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Gandhi and the Struggling Subcontinent

Biographer traces Mahatma's layered relationship with his country

Joseph Lelyveld (L) and Ranjit Hoskote (R) at Asia Society India Centre's event in Mumbai on February 2, 2012. (Asia Society India Centre)

Joseph Lelyveld (L) and Ranjit Hoskote (R) at Asia Society India Centre's event in Mumbai on February 2, 2012. (Asia Society India Centre)

Biographer traces Mahatma's layered relationship with his country

MUMBAI, February 2, 2012 - Mahatma Gandhi's struggle for India is widely appreciated, but the struggles he had with India and its ideals are less recognized. Exploring this idea sheds light on the evolution of a complex historical figure and on the subcontinent's varied and complex environment during colonial rule.

This was demonstrated here at an Asia Society India Centre event with Joseph Lelyveld, author of Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, in conversation with Ranjit Hoskote, cultural theorist, poet and art critic.

Lelyveld said that India, both in Gandhi's time and today, "manages to simultaneously revere Gandhi and ignore, even reject, some of his most urgent teachings." Moreover, the author elaborated, Gandhi was always a work-in-progress whose views changed over time.

Explaining the evolution of Gandhi's ideals, Lelyveld recounted how Gandhi began his political ventures in Africa — then aiming to achieve full rights of Indians as citizens of the British Empire, though he generally left out the relations of indentured laborers in the service of whites. Till the Satyagraha campaign of 1913, Lelyveld said, there was no evidence of Gandhi's caring about indentured laborers in a deep and sustained way; later in life, however, Gandhi openly stated that he related to indentured laborers more than to other groups.

Lelyveld further explained how Gandhi's struggles extended to misunderstandings of his message, and the failure of his vision for the future to pan out. Many misinterpreted his message, sometimes drastically, such as when Hindus in Bihar slaughtered Muslims to chants of Gandhi's name. He was absent at India's Independence Day celebrations, preferring to fast instead, because the "sorry affair" was and would further be accompanied by violence and what he thought were "undesirable" social relationships.

Hoskote noted that Great Soul explores the opposition between Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar — the political leader who hailed from the so-called "untouchable" class of the caste system — in contrast to the usual comparisons between Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Lelvyeld said with disbelief that Gandhi claimed to never have heard of Ambedkar prior to their meeting in 1913 — by which time Ambedkar had already established himself as a figure in India's freedom struggle and one of the leaders of the "untouchables." In fact, Gandhi contested Ambedkar's claim to be their leader, and both Lelyveld and Hoskote agreed that at the time of that meeting, Gandhi did have more "untouchable" followers.

Hoskote also remarked on how Gandhi seemed to have the ability to manage his image in the media. Lelyveld observed that Gandhi was flippant and dismissive towards journalists who were not reverential to him, and even changed transcripts of remarks he publicly made before authorizing them.

Despite the layered relationship between Gandhi and India, Lelyveld noted, "If India has a social conscience today, and I believe it does, that social conscience still can rightly be called Gandhian."

Watch video highlights of Lelyveld's appearance below. (13 min., 18 sec.)

Presented in partnership with Jnanapravaha and the PEN All India Centre.