Gandhi put into perspective

Talat Ahmed: Mohandas Gandhi. Experiments in Civil Disobedience
Forfatter: Talat Ahmet
Forlag: Pluto Press
GANDHI / History professor Talat Ahmet has written a nuanced and thought-provoking biography of Gandhi, with special emphasis on his thoughts on civil disobedience and nonviolent protest.


Barack Obama has on several occasions highlighted Mahatma Gandhi as a great source of personal inspiration. Gandhi's great understanding of India's traditions and his interest in the marginalized voices must have meant a great deal to Obama while sitting in the White House.

Behind the stereotypes

As Talat Ahmed sees it, this is a clear example of the widespread abuse of Gandhi who came to the world in India 150 years ago and stands as one of the 20. century's great icons. She denotes without flashing Obama as a liberal imperialist, arguing that the president may never have had Gandhi in mind while sending American drones and fighter jets out to bomb some of the world's poorest populations.

Talat Ahmed is a professor of history and expert in Indian relations at Edinburgh University, and she has written a thought-provoking biography which is published very timely in the 150 year of Gandhi's birth. Focus is on his thoughts on civil disobedience and nonviolent protest, which is also why she gives Obama and several other Western leaders one between the sidelines along the way, but the book is also significant because it goes behind the somewhat stereotypical image of the small-legged a man with a lumbar, which is often the first to show up on western retinas.

Composite background

Gandhi was a highly composed person and he was not the classic revolutionary anti-imperialist, which many associate with his person. The upbringing was privileged. The family was not poor, as the Wikipedia and other popular representations claim, but they also did not belong to the aristocracy. Helping to shape the man was also the upbringing in Porbandar, which was one of the many small states with autonomy. His contact with the British colonial authorities was thus virtually nil, and he first became quite aware of this part of the world when he was sent to England to study law. Here, in his own words, he was never exposed to racism and was accepted on an equal footing with the other students, and for the rest of his life he maintained the deep respect for Englishmen as human beings, while later leading the fight against their colonialism in India.

Gandhi was a great thinker and a razor-sharp strategist, but the communities that have emerged in the Indian subcontinent are far from being as nonviolent as he had imagined.

His first real encounter with injustice occurred when he was sent to South Africa as a freshly baked lawyer. There was a large group of Indian migrant workers at that time, but it was not the ones he went out to protect. No, he was tasked with litigating for one of the indigenous Indian trading houses that the British colonial authorities taxed. But it was also here that he was considered non-white for the first time, and gradually he opened his eyes to the appalling conditions under which the workers lived.

This helped shape his worldview. When he was referred to the door for blacks in a South African post office, he became angry. Very characteristically, however, he did not demand the racial separation be lifted, but instead suggested that the post office be equipped with a third door for Indians!

An Indian artist puts the finishing touches on the portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, painted under a bridge in Amritsar in February 2018. Photo: AFP, NARINDER NANU / NTB Scanpix.

Willingness for mutual understanding

As his campaign for Indian independence began to take shape after returning home, this will for mutual understanding became a key element. Gandhi did not want to enrich the English but wanted to get along with them and instead of enriching capitalism he wanted to tame it and cooperate with it. The second, in his opinion, led to violence, which in his eyes was destructive almost whatever. Gandhi was horrified at the scale of violence during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The class struggle was devastating for the national unity, which in his view should include all classes.

That is why he resisted any kind of violence when he initiated the big protests in India. One of the highlights was the large salt march in 1930. The protests were aimed at the taxes imposed by the British colonial authorities on salt, and he banned anyone from physically resisting if the authorities resorted to arrests. Wherever he came, he talked to people about personal hygiene and abstinence – a healthy soul in a healthy body – and he paid great attention to the local and the original. All this he formulated in the philosophy of satyagrada, which means "to hold on to the truth".

In England, Gandhi was never exposed to racism in his own words.

In many places in the world, Gandhi was considered a little comical, and Ahmed's speech also admits that he could appear boundless naive. While traveling in Europe, he defied warnings against visiting Benito Mussolini, but he was curious to meet the fascist community by self-view and regarded the journey as a necessary study of brutality. It was shortly after Italy's conquest of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and Gandhi concluded that if the Ethiopians had stated that they would not oppose or cooperate, Mussolini would never have attacked, for he was not interested in conquering a desert .

Down by the pedestal

India achieved independence in 1947. Gandhi thus just came to see the dream come true, for he died in January of the following year, and the result came quite far from his great vision. In addition to India, British possessions became both Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, which was a break along the religious-ethnic lines that Gandhi just wanted to be covered by the national and human community. As Tal Ahmed concludes, Gandhi was a great thinker and a razor-sharp strategist, but he did not accomplish it all on his own. She pills him down a bit from the pedestal, not least justifying the fact that the communities that have emerged in the Indian subcontinent are far from being as nonviolent as Gandhi had imagined.

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