Book reviews - Conflict Resolution: Asia

Simone Panter-Brick
Gandhi and Nationalism : The Path to Indian Independence
(London: I.B. Tauris, 2012, 225pp)

Simone Panter-Brick had written two earlier books on Mahatma Gandhi: Gandhi against Machiavellism: Non-violence in Politics and Gandhi and the Middle East. Here, in a book written just before her death, she deals with two key concepts in the thought and action of Gandhi: swaraj and dharma. Swaraj is best translated as self-realization as in the Self-Realization Fellowship of the Indian teacher Paramahansa Yogananda in California. "Gandhi and Swaraj" would have been a more accurate title of the book than "nationalism", but fewer people would have known what the book was about from such a title. As Panter-Brick points out "Swaraj is formed of two Sanskrit words: swa (self) and raj (rule). Thus, it can be construed either as rule over the self - the spiritual assertion of every person - or as self-rule - participation in the political affairs of the nation as citizens fully conscious of their rights and duties. For Gandhi, it was both."

Dharma is a term used by Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Buddhists do not normally speak of their own religion as 'Buddhism' but usually refer to it as 'the Dharma' meaning truth, the law as in the sense of the natural law which sustains the universe. Dharma in Hinduism also means order in the sense of the law of the universe, immanent but made known to humans through awakening, the basis of moral life. In a narrower sense, dharma means duty - often caste duties or loyalty to the rulers of the country into which one has been born through the working of karma. It is in this latter sense - the duties that Gandhi felt to the Empire - that the book develops. The book is especially useful for those of us who try to use spiritual concepts within the political field where words take on other meanings and can also be understood by others in different ways than intended.

The understanding of the ways spiritual concepts are used in political life is made even more complex in the case of Gandhi in that he was not a thinker in terms of systems but in terms of action. "My life is my message." Most of Mahatma Gandhi's writings were newspaper articles reacting to specific events and letters, often in reply to letters asking specific questions. Copies of his letters were kept by his secretary, Mahadev Desai, and make up much of the many-volume Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi's effort at systematic writing, in particular his 1909 Hind Swaraj was used on the eve of independence against him by those wanting to establish Pakistan saying that Hind which Gandhi had used as an old name for India really meant Hindu and that Gandhi saw no place for Muslims in Indian society and deliberately overlooked any Muslim contribution to Indian civilization.

As Panter-Brick points out "Gandhi's entry into politics sprang from the firm belief that a citizen has rights and duties, and that he, as an Indian, had a duty to perform. This Indian conception of one's life task is best expressed in the word dharma or righteous performance of one's duty in life".

Born into a family whose function was that of diwan, chief administrator of a princely state, both his family and he saw his dharma as that of a government administrator, probably of a larger state than Porbandar administered by his father. As the princely states were autonomous but under the control of the British Empire, Gandhi stressed his individual duty to the British Empire. He had lost his caste standing by crossing the sea to study in England - there being a caste prohibition to crossing a large body of water. Thus the only dharma he had was a responsibility to the British Empire. However, dharma for Gandhi had to be considered as a self-imposed direction for duty and not imposed by tradition.

Thus in South Africa, he helped to create a medical corps for the English - the 1,100 strong Indian Ambulance Corps - in the 1899-1902 war against the Boers and again for the government in the 1906 short-lived Zulu Rebellion in Natal. On his return to India at the start of the First World War, he had tried to recruit Indians to serve in the British Army. He failed in his efforts as individuals who were not already members of military castes felt no dharmic duties to serve the Empire. Gandhi's sense of duty to serve the state of his birth ultimately gave way when the British Raj was too slow to react favourably to Indian nationalism, granting too little, too late. Moreover, Gandhi was surrounded by Indians in the Indian National Congress who had never felt any dharmic duty to the British Empire. They wanted to rule India without the British. They had in their hearts the slogan which they did not use publicly until 1942 "Quit India"

As Judith Brown, another specialist on Gandhi's thought, writes on the evolution of Gandhi's vision of swaraj "that was to be markedly at odds with the vision of political independence held by most of his colleagues in the Indian National Congress and the country at large. For him, swaraj was not a matter of Indians ejecting the British and stepping into their shoes and seats of power…It was a great enterprise of moral regeneration of a whole people and a transformation of their society, a righting of the wrongs and weaknesses that made colonialism rule possible, and ultimately a transformation of the processes of governance." (1)

Gandhi long hoped for Home Rule, Indian independence within what later became the Commonwealth, that is, national government with foreign policy set by consensus of all the member states having a Home Rule status. He had translated into English himself his Hind Swaraj giving the title Indian Home Rule. India had been accepted as a member of the League of Nations although not independent nor having Home Rule status. In fact, the Aga Khan, considered to be an Indian, had been President of the League of Nations Assembly.

For most leaders in the Indian National Congress, it was not foreign policy which mattered but "who ran things on the ground" in India. The Indian National Congress took advantage of every possibility to extend its control at the local level. Thus Congress was ready when the Government of India Act was passed in the British Parliament in 1935 to take power through elections set for 1937 down to the provincial level of governance.

From 1937 until 1940, Congress controlled the internal affairs of India, gaining experience in administration that would have paved a smooth road for governing the country at Independence in 1947. However, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the Congress High Command instructed all its provincial governments to resign in protest at the Viceroy's declaration of war on Germany without consulting with the people of India. (Hitler, of course, had consulted no one before attacking Poland). The immediate result was to create a political vacuum into which Muhammad Ali Jinnah, also a British-educated lawyer and President of the Muslim League, stepped. Jinnah was aware that London badly needed some show of loyalty in its major imperial possession and presented himself along with a vague concept of "two nations" - one Hindu, the other Muslim and the need for a "Pakistan" for the Muslim population. (2)

Congress formulated a "Quit India" Campaign of immediate independence for India. Japanese troops were in Burma on the frontier of India. Along with the Japanese, there was a fairly strong contingent of Indian soldiers who had been captured in Europe by the Germans and then sent to Asia to help the Japanese. These Indian troops were led by the Bengali leader Subhas Chandra Bose who had played an important role in Congress politics and was a close friend of Jawaharlal Nehru. The British took the Quit India Campaign as a sign of treason in wartime and jailed much of the Congress leadership until June 1945 when the war was over in Europe.

With the end of the Second World War, events speeded up. In 1945, 1st Viscount Wavell who had been military Commander-in-Chief in India during the war was named Viceroy. Wavell knew the situation well enough to understand that the days of the Empire were limited. He called for an interim government that would be based on a combination of Hindu and Muslim leaders: Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, the organizational strong man of Congress at Interior, and Liaquat Ali Khan, Jinnah's deputy, at Finance.

Mahatma Gandhi was largely on the sidelines as the administrative structures were being decided. As Panter-Brick writes "The Mahatma wanted to represent all Indians but not all Indians accepted that claim. He was too democratic for the autocratic princes and their vast estates. He looked too Hindu to the Muslims, too unorthodox to the Brahmins, too anti-class war to the Communists, too pro-landowner for the Socialists, and even in his party, too leftist to the right, too secular to some, too religious to others - and too non-violent to the politicians."

Thus leadership moved to Jawaharlal Nehru who also wanted to represent all Indians, but as Congress was over 90 percent Hindu, he was seen as a Hindu spokesman with Ali Jinnah for the Muslims. Jawaharlal Nehru had been brought into Indian politics by his father, Motilal Nehru, an important lawyer and an early Indian Congress leader in the 1890s. Motilal, interested in spirituality, was a member of the Theosophical Society and a close co-worker with the Theosophical President, Annie Besant, and her Home Rule efforts. Motilal felt that his son needed a Western education to be able to play a real role in Indian politics. Thus he sent Jawaharlal to be educated in secondary school and university in England. The separation resulted in that Motilal and Jawaharlal had distant father-son relations, and Motilal passed on few of his spiritual interests to his son.

Jawaharlal and Gandhi developed much of a father-son relation, Gandhi serving as the replacement for the distant Motilal and Gandhi, who had bad relations with his own children, saw Jawaharlal as his son and heir. Jawaharlal Nehru was basically a secular thinker but who understood the need to make a religious appeal to the Hindu base of the Congress Party. As Nehru wrote "Sacralisation of the national movement? I used to be troubled sometimes at the growth of this religious element in our politics, but I know well that there was something else in it, something which supplied a deep inner craving of human beings."

The "deep inner craving" seemed to express itself by Hindus and Muslims each wanting to govern without the other. Suaraj came to two states with no spiritual transformation of the leaders. We have had since 'nationalism' in its narrowest sense, with wars between India and Pakistan and the division from Pakistan of East Bengal, become Bangladesh.

Partition was imposed from above by the British, but no Indian leaders proposed forms of association which would have provided autonomy without division. Some ideas of an Indian confederation were suggested, but the details had not been worked out. So division seemed to be the only solution. As has been said "Never in South Asian history did so few divide so many, so murderously." Gandhi boycotted the celebrations of Independence held among riots, massacres and refugee flows. Over a million were killed in a short time, and there were some 18 million refugees and exchanges of population.

Thus, we see the importance of discussing and finding a consensus on the structures of a state. There were no Federalist Papers debates at the time of Indian Independence. Demands for the creation of Pakistan may have been a political move rather than a "final status" demand on the part of Ali Jinnah. Administrative structures may seem dull in contrast to the ideology of political independence and the righting of social evils. But as Gandhi and Nationalism points out well, without clear understanding of the type of state desired and broadly acceptable, the door was open to religious chauvinists and their simplified divisions.


1) See Richard L. Johnson (Ed). Gandhi's Experiments with Truth (Oxford: Lexington, 2006)
2) For a good biography see Stanley Wolpert Jinnah of Pakistan(Oxford University Press, 1984). Wolpert is also a biographer of Gandhi, see his Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi (Oxford University Press, 2001)


Rene Wadlow