15th August 2017 marks the 70th anniversary since Indian independence from British colonial rule. Mahatha Gandhi is often portrayed as an anti-imperialist and non-violent leader of the Indian independence movement. But, as Ravi Mistry explains, the truth is that Gandhi betrayed as many as he inspired, playing a role that ultimately led to the disaster of partition.
Mahatma Gandhi, the defining figure of the Indian nationalist campaign against British colonial rule in India, is known by most as an anti-imperialist, whose peaceful non-violent methods helped to overthrow British rule. This myth has been perpetuated by many. The truth, however, is that he betrayed as many as he inspired in the independence campaign, stood wholeheartedly with British imperialist interests, consolidated existing inequalities including caste, racial, and gender discrimination, and ultimately his role helped lead to the calamitous disaster of partition.
Much of what Gandhi said and did which was controversial, such as his openly racist comments on the status of Africans, to his support for the British in the Boer war, is often painted as a transgression of a younger Gandhi who over time came to fight against these wrongs. This has been grossly exaggerated, with Gandhi maintaining many of these prejudices throughout his entire life. What actually remained consistent were that his own views and actions were always distant and removed from the proletariat, whether they were indentured labourers, the industrial working class, untouchables, peasants, or Africans. His political development must be seen within this perspective.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born on the 2nd October 1869 in the modern day state of Gujarat, in the then princely state of Porbandar. He was born into a wealthy family, and was of the trading and money lending Bania caste. He married Kastur Kapadia at the age of 13, and went on to study in Rajkot. His father was the diwan (prime minister) to a local raja (king), and thus the family had money to send the young Gandhi to Britain, where he studied law in London. He was successfully called to the bar in June 1891.
Gandhi was of the professional British-educated class, which was to lead the Indian independence campaign on behalf of the native bourgeoisie. The other famous leaders of the independence movement took a similar path, such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, B. R. Ambedkar and Vallabhbhai Patel to name but a few.
Gandhi in South Africa
Gandhi, failing to establish himself in Bombay as a lawyer, found work in Natal, South Africa from a fellow Porbandarite businessman, Dada Abdulla. He arrived as a 24 year old in May 1893 on a year-long contract, with a generous £105 fee, living expenses and first class passage. It is here that Gandhi faced the racism of the Empire most openly, and he first developed his ideas of non-violent protest. However, it is also here where he illustrated his class and racial prejudices against both his fellow Indians and Africans, whilst standing loyally with British imperialist interests.
Natal’s population in 1893 was 584,326, with whites making up 8%, Indians 6% and Zulus 85%. Gandhi immediately faced these racial insecurities as soon as he set ashore. He was asked to remove his turban when he went to court by the magistrate, to which he refused and stormed out the building. Two weeks later he was famously thrown off the train in Pietermartizburg for refusing to move out of a first class carriage, because a white passenger disapproved of sharing with a ‘coolie’. Shortly after, he was beaten-up whilst travelling on a stagecoach by a white passenger, who had forced him to move because he wanted to smoke, to which Gandhi had protested.
Gandhi was also refused stay at hotels, and was made well aware from fellow Indians of their second class status in the colony. Indians were prevented from walking on pavements, and forced to use different entrances to whites. These restrictions were increasing, especially because the white population feared that Indian migrants would out-compete white businesses, and undercut white workers. He was clearly well aware right from the very start of the numerous inequalities faced not only by Indians, but the native Zulu population too.
His choice within this context was to show loyalty to his oppressors, to be subservient to them, and play up to their white paternalism, rather than attacking these injustices outright in the hope of achieving equality with the white subjects of empire. He sought to set indentured Indians apart from the petit-bourgeois and bourgeois Indians such as himself, through the realm of the Empire’s logic.
In an appeal he wrote in 1895 he pledged loyalty on behalf of Indians to the British Crown, and cited arch-imperialists Cecil Rhodes and Lord Milner’s ideas of ‘equal rights for civilised men’ for non-indentured propertied Indians. ‘Civilised men’ did not include migrant indentured labourers who came to Natal on five-year contracts, suffering awful living and working conditions. Instead Gandhi described them as “my dumb and helpless countrymen”. He stated in December 1895 that Indians who owned property “have no wish to see ignorant Indians who cannot possibly be expected to understand the value of the vote, being placed on the Voter’s List”.
This mode of separating himself from other oppressed groups is even clearer when it came to the status of Africans. Gandhi actively promoted racial segregation, as he used late nineteenth century ideas of race to claim that Indians descended from the Aryans, thus making them separate and above to Africans. Gandhi believed that Indians were treated poorly because they were seen as being on a par with Africans by whites, thus he did everything he could to separate Indians from Africans, as he clearly states himself:
“The Europeans desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.” (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (‘CWMG’) Volume 1, p. 410)
With Gandhi helping found the Natal Indian Congress in 1894, he set about this separation by petitioning and successfully winning separate entrances for Indians into the Durban post office. Whereas previously there had been two: one for whites and the other for ‘coloured people’; now there were three: one for whites, one for ‘Asiatics’, and one for ‘Natives’. Similarly in May 1895, in a petition by Transvaal Indians to the British Colonial Secretary Lord Ripon on the issue of first and second-class passage for Indians on railways, it lamented that 'Indians are huddled together in the same compartment with Natives’.
These remarks and actions were consistently replicated by Gandhi throughout his time in South Africa. In response to the White League’s call against Indian immigration and the proposal of Chinese immigration in 1903, he stated: "We believe also that the white race of South Africa should be the predominating race." Moreover whilst some acknowledge this, they often claim Gandhi changed his views later on as he fought against the Empire, but this is not necessarily true. Whilst he did later advocate for African cultural nationalism, such as dressing in native African dress, he also criticised Indian Socialists for waging a common struggle with the African cause, and wanted Indian interests to be kept separate.
During Gandhi’s time in South Africa, he developed and practised the method of ‘passive resistance’, as a series of restrictive legislation was passed which directly attacked Indian rights. One of the most controversial of these was dubbed the ‘Black Act’ in Transvaal: no further Indian immigration was to take place, and all males aged 8 and over were forced to have all their fingerprints documented.
Three thousand Indians pledged repeated imprisonment, as Gandhi tried to work with the government for a climb-down to no avail. It is here Gandhi first started his passive resistance campaign, with 2000 Indians being sent to prison. Yet he was to betray those sacrificing their little freedom by agreeing to a weak agreement with Jan Smuts, leader of Transvaal, at the first sign of compromise. Wealthy and educated Indians were exempted, and Indians would voluntarily give their fingerprints instead of being forced to. Gandhi believed that this was a victory because there was no compulsion, and since he thought a class barrier was legitimate as it was not based on race. This provoked fury amongst the thousands of those who had sacrificed themselves through imprisonment.
These restrictive laws were to continue, including the annual £3 tax, and the non-recognition of non-Christian marriages. It was unclear if indentured Indians and their families who came after 1895 had full rights to domicile, Indians were denied access to the Orange Free State, and strict restrictions continued to exist for trading, licenses and immigration. Gandhi, despite being subservient to the British, and trying to effect change both constitutionally and through largely moderate acts of civil disobedience, had failed to concretely deal with any of these grievances and attacks on the Indian community in South Africa.
By 1913 another immigration bill restricting Indian movement further was passed, and despite successive passive resistance campaigns failing, 1913 proved to be decisive. Passive resistance supporters who sent themselves to jail now included women and more participants in general, but decisively Indian miners and indentured labourers began striking much to Gandhi’s surprise. Despite calling them “ignorant” and being highly wary of their political power, he used their support alongside indentured labourers, as a mass campaign across South Africa was launched against many grievances.
With riots, strikes of miners and indentured labourers, passive resistance, alongside foreign pressure exerted by sympathetic whites, compromise was finally forced, leading to the Solomon Commission. This recommended and eventually passed a bill repealing the £3 tax, legitimating non-Christian marriages and the right of domicile for three years, but also cleared the police of any wrongdoing during the struggle. Many restraints remained however, including on entering the Orange Free State, immigration to South Africa, and trading and licence restrictions.
It must also be noted that in this struggle, Gandhi decried the idea of Indian miners linking up with Africans. At the same time, Indian miners said they were not striking for Gandhi, that he was not their leader, and indeed acted outside of his leadership, as in the main did indentured labourers. Passive resistance on his terms without the backing of the Indian working class had previously won nothing, and in the final agreement he was quick to bargain at the lowest demands possible to get an agreement as fast as possible. Gandhi was to arrive back in India a hero, yet the greatest irony of his biggest success was that it was down to the strength and solidarity of the Indian working class, not satyagrahi’s, i.e. those who followed his puritan ideology and leadership.
Hind Swaraj, Gandhism and Satyagraha
Hind Swaraj, written in 1909 while Gandhi was on a ship travelling back to South Africa from London, is where Gandhi most concisely and clearly outlines his philosophical views. The contents of it are essentially utopian and reactionary. In it he rallies against modern civilisation encompassed by the British, from doctors, railways and lawyers, to which he describes as ‘the kingdom of Satan’, contrasting this to ‘Ancient Civilisation, which is the kingdom of God’.
He argues that for the real ‘Swaraj’ (self-rule) to be obtained, the state must not just be replaced by Indians at all levels, but it must be completely transformed. He argues against learning most sciences in favour of religious education, which should occupy the greatest precedence. In turn he sets out a path of passive resistance (‘satyagraha’) to achieve this, regarding the arming of the masses as being a foreign European conception. He claimed that passive resistance requires poverty and chastity, so as to create a fearless body willing to sacrifice.
Nearly all of what he writes in the book holds a great deal of irony, with Gandhi benefitting from a British education, travelling widely on British railways and steamships, and being a barrister himself. Gandhi also frequented colonial clubs where he sought support from the native industrial capitalist class and sympathetic Europeans for his campaigns and experiments. To seek such support was the reason he himself cites for settling in Ahmedabad, the industrial capital of Gujarat. Amongst fellow nationalists too, Gandhi’s views espoused in Hind Swaraj were seen as completely odd, reactionary and confused.
Gandhi did try to implement his philosophical utopia in the ashrams he set up, but even on such a small scale, they struggled to exist. Authoritarian control was used by Gandhi to try and implement a communal utopia, with a strict plain vegetarian diet with no salt, ghee and milk; celibacy for all; separate living quarters for men and women; and shared living, cooking and eating between the castes and religions. Despite these communal ideals, in practice Hindus were to still sterilise cutlery used by Muslims, Gandhi’s wife Kasturba was reluctant to clean bedpans, and significantly, no Africans were allowed. Millie Polak who resided at Tolstoy farm writes:
“Mr Gandhi never knew that tea and coffee, sugar and salt, and a dozen other delectable but forbidden things were smuggled onto the Farm and thoroughly enjoyed there”. (Millie Polak, Mr Gandhi: The Man 1931, p. 96-97)
It is also ironic that Gandhi’s ashrams, from Tolstoy Farm to Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, were reliant upon funds from wealthy sympathetic European and Indian capitalists to create a space of austerity and self-sufficient communal harmony.
Gandhi and Ahmisa (non-violence)
One of the pervading myths of the Mahatma is that he was non-violent and peaceful. This belief has been perpetuated by academics, the Indian state, and popular culture in general. This, however, flies in the face of his actions and statements, which unashamedly supported colonial violence, murder and war.
Whilst Gandhi was in South Africa, two brutal imperial conflicts were fought in the clear interest of British imperialism. Both were not only wholeheartedly supported by Gandhi, but were seen by him as opportunities to prove the worth of Indians in South Africa.
South Africa was divided between the British, and the Dutch Afrikaners who were known as Boers, literally meaning farmer. The second of the Boer Wars was fought because the Boer area of Transvaal sat on one of the largest reserves of gold. In addition, the new Delagoa Bay railway allowed the Boers to bypass British ports, whilst German imports and European finance were significantly increasing in the last decade of the nineteenth century. British capitalists and landlords in South Africa were increasingly concerned by this, and war began on 11th October 1899 solely to protect and expand British imperial interests.
Within this context Gandhi eagerly sought to help the British imperial cause, stating to Colonial Secretary Chamberlain that Indians showed “extreme eagerness to serve our Sovereign”, and asked to be placed in field hospitals. Due to early Boer gains, the British accepted Gandhi’s offer. He also started a patriotic war fund, and was consistently loyal throughout despite the war’s brutality. Concentration camps were created as the Boers later turned to guerrilla warfare. In these 28,000 Boers (including 22,000 children), and 20,000 Africans died. This was of no concern to Gandhi, who offered his congratulations on the British victory, and asked for the Queens chocolate (which was gifted to white soldiers), and discharge certificates to show how Indians had participated in the war. He was to receive neither, nor any political concessions for Indians.
Despite receiving nothing, Gandhi continued to ruthlessly demonstrate his unconditional loyalty to the Empire during the brutal crushing of the 1906 Bhambatha Rebellion (the second Zulu War). Both the Boers and the British had violently dispossessed the Zulus of their land. To further to force them into becoming labourers, a £1 tax was introduced on all Zulu men who did not already pay the hut tax. Bhambatha ka Mancinza, chief of the Zondi clan, led a fightback that began by attacking a police patrol, killing three. In retaliation, the British began a vicious campaign to put down the rebellion where almost four thousand Zulus were killed, seven thousand imprisoned, tens of thousands were left homeless and were forced, as the British wanted, to become labourers for the Empire's mines, white farmers and other industries. (Shula Marks, The Cambridge History of South Africa (2011), p. 202)
Gandhi’s role was to unashamedly support the British in crushing the uprising, and belittle the Zulus for rebelling. Gandhi’s aims were to illustrate how Indians were as ‘civilised’ and on a par with whites as loyal subjects of the Empire. He saw the rebellion against British imperialism by the Zulus as an opportunity to prove this. In an editorial in 1905 in the paper Gandhi founded, Indian Opinion, it outrageously claimed that Zulu society was “unduly pampered” by the British and a “little judicious extra taxation would do no harm…in the majority of cases it compels the native to work for at least a few days a year.” (Desai and Vahed, The South African Gandhi (2015), p. 105)
Moreover, in offering Indian support to the British, Gandhi wrote “over one hundred thousand Indians in Natal proved that they can do very efficient work in time of war,…” Indians did “not aspire to any political power in the Colony” [and] the government should take the opportunity to “convert a hitherto neglected community into a permanent and most valuable asset of the State.” (CWMG Volume 5, p. 125)
Gandhi cannot even be said to be of his time, as arch imperialist Winston Churchill even spoke out against the war. The barbarism of the war held no credence for Gandhi, and he even had the nerve to write to the colonial governor the year after pleading for Indians to be able to serve in the army. Gandhi was to continue his wholehearted support for British imperialism, giving not only continued support throughout WWI, but actively recruiting Indian soldiers for the cause.
What makes this more hypocritical is that as the war progressed, Gandhi had begun to lead peasant agitations amongst indigo workers in Champaran in 1916, and amongst peasants in Kheda district (1917-18) in his native Gujarat. Gandhi and many of his followers called upon these peasants to defy British rule by boycotting the payment of rents, and actively encouraging ferment against British colonial rule.
Speaking to peasants in Kheda district in 1918, he said:
“Our struggle is not merely for securing suspension of land revenue…In truth, we are fighting for the sake of the important issue which is involved in it. That is the issue of democratic Government. The people have awakened and begun to understand their rights. A full understanding of these rights is what is meant by Swaraj.” (CWMG Volume 14, p. 55)
The land agitation in Kheda was quietly resolved by mid-1918 and the event was treated as a victory. However, during the time of the agitation, Gandhi was called to Delhi to meet the Viceroy, in order to reinstate his support for the war effort. Even at this stage, being well aware of how bloody and violent it had become, Gandhi again wholeheartedly and publicly backed the British. Despite fighting for the peasants, writing Hind Swaraj, and taking his vow of celibacy and non-violence, Gandhi not only reiterated his support for WW1, but had the nerve to go back to Kheda district - where the peasants had just been agitating against British colonial rule - to recruit Indian soldiers to fight for the British imperialists in the war. He even said he would lead them on the front lines in Europe!
The same peasants who had looked at him in awe just a few weeks ago now looked at him confused and repulsed. When questioned about his stance on non-violence, he said that he would not carry weapons. He and other Gandhian leaders struggled to recruit soldiers, and none were to fight in the war, as once they had begun training the war had ended.
The use of non-violent protest for Gandhi was furthermore not only a way of showing who was oppressed, but also a means to control the militancy of both the working class and the peasantry. Such militancy was shown most famously with the Chauri-Chaura riots, where a group of fired up protesters under the 1920-22 non-cooperation movement (initiated and led by Gandhi), burned down a police station killing 22 policemen. Gandhi used this as an excuse to call off the movement, setting back the cause for independence, and draining all the momentum that went with it.
Despite consistently preaching non-violence whilst protesting against British colonialism in India, he actively called for it in the 1942 Quit India movement, when the Congress were kicked out of power in provincial government, and its leading members, including Gandhi, jailed. In the midst of WWII Gandhi called on the people to ‘do or die’, and his staunch ally, Vallabhbhai Patel, stated on more than one occasion to fellow Congressmen that:
“if instances like Viramgam occur or the railway line is removed or an Englishman is murdered, the struggle will not be stopped….Face it boldly, even at the cost of violence…You should put aside the constructive programme now and be ready to carry out Gandhi’s farmans [orders]. Acts of violence even of the type of Chauri Chaura will not stop the movement.”(David Hardiman, Histories of the Subordinated (2006), p. 154.)
The idea that the Mahatma was a man of peace is plainly laughable. He actively recruited support for three deeply violent imperial conflicts in the name of the Empire, crushed the rebellions and militancy of the Indian masses under the guise of non-violence, whilst also in the end called for such violence in 1942. In his own words, he stated in 1920:
“In my humble opinion, no Indian has co-operated with the British Government more than I have for an unbroken period of twenty-nine years of public life in the face of circumstances that might well have turned any other man into a rebel.” (CWMG Volume 14, p. 385)
Gandhi and the Indian Nationalist Movement
When Gandhi arrived back in India in January 1915, his leadership of the Indian community and the struggles he had fought in South Africa privileged him the status of an all-India leader, something few Indian leaders could say at this time. This, coupled with the growing radicalism given the conditions of WWI, where India had been essentially drained of its resources; an ever more intrusive state; and growing government repression to any dissent, allowed the figure of the Mahatma to rise and express this anger in the demand for Swaraj (self-rule). During this phase the native bourgeois leaders were hoping for dominion status within the empire, giving India a status on a par with the white colonies of Australia and Canada.
Gandhi was able to attain a mass following because of these conditions, and his form of civil disobedience allowed an increasingly radical layer of peasants and petit-bourgeois layers to express their resentment. His dress in a simple white khadi cloth convinced many that he was a ‘man of the people’, and he connected with millions as he encouraged them to forge a struggle against specific acts and laws. Millions who were looking for an expression against their oppression were thus attracted into the nationalist movement, connecting their struggle to the specific goal of Swaraj.
This was first attempted nationally by Gandhi with the 1919 Rowlatt Satyagraha: a campaign of passive resistance against the Rowlatt Act. The Act curbed civil rights such as trial without detention for up to two years, as the British feared a revolutionary movement in the wake of the Russian Revolution. The Satyagraha called upon a hartal (strike) of businesses, not workers(!), on the 6th of April. Gandhi specifically stated that “employees required to work even on Sunday may only suspend work after obtaining previous leave from their employers.”
Despite Gandhi’s restrictions, many were simply not adhered to. Groups took actions into their own hands, eventually leading to riots, especially following rumours spreading of Gandhi’s arrest. As riots spread from a radically politicised peasantry and working class, who attacked symbols of colonial rule (e.g. railway lines and telegraph poles), Gandhi immediately sided with the British, and did everything he could to calm the situation. Those who did protest were arrested or communally fined, with Gandhi offering no resistance to such punishment.
The nationalist movement was then further consolidated under Gandhi’s rule through the vehicle of the Indian National Congress, the main native bourgeois nationalist party in South Asia. In September 1920, Gandhi called for a national non-cooperation movement with the British, until dominion status was granted. By this point Gandhi had truly cemented himself as India’s chief nationalist leader, becoming the Congress’ president. He had united the vast majority of the Muslim bourgeois leaders by connecting the non-cooperation movement, to the Khalifat movement against British actions in the Ottoman Empire. Gandhi can be said to have advanced the nationalist cause here, politically at least, amongst the native bourgeois across India. Ultimately though, he would, as he continued to do throughout his political career, betray the campaign, and side with the British.
The demands Gandhi set out for Swaraj during the non-cooperation movement were not backed up by radical actions, as required to achieve such a task. Gandhi demanded boycotting foreign cloth, government positions, government schools and other such institutions directly run by the British; but he also demanded his own puritan measures such as picketing liquor shops. These actions were not adhered to by all. However, they did begin to gather militancy from workers and peasants ,with many being arrested.
As the actions called by Gandhi were tame, it forced the workers and peasants to take matters into their own hands, as people fought against their own local oppressions, inevitably resulting in riots. On the 4th of February 1922 in Uttar Pradesh, 22 policemen were killed in riots in Chauri Chaura as the non-cooperation movement grew further in its militancy. Gandhi again used the excuse of violence to side with the colonial government, and stopped the movement he had started. This ultimately set back the cause for independence for decades.
Gandhi was subsequently arrested for two years and did not involve himself in the nationalist movement until the end of the 1920s. When he did re-enter national politics he opposed and stopped the call for Purna Swaraj (full independence) in 1927, called for by Subash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru; both had been influenced by the Indian communist Bhaghat Singh’s call for total independence. Purna Swaraj was delayed until January 1929 with the demand that by then the government would grant dominion status to India, something Gandhi knew they would not give; after they would then launch a civil disobedience campaign again.
Within this period, with the lack of a radical secular independence campaign, the movement splintered off into growing religious factions, driven by reactionary religious reformist and nationalist groups. These sowed the seeds for partition later on. Gandhi was highly complicit in this, as he drove a religiously puritan campaign with his calls for ‘constructive work’ and self-sufficiency; and invoking high caste Hindu religious idioms such as calls to the Hindu gods such as Ram, the Bhagvad Gita, and treating religious groups as separate communities. This contributed to the perception that the Congress party appeared to be an upper caste Hindu dominated party - which it was. This alienation, particularly of Muslims, was vividly illustrated at the famous salt march in Gujarat, 1930, where barely any were visible or participated.
Provincial rule had eventually been granted in 1935 after many decades of struggle from the Indian masses; not because of Gandhi’s leadership. However, the British still maintained the full right of control, which was duly exercised with onset of WWII. Gandhi’s last major contribution to the nationalist movement was his call on the Indian people to ‘do or die’ under the Quit India movement. Ironically he called for a violent uprising, which was brutally crushed by the British, especially in the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, as the British lost control in certain areas. Gandhi however had no intention of leading any armed struggle, and his call was largely a suicide mission for the millions he was asking to sacrifice their lives. This is concretely shown as Subash Chandra Bose, who was forced to quit the Congress because of Gandhi, did go onto to lead an armed liberation force for independence, something Gandhi did not support.
Gandhi’s intention was always to secure a peaceful transfer of power to the Indian bourgeoisie. However his fear of the working class and peasantry led him to side with the colonial government, and set back the victory of independence for decades. This contradiction of protecting the private property of the native bourgeoisie, whilst also tamely mobilising workers and peasants for the nationalist cause, characterised the nature of the Indian nationalist movement under Gandhi’s leadership. As Trotsky made clear to Indian workers in 1939:
“The Indian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle. They are closely bound up with and dependent upon British capitalism. They tremble for their own property. They stand in fear of the masses. They seek compromises with British imperialism no matter what the price and lull the Indian masses with hopes of reforms from above. The leader and prophet of this bourgeoisie is Gandhi. A fake leader and a false prophet!” (Leon Trotsky, An Open Letter to the Workers of India, New International (1939), p. 263-6)
Gandhi and the working class
Mahatma Gandhi consistently refrained from engaging with the working class in the industrial cities of India. Despite being a minority of the population, it was the workers who made up the most progressive social and political force in colonial India. This was demonstrated through their class and communal solidarity, such as strikes and collective bargaining to improve their working conditions, rights, and pay; to their militant nationalist actions such as the 1946 Royal Indian native mutiny. Gandhi’s attitude to industrial workers was paternalistic and condescending at best. In 1923, following the defeat of a 65 day mass general strike in Ahmedabad over a twenty percent wage cut for those working in the cotton mill, Gandhi advised workers that:
“Owners and workers ought to be in a relationship of father to son.” (Howard Spodeck, Ahmedabad (2011), p. 94)
This was because Gandhi himself was a representative of the Indian bourgeoisie. On the rare occasion that he led a strike of the Ahmedabad millworkers in 1918, he did so only because a colonial official had asked him to intervene. The workers went out on a wildcat strike, forcing a standoff. When an arbitration committee was set up, none of the millworkers were represented. Furthermore the president of the Millowners’ Association, Ambalal Sarabhai, had just saved Gandhi’s Sabarmati ashram with his generous funds, so to now represent the working class in a strike put Gandhi in a dubious position.
The workers demanded a 50% increase in wages, due to unprecedented profits being reaped alongside rapid inflation. This was diluted by Gandhi to 35%, and he persistently placated the workers, making them pledge to not “indulge in mischief, quarrelling, robbing, plundering, or abusive language or cause damage to millowners’ property”. During the struggle Gandhi even had the audacity to drive in Ambalal Sarabhai’s car, and he also came to his ashram for a meal. This growing anger and alienation with Gandhi’s leadership forced him to fast for the cause, in order to manage the workers’ militancy. The dispute was eventually settled with Gandhi’s lower wage increase.
Where the working class did show its strength, communal unity and revolutionary potential, Gandhi worked to actively destroy it. This was most clearly illustrated during the Royal Indian naval mutiny in February 1946, where naval bases across the country, ships at sea, and some 20,000 sailors went on strike, many raising the red flag. The Communist Party (CPI), backed by Congress Socialist leaders, called for a national strike, with a staggering 300,000 workers downing tools in solidarity in the city of Bombay itself. Such class unity and revolutionary potential stoked fear into the native bourgeoisie. The largely Hindu backed Congress party and the Muslim League worked hand-in-hand to crush this communal and class unity, just a year before the bloody partition. Gandhi condemned the strike, and incredibly stated that:
“‘A combination between Hindus and Muslims and others for the purpose of violent action is unholy’” (Sumit Sarkar, Modern India (1989) p. 425)
Gandhi and the peasantry
The majority of Indians in colonial India (some 90%) were rurally based, the majority of whom were peasants. British rule was primarily maintained with revenue from the land, making the Indian peasantry a potentially potent force. Leading bourgeoisie nationalists also preferred to agitate amongst the peasantry over the working class, because many were more isolated and owned their own land, and thus would not directly affect Indian businesses.
Land agitations, from revenue taxation to land rights, had a long history in India dating to well before the nationalist movement. This however always created a duel conundrum for the likes of Gandhi as they struck at class relations. For example, during the non-cooperation movement in Oudh (now Awadh) in Uttar Pradesh, where a Congress sponsored campaign called for tenants and zamindaris (landholders) not to pay taxes to the British government, workers demanded that tenants should refuse to pay rents to zamindaris - a direct provocation to the directive of the Congress leadership which sought to protect existing class relations. Gandhi himself was forced to intervene, insisting to peasants in Faizabad that they could not be violent, use abusive language, or socially boycott landlords in 1921.
Even during the successful 1928 Bardoli Satyagraha, Gandhi attempted to dampen the militancy of the peasantry. Eager to fight, the peasants turned to Gandhi for leadership. However after months of struggle, Gandhi and his appointed leaders sought a private agreement with the Government over the issue of land taxation, whereby a private businessman in Bombay would pay the entire remaining tax owed to the government by the district. Previously militant peasants became disappointed and disillusioned, as many lost their land as a result of Gandhi’s compromises. Moreover, when one of Gandhi’s closest allies, Vallabhbhai Patel, called upon Gandhi to launch a wider radical no-taxation campaign across India to crush the state, Gandhi disapproved, claiming Satyagraha should only be waged upon specific grievances, and Patel was left to sit on his hands. Thus even amongst the leading nationalists Gandhi often sat on the more conservative side.
Many of the most militant peasants sacrificed their land during these Gandhian led agitations, as the government confiscated their plots. This led to alienation with the Congress leadership, illustrated most clearly by the lack of any further calls for further civil disobedience through land agitations. Furthermore it is also seen concretely with the formation of the All India Kisan Sabha in 1936, which formed the peasant front of the undivided Indian Communist Party. Since Congress backed agitations had proven to those peasants that they and Gandhi were a landlord party - not fighting in the peasants’ interests - many flocked to this movement.
Clearly there was revolutionary potential for a united class struggle of Indian workers and peasants; but without a revolutionary leadership to back, coordinate, and lead such a struggle on a national scale, a revolution against British colonial rule could not take place. Gandhi’s conservatism whilst trying to engage with the peasantry is reflective of the class contradictions he tried to reconcile. Whether in Bardoli or Oudh, class contradictions in peasant struggles emerged in which Gandhi always sided with the interests of larger wealthy landholders over middle, smaller and landless peasants. This is why Gandhi denied any attempt of forging a national peasant struggle, because he understood the class contradictions and revolutionary implications it would have unleashed.
Gandhi and Communism
Gandhi called himself a socialist, yet his actions and beliefs prove counter to everything modern socialism stands for. His philosophy, as set out in Hind Swaraj, calls for a return to a sort of primitive communism, yet in practice he was well and truly tied to the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie. Moreover Gandhi feared the working class and communists, and used the guise of his peaceful philosophy to discredit and denounce them.
Gandhi had viewed the 1917 Russian revolution and Bolshevism as simply a European affair, alien and too atheistic to ever liberate South Asia:
“I do know in so far as it is based on violence and the denial of God, it repels me…I am an uncompromising opponent of violent methods even to serve the noblest of causes.” (Anthony Parel, Gandhi, Freedom, and Self-rule, p. 70-71)
This is highly hypocritical, given that at the same time he was wholeheartedly supporting, and even recruiting soldiers for the bloodiest and most violent war in human history from start to finish. Moreover when asked about private property and zamindaris (landlords), he made his class interest impeccably clear:
“You may be sure that I shall throw the whole weight of my influence in preventing class war. Supposing that there is an attempt unjustly to deprive you of your property, you will find me fighting on your side.” (Nirmal Bose, Selections From Gandhi, p.115)
Gandhi’s dislike for communists went further than just words however, as seen with the Gandhi-Irwin pact in March 1931, signed to halt the civil disobedience campaign in exchange for talks of dominion status. In these talks tens of thousands of political prisoners were released. However, the Punjab Indian revolutionaries Bhaghat Singh, Sukhdev, Udham Singh and Shivaram Rajguru, who had been in jail as political prisoners, were sent to their deaths. Gandhi failed to even condemn these political murders by the colonial government, never mind fought for their release.
When Gandhi arrived in the Punjab he was met with black flags and tremendous anger for his failure to secure their release. Although Gandhi’s complicity has never been concretely proven, the fact he had been able to achieve the release of tens of thousands of other political prisoners, and was willing to go to extreme lengths to achieve his political goals such as fasting to his own death, illustrates quite clearly that he was complicit.
Gandhi, women and sexuality
Gandhi’s views and treatment towards women in his early age was very backward, believing a woman to be the faithful subject of his husband. This can be seen with the treatment of his wife Kasturba, both 13 when they married, when he implies that he raped her, stating: “I took no time in assuming the authority of a husband”.
His deeply puritan and patriarchal views continued in South Africa at his Tolstoy ashram. Gandhi was disturbed as he saw some young boys making light-hearted passes at two girls. Shaken by this, he went on to cut off the girls’ hair as a punishment to protect their purity. Gandhi was also against inter-communal marriages, for example when opposing his own son Manilal’s wish to marry a Muslim girl Fatima Gool, instead setting him up with a Hindu girl.
He was to change some of his views over time, regretting the actions taken against his wife, and denouncing the most pernicious practices of Indian patriarchy such as child marriage, whilst also supporting women’s education. He encouraged women’s involvement in the nationalist movement, believing that women made good satyagrahis because of their better ability to suffer. Yet he still maintained a patriarchal outlook and he saw the two sexes as unequal. In an article published in Harijan in February 1940 on what the role of the woman, Gandhi makes this very clear:
“The duty of motherhood, which the vast majority of women will always undertake, requires qualities which man need not possess. She is passive, he is active. She is essentially mistress of the house. He is the bread-winner, she is the keeper and distributor of bread...The art of bringing up infants of the race is her special and sole prerogative. Without her care the race must become extinct.” (CWMG Volume 77, p. 321)
Gandhi bringing women into the nationalist movement bore many resemblances to right-wing Hindu-reformist organisations, who shared many of the Mahatma’s beliefs. As he states at the end of the above passage, his beliefs in racial purity, with the Indian woman symbolising the nation, ultimately meant the male policing of women under the guise of their duty to the nation; a legacy that remains strong to this day. Women’s involvement in the nationalist movement was largely to be a symbolic and visible role.
Gandhi’s views on sexuality were also incredibly strange, believing that sex should be purely for pro-creation, even for married couples. Gandhi himself took a vow of celibacy in 1906, aged 38, without consulting his wife Kusturba. He then went on to have extremely odd experiments, the most famous of which is where he slept next to young naked women, including his great-niece Manu, to test his celibacy vow.
Gandhi was always keen to be photographed with his closest female followers, usually those who lived in his ashram, who were dressed in white khadi saris. However they were not treated as equals but as objects. Gandhi’s patriarchal views and odd practices have done nothing for the liberation of women in India and if anything, have only helped to enshrine backward patriarchal views.
Gandhi, Caste, and Untouchability
The caste system - the hierarchical status based system in which someone is born into - was wholeheartedly supported by Gandhi. Writing in Young India in December 1920 he states:
“Man being a social being has to devise some method of social organisation. We in India have evoked caste: They in Europe have organised class.” (CWMG Volume 19 p. 174)
Gandhi had no issue with supporting hierarchical caste distinctions, but instead called for reform within it so all castes were seen as ‘respectable’. In practice however, Gandhi was derogatory and condescending towards untouchables and lower caste groups, and actively fought to deny them political representation. This is despite Gandhi being well aware of the tremendous amount of discrimination faced by these groups. In 1927 he conducted a report into the plight of untouchables and tribals in the Surat district, finding damning results. Women had been raped by landed and wealthy caste Hindus, resulting in illegitimate children and the spread of venereal diseases. The practice of serfdom was also rife under the ‘hali system’ yet Gandhi’s response was that the responsibility for change relied upon upper castes treating tribals and untouchables in a more respectful manner.
Gandhi illustrated his views towards these groups in a confrontation with Bhimrao Ambedkar, the most prominent Dalit (untouchable) leader. The liberal Ambedkar wanted communal representation of untouchables and tribals, at the round table talks in London. Ambedkar had called for separate electorates for their representation, as a precedent had been set with Muslims. Gandhi, did not want Dalits to become a separate electorates, as this would undermine the position of the upper caste dominated Hindu bourgeoisie party, the Indian National Congress. He announced a fast unto his death unless Ambedkar backed down. Ambedkar retreated, signing the Poona Pact in 1932, with Gandhi victoriously claiming that untouchables, tribals and lower caste groups were all part of the Hindu family. The agreement was a compromise which did give reserved seats for the untouchables in the Provisional legislatures, although within the general electorate.
Gandhi was not alone in his views, and in his own methods of ‘uplift’. He shared much with in the methods of the Hindu Sabha and the Arya Samaj, two right wing Hindu-reformist organisations who detested rehabilitating lower castes as tearing apart the Hindu community, and had similar ‘uplift projects’ to Gandhi to co-opt these groups into supporting the bourgeois campaign for independence. In a similar vain to these groups, Gandhi promoted their ‘uplift’ through condescending means such as renaming untouchables as Harijans (children of god) and tribals as the Raniparaj (people of the forest). He encouraged self-sufficiency through spinning cloth and praying to Ram over their own gods. However when it came to political economic or social rights and representation, Gandhi was complicit, condescending and candid in denying these rights.
Gandhi, Islam and Partition
It would be wrong to single-handily blame partition on Gandhi himself, but he represented and helped drive the very contradictions which led to the partition of India through his communally charged politics.
Gandhi’s promotion of a religiously charged nationalist politics is seen in the non-cooperation movement (1920-22) where he endorsed the Khilafat movement. This was an agitation by Indian Muslims allied with Indian nationalism post WWI, to pressure the British government to preserve the authority of the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph of Islam, following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Whilst this aimed to limit British imperialism’s encroachment into the Middle East, Muslims and Hindus were treated as separate communities. By infusing religious sentiments into nationalist politics and treating religious communities as separate entities, Gandhi was to alienate a key Congress member, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, later the founder of Pakistan. Jinnah quit Congress in 1920 because of Gandhi’s politics, but ironically he went onto replicate his religious cries to whip up nationalist support for Pakistan.
With the failure of the non-cooperation movement, Gandhi continued to promote a form of religiously charged politics throughout the 1920s. For example, he invoked the Hindu gods of Ram, and recited passages from the Bhagvad Gita in his political speeches to rally people to the cause of independence. In a political speech in 1925 he condescendingly lectured tribal groups to:
“get up early in the morning, rinse your mouth, wash your face…then take the name of Rama. Rama means God. Repeating Ramnama is a sovereign remedy. We must pray to him “O Rama!” (CWMG Volume 26, p. 22)
It was very much this Hindu religious rhetoric and symbolism which led to a steady alienation amongst Muslims and other minorities, who over time began to feel that Congress-led nationalism was an upper-caste Hindu movement. Moreover many Congress leaders also had links to right-wing Hindu nationalist groups, who were hostile to Muslim communal demands.
A layer of the former elites and the Muslim capitalist class - the most prominent of whom were in Uttar Pradesh - grew worried about this alienation of the Muslim masses from the Congress party, which was increasingly seen as a Hindu party, ill-fit to protect their interests and privileges. Gandhi’s promotion of a religiously driven nationalist agitation campaign, based at its core on bourgeois and petit-bourgeois support, ended up exacerbating these divisions.
In 1944 the Gandhi-Jinnah talks took place and failed, Jinnah being the leader of the (bourgeois) Muslim League. This was Gandhi’s last leading contribution to seeking a communal agreement amongst the native bourgeois parties before independence, as Gandhi’s own influence in politics and in the Congress party weakened.
Under a capitalist solution, the two religiously divided bourgeoisies were inevitably heading for some form of communal division of sovereignty. The Muslim League was forced to whip up religious nationalism to increase its support, which inevitably created a backlash.
On top of this, the developing revolutionary situation in India following WW2, with mutinies in the armed forces, and seething discontent amongst the workers and peasants, made direct rule of India by the British increasingly untenable. With British imperialism weakened on a world scale following the war, the strategists of the ruling class sought a solution that would allow them to quit India, whilst still maintaining their investments and influence.
Hence the British imperialists - who had also promoted religious divisions throughout their rule to both conquer and cling onto power – sent in Lord Mountbatten to implement partition, in a cynical bid to keep an independent India weak and divided. Approximately half a million to a million people were killed, tens of thousands of women were raped, and twelve million became refugees in the largest migration of people in human history.
By the time partition was decided upon, Gandhi was not directly involved in discussions, and was unable to stem the tide of hate and division he had helped to create. He did not celebrate independence, and used his presence to try and calm down the mass slaughter of partition in Bengal. Ultimately these were small victories in what was a melee of blood.
Gandhi was assassinated on the 30th January 1948 at the hands of Nathuram Godse; a right-wing Hindu extremist who believed Gandhi was being too conciliatory to Pakistan and detested his non-violence stance. Cynically, he was to be immortalised by the bourgeoisie as the father of the nation; to legitimise the state, and to try and calm the communal tensions partition unleashed. Gandhi was drawn as a pacifist icon of India to obscure the real history of Indian independence, which left millions displaced, uprooted, raped, and murdered.
Gandhi and his legacy
It is no coincidence that Gandhi is idolised and portrayed as a saint by the official mouthpieces of the ruling class. His sermons to workers and peasants on ‘non-violence’ and ‘passive resistance’ are music to the ears of the exploiters, who – armed to the teeth – have nothing to fear from such methods. Rather than fight for the overthrow of this parasitic class of landlords and capitalists, Gandhi preached class collaboration and compromise. Hence he is celebrated in films, history books, and schools, whilst genuinely revolutionary leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky are vilified.
In reality, Mahatma Gandhi was a reactionary utopian bourgeois leader, who fought for India’s independence on behalf of the Indian bourgeoisie, not the Indian working class or the peasantry. He consistently betrayed the Indian workers and peasants, ignoring and repressing their demands whilst also placating their militancy. Far from moving the nationalist movement forward, he actively participated in diluting and constraining its militancy. His righteous struggle against the injustice of caste, racial and patriarchal oppression is a complete and utter myth, since he actually perpetuated and consolidated such divisions.
The positive claims about how Gandhi pioneered the protest of civil disobedience upon a national scale are true. However, the content of his politics meant he betrayed those he roused to fight against the oppression of colonial rule in India. Gandhi’s form of protest went onto inspire the likes of Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement in the United States, who showed the successes, but also the limitations of non-violent protest. But unlike King, Gandhi stood upon a reactionary platform.
In South Africa some have claimed that Gandhi set the path or guide for Africans to free themselves. However, this is to discredit a movement against colonial rule and imperialism which pre-dated Gandhi’s arrival onto the scene. Gandhi perpetuated white stereotypes about Africans, and discredited a common struggle amongst Indians and Africans against imperialism and the racism of Empire right up until his death.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a reactionary utopian who failed to even follow his own philosophy and teachings. His claims of non-violence and peaceful protest are hypocritical. He continued to have patriarchal misogynistic views of women throughout his life, looked down upon the Indian working class, peasants, landless labourers, and especially tribals and Dalits (untouchables). His actions diluted and put a break on the independence movement, and his religiously charged upper-caste version of Hinduism helped lead to the disastrous calamity of partition.