Gandhi and South Africa | The Nation


Gandhi and South Africa

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At the end of March, the Indian state of Gujarat banned the printing and distribution of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. The ban was proposed by the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, and it passed unanimously, as leaders of the Congress party vied to surpass Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in denouncing Lelyveld’s new book. The focus of the uproar was a claim made by Britain’s Daily Mail and, somewhat more subtly, by the Wall Street Journal, that Great Soul portrays Gandhi as a bisexual or homosexual. The headline in the Daily Mail blared: Gandhi “Left His Wife to Live With a Male Lover” New Book Claims. The “love of his life”—as the Journal put it—was a German-Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach, with whom Gandhi developed a deep friendship while trying out his ideas of nonviolent resistance in South Africa, where he lived from 1893 to 1914. Not to be outdone, Modi complained that Lelyveld’s book defames the Mahatma: “The writing is perverse in nature. It has hurt the sentiments of those with capacity for sane and logical thinking.”

Great Soul
Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India.
By Joseph Lelyveld.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Martha C. Nussbaum
Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law...

Also by the Author

India’s law minister, Veerappa Moily, considered imposing a national ban on Great Soul under Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which empowers government authorities to outlaw books that contain material that breaches the peace or causes communal tension. But in April he announced that he had dropped the idea, explaining that Lelyveld (and sensible Indian journalists) had pointed out that Great Soul did not contain the statements about Gandhi and Kallenbach attributed to it. Meanwhile, in an interview published in an Indian online journal, Lelyveld charged that the Daily Mail and the Wall Street Journal had distorted his book in order “to trash Gandhi.”

Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, is the author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning book about South African apartheid, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White (1986). The strength of Great Soul is its detailed coverage of the evolution of Gandhi’s views about political activism, caste and race during his stay in South Africa. Although Gandhi worked there for twenty-one years, returning to India at age 44, his life there hasn’t been as closely chronicled as his later years in India. Lelyveld underscores its importance, explaining how through work on a constellation of political and ethnic issues Gandhi developed the combination of intense spirituality and canny pragmatism he later used so effectively as a political leader in India. In South Africa, he came to grips with the need to forge an inclusive movement among Hindus that embraced both Muslims and dalits, or “untouchables,” a central lifelong theme of his politics, although one he did not always pursue to the satisfaction of dalit leaders in India. (The second half of Great Soul contains a valuable discussion of the tense relationship between Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar, the American-educated dalit who, as Jawaharlal Nehru’s law minister, became the leading architect of India’s Constitution.)

Above all, it was in South Africa that Gandhi became adept at the politics of civil disobedience, forging a nonviolent mass strategy that met with uneven success but gave him a fund of experience to draw on when organizing the mass satyagrahas of his India days. It was also in South Africa that Gandhi, under the influence of the ideas of Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin, began to live a life of premodern simplicity, publishing his famous critique of Western modernity, Hind Swaraj, and adopting a simple village way of life. Finally, it was in South Africa that Gandhi took his famous vow of sexual abstinence, or brahmacharya, an aspect of his spiritual development that cannot be separated from the others so far as his personality is concerned, although the rejection of bodily desire is to many of his admirers the least appealing aspect of his career. (Gandhi disciples such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. chose not to follow him in that respect.)

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I wish Lelyveld had written an entire book about the South Africa period. As it is, Great Soul stints on background about crucial events and political figures: the Boer War, for example, or the enigmatic and complex personality of Jan Smuts. Depriving the reader of his expert knowledge of these matters, Lelyveld moves hastily on to India, where he is less sure-footed. Though he devotes more than half the book to India, he provides scant information for readers who have little or no knowledge of its history (there is no serious discussion of the Nehru family or the evolution of the Congress, for example, or the history of nationalist resistance before Gandhi); nor is there enough depth for readers who know the history. Key matters are treated with exasperating superficiality. Nehru makes an occasional walk-on appearance, and his long debates with Gandhi over village life—with Gandhi defending premodern simplicity and Nehru advocating for economic development as a more effective way to improve the lives of the poor—are omitted. Rabindranath Tagore appears as a “poet” who makes sporadic pronouncements rather than as the radical educator, philosopher, composer, choreographer, novelist and painter that he was, and whose ideas about nationhood formed India just as surely as Gandhi’s.

Lelyveld might have written an excellent book by expanding the discussion of South Africa and scaling back the India section. Rather than attempting anything like a general account of Gandhi’s political struggle (which the gap-ridden narrative of Great Soul does not provide anyway), he could have written three or four case studies of episodes that highlight what Gandhi learned from South Africa and how his thought and practice of activism matured after his return to India. After all, Lelyveld is at his best in Great Soul when writing detailed narratives that offer insight into Gandhi’s ability to use a politics of symbolism and moral principle to move masses of people to action. There are excellent accounts of the nonviolent protest Gandhi led in 1924–25 against the exclusion of dalits from the Vaikom temple in Kerala; of his interaction with Ambedkar in the 1930s over the direction of anti-caste politics, an issue Gandhi handled by combining moral purpose with political pragmatism; and of the march he led in 1946 to stop Hindu-Muslim violence in the Noakhali district of Bengal.

Less helpful is Lelyveld’s treatment of the history of Islam in India. There is no mention of the long traditions of mutual amity, syncretism and toleration between Hindus and Muslims dating to the Moghul Empire of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or of the Enlightenment Islam of many leading Muslims who allied themselves with Gandhi’s nationalist movement. One key figure who is brushed aside is Maulana Azad. A Muslim scholar who became a leader of Congress, Azad helped Gandhi organize the satyagraha at the Dharasana salt mines in 1930, a pivotal episode in Gandhi’s campaign against the British tax on salt. Later, as an opponent of partition, Azad became the first minister of education in the new nation. Azad is mentioned just twice, and very briefly, with no acknowledgment of his importance. In a truly bizarre lapse, Lelyveld suggests that the Ali brothers, Muslim leaders who worked closely with Gandhi in the 1920s, could be seen as distant spiritual ancestors of Osama bin Laden—a claim that overlooks important aspects of their lives, such as their break with conservative Muslims over nationalism and education; their role in founding a progressive school for children; and their extensive involvement in Jamia Millia Islamia, a university that from its outset included men and women, and Hindus and Muslims, as students and faculty. When people ask why there has never been a Muslim Enlightenment, the answer is that there has been and is one, in India, and the Ali brothers and their friends and descendants have been contributors to it.

The discussion of Gandhi’s close and loving friendship with Kallenbach during their work on civil disobedience in South Africa is also uneven. Lelyveld gives us a detailed account of the bodybuilder and gymnast, who took in Gandhi as a lodger in Johannesburg in 1908, and who later joined Gandhi’s commune at Tolstoy Farm. And Lelyveld quotes revealingly from Gandhi’s side of their decades-long correspondence, only recently made available through Kallenbach’s family, with Gandhi discussing matters ranging from political protest to diet, physical fitness and sexual abstinence. The intimacy of this correspondence assumes a singular importance in Great Soul that is not entirely justified by the facts, for Lelyveld says virtually nothing about the other intense and loving friendships in Gandhi’s life. Charlie Andrews, a Christian and one of Gandhi’s most influential political and spiritual advisers throughout his career, plays only a brief part. Although Lelyveld does quote Gandhi describing his feelings for one of the Ali brothers, Muhammad, as “love at first sight”—thus showing that Gandhi easily used the language of romantic love to characterize relationships of friendship and solidarity—he does not detail that other “love.” Nor does he write about Saraladevi Chaudhurani, the niece of Tagore with whom Gandhi contemplated a “spiritual marriage” in 1920. An accomplished writer and musician, Chaudhurani adopted the cause of Indian nationalism with zeal. In his comprehensive and meticulous, deeply respectable and respectful biography, Gandhi: The Man, His People, and the Empire (2007), Rajmohan Gandhi puts forward evidence of a passionate erotic relationship between his grandfather and Chaudhurani, grounding his analysis in letters between the two. It seems that Gandhi ultimately found that his physical attraction to Chaudhurani made it impossible to continue the friendship: the idea of a spiritual love purified of all physicality could not be honored—on his side, at any rate—so he broke off relations, leaving her devastated. Significantly, Gandhi never broke things off with Kallenbach. Thus we may infer that their friendship contained too little eroticism to have troubled Gandhi, whose threshold of guilt was extremely low.

Though Lelyveld discusses the friendship in a vacuum, his account is not without insight. He emphasizes the commitment of both men to sexual abstinence and interprets their relationship as one of platonic love, perhaps with some submerged erotic component but utterly nonsexual. He carefully interprets one potentially suggestive detail—in a 1909 letter written from London, Gandhi says that “cotton wool and Vaseline” remind him of Kallenbach—as a reference either to enemas or massage, both of which were pivotal to Gandhi’s daily health regimen. Given Gandhi’s hypersensitivity about any lapse from ideal nonphysicality, even sexual fantasy would have been a torment, and no sign of such torment appears to have troubled his friendship with Kallenbach. The Daily Mail and Wall Street Journal accounts of the relationship are a crude distortion.

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