The July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine has a review of Lelyveld’s book by Christopher Hitchens — “The Real Mahatma Gandhi.” An absolute gem of a piece, it has to be read. Excerpts below the fold. Also, I have blogged about the book and the banning of the book on this blog.
And it is not disputable that Gandhi himself regarded his own versions of ahimsa and satyagraha as universally applicable. By 1939, he was announcing that, if adopted by “a single Jew standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler’s decrees,” such methods might suffice to “melt Hitler’s heart.” This may read like mere foolishness, but a personal letter to the Führer in the same year began with the words My friend and went on, ingratiatingly, to ask: “Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?” Apart from its conceit, this would appear to be suggesting that Hitler, too, might hope to get more of what he wanted by adopting a more herbivorous approach. Gandhi also instructed a Chinese visitor to “shame some Japanese” by passivity in the face of invasion, and found time to lecture a member of the South African National Congress about the vices of Western apparel. “You must not … feel ashamed of carrying an assagai, or of going around with only a tiny clout round your loins.” (One tries to picture Nelson Mandela taking this homespun counsel, which draws upon the most clichéd impression of African dress and tradition.)
Gandhi was forever nominating himself as a mediator: in 1937 in Palestine, for example, where he concluded that Jews could demand a state of their own only if all Arab opinion were to become reconciled to it; and later unsolicitedly advising the peoples of Czechoslovakia to try what Lelyveld calls “satyagraha to combat storm troopers.” The nullity of this needs no emphasis: what is more striking—in one venerated so widely for modest self-effacement—is its arrogance. Recording these successive efforts at quasi-diplomacy and “peacemaking,” Lelyveld lapses into near-euphemism. At one point he calls Gandhi’s initiatives “a mixed bag, full of trenchant moral insights, desperate appeals, and self-deluding simplicities.” The crawling letter to Hitler, he summarizes as “a desperate, naive mix of humility and ego” and as one of a series of “futile, well-intentioned missives.” We can certainly detect the influence of Saul Bellow’s “Good Intentions Paving Company,” but the trenchant moral insights and the humility are distinctly less conspicuous.
. . .
Lelyveld offers in passing the startling observation that Gandhi, who loftily asserted, “I claim myself in my own person to represent the vast mass of the untouchables,” had in point of fact “done next to nothing to organize and lead” them. On his way back from the 1931 London conference on Indian independence at which the differences with Ambedkar revealed themselves as insuperable, Gandhi stopped in Rome for a meeting with Mussolini, after which he wrote effusively of Il Duce’s “service to the poor, his opposition to super-urbanization, his efforts to bring about coordination between capital and labor [and] his passionate love for his people.” Imprisoned by the British on his return, he threatened to starve himself to death if special political dispensation was granted to untouchables … To my own alarm, I found myself sympathizing with Churchill’s tirade against this self-righteous combination of half-naked “fakir” and “seditious Middle Temple lawyer,” and with the viceroy’s exasperated staff who found themselves intercepting the correspondence between fakir and Führer.
If the Dalits had good reason to fear that they would be subordinated to Hindu-majority tyranny after the attainment of self-rule, the Muslims of the subcontinent equally dreaded a similar outcome. Lelyveld’s treatment of this still-inflamed subject is distinctive and original. I had not known that, in the early 1920s, Gandhi reposed his whole political weight in favor of the Indian Muslim demand for the restoration of the Ottoman caliphate as the guarantor of Muslim holy places. This so-called Khilafat movement, while conveniently anti-British in its implications, was by definition taking place in the realm of illusion, since by that time even the Turks themselves had rejected the rule of the sultan. But it gave Gandhi a platform to address sectarian and traditionalist Muslim throngs, and in his own eyes, this apparently trumped its quixotry. Whether the encouragement of Islamist ancien régime tendencies among Muslims was a useful path to overcoming communal divisions is a question on which Lelyveld is politely neutral. He does note that one Muslim leader who remained unimpressed by the Khilafat agitation was Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a relatively secular nationalist and modernist who at an early session of the Congress Party pointedly referred to “Mister” rather than “Mahatma” Gandhi. He was not the only one to see through Gandhi’s theatrical attempts to base reconciliation on ephemeral and crowd-pleasing themes: Lelyveld records that as early as 1921, “the impressive coalition Gandhi had built and inspired was proving to be jerry-built.” Jinnah’s future as the founder of the state of Pakistan could not then be imagined, but when it did become imaginable it was again as a consequence of a moment of Gandhian opportunism: when “the Mahatma” called on all Congress Party officials to leave their posts in 1942, the Muslim League had only to tell its own supporters to stay at work to guarantee itself a much greater share of power after Japan had been defeated.
Hitchens never disappoints. Go read it all.