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The man who dismantled the empire

For a start, Gandhi internationalised the India question, a question the British preferred to view as a domestic dispute, one that might amicably be settled within the Empire, rather than scandalously pasted, like some sordid divorce case, across newspaper headlines around the world.
Gandhi in Lancashire, January 1, 1931: Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, 1869 – 1948) is greeted by a crowd of female textile workers during a visit to Darwen, Lancashire. Courtesy National Gandhi Museum.
Updated on Oct 01, 2020 07:45 PM IST
ByDavid Arnold

Gandhi confused, angered and divided the British in almost equal measure. Certainly, there was the crude and instinctive response that he was a Bolshevik, a “very dangerous man”, a “half-naked fakir” in Winston Churchill’s scornful phrase, intent on subverting Britain’s empire in India and undermining its rightful place in the world. To them, the Mahatma was a monster. But beyond this openly hostile reaction to MK Gandhi lay more confused sentiments and complex emotions.

For a start, Gandhi internationalised the India question, a question the British preferred to view as a domestic dispute, one that might amicably be settled within the Empire, rather than scandalously pasted, like some sordid divorce case, across newspaper headlines around the world. The global attention Gandhi attracted — by his sensational salt march to Dandi in 1930 and his visit to England the following year, by his epic fasts, his tireless correspondence, and his readiness to speak to the world’s press — deeply unsettled the British. The Empire didn’t enjoy being ridiculed and shamed around the world, portrayed as a tyrant. Master of the pithy phrase, an icon in his own lifetime (staff in hand, charkha at the ready), Gandhi knew how to speak to the world and in ways it could understand.


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Gandhi stole Britain’s moral fire. Until he appeared on the scene, the British had prided themselves on their moral superiority over India, still more than on their material achievements. Even if it had been founded in conquest and chicanery, the strength of the Raj, they believed, rested on its moral eminence. While persistent famine, poverty, malnutrition and mass mortality might seem to make it a lie, the British clung to the idea that their regime was morally superior to anything that India had seen before or would see again if Indians were left to rule themselves. The law courts and the medical schools, the railways and the irrigation canals, even the corrective use of moral force — all were seen as proclaiming the moral worth of the Empire and those who served it.

In Hind Swaraj, written by Gandhi in 1909, and through the life he lived in India after 1915, Gandhi blew all that away. There was nothing moral about railways or Western-style colleges and hospitals. There was nothing moral about people starving; about taxing salt; about the violence that underpinned the Raj. Gandhi punctured the moral balloon of British rule in India and it never recovered from that spectacular deflation.

Until 1919 and the satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act that elevated Gandhi as India’s foremost nationalist leader, the British were unsure whether he was, in their terms, a loyalist or a rebel.

In South Africa, he had spoken strongly in support of the Empire, so long as it protected the rights of its non-white citizens; he helped mobilise an Indian ambulance corps in the imperial war against the Boers (1899-1902). During the First World War, he took the unpopular step of campaigning to recruit Indian soldiers to fight for the imperial cause, in the belief that Britain would reward India’s sacrifice with the blessing of Home Rule. In 1915 he was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind medal, for his public service, with the governor of the United Provinces (UP) describing “Mr Gandhi” as “a man of personal probity and high ideals”. Gandhi did not return the medal until August 1920, more than a year after the massacre at Amritsar that seemed to have transformed him into an implacable enemy of Empire.

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Even after that watershed moment—the slaughter in Jallianwala Bagh—and the launching of the Non-cooperation movement in 1920, there were those in the imperial establishment who saw Gandhi as a voice of moderation, a counterweight to the revolutionaries who spoke of violence and preached class warfare. Perhaps it was only in 1942, when Gandhi ignited the Quit India Movement and an all-India insurrection, at a moment when Britain felt most deeply embattled and impelled by war, did the sense of Gandhi as disloyal strike the British most acutely. By then, the Empire was anyway almost over.

Gandhi confused the British still further by refusing to play the nationalist bigot, the inveterate xenophobe. He retained from his student days many English friends (vegetarians, anti-vivisectionists and Indophiles); he made others in South Africa. He could count a British missionary, Charlie (C.F.) Andrews, and the daughter of a British admiral, Madeleine Slade (Mirabehn), among his close associates. He could chat amicably with a reigning viceroy (Lord Irwin), take tea with a king-emperor (George V), converse with Quakers in Birmingham and London. While many on the British Left may have been more comfortable with Nehru, his politics, manner and worldview, than with Gandhi, there was no doubting that the Mahatma had many genuine friends and admirers among the British.

But in that — for some — lay the confusion. Gandhi seemed to make a distinction between Empire and people, between the kinds of Britons he abrasively encountered in India and those he might share time with in London’s Bayswater or East End. But, it might be asked, were the British people so easily separated from the Empire that acted in their name? Was the Empire so superficial, even for the British themselves? Or was it that the vegetarians, the anti-imperialists, the India-lovers were themselves outsiders, a minority at odds with a Britain that had so deeply drunk of the imperial elixir?

Besides, the British had trouble with saints. Their politicians might claim the moral high ground or occasionally (like Gladstone) command an almost religious fervour. But saints were unpalatable in a politics of parliamentary pragmatism. It seemed almost unfair to many Britons that Gandhi could operate in a saintly manner and bring all the force of his charismatic Mahatma-hood to bear on what they would prefer to treat as routine issues concerning franchises and Constitution-making, or mere matters of detail about land revenue rates and salt taxes. Fasting was not a part of their armoury; the veneration of the cow only a metaphorical expression in their political phrasebook. Some, like Churchill, saw that saintliness as a despicable con-trick, an unworthy ploy to disempower the British, espousing ahimsa while knowing mob violence would inevitably follow.

Was Gandhi naïve or simply duplicitous, they wondered?

Though there remain some elements in the British political elite and academic establishment who regret the passing of the Raj and suspect Gandhi of having tricked them into forfeiting an empire, Britain now aspires to be a multi-racial, multi-cultural society. The much-regarded statue of Gandhi in London’s Tavistock Square stands as a plausible emblem of a post-imperial age. His many contradictions ironed out, Gandhi is revered as a prophet of non violence, the inspirational force behind India’s lawful struggle against oppressive foreign rule.

The post-war generation hailed Gandhi as the original peacenik; today’s students find it hard to believe that Gandhi was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (especially when so many after him have seemed so less deserving). Gandhi was something of a contradiction — Indian nationalist, universal saint. In one way or another the British have, belatedly, come to terms with that duality.

UK-based historian David Arnold is a scholar and the author of the 2001 book, Gandhi (Profiles in power)

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