British rule.
The first Indian edition of Hind Swaraj was published only in 1919. Two decades later, the book was the subject of a wide-ranging symposium in the now defunct Theosophical journal Aryan Path. The contributors, all British, qualified their appreciation of the man with reservations about his savaging of the machine civilization of the West. The chemist Frederick Soddy suggested that the Mahatma may be a prophet without honour in his own country, for ‘the internal combustion engine seems to have been at least as busy [in India] as elsewhere in altering the mode of livelihood of peoples’. The writer John Middleton Murry observed that for all its faults, the machine ‘nevertherless does offer an immense and universal liberation from human drudgery.’ Besides, as a votary of love and non-violence, why did Gandhi not admit the possibility ‘that Love can control even the Machine to the purposes of love?’ The feminist Irene Rathbone insisted that ‘machinery need not be the curse Gandhi declares it is; in a world where the money-changers had been rendered powerless it would be used for the release of man, not, as now, for his degradation’.
These criticisms continue to be made of Hind Swaraj. On the other side, the book is positively invoked by pacifists and greens, who see in its critique of speed and greed an affirmation of the small-scale, the local, and the decentralized. Thus was Gandhi endorsed in E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, and thus an Indian appropriate technologist could write that Hind Swaraj gives us an ‘alternate perspective’ on economic development while explaining how ‘the current model of development is exploitative of man by man and of nature by man’.
Pro or con, these writers all take Hind Swaraj to be Gandhi’s key text, to him what Capital was to Karl Marx, The Origin of Species to Charles Darwin, The Critique of Pure Reason to Immanuel Kant, The Leviathan to Thomas Hobbes. Perhaps in those other cases we can more plausibly make these identifications. However, Gandhi was not principally a thinker (or even writer)—as he liked to say, his life was his message. In any case, the Gandhi of Hind Swaraj had no real acquaintance with India or Indians. When he returned to his homeland, to commence a period of ceaseless travel through its towns and villages, he came to better understand the dilemmas of an ancient society grappling with the challenges of modernity. He thus modified his views on the relations between East and West, here presented in a somewhat Manichean form, but later made more subtle under the influence of his friend, the poet Rabindranath Tagore. So too his views on modern machinery, attacked wholesale in Hind Swaraj, but treated in a more nuanced manner in his later writings.
Then there is the central question of caste. From his return to India in 1915 until his death thirty-three years later, Gandhi was deeply concerned to end the evil of Untouchability. From the first, he held the practice to be unacceptable and immoral; although it took time for him to move towards a larger critique of the caste system itself. Beginning with a defense of inter-dining and inter-dining, Gandhi later went so far as to suggest that the only marriages to be solemnized in his presence would be between a Untouchable and an upper caste, a condition that effectively repudiated his earlier avowal of the principle of varnashramadharma (the caste-based division of labour and status). For the Gandhi of the 1920s and beyond, Indians would be fit for freedom only when they stopped subjecting their own kind to the degradation of Untouchability. But of these views, so essential to the mature Gandhi, there is no hint in Hind Swaraj.
Hind Swaraj is probably not the right place to start an exploration of Gandhi’s ideas. In the Cambridge edition, Anthony Parel warns the reader against the ‘vast sea of Gandhian anthologies’, but it is to these anthologies that those who wish to properly appreciate Gandhi must necessarily turn. The more thoughtful, the more informed, and the more essential Gandhi are to be found in his articles, editorials, and letters of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, written as he came to more fully understand the people and practices of the country he was to lead to self-rule. The three selections from Gandhi’s writings that I would myself recommend are those made by Nirmal Kumar Bose, Raghavan Iyer (in its three-volume rather than single-volume rendition), and Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Having read these compilations, one can then turn to Hind Swaraj, perhaps to admire its precocious defence of non-violence and religious pluralism, while puzzling over its silence on caste and its demonization of the West.

by Ramachandra Guha

(A centennial re-assessment of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, originally published in the Times Literary Supplement)

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