Gandhi did not spring up fully formed like Athena from Zeus' head. His life can be classified into three phases. The first phase lasted up to 1893 when he tried to imitate the British gentleman. The second phase between 1893 to 1919 can be considered as a transition phase of his life in which he was in search of self identity. The third phase was the final phase when he lost faith in the British Empire and gave final shape to his own model of resistance. The shifts and changes in some beliefs and the strengthening of others are in the context of his experiences and his growing understanding of social situations.
Nothing in the first half of his life suggested that he would turn out to be a colossus. It was a period of observing, reading, learning and revising his opinions, a process he maintained throughout his life. He once said, ’There can be, there ought to be, no uniformity in the actions of a man whose life undergoes a continual growth . . .’ In the beginning, he held the view that was common then of a hierarchy of civilizations - the Europeans on top, the Indians just below them, the Africans at the bottom. (Gandhi outgrew this tendency but many Indians still hold on to it. )
Over the two decades he spent in Africa, Gandhi's understanding of their ways of life and troubles steadily increased. Everyday life in Durban and Johannesburg alerted him to the many discriminations that Africans were subject to. Had Gandhi continued to live in India, he would not have met dissident Jews or non-conformist Christians. His stays abroad exposed him to the heterogeneity of Indian culture and languages, other faiths and ways of life. His lifestyle choices, his thinking on religion, economic matters, manual labor, caste, etc. developed over a period of time.
After the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Gandhi, who was initially convinced that "India could achieve her complete emancipation only within and through the British Empire" (Autobiography), rejected British law. In 1921 he launched the non-cooperation movement with a call for the abandonment and rejection of British law courts. In his arrest and trial (March 1922) for the leadership of the movement, he explained his own trajectory "from a staunch loyalist and co-operator" to someone who had "become an uncompromising disaffectionist and non-co-operator". I came across a motto - 'If you are finished changing, you are finished.' Gandhi was never finished.
Towards the end of The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould has an essay where he discusses some of Darwin's racist views. Shall we then simply label Darwin as a constant racist and sexist all the way from youthful folly to mature reflection? Gould says no holding (a defense that holds good for any great historical personality) that 'such a stiff-necked and uncharitable attitude will not help us if we wish to understand and seek enlightenment from our past.' He goes on:
. . How can we castigate someone for repeating a standard assumption of his age, however much we may legitimately deplore that attitude today? . . I see no purpose in strong criticism for a largely passive acceptance of common wisdom. Let us rather analyze why such potent and evil nonsense then passed for certain knowledge.
If I choose to impose individual blame for all past social ills, there will be no one left to like in some of the most fascinating periods of our history. . . . Though I hold no shred of sympathy for active persecutors, I cannot excoriate individuals who acquiesced passively in a standard societal judgment. Rail instead against the judgment, and try to understand what motivates men of decent will.
The historical records place emphasis on his political activities but his long periods of absence from the political field due to his jail terms or engagement in social work, when he thought widely and deeply about many issues are more interesting. Tilak is famous for having said, Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it.' He used the word 'swaraj' for its traditional imagery but it meant just political independence. When Gandhi assumed leadership, the meaning changed. Nehru said in 1920 that when Gandhi spoke about swaraj, 'he was delightfully vague on the subject'.
In the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin made an incisive statement while criticizing slavery, "If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin." He may not have heard of the statement but Gandhi's thoughts and actions seemed to be driven by this thought. To him freedom meant nothing at all if it was not accompanied by religious freedom, caste and gender equality, and the development of self-reliance among every Indian.
The national movement led by Gandhi can be read as not so much an attempt to wrest control from the British as it was a movement for national reconstruction. He was not just interested in independence but he often spoke of creating a new society from the root upwards. For him, swaraj was impossible if the social order was corrupt. The post-independence discourse speaks of Gandhi and Congress as a unified entity but it was in fact an uneasy and often contentious relationship between the two.
Congress wanted Gandhi to concentrate on gaining political independence and held that social reforms can be undertaken after achieving it. But Gandhi thought that it would be a fatal mistake to wait to gain political power before undertaking vital social reform. He was willing to enter into the political arena on very restricted occasions when he saw obvious moral issues at stake or when he saw the opportunity for forwarding his own vision of swaraj. He realized that for a satyagrahi there were rarely any clear-cut moral choices and that he must weigh the greater good and the lesser evil in any particular situation.
The nationalist elites were heavily invested in emulating British technology and mode of government, even as they sought independence from British rule. The only forms of self-modification that they were interested in were those that aided that emulation. Gandhi’s insistence on self-rule as a prerequisite for appropriate home rule thus ran counter to both aspects of this elite’s politics. His stand that modernity and its accomplishments were fundamentally flawed only intensified the strain, especially since the local nationalist elite already had major financial stakes in modern technological, economic, and political systems.
A huge amount of Gandhi’s writings and speeches are about non-political issues like removal of untouchability, revival of village industries, cleanliness, etc. As the world saw him increasingly as a rebel against the Raj, he increasingly saw himself as a social reformer. Following the success of the Salt Satyagraha in 1931, he said that his social reform was not less important than his political reform. ‘The fact is, that when I saw that to a certain extent my social work would be impossible without the help of my political work, I took to the latter and only to the extent it helped the former.’
Gandhi wanted conscience applied to political endeavors, as well as experiments in education, hygiene and cottage industries. Mutual improvement was the goal. In his view, the colonial power and the colonized land should both come out of the Indian independence struggle changed for the better, with no victim and vanquished, no vengeful murder of the loser in the struggle for power. Gandhi’s goal was that there should be true reconciliation and amicable parting of the ways. Not governments but methods and objectives interested him, not whether an Indian or an Englishman sat in the seat of power but whose deeds were more civilized.
Congress adopted non-violence for the expected gains. Gandhi wanted non-violence irrespective of the fruits. He had to admit that Congress' views were the same as most of the intelligentia. Gandhi's critics complained that he would withdraw from a political battle when the opponent was under pressure and success appeared imminent. But what success? His standards of success were moral and religious and not based on narrow utilitarian considerations. His goals were too high, his followers were too weak. He was bound to fail. Dennis Dalton writes in Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action:
It was paradoxical that while none of Gandhi's ideas were more liberally endowed with traditional symbolism than swaraj and satyagraha, none were more thoroughly misunderstood, both by his party and his people. The Congress followed him, on the whole, for his political experience and insights; the masses revered him as a Mahatma. Gandhi wanted understanding and appreciation of his thought rather than the reverence either of a saint or a politician.
One might worship Gandhi from afar as a Mahatma or - as the alternative that most Congressmen took - accept his judgement as 'policy' but not as a 'creed'. Neither path was that of the satyagrahi, nor could either lead to what Gandhi called swaraj. Indeed, each undermined Gandhi's thought and message for neither could give him support when the going became rough. At the very end, when it was indeed the roughest, Gandhi stood, tragically, alone.
He then fully realized his failure to persuade both the Congress leadership and the Indian people of the central meaning of his philosophy. 'Intoxicated by my success in South Africa,' he admitted in 1947, 'I came to India. Here too the struggle bore fruit. But I have now realized that it was not based on nonviolence of the brave. If I had known so then, I would not have launched the struggle.' It is remarkable that an individual of Gandhi's insight did not appreciate this sooner.