Book Review

Book Review

Understanding Gandhi: Gandhians in Conversation with Fred J.

Edited by Usha Thakkar and [ayshree Mehta, New Delhi,

Publications India Pvt. Ltd., 2011. Pages 551, Rs. 550, IBN 978-81-321-

Twentieth century had been a graveyard of many ideologies including
liberalism and Marxism of various hues, shades and persuasions. The
reasons for such epoch making developments are not too far to seek.
Both liberalism and Marxism were born out of the same womb of
modern European civilization. This civilization has failed to find
solution for some intractable problems. Firstly, it has created a uni-
dimensional man with all consuming passion for material accumulation.
In this process, the humankind has missed many finer aspects of life,
which give meaning to human life and existence. Secondly, it started
with an avowed purpose of putting the common man on the centre
stage of human affairs. But after the journey of more than two centuries,
the common man today remains as marginalised and peripheral as
ever. Thirdly, it has irreparably broken the symbiotic relationship
between man and nature, which today is posing a serious threat to
the very existence of sentient and non-sentient beings. Fourthly, both
the institution of the state and the market forces have ultimately
come to dwarf the man so much so that all talks of liberty and human
rights hardly mean anything to him today.

It is in such a desperate scenario that sensitive souls all over the
world are looking for new intellectual anchorage, new principles for
organising society and a new art of living. It is not surprising that
the search for alternatives brought them at the doorstep of Gandhi.
There are many reasons for it. In the first place, Gandhi had, much
before anybody could think of, anticipated the basic malaise of the
modern civilization and had even offered viable and creative
alternatives. Secondly, he had demonstrated the practicability of his
ideas in the course of his struggles both in South Africa and India.
Thirdly, his life was that of an exemplar so much so that he ended by
saying that &quot my life is my message&quot. For all these reasons there had
been a plethora of studies on his life, thought and work. Of late
there had been over emphasis on his life as a family man and his idea
and praxis of bramacharya . One major limitation of such studies has
been that instead of looking at his life and thought in a holistic and
integrated way, some of these studies have over emphasised some
or other aspects of his life and thought.

The book under review breaks a new ground as it presents a
well rounded appreciation of Gandhi’s life and thought by some of
his closest followers viz. J.B. Kripalani, Raihana Tyabji, Dada
Dharmadhikari, Sushila Nayar, Jhaver Patel and Sucheta Kripalani.
What is more, some of them like J.B. Kripalani, Dada Dharmadhikari
were intellectuals in their own right and even retained their freedom
while working with Gandhi in the cause of the nation. It also needs
to be mentioned that these interviews were conducted by Fred J.
Blum (1914-1990), an academician and consultant to the US Senate
Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. His basic commitment was
to understand Gandhi’s life and his approach to socio-political,
I economic and spiritual aspects of human affairs. The interviews with
Gandhi’s followers that form the basis of this book were conducted
between December 1973 and March 1978. The importance of the
period of interview is that it provided a hindsight view of Gandhi
and his work. One may recall that the1970s was a period of great
upheavals and transition in India. It was during this period that
India witnessed the imposition of emergency and consolidation of
Gandhian elements under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan
which finally led to the overthrow of the Congress Government led
by Mrs. Indira Gandhi. All these developments coupled with
centennial remembrances of Gandhi had evoked great interest in
Gandhian ideas and ideals. Thus this period provides the historical
backdrop to these interviews. However, it needs to be pointed out
that the kind of issues and questions which have started dominating
Gandhian Studies towards the end of the century were not the issues
of concern during those days. Perhaps, that in a way stands out as
the limitation of these interviews. This book is published in the context
of new concerns and the resurgence of Gandhian Studies. The credit
must go to the editors for contextualising these interviews to the
modern times. This had been achieved by an analytical foreword by
Bikhu Parekh and a long and thoughtful introduction by the editors.
Bhiku Parekh underlines the fact that Gandhi’s genius was to
collect and carry along the diverse and even contradictory elements
in the pursuit of his ideals and national cause. The Indian left had an
ambivalent attitude to Gandhi. While vehemently disagreeing with
Gandhi they never totally burnt their bridges with him as they were
fully aware of his powerful pull with the Indian people. Subash
Chandra Bose was outsmarted by Gandhi, according to Parekh, when

he tried to cross the laxman rekha. Parekh makes another interesting
observation: why even the close followers of Gandhi could not carry
his legacy or his uncanny knack of feeling the pulse of the people or
contextualising Gandhi’s thought to the challenges of post-
independent India? Parekh even dismisses Vinoba as ‘a pale and
barely recognizable copy of the original’. Vinoba, according to Parekh,
solely relied on moral persuasion and never forced an issue, organized
a boycott, demanded impartial inquiries or launched satyagrahas. It
remains a fact that Vinoba never confronted the government and
even went to the extent of describing emergency as anushasanparv.
Parekh rightly observes that Vinoba &quotremained a politically marginal
figure whose voice could not frighten the Government or commands
its attention&quot. Parekh justifies the selection of six out of twenty four
interviews for the present book. However, those who have been
excluded from the book were stalwarts like Pyarelal, Kaka Kalekar,
Jayaprakash Narayan, Achut Patwardhan and others. It is not clear
either from the foreword or from the introduction of editors, the
basis and criteria on which final selection was made except a stray
remark by Parekh that the selected interviews have been found
‘most interesting’.

In the long introduction, the editors attempt to sum up and
present a coherent picture of the highlights of these interviews. In
the process they also raise an interesting question why Gandhi
continues to hold centre stage in the history of ideas. Based on the
interviews they rightly point out that Gandhi raised some of the
most fundamental questions relating to human life. Perhaps that
explains his continuing relevance to our times. They sum up the views
of six Gandhians around four major themes viz. satyagraha,
bramacharya,role of women and vision of future society. Two important
questions relating to satyagraha have been raised by a number of
scholars including Blum. They are whether satyagraha virtually amounts
to coercion and whether it has a universal validity. In a rare display
of intellectual independence Dada Dharmadhikari concedes that
satyagraha particularly the fast is not free from coercion.
Raihana Tyabji argues that satyagraha could not have universal
validity as it did not work to prevent the partition of India. J.B.
Kripalani on the other hand, firmly adheres to the significance of
social dimension of satyagraha . He also feels that it was Gandhi’s
own ‘invention’ as it is not found in any tradition including
Christianity. Another interesting point made by some of these
Gandhians is that barring a few close followers of Gandhi bulk of
the political workers including leaders took non-violence and
satyagraha as a matter of policy rather than as a matter of principle.

Perhaps that is the reason why in the context of Anna Hazare
movement, the fundamental question that has been raised is whether
satyagraha should have a place in a democratically elected government.
It is rather intriguing that though Gandhi,s idea and praxis of
brahamacharaya has caught the imagination of Gandhian scholars, but
not much light has been thrown in the course of these interviews on
the same theme. Even Sushila Nayar skips this issue &quotvho perhaps
could have provided vital information on it. One question which has
been frequently raised by scholars is how Gandhis political and
spiritual pull could cover top elites like Jawaharlal Nehru, C.
Rajagopalachari and others to the common man in the street. These
interviews threw sufficient light on the multi- dimensional nature of
Gandhi’s personality. All those who came into his contact found
something or other to connect himself or herself to him. Therein lies
the secret of Gandhi,s matchless and irresistible pull with every section
of the Indian people. It also comes through the interviews that Gandhi
played a crucial role not only in bringing women into the mainstream
of freedom movement, but also in the process of liberating them
from the shackles of age old tyranny of tradition. So far as Gandhi,s
vision of future society is concerned there have been conflicting views.
Many scholars have raised question marks against the practicability
and feasibility of the broad contours of his vision. But there is c.
broad agreement among the interviewees that at least the part of
his intellectual legacy like truth and non -violence as reflected in
satyagraha have stood the test of the time.

Taking a synoptic view of all the interviews, it could be safely
concluded that various aspects of Gandhi,s life and contributions
have been thoroughly enunciated. What is more the real significance
of these interviews does not lie so much in bringing out new ideas or
perspectives but in exposing the views and life of those personalities
who were closely associated with Gandhi,s work and thought. In
other words, here are a group of devoted people who spent their
entire adulthood for the cause Gandhi propounded. It is also
interesting to note as Sucheta and J.B. Kripalani point out that it was
not totally on account of Gandhi,s vision of bramacharya which came
in the way of their raising a family . For them, it was more of a
practical proposition as they were too much involved in the national
struggle. Raihana Tyabji, Dada Dharmadhikari and Jhaver Patel also
express their disagreement with Gandhi on many counts. It speaks
volumes for Mahatma,s liberal outlook that he never demanded total
agreement from the people who worked with him. In fact, he
respected the individuality of the people who worked with him and
yet brought out the best out of them for the cause of the nation. In

parenthesis one may suggest that an attempt should be made to put
the rest of the interviews in a book format as that would be a very
valuable contribution to growing Gandhian literature. It goes without
saying both the editors deserve high appreciation for the valuable
service they have rendered to the Gandhian studies. This book
provides primary and first hand source of information to understand
Gandhi from the people who knew and worked with him intimately
for many years.


Dean of Studies and Research,

Institute of Gandhian Studies,
Gopuri, Wardha, Maharashtra

Source: Gandhi Marg, Volume 33 No 3 October – December 2011
PP. – 399 – 403

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