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Gandhi: how he came to see the true horror of the Empire

A new BBC series about the life of Indian freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi raises interesting questions about his life and role, writes Yuri Prasad

Issue No. 2171

Gandhi (middle row, centre) was a supporter of Empire during the Boer War at the turn of the last century

Gandhi (middle row, centre) was a supporter of Empire during the Boer War at the turn of the last century


How was it that an Indian, whose loyalty to the British was so great that he became a recruiting sergeant for a colonial war, could turn against his masters and lead a rebellion that would bring the Empire to its knees?

Why did a devout Hindu, whose strict piety was sometimes perceived as being “anti-Muslim”, take inspiration from the Islamic concept of Jihad and advocate a pan-Islamic state across the Middle East and Asia?

These are just two of the interesting and complex questions posed by Mishal Husain in her new three‑part documentary about Gandhi.

The first episode looks at Gandhi’s early life as a rebellious school child who was married aged just 13. It follows him as he trains as a lawyer in London’s Inns of Court and attempts to adopt the manners and style of an “English gentleman”.

Much more interesting is the way that Gandhi developed as a leader during his 19 years in South Africa. And it is here that we get our first glimpse of the contradictions in his approach that would continue to develop later in his life.

Lured

Gandhi failed to make a legal career for himself upon his return to India and was lured by the offer of work in South Africa in 1893.

Almost immediately upon arrival he was to learn that his smart European clothes and important qualifications would not insulate him from the racism that afflicted the British colony.

He was roughly thrown off a train after refusing to leave a first class carriage that his fellow passengers believed should be reserved for whites only.

Husain rightly sees this as a defining moment. Gandhi noted in his autobiography that while in the station waiting room he started to question the status of Indians under the Empire, and decided that from that point on he would dedicate himself to the fight against racial prejudice.

In 1894 Gandhi established the Natal Indian Congress as a mass organisation to defend Indians from a host of legal attacks by the Transvaal government.

Yet from the beginning it was clear that some of Gandhi’s own prejudices were to be imbued in the organisation.

Despite the fact that the majority of Indians in South Africa had been shipped to the country as indentured labour for the plantations, and remained desperately poor, the Congress rested heavily on the Indian merchant class for its list of aims and its leadership.

And, though millions of black South Africans were suffering a fate almost identical to those of the Indian poor, the Congress had no intention of taking up their struggles.

Husain is prepared to explain this away, saying that it only proves that “Gandhi was a man of his time”.

She is much harder when examining Gandhi’s role as a supporter of Britain’s colonial wars in Africa – and in this she has support from Gandhi himself.

Gandhi had believed that by offering his services to the Empire, and creating his own Indian-staffed ambulance corps to aid the British during the Boer War, he would gain the respect of his colonial masters.

But the horrors he witnessed in later wars forced him to rethink his attitudes. Repelled by the slaughter of thousands of Zulus who were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, Gandhi wrote that the British were not conducting a war, but a “manhunt”.

Fingerprinted

It was in South Africa that Gandhi first pioneered his use of non-violent direct action as a response to injustice.

When the British demanded that all Indians be fingerprinted and forced to carry identification cards, he organised mass demonstrations outside government offices where the cards were burned.

Thousands, including Gandhi, were jailed and flogged as a result. And, although the movement eventually died down, the government was so ­embarrassed by the ­international ­attention that it was forced to negotiate.

Gandhi’s strategy, which involved mobilising the mass of Indians while placing the leadership of the struggle in the hands of “respectable” Indians, appeared to have delivered.

But contradictions in this approach were to come to the fore quickly when he attempted to implement the same strategy upon his return to India in 1915.

Gandhi showed his identification with the poor by shedding his wealthy lawyer’s garb and adopting his trademark loincloth.

But how would he respond if the needs of India’s poor peasants and workers clashed with those of their Indian landlords and bosses? What if they could not be reconciled as brothers in the way that he had hoped?

The test of this series will be how it deals with this all important question.

Gandhi starts on Saturday 3 October at 8.15pm on BBC2


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Tue 29 Sep 2009, 18:27 BST
Issue No. 2171
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