The twelve Apostles of Gandhi
The Gandhians after Gandhi who worked in government, Opposition and civil society to humanize power and hold it accountable, to promote economic self-reliance, social equality and religious pluralism, and sustainability
Many years ago, while working in the Manuscripts Section of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, I found a postcard by an unknown Tamil to that great Indian, Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, ‘Rajaji’. Written in the late 1950s, it described Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, and Rajaji as being the “heart, hand, and head” of Mahatma Gandhi respectively. This was so utterly apt. After Independence, the humane Nehru took forward Gandhi’s pluralism in bringing linguistic and religious minorities aboard in nurturing a democratic India. The pragmatic Patel, having organised the Congress into a fighting force before Independence, now integrated the princely states while reorganising the administrative structure of the country. The visionary Rajaji, after working for a spell with his colleagues in Government, broke with them to form the Swatantra Party to take on the dominant and arrogantly complacent Congress.
The politics of today has tragically made Nehru and Patel into rivals, whereas they were in fact colleagues and co-workers. The two men had disagreements, personal and political; yet they nobly set these aside to work together in uniting the country and giving it a democratic template. There are few letters by politicians as moving as those exchanged between these two Indians in the immediate aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination. Thus Nehru told Patel that “with Bapu’s death, everything is changed and we have to face a different and more difficult world. The old controversies have ceased to have much significance and it seems to me that the urgent need of the hour is for all of us to function as closely and co-operatively as possible…”. Patel, in reply, said he “fully and heartily reciprocate[d] the sentiments you have so feelingly expressed… Recent events had made me very unhappy and I had written to Bapu… appealing to him to relieve me, but his death changes everything and the crisis that has overtaken us must awaken in us a fresh realisation of how much we have achieved together and the need for further joint efforts in our grief-stricken country’s interests”.
Had Nehru and Patel not buried their differences in early 1948, there may have been no Republic at all. Scarred by Partition, with communal riots savagely continuing and millions of refugees to be resettled, with a Communist insurgency brewing and Hindu fundamentalism increasingly emboldened, with monsoons failing and foreign exchange reserves alarmingly low, the country was akin to a basket case. Few foreign observers thought it would survive as a single nation; none thought it could ever become a functioning democracy. Yet it did. This miracle was owed to the joint efforts of many men and women, functioning closely and cooperatively, but perhaps to three patriots above all: Nehru and Patel, and the Law Minister and chief architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar.
Ambedkar had been a lifelong critic of the Congress Party and especially of Gandhi. He was persuaded to join the Government of Independent India by the Mahatma’s close associate, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. Nehru and Patel, on the other hand, were pre-eminent among Gandhi’s disciples, or, as I choose to call them for the purposes of his essay, apostles. Working under the Mahatma’s direction while we were still a colony, after his death they took forward his example to make a united and democratic country out of so many disparate and divided parts.
After Independence, Patel and Nehru were in Government until their deaths, in December 1950 and May 1964 respectively. Also serving in an official capacity were two other members of the Mahatma’s inner circle. These were Rajendra Prasad and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Prasad did an outstanding job as President of the Constituent Assembly of India, guiding its deliberations with a sure and occasionally firm hand. Then he became the first President of the Indian Republic, an office he upheld with dignity and rectitude, albeit perhaps with excessive reticence. Azad, who was Gandhi’s closest Muslim colleague, was devastated by Partition, which was a body blow to his idea of a composite and pluralistic India. Nonetheless, as our first Minister of Education and Culture, he oversaw the expansion of our public universities while creating new national academies for literature; music, theatre and dance; and art respectively.
As Indian democracy found its feet in the 1950s and 1960s, there were some sterling Gandhians in Government, and some sterling Gandhians in Opposition too. Pre-eminent among the latter was Acharya JB Kripalani, who knew Gandhi even longer than Patel, Rajaji, or Nehru. The two met in Santiniketan soon after Gandhi returned from South Africa, and then Kripalani worked alongside Gandhi during the Champaran satyagraha. Like Nehru and Patel, Kripalani spent many years in British jails; unlike them, after Independence, he left the ruling Congress Party and became a voice of conscience in Opposition. He was elected as an MP from three different states, purely on the strength of his personal credibility. Kripalani became a trenchant critic of the Nehru Government in the Lok Sabha, especially during the border crisis with China, when he devastatingly exposed the failures of the Defence Minister, VK Krishna Menon.
When the Emergency was promulgated in June 1975, Kripalani was 87 and ailing. Nonetheless, he organised a protest meeting at Rajghat on October 2, Gandhi’s birthday. Shortly afterwards he was taken to hospital. A friend, going to visit him, saw his body punctured by tubes of all kinds. When he asked Kripalani how he was, the aged but still spirited soldier of democracy answered: “I have no Constitution. All that is left are Amendments.”
One great Gandhian started out in Government and ended up in Opposition. This was the aforementioned C Rajagopalachari, whom Gandhi once called the “keeper of my conscience”. Rajaji was the first Indian Governor-General, then Union Home Minister, then Chief Minister of Madras State. However, he increasingly worried that the hegemony of a single party over such a large country was unhealthy for democracy. So he left the Congress in 1956; three years later, at the age of 80, he started a brand-new party called Swatantra. This promoted liberal values and free-market economics, while being — in the best Gandhian tradition — conspicuously free of caste or community prejudice.
I come next to Gandhi’s most remarkable female follower, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. After Independence, Prime Minister Nehru offered her a Ministership in his Cabinet. However, she chose to stay out of party politics altogether, and directly serve the aam admi and aam aurat instead. Kamaladevi first worked on the rehabilitation of refugees; and then on reviving India’s handicrafts sector. She did admirable work in both fields, without ever calling attention to herself, and while nurturing a devoted cadre of colleagues and co-workers.
Another female activist prominent in civil society was Mridula Sarabhai, daughter of Gandhi‘s early patron Ambalal, and sister of the future architect of India‘s space programme, Vikram. After Partition, Mridula behn did heroic work in restoring abducted women to their families. Thereafter, she devoted herself to the rights of the Kashmiri people, who in the 1950s — like now — were deprived of many of the essential liberties that citizens in other states of India possessed. A person of principle and courage, devoted to democracy and to non-violence, she enjoyed the rare privilege of being jailed both under the Raj and in independent India.
As, of course, did that other and far more famous Indian democrat, Jayaprakash Narayan. JP’s initial bond with Gandhi was through his wife, Prabhavati, who lived in the Sabarmati Ashram. In Gandhi’s lifetime, JP was a flaming socialist who thought the Mahatma a timid reactionary. After his death he came closer to his path. While his opposition to the Emergency is part of our history and our folklore, his other contributions to our democratic life, while equally notable, remain far less known. I think especially of his decades-long work in seeking to bring about an honourable compact between the Indian state and its citizens in Nagaland and in Kashmir respectively. Writing about Kashmir in 1966, JP remarked: “If we continue to rule by force and suppress these people and crush them or change the racial or religious character of their state by colonization, or by any other means, then I think that means politically a most obnoxious thing to do.”
Two other apostles of Mahatma Gandhi were very active in civil society work in independent India. These were J. C. Kumarappa and Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade). Both joined Gandhi’s ashram in the 1920s, and were close to him ever since. Both were pioneering environmentalists. Kumarappa was a trained economist with a deep interest in renewing rural life on sustainable lines. From 1947 until his death in 1960, he promoted water conservation, organic farming, and community forest management, while advocating what he called an “economy of permanence”. He influenced a whole generation of Indian social workers, as well as the celebrated Western economist, EF Schumacher, whose book, Small is Beautiful, draws on what he learnt from Gandhi and from Kumarappa.
Kumarappa spent the years after Independence largely in rural Tamil Nadu. Mira Behn worked meanwhile in the Garhwal Himalaya, also on rural sustainability. She was a precocious critic of large dams and of monocultural forestry, and of the greed and hubris of modern man too. As she wrote in April 1949: “The tragedy today is that educated and moneyed classes are altogether out of touch with the vital fundamentals of existence — our Mother Earth, and the animal and vegetable population which she sustains. This world of Nature’s planning is ruthlessly plundered, despoiled and disorganized by man whenever he gets the chance. By his science and machinery he may get huge returns for a time, but ultimately will come desolation. We have got to study Nature’s balance, and develop our lives within her laws, if we are to survive as a physically healthy and morally decent species.”
I have profiled, all too briefly, 11 extraordinary disciples of Gandhi, who carried on their Master’s work after his death. The twelfth apostle of my title worked in the country sundered out of a undivided India, namely, Pakistan. This was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi. Badshah Khan struggled for decades for justice and freedom for the Pathans, battling the Pakistani state and the Pakistani military, while armed only with the weapons of truth, love, and non-violence. He spent many years in prison, and many years in exile too. Visiting India in Gandhi’s centenary year, 1969, he scolded us for allowing communal violence to smoulder on in violation of the memory of the Father of the Nation. Altogether, Badshah Khan may have been the bravest Gandhian after Gandhi.
The story of Gandhi and the Indian freedom movement is well known; the story of Gandhians in enriching the life of independent India has been more or less forgotten. That so many of his followers did so many admirable things after he was gone, is striking testimony to Gandhi’s leadership and his penchant for team-building. Powerful and famous men — in India and elsewhere, and whether these be powerful and famous men in politics, sport, or business — tend to centralize all authority and glory in themselves. Gandhi was an astonishing exception. He had this rare ability to identify an individual’s talent, to bring that person close to himself, to nurture and develop that person’s character and abilities, and then set them free to live their life as they themselves chose to do.
These Gandhians after Gandhi worked inside Government, seeking to humanise it. They worked in Opposition to Government, seeking to hold the ruling party to account. They worked in civil society, promoting economic self-reliance, social equality, religious pluralism, and environmental sustainability. Like their mentor, these apostles of Gandhi understood that the nation was not a finished article but a work-in-progress. They knew that there remained a large chasm between the ideals of the Constitution and everyday life on the ground. They devoted themselves to bridging that gap, in whatever way they could. We could learn from them still.
(Ramachandra Guha is the author of a two-volume biography of Gandhi, published in this country by Allen Lane. He lives in Bengaluru.)
(The article has been changed to correctly reflect Mridula Sarabhai’s relation to Vikram Sarabhai)