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In the Mahatma's shadow

Of all the makers of modern India, we know most about Gandhi both because he did so much and because he wrote so much.

books Updated: Oct 30, 2010 02:03 IST
Ramachandra Guha

Of all the makers of modern India, we know most about Gandhi both because he did so much and because he wrote so much. The Mahatma worked in an astonishingly wide range of fields — he was at once a freedom fighter, a social reformer, a religious pluralist, a food faddist and a proponent of appropriate technology. He wrote about what he saw and did in the weekly newspapers he edited, and in letters to friends and adversaries.

Gandhi's varied outpourings are contained in the 90-odd volumes of his Collected Works. Notably, the range of his writing is matched by its quality.

K Swaminathan, the former professor of English who supervised the editing of the Collected Works, points out that the Mahatma's "literary style is a natural expression of his democratic temper. There is no conscious ornamentation, no obstrusive trick of style calling attention to itself. The style is a blend of the modern manner of an individual sharing his ideas and experiences with his readers, and the impersonal manner of the Indian tradition in which the thought is more important than the person expounding it. The sense of equality with the common man is the mark of Gandhi's style and the burden of his teaching. To feel and appreciate this essence of Gandhi the man, in his writings and speeches, is the best education for true democracy".

The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi are available in print and on the Web; meanwhile, single-volume anthologies of his writings, edited by Homer Jack, Louis Fischer, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, and others, have been issued by energetic and commercially-minded publishing houses. The citizen can thus readily avail of the teachings of the Father of the Nation. Other makers of modern India are not so fortunate. For instance, the writings of those precocious critics of Brahminism, Jotiba Phule and EV Ramaswami, are in circulation in their native tongues, but selections in English have been published by niche presses who do not know how to reach a wider audience. More mainstream houses have brought back into print the writings of Ambedkar and Nehru; but, since the former has been made a Dalit icon alone and the latter is considered the private property of the Congress party, their ideas rarely penetrate beyond the charmed circle of their followers.

To read Gandhi may indeed be the "best education for true democracy". However, the accessibility and availability of his thought must not — or at any rate should not — impede citizens from educating themselves by reading the writings of other remarkable Indians. Many years ago, in a second-hand bookstore in Bangalore, I bought a long out-of-print selection of articles written in the 1950s and 1960s by C Rajagopalachari. Reading those essays, I was able to persuade myself, with Rajaji's help, that English was as Indian a language as Tamil or Hindi; that the state's obsession with large dams and steel factories was not conducive to economic well-being; that New Delhi had done less than justice to the inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley.

Modern India has produced an astonishing array of thinker-activists. Apart from the names already mentioned, these include Tarabai Shinde and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, pioneering feminists both; Jayaprakash Narayan, an early proponent of panchayati raj; Verrier Elwin, a resolute and eloquent defender of tribal rights; and Hamid Dalwai, a brave and far-seeing Muslim reformer. The works they wrote and the ideas they developed were a product of their times but also relevant to ours. Sadly, the literature produced by these thinker-activists remains inaccessible to the general public, and unavailable even in the best libraries.

In India today, there is a sharp, shrill, superficial tone to much political and social debate. This is surely a consequence of the ignorance of our own legacy of serious political argument. Gandhi has been well served by anthologists and analysts; but not the other makers of modern India. They each deserve several scholarly yet readable volumes; on their life, their legacy, their utterly resonant writings. A large and largely untilled field awaits historians, who, by entering it, will not merely be conducting an academic exercise, but rendering a real service to Indian democracy.

Interview Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha's latest book Makers of Modern India (Penguin) was launched on October 25.