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Gandhi Before India
Gandhi Before India
Ramachandra Guha
Knopf, 2014
688 pp., 38.99

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M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man before the Mahatma
M.K. Gandhi, Attorney at Law: The Man before the Mahatma
Charles R. DiSalvo
University of California Press, 2013
392 pp., 34.95

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Tim Stafford


Necessary Distance

Gandhi's formative decades in South Africa.

Mohandas Gandhi's greatness was profoundly embedded in his Indian identity. Iconically, his slight frame and his ancient, detached gaze stand for India as surely as the Taj Mahal. Yet Gandhi left India when he was barely 18, and thereafter visited only briefly until he returned for good at the age of 45. It was South Africa, not India, that made Gandhi who he was.

"Had [Gandhi] not lived in South Africa, he might never have outgrown the conventional, confined, views of Indian men of his class and his generation," writes Ramachandra Guha in his fluent and well-researched biography of these years:

Had Gandhi always lived or worked in India, he would never have met dissident Jews or Nonconformist Christians. Had he followed the family tradition and worked in a princely state in Kathiawar he would never have met Tamils or North Indians. Had he practiced Law in Bombay he could not have counted plantation workers or roadside hawkers among his clients.

Guha, who is helpful on many aspects of Indian life, describes Gandhi's Bania caste as belonging to cautious traders, merchants, and moneylenders. Gandhi's moderately prosperous family had served in the administration of princely states, wielding considerable power. However, Gandhi's father died before Gandhi came of age, so he had no one to sponsor him for a similar job. He was an indifferent student; he went to England (over the fervent objections of caste members, who regarded overseas travel as polluting) to get a law education because it promised an easier way to succeed. It did not prove so; Gandhi struggled to make a living in India, and so was sent off to Durban to help a Muslim Indian trader involved in a complicated suit. Economic ambition, not altruism, took Gandhi to South Africa on a temporary legal assignment.

But he stayed on and prospered, moving into an attractive house in a European neighborhood. Though only the occasional eccentric European would contemplate him as a social equal, he found a place and a career. Twice he returned to India but found it difficult to compete for legal business. In Durban, he was the only Indian lawyer, providing legal services to the small but growing Indian community. He worked hard, dressed well, and made plenty of money.

Dutch colonists had come to South Africa more than 200 years before, yet in 1893, when Gandhi arrived, it was still a frontier society—a place where immigrants could make good, and where people of different religions, races, and castes were thrown together. Gandhi, a Hindu, made much of his income from Muslim businessmen. Some of his closest friends were Jews and Christians. He lived his life unsupervised by the strict exigencies of caste and family. It was an un-Indian life, exposing Gandhi to people and ideas he would hardly have encountered in his native land.

South Africa was also a profoundly racist society, a reality that Gandhi encountered shortly after arrival, when he was thrown off a train for traveling in a first class compartment where only Europeans were allowed. The beginnings of apartheid were forming. Whereas Europeans were few on the ground in India, and hardly in a position to dominate society, in South Africa they outnumbered Indians and completely controlled civil society. They were aggressively racist, repelled by Indians and their economic success. This in-escapable reality forced on Gandhi a response.

Here Charles DiSalvo's book, examining Gandhi's life as a lawyer, is particularly worth-while. Gandhi's pride in the law and his sense of British fair play profoundly affected the way he addressed the racial inequities he experienced. His first response was to petition the authorities, whether individually or on behalf of one of the Indian societies. He was a naturally cogent writer, appealing to the logic of British law, in which skin color had no place. Failing to get any kind of positive response from the authorities or from the white public—in fact, hostility increased—he moved to litigation. This related to law in a different way, though equally optimistically. By suing, he and his clients meant to use the power of British law to compel change.

This, however, yielded no results either. New and harsher laws were passed against the Indian community, directly discriminatory. Only after 13 years of almost constant protests did Gandhi come to a turning point. Rather than appealing to the law, Indians would deliberately disobey the law—and take the consequences. Gandhi's innovative practice of passive resistance, or satyagraha, as he preferred to call it, was an abandonment of hope in the written law. "It is wrong to consider that courts are established for the benefit of the people," he would write three years later. "Those who want to perpetuate their power do so through the courts." Gandhi's hope shifted to the law of conscience; he believed that the willing suffering of Indians would prick the conscience of the Christian South African.

Whether petitioning, suing, or practicing civil disobedience, Gandhi insisted that he and his allies answer white hostility with love. Gandhi was a Christianized Hindu, as distinct from a secularized Hindu like Nehru, according to Indian physician and thinker Raju Abraham. During his years in England studying law, Gandhi made his deepest and best friends with English vegetarians. This was a doorway into friendships with theosophists and other free-thinking, spiritually minded people. Tolstoy's religious writings made a huge impression on him, so much so that one might say Tolstoy was his mentor before all. (They never met, but corresponded.)

In South Africa, Gandhi continued to form eclectic, spiritually minded connections, all the more because he had even fewer Indian peers than he had in England. He was the only Indian lawyer in the country, and perhaps the only Indian with advanced degrees. Though remaining in many respects a very observant Hindu—especially in matters of diet—Gandhi found his place in the "higher thought" of the day: individualized, transcendental borrowings from multiple religions, in which aspirations counted for a lot and boundaries were few.

Gandhi's god was his own conscience. He conducted his affairs with a strict sense of truthfulness, dignity, and conscience. He refused to hate his opponents. Stubbornly principled, he sometimes fought for principles that no one else could quite see. Yet he also sought reconciliation and was willing to moderate his demands, to compromise, and to negotiate. He was an incrementalist, not a radical at all. For example, though he unquestionably believed that Indians should have all the political rights of South African citizens, he broadcast the fact that they would not ask for any political rights at all. He thought such recognition out of reach, and so did not insist on it. Dignity and conscience were not open to negotiation; everything else was.

"Unenfranchised though we are, unrepresented though we are in the Transvaal," he said in one campaign,

it is open to us to clothe ourselves with an undying franchise, and this consists in recognizing our humanity, in recognizing that we are part and parcel of the great universal whole, that there is the Maker of us all ruling over the destinies of mankind and that our trust should be in Him rather than in earthly kings, and if my countrymen recognize that position I say that no matter what legislation is passed over our heads, if that legislation is in conflict with our ideas of right and wrong, if it is in conflict with our conscience, if it is in conflict with our religion, then we can say we shall not submit to that legislation.

Later, coming out of prison after a term of two months and ten days:

The outcome of our campaign does not depend upon whether we win or lose in the Supreme Court. We should rather, if need be, bear separation from our families, sacrifice our property for the sake of truth, endure whatever other hardships we may encounter and thus make the voice of truth heard in the Divine Court. When the echoes of that voice strike the ears of General Smuts, his conscience will be stirred and he will acknowledge our rights … . It is not the Imperial Government that will secure you your rights; you will get them only from God. If you fight truthfully with Him as your witness, your bonds will be loosened … . God is present everywhere; He sees and hears everything. I am sure that we shall be free when that God stirs [our opponents'] conscience.

He remained, despite that very Christian language, an unwavering Hindu, with an almost mystical reverence for village India and its spiritual values. In fact he was an urban creature, who had probably never spent a single day in an Indian village. He had hardly known India as an adult, but (as with many immigrants) his lack of contact with his native land merely increased his attachment to it. In this way, too, South Africa made him. Had he lived in India, he might have been forced to confront its contradictions and injustices; instead he remained a defender of the caste system, a man who idealized village life. Gandhi's astonishing ability to capture the Indian imagination for political goals, his ability to speak through symbols, reflected a fundamental affinity with Indian mythology, the mythology not of the Hindu gods but of the unarticulated beliefs of common people. In a sense, he got this from South Africa, where he clung to his Indianness in an extremely hostile environment, without having to face the encumbrances of India itself.

Though he lived in South Africa, struggled in South Africa, and found himself in South Africa, Gandhi never became a South African. His imagination always remained rooted in India. Nothing says this more eloquently than his almost total lack of interest in black Africans. Though they were inescapably present—they made up the vast majority of the population—he does not seem to have really seen them. He made deep friends with people from widely diverse backgrounds, but none with Africans. He offered no thoughts—let alone protests—regarding African rights and freedoms. When he finally left for India, he was sent off through a series of banquets offered by every community—white, Indian, Chinese—but not by Africans. His immensely humane vision simply failed to observe what was plain before him in Africa. His eyes were always on India.

Tim Stafford is the author most recently of The Adam Quest (Thomas Nelson).

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