On 30th January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was murdered by a right-wing fanatic named Nathuram Godse. The act shamed most Indians—but not all. For there has always been a significant minority who have been on the side of Godse. At different times, the Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray and the then RSS chief Rajendra Singh have praised Gandhi’s murderer. The BJP cannot afford to openly praise Godse, but their political ideology is yet closely akin to his. Since the nineteen eighties, especially, battle has been joined between the secular ideals of Gandhi and the theocratic vision of his assassin. The perpetrators of the Gujarat violence of 2002 were certainly closer to Godse than to Gandhi. Indeed, those riots were feelingly described by the veteran Gandhian Amrutbhai Modi as ‘the second assassination of Gandhiji’.

There have been attacks on Gandhi from the radical right; and there have been attacks from the radical left. When the Gandhi Centenary was celebrated in 1969, statues of the Mahatma were defaced in Calcutta by the Naxalites, thus to show their contempt for his belief in non-violence. Many years later, the Andhra Naxalite leader Kondapalli Seetaramaiah found himself in the town of Porbandar, Gandhi’s birthplace. He was on the run from the police, but his fanatical beliefs were intact. As he later told an interviewer, he visited the home where Gandhi was born and, as he came out, spat at the floral decoration on the verandah outside, thus to signify his total rejection of the Father of the Nation.

When he was alive Gandhi was attacked by extremists of left and right; and so it has been after his death. These attacks we can understand, without however endorsing them. Far more difficult to comprehend is the defacement of the Mahatma’s memory by the institution mandated to protect, honour and further it—the Government of India. I refer here to the issuing by that Government of a set of hundred volumes purporting to be a ‘new’, ‘improved’, ‘revised’ edition of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, these volumes are a disgrace to scholarship; they dishonour the Mahatma as well as the Government that presumes to speak in his name.

It was in the nineteen fifties that the Government of India first decided to bring out, in a series of volumes, all that Gandhi had written or said by way of books, articles, speeches, letters and petitions. The respected Gandhian scholar Bharatan Kumarappa was chosen as Chief Editor. Sadly, he died after the first volume appeared. He was succeeded, briefly, by Jairamdas Daulatram, before he decided to take up a Governorship. The job then passed on to Professor K. Swaminathan who, in thirty years of devoted service, took the project from infancy to completion.

Swaminathan was both a meticulous scholar and a first-class institution-builder. He gathered around him a team of equally committed scholars, including C. N. Patel (who served as Deputy Chief Editor) and Bhawani Prasad Mishra (who was in charge of the Hindi edition). Patel and Mishra, in turn, built their own cadres of skilled and selfless editors. Over the next few decades, this team brought out ninety volumes of Gandhi’s works, the entries printed chronologically, each entry checked for authenticity, and, where required, carefully annotated and cross-referenced. Each of these ninety volumes had a long preface written by the editor, setting the material in context. Later, seven supplementary volumes were added, to incorporate material that had come in too late for inclusion in the original series. Also printed were authoritative Subject and Person indexes to the series as a whole.

These ninety-nine volumes were a monument to editoral integrity and scholarship. The South African historian Uma Dhupelia-Meshtrie has called the series ‘astounding’; a view that will be endorsed by scholars all over the world. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, or CWMG as it was affectionately abbreviated, was something its initiators and excecutors could justly be proud of. There were few parallels anywhere; perhaps only the Weimar edition of the works of Goethe had the same authoritative status as the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. (The comparison with Goethe is apt, for he matches Gandhi in having written or reflected upon virtually every aspect of the human condition.)
The Collected Works preserved all that Gandhi had said for posterity; thus also giving a massive impetus to scholarship. The numerous recent studies of Gandhi, both biographical and thematic, would have been inconceivable without the CWMG. I should say the original CWMG, for in 2000 the Government decided to issue a new ‘revised’ set, guided by the following principle: that there would be a hundred volumes, each of 500 pages. The edifice painstakingly created by Swaminathan and his team was dismantled; and the entries now ‘remixed’ according to the new specifications. In the process, the illuminating prefaces written to the original volumes have been dropped. Also missing are the maps and illustrations. The cross-references, so carefully prepared and so indispensable to scholars, have been rendered meaningless.
And there is worse to report. A study by the Ahmedabad scholar Tridip Suhrud reveals that as many as ninety-seven items have been dropped from a mere seven volumes of the original edition. The total number of excised entries may run to more than five hundred. The new Subject and Person indexes are unusable. There have even been attempts to modernize Gandhi’s English; to replace then current words like ‘shew’ with contemporary equivalents.

Those fine scholars who laboured for years on the original edition are appalled. La. Su. Rengarajan calls the new series ‘an utterly rudderless conglomeration’; it is, he says, a mauling of the memory of Gandhi. Lalitha Zachariah comments that ‘the vast edifice of Gandhian thought has been undone in a shocking orgy of twisting, ”treating”, and truncating, all in the name of ”revision”’. Swaminathan’s edition had become the standard edition; cited by volume and page numbers in hundreds of books, theses, essays, and articles. Now, with that great work redone and undone, both scholars and readers have been put into confusion.

Speculation is rife as to why this new edition was commissioned. There could be a pecuniary motive at work; namely, kickbacks from the new contracts for typsetting and printing. Or the impulse could be ideological; the ‘editing’ done with a view to excising entries embarrassing to the beliefs of those then in power. Or it could be personal vanity; the desire to illegimtately insert one’s own, otherwise unknown name, as the ‘editor’ of the works of Mahatma Gandhi.

Whatever the reasons, the ‘revision’ was without question an act of vandalism. That the Government now in power recognizes, although it is not sure about how to proceed. There is talk of a fresh revision of the revision; this to be done, we may be sure, by scholars far less able than those once collected by Professor Swaminathan. The best course for the Government is to be guided by the principles of Gandhi himself. For the Mahatma was great and gracious enough to acknowledge his mistakes; even, on one famous occasion, to having made a ‘Himalayan Blunder’. A Government’s collective ego may be larger than a saint’s individual one, but we may still hope that it wants both to honour Gandhi’s memory and save its own name. There is really only one way to go: namely, to call back all copies of the shameful ‘revised’ edition; to reprint the ninety-nine volumes originally published by Swaminathan and his team; and to bring out, in supplementary volumes, any new material by Gandhi that may still come to light.

Published in The Hindu, 30/1/2005