Some anniversary images of Gandhi returning home a hundred years ago show a familiar old man clad in a knee-length khadi dhoti walking wearily with the aid of a lathi. That image is, of course, false.
The Gandhi who landed in Mumbai was yet to discover khadi or adopt the short dhoti. And he was a vigorous 45-year-old with a plan to transform India. This returning Gandhi was different in several ways from the elite English-speaking leaders in Mumbai, who greeted him with a mix of admiration (for his satyagrahas in South Africa) and amusement (at his keenness to identify with vernacular and “ordinary” Indians).
If, in the end, the last laugh belonged to Gandhi, there were several reasons.
First, unlike most recognised leaders of the day, Gandhi saw all of India as one piece, without partiality for one part of India or a section of Indians. Though he made Ahmedabad his base, starting his Satyagraha Ashram there, he also strove to regard all of India, and each place in it, as his home. Within two years of his return, his first major satyagraha in India was successfully conducted far from Ahmedabad, in Bihar’s Champaran district, on behalf of peasants growing indigo for European planters.
Second, again unlike most recognised leaders, Gandhi had realised by 1915 or earlier that the challenges of independence, Hindu-Muslim unity and caste equality were interconnected; that Indians would neither attain nor deserve independence if they continued with religious enmity and caste arrogance. So he insisted, from 1915, that his ashram comrades would solemnly pledge themselves against untouchability and for religious harmony.
Third, he knew that the Indian National Congress, created 30 years before Gandhi’s return, had fostered inter-provincial understanding at the elite level but a great chasm separated the elites from the masses.
Fourth, thanks to his years in Britain (where he was a student) and in South Africa (where his life was transformed), Gandhi saw the British ruling India as equals, not superiors, as fellow humans, not demons.
Fifth, he grasped the folly of violence. Realising that the empire had a ready answer for the politics of assassination, which, at the time, tempted high-caste Hindu radicals in Bengal, Maharashtra and elsewhere, Gandhi also saw that privileging the gun and the sword, which were accessible to a section of the Indian elites, would only push the vulnerable masses — women, the lower castes and “untouchables”, the blind, the lame and the impoverished — to the wall. And he warned that killing British men and women would be followed inexorably by Indians killing one another.
Sixth, Gandhi knew that, to reach his audacious goals, he had to have a large and gifted team. Luckily, he found a fabulous one: a “private” team (including Vinoba Bhave, Mahadev Desai, Kakasaheb Kalelkar, Kishorelal Mashruwala, Swami Anand, Anasuya Sarabhai and Pyarelal, to name only some) that brainstormed with him, plus a “public” team (including Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari, Abul Kalam Azad, Muhammad Ali, Sarojini Naidu, J.B. Kripalani and others from every part of India). No thick wall separated the two teams. A few persons belonged to both. Together, the Gandhi-led teams conveyed the promise — to India’s masses and the world outside — that a self-governing India could shine in the world. Gandhi rejoiced in the achievements of his teammates, aware that when they excelled, he became stronger, not weaker.
Luck had favoured him in South Africa. There, Gandhi was able to bond with Indians of different religions, castes and linguistic backgrounds. Thus, Gandhi became a man for all Indians even before he returned to India, where he embarked on rail yatras to different corners of the land.
Seventh, Gandhi never ceased working on himself. He faced and admitted his mistakes. Personal disappointments only sharpened his prayers to his maker and deepened his bond with the people of India. His goals soared beyond himself and his family-by-blood. Much of India became his family-in-spirit. Empowering the people of India seemed to be his drive, not becoming prime minister or president of an independent India.
But Gandhi could not give a normal life to his family-by-blood. And this became true also for thousands who worked with him or were inspired by him or strove in other ways for freedom. In thousands of Indian families, prisons became a greater draw than colleges.
Within months of his return to India, Gandhi sent away his second son, Manilal, then 22, to distant southern India. His first son, Harilal, having run up a debt, Manilal had passed ashram funds to the older brother for clearing it. While Manilal was asked to weave, earn and return the sum he had removed from the ashram, Gandhi himself fasted in penance for the son’s impropriety. In thousands of Indian homes, domestic tears would water the plant of Indian liberty.
Chairing a Mumbai reception for the returnee in 1915 was a brilliant lawyer, six years younger than Gandhi, named Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In fact, Gandhi and Jinnah had met each other a few months earlier, in London, where Gandhi had stopped en route to India. Thus, Gandhi’s relationship with Jinnah had an earlier origin than his teamwork with colleagues like Patel, Nehru, C. R., Azad, the Ali brothers, Rajendra Prasad and Kripalani, which started in the years between 1915 and 1919. But the Gandhi-Jinnah alliance ended in 1920.
The other partnerships lasted longer, yet it is worth recalling that when, in April 1947, in a final bid to avert India’s partition, Gandhi wanted the Congress to offer the prime ministership of a united India to Jinnah, the idea was firmly rejected by all of Gandhi’s Congress colleagues, barring Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and was therefore never put to Jinnah. This final disappointment did not break Gandhi’s relationship with comrades of three decades. Accepting that he had been outvoted, he continued to counsel Nehru, Patel and company, and encouraged them to stay united.
Though the returnee who was killed in January 1948 did not fully achieve his goals, his successes were remarkable. The people and leaders of South Asia can only help themselves by reflecting on the reasons for those successes.
The writer is research professor at the Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US