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Response to Review of Gandhi 1914-1948

I am deeply grateful to Dr Michael Young for his thoughtful and generous review of the second volume of my Gandhi biography. His presentation of my method and arguments is scrupulously fair. Because Gandhi’s own writings are so extensive—extending to 97 volumes in print—most scholars rely heavily (and sometimes exclusively) on them in reconstructing his life, his relationships, and his struggles. However, I was clear from the outset that I did not want to limit myself to my subject’s own perspective. So I began looking for what Gandhi’s critics and contemporaries, friends and rivals, had to say about him at different points in his career. Most of this was not in the public domain; but scattered in manuscript collections and official archives across the world. Through these materials I hoped to present a many-sided perspective on the man and his times.

Gandhi came into contact with many remarkable people—and one of the duties of the biographer is to seek to flesh out these other characters, too. As Dr Young notes, I devote much attention to Gandhi’s debates with Dr B. R. Ambedkar, the great emancipator of India’s ‘Untouchable’ castes. Gandhi wished to save Hinduism by ridding it of caste distinctions; Ambedkar thought that caste was so intrisic to Hinduism that the only hope for his fellow ‘Untouchables’ was to convert to another religion altogether. Ambedkar was an individual of enormous intelligence and courage; sadly, he is much less known outside India than Gandhi.

Little-known within India itself is Gandhi’s long-time secretary, Mahadev Desai. For twenty-five years Desai was Gandhi’s eyes and ears, informing him about national and world events. He was his interlocutor and trouble-shooter, mediating between Gandhi and British Viceroys and between different Indian politicians too. However, because Desai died in 1942—five years before Independence—and because he himself sought strenuously to underplay his own role—he is a forgotten man today. Among Gandhi’s political disciples, Jawarhlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel are justly famous, for the part they played in building a united and democratic India after Gandhi’s own death. However, in Gandhi’s lifetime, and during his own most significant campaigns, Mahadev Desai was far more important than Nehru or Patel. Mahadev was a man of compassion and wisdom, and possessed of a wonderful sense of humour too. Writing about him was an immensely educative as well as greatly enjoyable experience.

Ambedkar and Desai are but two of very many interesting and unusual people whom Gandhi closely interacted with. Others included, within India, radical lawyers, Hindu and Muslim priests, and pioneering feminists; and outside India, British Quakers and American journalists. It was through his conversations and arguments with these people that one most fully understands Gandhi.

To understand the content and import of these interactions one needs to go well beyond Gandhi’s own Collected Works. Likewise, to reconstruct the social spread and political influence of the popular movements that Gandhi led, one cannot rely merely on what he said—but must dig deep into police and intelligence reports, as well as contemporary newspaper records (among other primary sources).

I believe that, while Gandhi’s own writings are important, by focusing on them alone some other scholars have come away with an imperfect and indeed impoverished understanding of this great—and greatly controversial—historical actor. In saying this, I do not by any means wish to suggest that my biography is definitive. No work of historical scholarship ever is. I have no doubt that future scholars will provide fresher, deeper, and more insightful readings of Gandhi the politician, Gandhi the social reformer, Gandhi the religious pluralist, Gandhi the moral crusader. If—based on my now three-decades long engagement with Gandhi—I may be permitted to offer them a word of advice, it is this—by all means begin your research by reading the Collected Works, but don’t end with them.