By Harjeevan Gill
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Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience

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Issue 447

Talat Ahmed’s new book chronicles the life of Mohandas Gandhi, who was one of the leaders in the Indian Independence movement. She critically examines Gandhi’s political career and provides an understanding on how socialists should view him and his legacy. This is important because, in the UK especially, Indian history is taught with a rose-tinted lens regarding either the British state or Gandhi himself.

Ahmed initially addresses the impact Gandhi has had over various political movements over the years, with many mass movements citing Gandhi as a major influence. However, she makes it very clear that she wants to challenge the existing narrative of Gandhi, which she does through placing him within history, rather than focusing the history around him. In doing this, Ahmed argues that Gandhi was not the total driving factor behind Indian Independence, and that this process was plagued with violence.

Ahmed lays out the factors that shaped Gandhi’s politics, with his time in London and South Africa having had a major influence. While he was in London, he read a lot of religious texts such as the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. When in South Africa, his lack of class politics was shown. This was where his policy of compromise was first put into place, as he took actions that led him to compromise with the imperial government.

After examining what shaped his politics, Ahmed then shows how the Gandhi who returned to India was a different type of politician from existing Indian nationalists. Ahmed looks into Gandhi’s politics regarding oppressed groups, where she argues that Gandhi’s cross-class interests meant he could not be a complete champion of the oppressed. Also, she notes that Gandhi used his fasting technique to rein in groups that were shifting out of his personal control, like the Dalit groups led by Ambedkar.

However, Ahmed praises Gandhi where he deserves it, especially in his ability to change the politics of Congress from an elitist stance to more of mass movement. She cites the 1920 movement and his support for the Khalifat Movement for Gandhi expanding the scope of Indian politics. Nevertheless, she criticises Gandhi’s inability to compromise with the activists, especially over the question of non-violence. She argues that many Indians thought forceful resistance against the British was necessary and Gandhi was wrong to call of mass action.

Ahmed also explains how the fact that Gandhi did not see capital as the enemy, was important in his displeasure for workers-led politics. This explains some of his criticisms of the Communist Party of India and the 1946 Bombay Mutiny. Moreover, Ahmed indicates how Gandhi made moves against a growing current of left wing politics in Congress, highlighting his desire to have complete control over the movement.

Gandhi’s naive politics are made clear in the book, when Ahmed looks at his thoughts on the Nazis. She mentions how Gandhi called on the Czech people to not resist the Nazi invasion of their homes, and called Hitler his “dear friend”. However, she does note how Gandhi’s politics changed regarding war. He supported the British in the First World War. But in 1942 he ran the Quit India campaign, which disrupted the British war effort in the Second World War.

Ahmed importantly shows Gandhi’s role in the disaster of Partition, where his disruption of grassroots movements like the Bombay General Strike and the Navy Mutiny of 1946 opened the space for intercommunal violence. This was because the grassroots movements included Indians of different religious backgrounds, but this was broken by Gandhi and the leading nationalist figures who sought to establish power for themselves. This shows a constant thread within Gandhi’s politics, as he failed to understand the importance of class struggle in the process of liberation.

Talat Ahmed’s thoroughly researched book on Gandhi shows that he experimented with a lot of tactics, which feeds into the title. Her assessment of Gandhi’s political career is an important read, especially with the rise of Extinction Rebellion, where elements have a moralistic view of politics like Gandhi did. Moreover, we can take lessons from his actions, when he expanded politics for the masses, but maintain an understanding that we need to go much further than Gandhi. Therefore, this book is a must read, so that we can go beyond experimentation and achieve success.


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