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Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Pravasi Comes Home

Earlier this month, India celebrated the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return from South Africa on January 7 1915. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi left Porbunder in 1893 to practice law in South Africa, but fate and circumstances turned him into a leader of his people as he discovered new ways to oppose oppression. 

Many have commented in the last few weeks on how the South African sojourn turned Gandhi into Mahatma, and here are the links to some of the better pieces:

Mahatma Gandhi & the Art of Travel: Chandrahas Choudhury

Mahatma’s Ghar Wapsi: Rajmohan Gandhi

In Gandhi Before India, historian Ramchandra Guha while describing Gandhi’s last days in South Africa records:

These wishes and felicitations provide a conspectus of the social and geographical range of Gandhi’s influence in the large, complex and conflicted land that, for two decades, was his home.

It may be apposite, however, to juxtapose to these endorsements a comment on Gandhi’s departure from someone who was not sorry to see him go. This was General Jan Christian Smuts. In May 1914 Smuts received a letter from Emily Hobhouse, who was now back in London. This conveyed news about mutual friends, and went on to discuss a man whom the Quaker now considered a friend but whom the Afrikaner still could not. “I have been reading Gandhi’s Home Rule for India – Hind Swaraj, wrote Hobhouse to Smuts. ‘Have you read it? I like it very much, all about India and the harm English civilization is doing there…It is a book you would have enjoyed at one period of your life.’

Smut’s reply is unrecorded. Whatever he might have thought of the English on the battlefield, after the war ended he had been first in the ranks of those seeking to unite the white people against the coloured. Hobhouse’s endorsement of Gandhi’s attack on Western civilization could scarcely have pleased him. In recent years he had read and seen too much of the man in any case. His feelings are contained in a letter he wrote to Sir Benjamin Robertson, where he said that after the Viceroy’s representative had returned to India, ‘Gandhi approached me on a number of small administrative points. some of which I could meet him on, and as a result, the saint has left our shores – I sincerely hope for ever.’

Earlier, Guha quotes Lord Gladstone’s description (to Colonial Office) about a meeting between Gandhi and Smuts, which encapsulates in a few words the deep distrust the British always harboured about Gandhi’s unique methods:

General Smuts has shown a most patient and conciliatory temper. In spite of a series of conflicts extending over many years, he retains a sympathetic interest in Gandhi as an unusual type of humanity, whose peculiarities, however inconvenient they may be to the Minister, are not devoid of attraction to the student…It is not easy task for a European to conduct negotiations with Mr. Gandhi. The workings of his conscience are inscrutable to the occidental mind and produce complications in wholly unexpected places. His ethical and intellectual attitude, based as it appears to be on a curious compound of mysticism and astuteness, baffles the ordinary processes of thought, Nevertheless, a tolerably practical understanding has been reached.

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