Both insightful and also depressing!
Stanley Wolpert is a distinguished professor and scholar and had written some of the more in-depth books on Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
All these three figures have shaped the destinies of the Indian subcontinent. So, wolpert’s three books have become classics and anyone interested in India must be reading these volumes. I have read these volumes before, may be more than once. Such have been the depth and insights the scholar and writer has brought to his work and his latest volume on the Partition of India too became a minor classic. I bought and read it and re-read it many times.
In fact, I can confess my political education became more self-confident after I read Wolpert as he was the one author who brought some depth and objectivity that unusually misses from what the Indians wrote and continue to write to this day.
We Indians tend to be more reverential to our leaders who are nation-builders and as for Indian freedom struggle there are many controversial issues. Gandhi’s role, Nehru’s role and much more so Jinnah’s role are all still farms from settled.
So, we easily tend to become subjective and therefore prejudicial to some extent.
Who can give Jinnah full marks? Or, for that matter, who can give Gandhi too full marks for what he finally achieved?
Nehru’s role too is not far from controversial. This book even after many years of publication(Gandhi’s Passion, The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi,OUP,2001,pages 300 ) remains afresh for any serious reader. It is so for me at any rate.
Now, what I like to say here on the life and legacy of Gandhi is this: Gandhi was born ordinary, nothing to commend on the young man as he grew up.
If any reader from outside India reads the autobiography of Gandhi, he or she is likely to be disappointed. There is nothing to recommend for further reading of his life.
His birth, his father’s life and preoccupations, Gandhi’s schooling, his further education, Gandhi didn’t attend a college, he arrived in London when he was eighteen and already married with a child and he becomes a barrister with not much distinction, it was all just routine and his life in Victorian Land too was very ordinary, there was nothing that gave us any indication that this cowardly boy would become a man of steel faced with injustice later in South Africa or after he returned and plunged into full-time politics, so to say.
His non-co-operation didn’t evoke interest and support among the stalwarts of his day, C.R.Das or Motilal Nehru or Lala Lajpat Rai.
Now, we find that his Satyagraha experiment in South Africa was unique and proved to be very basic to his success later.
In India, he perfected his ahimsa and Satyagraph and the final glory was the salt Satyagraha.
Afterwards, we see a very contradictory personality. Yes, he was busy with negotiations with the British but the final big test was the one when the cabinet mission came and we see the Mahatma faltering at every step.
This came as a revelation now to see Gandhi not taking the cabinet mission as seriously as people would have trusted him to do. We see the mahatma almost treating the cabinet mission non-seriously and he was engaged in much unrelated minor activities like nature cure etc when the cabinet mission badly wanted his guidance.
The sad point here is that finally the cabinet mission failed to deliver. I have to say with all the moral burden cast on meat this point of my life and knowledge and concern for India, that the mahatma was also patently responsible for the cabinet mission failing and thus also failing to save Indian from the eventual fate of partition.
The second most important failure of Gandhi was his total ineffectiveness when the final partition proposal came along.
Mountbatten and even Nehru started to call Gandhi “an old fool” the “old boy” jocularly and Mountbatten and Nehru went along to partition India.
What little Gandhi did was to meet and persuade Jinnah to give up his Pakistan demand. It was already too late.
The book brings out the many little incidents and events that saw Jinnah emerging as a rival, Jinnah who was six years junior to Gandhi and both were influenced by Dadabhia Nowroji, both became devoted disciples of Gokhale, both were barristers. Gandhi a failed barrister, there are enough account by himself while we see Jinnah, with a very flashing, Westernised clothes and English language a brilliant lawyer who reached the top in the Bombay bar.
So, we see the endemic rivalry in the two men, Gandhi in an unpredictable manner trying to speak in Gujarati while Jinnah choosing to speak in English, though Jinnah’s mother tongue is also Gujarati!
The book brings out more subtly and at times more sharply how the two men were emerging in their own ways towards the same goal of freedom for India, while Jinnah moving towards a demand for Pakistan and while Gandhi was taken aback and what Gandhi did in these years and months was inadequate to halt the march of events. Nehru and Patel feared ” he had deteriorated with age”(page 237)
This is a serious error of judegement. This we would easily pronounce in the case of other men, not here in the case of the Mahatma.
But history judges men and affairs more harshly.
Wolpert’s other latest book on India’s partition quotes from hitherto unavailable sources, from the British intelligence reports and we see the other side of the Gandhi story, Gandhi legacy, also the history of how India was partitioned. The point is that the story of India’s partition was not all one-sided, we can’t blame only Jinnah and the British alone, these were not the only guilty parties. What emerges from Wolpert’s researches is the other side, the Indian side ,our heroes are not heroes anymore, history, and objective history would pronounce also a different judgment. Our leaders also had feet of clay. Yes, it is a harsh judgment ,a hard reality to see men and their failings with all courage of our own convictions. We Indians at this stage of our history must become more mature and learn to live without entertaining any more rose-tinted illusions! That is all.
We have to take the history’s judgment as it comes and pronounced.
Future historians, more so the future historians, may be both Indians as well as foreigners would see that while what the British did, handed over was patently perfidious, what the Indian leaders did, more so Gandhi and Nehru was also unpardonable.
Stanley Wolpert’s other, latest volume on India’s partition brings out more insightfully the more backroom talks and pronouncements, more on the role of the Mahatama are not in good taste and even in poor taste.
It is one thing to revere great men.
It is another thing, if the great men happen to be political leaders. Even our heroes after the years of familiarity become weak, turn up to be men of guilty.
That is why politics is always a difficult arena where easily instant heroes turn out to become villains very often.
The story of the mahatma seems to be one more instance.
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