Hitchens’ Review of Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi

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.

9 thoughts on “Hitchens’ Review of Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi

  1. This shows that Gandhi was as opportunist as an opportunist can be.He reacted to the available circumstance in a flexible way.That is why he was successful.And that is why the present ruling party in New Delhi has been successful so far with an exception that its success went to its head and it thought that it can loot the country behind the smokescreen of Gandhian secularism without any one noticing.But the media exposed it.


  2. This is a disappointing review of a poorly written book. Hitchens is admirable for his frank and skilful putdown of organized religion, as much as his other sympathies are questionable. Gandhi has left us the largest autobiographical corpus of any man who ever lived. The collected works run into a 100 volumes and were compiled by a team of scholars over a period of 15 years. They show us a man who was more open, honest and courageous than anyone who ever lived. A man of compassion and integrity who was far ahead of his time, about 200 years ahead. After Chanakya who recognised and accepted the inevtiability of selfishness and came up with a way to build a just society based on compromise, Gandhi is the fist significant thinker to offer an alternative. You can find a link to the collected works here http://www.gandhiserve.org/cwmg/cwmg.html. I suggest you take any charge leveled by Hitchens and search the volumes over the years (caution! each volume runs into over 400 pp) and you an see for yourself how much Gandhi’s thoughts changed or in what detail his positions are explained. This was not a man who ruled by bumper sticker, and one who could be disarmingly pragmatic and honest about his failings.
    For your own sake I suggest you spend some time reading the collected works rather than any other poorly researched biography or review.

    …for means, are everything.

    Read Prabhat Patnaik’s article in The Telegraph about one much criticized habit of Gandhi’s – fasts.

    Gandhiji undertook 17 fasts in all, of which three were major fasts-unto-death. All these three had the objective of uniting people against violence, rather than extracting specific concessions from the colonial State. His 1932 fast against the British government’s proposal to have separate electorates for the “depressed classes” may appear to contradict this assertion; but even that fast was directed more against the practice of “untouchability” than against the British government, which abandoned the idea of separate electorates once the Yerwada pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar had been worked out. (Tagore, in fact, had blessed the fast, saying: “It is worth sacrificing precious life for the sake of India’s unity and her social integrity.”) The 1932 fast was not really anti-British, nor was it even a purely political fast, a fact underscored by Gandhiji’s starting, within eight months, another 21-day fast to express his anguish at the continued oppression of “Harijans” by “caste-Hindus”. (See Sudhir Chandra’s paper in the Economic and Political Weekly of June 4, 2011). In short, Gandhiji’s fasts-unto-death were never a binary affair, with himself and the colonial State as adversaries, to extract specific concessions. He did not, for instance, go on a fast-unto-death to demand the withdrawal of the salt tax; he launched instead a movement against it. And at no stage did Gandhiji ever consider going on a fast-unto-death to demand India’s independence; instead he launched movement after movement for achieving it. Indeed Gandhiji would have considered a fast-unto-death to enforce a particular demand even upon the colonial State, or to extract a particular concession from it, an act not of non-violence but of violence.

    MLK Jr. and his mentor before him, Howard Thurman, understood the ways of Gandhi very well and remained lifelong admirers.


  3. http://koenraadelst.bharatvani.org/articles/fascism/gandhihitler.html

    One more post if you would be indulgent. The link takes you to an essay by Koenraad Elst who is regarded by most right thinking folks (you and me included) to be a scholar of uncompromising integrity and learning before whom not a single eminent sarkari historian can stand without quaking. Koenraad is no fan of Gandhi, yet empathetic towards him. Gandhi wrote two letters, the first one of which was intercepted by the colonial administration, and the second one of which may or may not have reached Hitler. Hitchens’s review is worse than his hatchet job on Michelle Robinson’s Princeton dissertation in which he hinted (even accused her) of black-extremist sympathies. I expect better of Hitch who is very well read on modern British military history.


  4. This shows how much illusionist Gandhi was. He lacked all the qualities of a good leader.
    He was just a master in gathering crowds.
    A person who knew nothing of politics, administration, state-affairs
    He clearly don’t deserve to be Father-of-the Nation


  5. gandi was a certified moron. leave aside the “15 yr research” and shit. his one decision of annointing nehru over patel as our first pm has cost us enough already. we continue to bleed thanks to that idiot..


  6. Kautilya,

    There is no point in letting your anger get the better of you. Calling a dead man a moron (certified or otherwise) sounds smart, sounds I mean. The 15 years of research does mean something, because that is how voluminous MKG’s works are. Since everything that is said about Gandhi begins from something that he said or wrote about or something that is attributed to him, it makes sense to refer to the collected works, in order to understand what the context is, when it occurred and what its effects were.
    Gandhi showed us that laws alone will do nothing to abolish untouchability, you would have to work with your hands to include those who have been cast aside. Two of India’s greatest post-’47 social worker, Baba Amte and Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak have several times acknoledged Gandhi as their inspiration. Both of them exactly in the way Gandhi did, with their hands, from the ground up. OTOH Ambedkar’s legalistic approach has failed, utterly.


  7. Is it fair that a person whose credentials are impeccable should be the one to question another’s character? If it is, then for both the writer and the reviewer, who belong to an utterly consumerist society, I feel sorry, that they lack even the tiniest bit of appreciation for one man who lead millions into believing they can gain freedom through love. Call him conceited, self-deluded, or whatever else (he was, after all, human), he did have an amazingly bright side to him. It is of course up to us to choose what we would like to see and follow.


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