The historian Andrew Roberts, author of fourteen books including The House of Windsor, Eminent Churchillians, Waterloo and the two volumes of The Art of War, goes to town in his review in The Wall Street Journal of John Lelyveld's new biography of the ultimate icon of non-violent political protest and the so-called father of Indian independence, Gandhi.
It's hard to know which bit is more appalling but like many countries and movements which were hysterically anti-British, it's both disappointing and loathsome to find that throughout the 1940s Gandhi chose to use that as an excuse to remain neutral on the subject of Britain's fight against fascism, the Holocaust and Japanese militarism.
"... he was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist—one who was often downright cruel to those around him. Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals.
... [Indian independence] could have achieved it many years earlier if Gandhi had not continually abandoned his civil-disobedience campaigns just as they were beginning to be successful. With 300 million Indians ruled over by 0.1% of that number of Britons, the subcontinent could have ended the Raj with barely a shrug if it had been politically united. Yet Gandhi's uncanny ability to irritate and frustrate the leader of India's 90 million Muslims, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (whom he called "a maniac"), wrecked any hope of early independence. He equally alienated B.R. Ambedkar, who spoke for the country's 55 million Untouchables (the lowest caste of Hindus, whose very touch was thought to defile the four higher classes). Ambedkar pronounced Gandhi "devious and untrustworthy." Between 1900 and 1922, Gandhi suspended his efforts no fewer than three times, leaving in the lurch more than 15,000 supporters who had gone to jail for the cause.
We do know for certain that he advised the Czechs and Jews to adopt nonviolence toward the Nazis, saying that "a single Jew standing up and refusing to bow to Hitler's decrees" might be enough "to melt Hitler's heart." (Nonviolence, in Gandhi's view, would apparently have also worked for the Chinese against the Japanese invaders.) Starting a letter to Adolf Hitler with the words "My friend," Gandhi egotistically asked: "Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?" He advised the Jews of Palestine to "rely on the goodwill of the Arabs" and wait for a Jewish state "till Arab opinion is ripe for it."
In August 1942, with the Japanese at the gates of India, having captured most of Burma, Gandhi initiated a campaign designed to hinder the war effort and force the British to "Quit India." Had the genocidal Tokyo regime captured northeastern India, as it almost certainly would have succeeded in doing without British troops to halt it, the results for the Indian population would have been catastrophic. No fewer than 17% of Filipinos perished under Japanese occupation, and there is no reason to suppose that Indians would have fared any better. Fortunately, the British viceroy, Lord Wavell, simply imprisoned Gandhi and 60,000 of his followers and got on with the business of fighting the Japanese.
Gandhi claimed that there was "an exact parallel" between the British Empire and the Third Reich, yet while the British imprisoned him in luxury in the Aga Khan's palace for 21 months until the Japanese tide had receded in 1944, Hitler stated that he would simply have had Gandhi and his supporters shot. (Gandhi and Mussolini got on well when they met in December 1931, with the Great Soul praising the Duce's "service to the poor, his opposition to super-urbanization, his efforts to bring about a coordination between Capital and Labour, his passionate love for his people.")
... when he was in his 70s and close to leading India to independence, he encouraged his 17-year-old great-niece, Manu, to be naked during her "nightly cuddles" with him. After sacking several long-standing and loyal members of his 100-strong personal entourage who might disapprove of this part of his spiritual quest, Gandhi began sleeping naked with Manu and other young women.
... Yet he could also be vicious to Manu, whom he on one occasion forced to walk through a thick jungle where sexual assaults had occurred in order for her to retrieve a pumice stone that he liked to use on his feet. When she returned in tears, Gandhi "cackled" with laughter at her and said: "If some ruffian had carried you off and you had met your death courageously, my heart would have danced with joy."
...But Gandhi's saintly image, his martyrdom at the hands of a Hindu fanatic in 1948 and Martin Luther King Jr.'s adoption of him as a role model for the American civil-rights movement have largely protected him from critical scrutiny. The French man of letters Romain Rolland called Gandhi "a mortal demi-god" in a 1924 hagiography, catching the tone of most writing about him. People used to take away the sand that had touched his feet as relics—one relation kept Gandhi's fingernail clippings—and modern biographers seem to treat him with much the same reverence today. Mr. Lelyveld is not immune, making labored excuses for him at every turn of this nonetheless well-researched and well-written book."
For the full review, which is excellent, click here.
Thanks to my friend Eric for forwarding this article to me.