Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World 1914-1948 review

Ramachandra Guha unearths fascinating nuggets about India’s complex hero

Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World 1914-1948
Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World 1914-1948
Author: Ramchandra Guha
ISBN-13: 978-1846142673
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £40

On hearing of Gandhi’s death in January 1948, Noel Coward wrote, “Gandhi has been assassinated. In my humble opinion a bloody good thing but far too late.” But while British administrators did not go that far, many described him as a “humbug” and Orwell wondered whether he might not be “the nearest equivalent to Rasputin in our time”. And the wise men in Sweden did not award him the Nobel Prize.

Today there is a Gandhi statue in Parliament Square in London just behind Churchill’s as if the Indian is protecting the back of the Englishman who debunked him as a “half-naked fakir”. Martin Luther King modelled his civil rights campaign on Gandhi. Barack Obama had a photo of Gandhi in his office and even Ho Chi Minh invoked Gandhi. When a visiting Indian Communist asked how the Vietnamese Communist Party, formed about the same time as the Indian Communist Party, had secured power when the Indians had not, Ho laughed and replied, “In India you had Gandhi! Here I am Gandhi.”

Guha in a previous volume had described Gandhi’s years in South Africa. This volume takes the story from his return to India to his assassination by a Hindu fanatic in January 1948, just months after India won freedom. Guha has scoured archives to search out fascinating nuggets and he marshals them with skill.

Racism and caste

Guha makes a good case that Gandhi was a green long before the word had acquired its present political meaning. And he also mounts a plausible defence of Gandhi against writers like Arundhati Roy who have pointed out that in South Africa, while Gandhi campaigned for Indians, he “feared and despised Africans” and that in asking for the Hindu caste system to be maintained he was the “Saint of the Status Quo”. Guha argues that while Gandhi was a racist in his 20 he was not by the time he reached his 40s, and that Gandhi campaigned long and hard against untouchability, the great evil of the Hindu caste system.


Yet, modern India has discarded much of what Gandhi preached. Gandhi did not want the parliamentary democracy India has. But the Indian Constituent Assembly, composed of close disciples of Gandhi, ignored him. Nehru, Gandhi’s anointed successor, set India on the road to industrialisation, a prospect that horrified Gandhi. Indians have also largely discarded Gandhi’s other great idea: prohibition. When I was growing up in Mumbai in the 50s my father needed a permit to drink. Now drink is freely available in most parts of India. Guha, while acknowledging some of the ways India has moved away from Gandhi, does not explain why Indians have found it so useful to ignore the man they call the Father of the Nation.

Gandhi also made colossal political mistakes during the war which made the partition of India in 1947 inevitable. At the start of the war, Lord Linlithgow took India to war without consulting a single Indian. The Congress, very reasonably, argued that if Britain could go to war to fight for Poland’s freedom how could they still enslave India. The British refused to discuss giving India freedom and the Congress, which then ran the governments in most of the British provinces of India, resigned. The result was it opened the door for Mohammed Ali Jinnah, head of the Muslim League to ally himself with the British. Before this, the Congress had marginalised his Muslim party, so much so that even in the northwest frontier province, now the hot bed of the jihadists, a secular Congress-led administration was in power. This was compounded by the failure to accept the Cripps offer in 1942 which would have brought the Congress into the centre of power in Delhi and enabled it to dictate the agenda in the way it could not when the British were finally forced to leave India in 1947. Guha mentions the decisions Gandhi and the Congress took but does not deal with its implications which, in a book of 1,129 pages, is a drawback.

Moral superiority

To say Gandhi drove the British out of India is a gross simplification. This was a combination of many factors, not least Japan’s victories in the second World War which destroyed the myth of white supremacy in Asia. Gandhi’s great achievement was to undercut the high moral ground the British claimed in India. The British in India always presented themselves as morally superior to the Indians, the conqueror was always morally right. The annual report the secretary of state for India presented to parliament was called “Moral and Material Progress in India”. Churchill put this well in his speech at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on January 30th, 1931, describing the majority of Indians as “primitive people” ruled benevolently by “white officials who have no personal interests of their own to serve”. This made British rule in India sound like an early 20th-century version of an NGO.

The British described their Indian collaborators as “loyalists” while Indians who fought for freedom were called “traitors”. Lord Lytton, a governor of Bengal, trying to persuade Mullick, an Indian, to collaborate said, “Are you prepared to exchange a bed of roses for a crown of thorns?” This was a collaborator who would get all the perks of office, but the British in India presented this as a great sacrifice compared to going to jail should he join Gandhi. Another British official went even further and told Mullick “If you are thinking of yourself, don’t. If you are thinking of your country, do.”

Gandhi convinced Indians that, in rebelling against the British, they were not betraying their country but being truly patriotic. This he did with consummate skill, his most brilliant campaign being the salt march of 1930. The British having taxed salt, which burdened the poor, Gandhi marched to the sea to make salt. By that seemingly innocuous gesture of making salt on a deserted beach he at once illustrated the iniquities of foreign rule and made Indians stand tall. And this in an age when every European was considered superior to a brown or black man was a tremendous achievement.

Mihir Bose is the author of From Midnight to Glorious Morning? India Since Independence(Haus)