Gandhi: A determined chronicler
Gandhi’s own experience with apartheid, the system of racial segregation institutionalised by the colonial authorities against the Black and other non-White populations (including brown-skinned Gandhi) was a rude awakening for the 24-year-old.Updated: Oct 02, 2020, 05:05 IST
Growing up in the princely state of Porbandar, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s older brother, Laxmidas, did not imagine that the youngster, who did passably well in his studies and exhibited a love for theatre, would ever become a journalist. The best he hoped for was that Gandhi would study enough to become a barrister and a diwan of the state. For a while, it was touch and go, as Gandhi himself pointed out in his autobiography, My Experiments With Truth, that he wrote many years later. Fate, however, had other plans for the young MK.
After training in law and clearing the London bar, Gandhi turned his sights to South Africa, then a British colony. He migrated in 1893 to work for the offices of Dada Abdulla and Company. His own experience with apartheid, the system of racial segregation institutionalised by the colonial authorities against the Black and other non-White populations (including brown-skinned Gandhi) was a rude awakening for the 24-year-old.
Also read: Gandhi and his worldview
In 1903, he started Indian Opinion, which “regularly published news about African grievances about restricted land rights and daily petty discrimination and commended African achievements,” his great grand-daughter, Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie, a professor of history at the University of Western Cape, pointed out in an essay that she wrote for the Hindustan Times as part of the Gandhi: 150 Years On series to commemorate the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation.
But Gandhi was always more than a journalist. He fought for freedoms large and small, and the news journals that he started and/ or edited through his 78 years — six in all, including Harijan, but he was a prolific writer and his pieces appeared in many places, including in this paper — served to amplify his deeply held beliefs.
“Gandhi used Indian Opinion to mobilise readers, to educate them about an ethical and moral lifestyle and to highlight the harsh conditions of indentured workers on the estates and mines. His thoughts on what constituted good journalism, one free from advertisers, began to crystallise in this period. He also used the paper to establish his own leadership of the movement. It is this Gandhi and the man who went on to lead India’s liberation struggle, who would inspire generations of South African resisters,” Dhupelia-Mesthrie wrote.
It was in South Africa that Gandhi gave up his flourishing legal practice; established the Phoenix Settlement where he lived with wife Kasturba and four sons, Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas, along with other Indian settlers, and from where he published Indian Opinion; and formulated campaigns of Satyagraha. Gandhi left the running of the paper to the trustees of Phoenix farm (Manilal was one of its longest serving editors) when he returned to India in 1915, touching down in the port city where he once dreamt of becoming a solicitor while walking the corridors of the Bombay high court.
It didn’t take too long for Gandhi to start newspapers in India. As his grandson Gopal Krishna Gandhi wrote for the Hindustan Times series, “Young India (YI) was to become, for the duration of its lifetime (1919-1932), English-educated India’s premier thought partner.”
“The year it was founded in was, for India, a year of rage. The draconian Rowlatt Act restricting civil liberties in the name of the First World War, followed by the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and what came to be called “The Punjab Wrong”, were the chief concerns of this weekly of eight very thin pages. Its editorials made it, literally, a page turner in India’s public life of the time,” Gopal Gandhi wrote.
The same year, in August, Gandhi had already started a Gujarati weekly called Navajivan, true to his belief that the majority of India lived in the villages and did not speak a word of English. If the messages of Satyagraha, Civil Disobedience, Hindu-Muslim unity — all central to Gandhi’s activism in the freedom struggle — was to reach them, vernacular press was the way to go. Young India, however, was started to reach out to “Educated India”, and to readers especially in the Madras Presidency. The paper, which worked on a subscription-only model — Gandhi did not want “advertisement soiling its pages” — went on to attain a circulation of 1,200 copies in its initial few weeks (it cost an anna per copy); by 1922, it had reached a weekly sales figure of 40,000.
Also read: MK Gandhi’s South Africa days
The paper went on to be edited by other stalwarts of the freedom struggle: Shoaib Qureshi, a son-in-law of Mohammed Ali, the Khilafat leader, C. Rajagopalachari, George Joseph, J C Kumarappa and Jairamdas Doulatram.
“It became more than a thought-partner, a thought-maker and thought-changer.“Educated India” became an eager student of Young India,” Gopal Gandhi wrote.
This is not to say that Gandhi held a very high opinion of the state of the Indian press at the time.
In an April 1924 piece for Navajivan, he wrote: “Dr. (MA) Ansari [a Congressman] writes to say that those [north Indian] papers regard it as their duty to… spread false rumours, to calumniate each other’s religion and thereby to vilify each other. It seems this has become a means of increasing the circulation of their papers. How to stop this infection from spreading has become a big problem.”
Power of the editorial
This also probably explains why, speaking at the inauguration of the Hindustan Times in September 1924, Gandhi remarked that seeing the conditions in the country at the time, he would stop the printing of all newspapers except Young India, if he could. “Every word and sentence published in the paper should be weighed.There should not only be no untrue statements, but no suggestio falsi or suppressio veri,” he told the small crowd that had gathered for the inauguration of the printing press of the Hindustan Times. Eight days later, the first edition was taken out, with each letter painstaking hand-pressed.
Gandhi knew the power of a strongly worded editorial. In February 1943, when the British released a pamphlet, Congress responsibility for the Disturbances, 1942-43, over the 1942 Quit India resolution, Gandhi — then imprisoned at the Aga Khan palace in Poona —responded with a letter, several pages long and exhaustive in its defence of the call for political freedom. The letter was published in seven instalments in the Hindustan Times.
Gandhi was a prolific writer and chronicler. Ramachandra Guha, author of two definitive Gandhi biographies offers a glimpse of it in his essay, A biographer’s journey: In search of the Mahatma, in which he wrote: “The Collected Works are indispensable to any scholar of Gandhi. In writing my own two-volume biography of the Mahatma, I found more than half-a-dozen nuggets in this capacious and lovingly curated collection. However, I knew from the beginning that I had to go much beyond this printed series of books. The Collected Works had all the known letters that Gandhi himself wrote; but virtually none of the letters that he received or responded to. Then there were the thousands of letters written about Gandhi by his contemporaries and critics, which I wanted to study as well.”
Tridip Suhrud, who recently published a critical edition of Gandhi’s autobiography and authored The Diary of Manu Gandhi: 1943-1944, also wrote about the various people who have written about MK Gandhi over generations. In his piece titled Essential Reading on MK Gandhi, he wrote that the most authoritative writer of Gandhi was Gandhi himself.
“But of course, the best on Gandhi is Gandhi himself. His autobiography is a text for those seeking an ally in troubled times; Hind Swaraj continues to exasperate readers, new and old alike; his idiosyncratic Key to Health remains his best selling book. For all those who have leisure, volumes of his collected writings are highly recommended,” Suhrud wrote.