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REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001
Gandhi: writing for change
The writer is an academic, activist and scholar of Gandhian thought who is currently based in Tokyo.
"To be true to my faith, therefore, I may not write in anger or malice. I may not write idly. I may not write merely to excite passion. The reader can have no idea of the restraint I have to exercise from week to week in the choice of topics and my vocabulary. It is training for me. It enables me to peep into myself and to make discoveries of my weaknesses. Often my vanity dictates a smart expression or my anger a harsh adjective. It is a terrible ordeal but a fine exercise to remove these weeds."
M. K. Gandhi,
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) edited three journals during his life. The first one, Indian Opinion (1903-1914), was in South Africa. The other two: Young India (1919-1932) and Harijan (1933-1948) were both from Ahmedabad. The fact that Gandhi gained a London matriculation and was called to the Bar in 1891, needs to be placed alongside the reality that English was not Gandhi's mother tongue and as a lawyer in India he was an utter failure. The latter was probably not so much due to his lack of knowledge of the language, as to stirrings within him about the ethics of his own profession and whether it was in a court of law that a petitioner could seek truth, though she may well get justice. So, neither training nor learning a language are keys to understanding how and why Gandhi came to wield an effective pen - in Gujarati, Hindi and English, notwithstanding that both were important means.
Writers, journalists, correspondents, and all those who use the currency of language to express thoughts and feelings about events outside or within themselves, especially those who work diligently at their craft, invariably start from a locus which is physical. Could it be the physical locus, South Africa in 1893, in Gandhi's case, provided the impetus for him to pick up his pen and respond to a reality?
Three physical events where Gandhi was bodily and violently hurt partly explain the awakening of his unknown talent to express a reality and locate himself beyond the physical. First, in June 1893, Gandhi was thrown out of the train to Pretoria, as he was in a compartment where only white persons could travel and holding a first-class ticket was held against him. Second, in July 1893, Gandhi was kicked off the footpath near President Kruger's home. Third, in January 1897, on arrival in Durban from India, Gandhi was attacked by a mob. These were humiliations to which the entire "coloured" community was subject, not only Gandhi, but they had a particular effect on him.
In each of these cases, Gandhi refused to sue his assailants, but that does not mean that he stopped thinking about the motivation of his white brothers and sisters who continued to demean (using contemptuous words, such as, "coolies", "coolie barrister", "coolie ships", and so on) an entire community. The other part of his inner need to communicate - stemmed from his training - was warranted by the legal disabilities which all persons of colour, again not only Indians, were subject. In short, it was a "condition of semi-slavery" which thousands of indentured labourers from various part of the British Empire endured, not without tremendous pain, suffering, and debasement.
It was these physical and legal incidents which Gandhi pondered very seriously and have been perceptively characterised as "iron enter(ing) his soul." Yet, the effect of that corrosive metal piercing a sensitive soul cannot totally account for the prodigious outpouring from Gandhi's pen, mind and heart. Could they? Starting from editing Indian Opinion in 1903 till his assassination by an ultranationalist in 1948, his pen continued to write. The Collected Works of Gandhi now number 100 volumes and these are edited.
What is it in a writer that serves as a proverbial fount to return to time and again for sustenance, reflection, and at times even temporary silence? In Gandhi's case there is ample evidence in his writings, be it in his An Autobiography: The Story of my Experiments With Truth (first published in two volumes in 1927 and 1929) or in his seminal work Hind Swaraj (1909), that it was his intense search for the spiritual combined with the need to make human beings deeply aware that their response to inhumanity is with added humanity and love of the opponent. These were the embryonic seeds of ahimsa and satyagraha. Some have characterised his search as being God-centred and human-orientated. However one may define this bedrock within Gandhi, it is clear in his writings about satyagraha and ahimsa, while in South Africa and later in India, that he was writing for change both spiritual and temporal. Hence, the concept of swaraj for Gandhi was not just independence from the British Raj, but also self-discipline and self-rule by Indians. He perceptively saw a time when Indians themselves would exploit other Indians. Even though India was politically free, its poorest citizens would be in utter bondage and servitude. To them, independence effectively meant more subjugation, displacement, discrimination, misery, loot and mayhem. Hence, Gandhi's question: "What is swaraj?" It was addressed both to oppressors and oppressed, to morally change themselves, while subjecting himself to the same introspection. The quotation at the outset provides an effective illustration of this, which are replete in his writings.
In South Africa from 1893-1915, writing for change meant, creating unity and harmony within the entire Indian community. This was a heterogenous group. Gandhi intended "infus(ing) a spirit of comradeship among Muslim merchants and their Hindu and Parsi clients from western India, the semi-slave indentured labourers from Madras, and the Natal-born Indian Christians." This was no easy task.
Gandhi's creative response in his writings on the grim situation in the columns of the Indian Opinion were a combination of legal memoranda, reports and remedies; historical antecedents of humanity's struggle for social justice and equality; righteous appeals to the Boers, British and Indians - all citizens of the Empire - to be conscious of their moral duties, evocation of religious ideals from various scriptures, and the evolution of satyagraha and ahimsa as effective means to non-violent change.
All those familiar with Gandhi's style of writing speak universally about his simplicity. His writings even on his return to India in 1915 and available in Young India and Harijan are factual, rational and with very little rhetoric. He is certainly moralistic, but not just that. He provokes his readers to respond and reflect on his moralistic writings and reply. That is why the style which Gandhi adopted in Hind Swaraj is polemical (as a dialogue between the "Reader" and "Editor"). The latter was Gandhi and the former were the extremists. In fact, Gandhi used this literary device to get the radical nationalists and anarchists to dialogue with him on various critical issues pertaining to India and his own moral and political philosophy.
Thus, as a writer he demonstrated his skills and interests in mediating between various points of view. In fact, James Hunt in Gandhi in London writes that Gandhi "had his most public encounter with the ideology of terrorism" during a dinner to celebrate the Dussera festival in London on October 24, 1909. At this dinner Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), a fervent revolutionary and spokesperson for the extremists, spoke. It was "as a consequence of this encounter, Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj." This is another practical illustration of Gandhi's deep commitment to change. Even then, his writings were devoted to changing the hearts of zealots, those committed to violent change, perversion of history, and the need for morality in politics as in all spheres of life.
Writing, for Gandhi, was certainly a means to an end. It was the means to reach the masses of India who were not part of the elitist Congress party at the time, but who necessarily formed an effective part of his vision for a free India. It was a means to search for practical ways which would bind Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and all others as sisters and brothers.
Gandhi, however, was not just a writer, but also a doer (karma yogin). His "Constructive Programme" envisaged an India which particularly embraced its poorest and those who were oppressed by the pernicious caste system. It aimed at moral, economical, and spiritual rejuvenation of all through sarvodaya, while building democracy from the paddy fields and mud huts. In his writings are also the basis for "civil disobedience", hartal, dharna, accounts of massive jail-goings and rights of citizens, while using satyagraha and non-cooperation effectively against those who are elected to political or other offices and use it for their own benefit, foment communal division and wreak havoc on the body politic. Gandhi did all this and much more without any monetary compensation for his editorial labours, for no small change.
You're a holy man?
From The Bijak of Kabir, translated from the original Hindi and ed. Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh, New Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1986.
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