Most people in Europe and the United States will have their image and understanding of Gandhi from Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film. The indelible impression left by such scenes as Gandhi’s expulsion from a train in South Africa, the Dandi salt march, the Amritsar massacre, and the communal violence that erupted at the partition of India and Pakistan provoking Gandhi’s final fasts—all these powerful visual images of epic moments in the history of the Indian independence struggle contribute to the picture of a man swept up in epochal events and trying to control them by sheer force of character and will. Attenborough’s cinematically powerful portrayal manipulates popular conceptions of the Mahatma to reinforce a sense of Gandhi as larger than life, virtually a saint, untouched by most ordinary human emotions and uninfected by common weaknesses and foibles.
To some extent, Judith M. Brown’s Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope belies this conventional image. She frequently draws attention to Gandhi’s physical debilities, his quirkiness, his personal idiosyncrasies (for example, in diet) and thus portrays this undoubtedly extraordinary man as still of this world, subject to familiar human failings (stubbornness, anger, even petulance) while capable of unusual self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Gandhi emerges from this new biography as one who achieved remarkable things for his country in part because of his extraordinary personal qualities, but he can hardly be said to appear here as the simple ascetic of popular legend. It is likely that Gandhi himself would have approved of this more human image, for he never felt comfortable with the label “Mahatma” (great soul) thrust on him by others. One could say, then, that Brown’s biography is in general balanced and judicious, neither pure hagiography nor facile debunking.
This said, it must be remarked that Brown’s book is ultimately disappointing in several ways, not least in its steadfast refusal to engage with recent scholarship (mostly from India) that either has directly contested her understanding of Gandhi and of modern Indian history or has implicitly challenged her views by focusing on the more broadly based social forces that Gandhi was able to mobilize for independence and absent which he would only have been a minor social reformer of little significance beyond the confines of his native Gujarat. Brown herself remarks the semiautonomous trajectory of Indian nationalism without Gandhi, but only in passing. The bulk of her study confirms the long-held view that the Mahatma’s career was synonymous with the nationalist movement, its highest expression and its driving force.
The deficiencies in Brown’s account can best be approached by examining some historical episodes that figure prominently in her narrative and comparing her version of events with competing accounts from recent Indian historiography. Consider, for example, Gandhi’s emergence on the Indian political scene in the aftermath of World War I and his first major national campaign, the so-called Non-Cooperation Movement. Brown’s knowledge of this watershed moment in the independence struggle is not in doubt; she is the author of one of the standard studies of the period, Gandhi’s Rise to Power (1972), to which she refers the reader for details concerning Gandhi’s “capture” of the Indian National Congress at its annual session in Nagpur in December, 1920. As in her previous study, the picture of Non-Cooperation presented in Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope is predominantly an affair of political elites, of politicking and maneuvering at the top that then “launched” the mass movement below.
There is admittedly a measure of truth in this view, for Gandhi’s astute manipulation of individual leaders from the Congress and from the Khilafat Movement was undoubtedly decisive in achieving temporary detente between the previously hostile Hindu and Muslim leaderships. But it is far from the entire story; moreover, its top-down perspective significantly misrepresents the causes of the mass rebellion and seriously exaggerates the originality of the Gandhian program.
Since the appearance of Gandhi’s Rise to...
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