Wednesday 10 July 2024

Mahatma Gandhi and the World IX





Soon after his release from the third imprisonment at Pretoria, Gandhiji led a deputation to England to try to get the problem of Indians considered in the negotiations that were about to take place on the formation of the Union of South Africa. The deputation stayed from June to November 1909 and met with all concerned, including several highly placed politicians and parliamentarians. But it could achieve little success. The Union Bill was passed without incorporating any protections for the Indians in South Africa.


During these six months, Gandhiji got an opportunity to interact with and observe the British elite society from within. He was deeply disillusioned with what he saw. In his letters form that time expresses the extreme disgust he felt for the British elite and the civilisation that they represented. In one such letter to his friend Polak, he compares the elite to the Rakshasas of Indian lore and their civilisation to “refined savagery”:


“I am sending you a copy of the list of those who took part in the banquet to the Ottoman Parliament delegates. The function was brilliant but I came away from it much saddened. The banqueting hall was crowded; the dinner took nearly three hours. The fumes from the wine-glasses and the smoke from the cigars or cigarettes, smoked by nearly three hundred guests, had a most depressing effect on the mind. I then involuntarily called it “refined savagery”, and it reminded me of the scene described by poets at banquets held by Rakshasas.”


It was this realisation of the unscrupulous irreligion of the modern British civilisation and its elite on the one hand and on the other the deep religious anchorage of the Indian Satyagrahis, which gave them the strength to stoically suffer inhuman atrocities in South African jails for a righteous cause, that directly led to his formulation of Hind Swaraj. He wrote this foundational text, which guided his public activity throughout his life, on the way back from England. 


While in England, Gandhiji stayed for a month with Doctor Pranjivan Mehta, an old friend, confidante and benefactor of his. The two had several late-night discussions, occasionally lasting from 11.00 p.m. to 2.00 a.m. Gandhiji, much later in 1940, recalls that all of the ideas of Hind Swaraj were formulated and argued out in those discussions with Mehta. The latter thus had an intimate and extensive interaction with Gandhiji soon after he had passed through the hell of his third imprisonment in Pretoria which we have described in the previous notes. The interaction convinced the Doctor that this passage through hell had transformed Gandhiji into an exalted soul.


Dr. Mehta describes the interactions he had with Gandhiji in 1909 and his understanding of the effect the imprisonment had on Gandhiji in his long Translator’s Preface to the Gujarati version of J. J. Doke’s biography of Gandhiji:


“Instead of being frightened by the painful experiences of the prison described above, Bhai Mohandas became more and more resolute in his cause and his work. Those who have come in contact with him recently—this writer met him in England last year and lived with him for some time—they feel that because of having gone through these adversities his soul has become stronger and purer. …he had been craving for some solitude for a long time. Ultimately he got that solitude in the prison. There he read several books on various subjects, but mainly on religion. He also contemplated on the important questions concerning India as well as other countries of the world. If ever in his life he got the freedom he wanted, he got it in the Transvaal prisons. And for this he is extremely happy from within. …He believes that the real civilisation of India is superior to all other civilisations, because it is founded in religion and morality.


“He worships this civilisation of ours and considers this country to be a holier land than any other. …He considers patriotism (स्वदेशाभिमान) to be a part of religion and always keeps repeating:


भलो देश मारो भली भोम मारीमने प्राणथी नित्य छे एज प्यारी।

My country is good, my land is good.

It indeed is always dearer to me than my life.”


Mehta here notices both the strength and purity of Gandhiji’s soul and his intense patriotism, the two attributes that came to be always associated with Gandhiji after 1909.


Mehta also writes to G. K. Gokhale about these interactions of his with Gandhiji and his assessment of the exalted soul that he had become following his Tapas. In a letter of early November 1909, soon after those late-night discussions between him and Gandhiji, he writes: 


“During my last trip to Europe I saw a great deal of Mr. Gandhi. From year in year (I have known him intimately for over twenty years) I have found him getting the more and more selfless. He is now leading almost an ascetic sort of life—not the life of an ordinary ascetic that we usually see but that of a great Mahatma and the one idea that engrosses his mind is his motherland.”


The Tapas had indeed turned Gandhiji into a Mahatma. This is the first known use of the epithet “Mahatma” for Gandhi. This was in 1909, more than five years before he returned to India.


Pranjivan Mehta’s appreciation of Gandhiji keeps growing with time. Later in 1912, in another letter to Gokhale, he says: 


“In my humble opinion men like him [Gandhiji] are born on very rare occasions & that in India alone. As far as I can see, it seems to me that India has not produced an equally far-seeing political prophet like him, during the last five or six centuries and that if he was born in the 18th century, India would have been a far different land to what it is now & its history would have been altogether differently written.”




Note: Extracts from the letters of Dr. Mehta to Gokhale are from S. R. Mehrotra’s biography of Pranjivan Mehta published in 2014. For further details please see our Making of a Hindu Patriot.

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