Politics

‘Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World’ establishes how the fighter for Indian independence’s reputation was earned

Time Magazine made him Man of the Year in 1930. Winston Churchill described him as a “malignant subversive fanatic.” And, without hyperbole, American novelist Mary McCarthy compared his murder to the Crucifixion. 

That Mohandas K. Gandhi ranks among history’s most profoundly important leaders is taken as a given. But what Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World establishes is not just why the fighter for Indian independence deserves his reputation, but also how that reputation was earned: march by march, fast by fast, and argument by argument with friend and foe alike. In the pages of this book, the reader gets a sense of how a sense of intense moral conviction combined with a genuine sense of intellectual curiosity magnified each other inside of Gandhi’s mind. In doing so, they produced one of history’s most courageous and clear-headed fighters for civil rights and self-determination.

“Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World” is the second volume by author Ramachandra Guha in a two-part series on the great Indian fighter for social justice. The first book, “Gandhi Before India,” examined the man’s early career as a lawyer and human rights campaigner in British-run South Africa; the new book brings the man (eventually known as Mahatma, or “venerable,”) from his return to India in 1915 to his death by assassination in 1948. Along the way, the author touches upon events as momentous as the Russian revolution, the rise of Nazi Germany and fascist Japan, and the raging fires of the Second World War.

The book’s great strength is its rigorous documentation of Gandhi’s life: in its pages, the reader encounters the countless letters, conversations, disputes, arrests, and insights that made the man, and the reader also begins to understand how he reshaped thinking around the world (including, perhaps most notably, Gandhi’s influence on the soon-to-rise American civil rights movement.) 

The book’s central weakness is directly related to its rigor – in his effort to include every struggle, family relationship, tour, and dispute in the great man’s life, Guha consistently errs on the side of creating a complete record over writing an easily digestible story. This makes the book an invaluable resource for academics and deep thinkers; readers looking for a casual tour of a great life are better off going elsewhere.

This isn’t to begrudge Guha the pages he fills – his job is a big one. He sets out to explain how one famously small, gentle-seeming ascetic managed to stroll through the dual meatgrinders of British colonialism and Indian sectarian politics to emerge as the unquestioned moral champion of his people.

And who those “people” are, exactly, is also a question that “Gandhi” investigates. Gandhi sought to position himself as the champion of India in all its diversity, a leader who could unite and pacify a riotously complicated and populous part of the world. But his opponents would say otherwise. To Muslim leader and future founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Gandhi was a Hindu leader only. To B.R. Ambedkar, champion of the so-called “untouchable” castes, Gandhi was insufficiently dedicated to the cause of seeking social equality for all Indians. To Maoists, he was a sell-out to Western values, and to many British administrators, he was a scheming fake who hid devious intentions behind a mask of humble piety. 

Gandhi’s enemies were numerous, but as Guha shows, they all shared a grudging respect for his dedication to the cause – with his lengthy and dangerous fasts, Gandhi put his own physical health on the line for his ideals and crystallized the national conversation at key moments in Indian history.

Like Martin Luther King, Gandhi is easy to romanticize and simplify after the fact. Contemporary fans forget that in their own eras these men were fought, hated, demonized and eventually killed by opponents who represented significant blocs of public opinion. “Gandhi” reminds the reader that any fight, no matter how seemingly noble or communally beneficial, will turn into a life-and-death struggle once the existing order of things is seriously challenged.

“Gandhi” comes to us at an interesting time. We live in an era when appeals to populism are gaining strength and when even rights as essential as voting are coming under siege. The book doesn’t sugarcoat the ease of fighting against a system, but it does suggest that the fight is winnable, and for some, that may be a cheering thought in trying times.


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