The Un-Gandhian Gandhi (The Life and Afterlife of The Mahatma)

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Item Code: NAF880
Author: Claude Markovits
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2007
ISBN: 9788178241555
Pages: 182
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 190 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


Although there have been many biographical accounts of Mahatma Gandhi, much of the literature on him is hagiographic. Keeping clear of hagiography and hyper-criticism, this book throws new light on Gandhi by looking simultaneously at his legend and career. The Gandhian legend is analysed through texts and images which spread it-through India and in the West. Markovits suggests that the legend of the saint as politician has obscured the facts of Gandhi's career.


Gandhi's professional role in the public sphere, says Markovits, was marked by his maturation in South Africa, a phase often glossed in laudatory accounts as a 'preparation' for his famous work in India, But this later Indian career, Markovits argues, was really the consequence of Gandhi having to radically reinvent himself.

The attempt made here is thus to revaluate some crucial points within Gandhi's career and sometimes ambivalent ideological positions, Markovits argues that the disjunctions between the early and later Gandhi need to be squarely examined.


Rather than seeing Gandhi as an upholder of traditional Indian values. Markovits stresses the paradoxical modernity of Gandhis anti- modernism. What comes out strongly, In the end is Gandhi as a polysemic figure open to different even contradictory. interpretations whose susceptibility to varying appropriations makes him enduring and contemporary.


About the Author


Claude Markovits is the author of Indian Business and Nationalist Politics (1985) and The Global World of Indian Merchants (2000) He has co-edited Society and Circutetion: Mobile People and Itinerant Cultures In South Asia 1750-1950 (2003)




This is the English translation of a book I wrote in French, which was published in 2000 by the Presses de Sciences Po. It was part of a still ongoing series of 'non-traditional' biographies of important historical figures. This explains the plan adopted, based on a distinction between perceptions and historical facts. In the series, it had also been decided to keep footnotes to a minimum.


The French text was written with a French audience clearly in mind. Rukun Advani of Permanent Black thought that it would be of interest to the Indian public, and I thank him for his patience in waiting for the translation. I would also like to thank my wife, Piyali, for her careful editing of a former draft.




Of all the great figures of the twentieth century, Gandhi has per- haps best stood the test of time. In the aftermath of a century of unprecedented mass violence, many see in the apostle of non-violence the prophet of the only possible future for mankind, a future without hatred, greed and lust for power. Interest in Gandhi's thought and actions, far from diminishing, is on the increase, and his message to the world appears uniquely relevant. As more books are written about him all the time, many see in him a familiar figure and love the apparent simplicity of his message. He remains, however, in many ways, an enigma.

One may well ask- Why add a new title to an already overabundant bibliography? What is there to say about Gandhi that has not already been said many times over? Writing in praise of him will at best add one more stone to the already imposing hagiographic edifice built over several decades by the many priests of the Gandhian cult. Any attempt at a critical view will be at pains to appear original, as the most ferocious attacks have already been directed towards all aspects of his life and historical legacy.


In order to avoid being repetitive, one has to find a specific angle to look at this icon. In this book, two different approaches have been combined. In the first part, the focus is on existing representations of Gandhi through a scrutiny of various written texts, and a study of images. Attention is drawn to the emergence of a Gandhian legend, born during the Mahatma's lifetime and enormously expanded after his death. In the second part, the focus is on Gandhi's impact upon the history of the last century, on the manner in which he became a political leader, on his role in India's struggle for freedom, as well as on his contribution to social reform. More generally, an attempt is made to situate him within the framework of India's modern history. Lastly, the theme of non-violence is examined in some detail. So, the aim of this book is not to provide yet one more narrative of Gandhi's life, and in this Introduction only the bare facts of his life and career are Out- lined.


Born in 1869 in the small princely state of Porbandar in Karhiawar, one of the many Indian states which figure so little in the dominant colonial-oriented historiography of the subcontinent, in a family of merchant caste which served the ruling dynasty, Gandhi was unremarkable till the age of forty. He had an uneventful childhood in Porbandar and in the neighbouring town of Rajkor, even though some episodes of his life, such as his early marriage, were given great prominence in his autobiography and subsequent biographies. His conjugal life, in particular, has come in for a lot of scrutiny and criticism. As a father he has been deemed an outright failure, and it seems difficult to disagree with this view.


His departure for England at the age of nineteen to study law was the first sign of a desire on his part to break away from the established pattern of life as it existed in his milieu. Given his family background- which was not that of the English-educated Indian elite-this seems an early indication of remarkable will power, especially in view of the strict way in which the injunction against crossing the kala pani was enforced amongst his Modhbania caste fellows. The shy young man found himself suddenly plunged in the whirlwind of the metropolis of empire, and his first response to cultural shock was a particularly frantic attempt at acculturation by aping the ways, dress, and manners of a dandy. Striving to become a perfect gentleman, he discovered vegetarianism and started reading the classic texts of Hinduism in English translations. This helped him to rediscover his own culture, from which he had been somewhat alienated by his lack of Sanskrit. He also acquired a basic knowledge of the law, which would prove highly useful for his future political career. Gandhi's early trajectory resembles that of many Indians of his generation who were torn between two worlds and tried unsuccessfully to acquire a social position in a colonial society where most avenues of advancement were closed to their kin. Having completed his studies, he went back to India in 1891 and tried to pursue a career as a lawyer, but his almost pathological shyness stood in the way of success.


His departure for South Africa in 1893 was to prove the chance of a lifetime, for in the specific colonial context of late-nineteenth- century Natal he was able to find a middle path, equidistant between acculturation and a return to tradition. Hired by a firm of Gujarati Muslim merchants from Porbandar to help them in a court case against another firm of Indian merchants, he was on the verge of going back to India at the expiration of his contract when he was asked by a group of Indian merchants in Durban to help them fight against discriminatory laws. He was to spend another twenty years in South Africa.


Prior to 1906, his Story is one of slow learning. The early South African Gandhi was a spokesman for a tiny merchant elite which was clinging to the few privileges which raised it above the mass of indentured labourers that formed the bulk of the South African Indian community. For Gandhi, these were years of intellectual and spiritual maturation; he developed a very idiosyncratic religious faith, which became the source of his strength, and discovered he had hidden talents as an organizer and journalist. His political role remained, in spite of what some of his biographers say, relatively modest prior to 1906. He was involved in the creation of the Indian Natal Congress, but this was not a very active organization. Although he himself displayed real qualities of leadership from the time of his first campaign-waged in 1894 against the suppression of the electoral franchise of the rich Indian merchants in Natal-and showed rare courage-in 1896 he escaped being lynched by an enraged mob of white colonists furious that he had criticized them publicly in meetings in India-his first forays into politics were not particularly promising. The early Gandhi was still a loyal subject of the British empire, as manifest in his support of the British during the Boer War (despite his own avowed sympathies for the Boers). His methods of struggle were clearly those of the mode- rates in the Indian National Congress, which entailed petitioning the authorities to obtain redress, writing pamphlets full of legal arguments, and holding peaceful meetings where moderate resolutions were ad- opted. He was still far from being a popular leader; he pursued limited political aims which reflected the narrow social base of the movements with which he was associated. In spite of his activism and devotion to the cause of the advancement of South African Indians, he did not obtain any noticeable success in fending off a host of discriminatory legislation which gradually reduced the status of the 'Free Indians' of Natal to that of indentured coolies. His South African stay appeared to close on a note of failure in 1901 when he went back to India and appeared poised to embark upon a political career in the shadow of his political mentor, Gokhale.


His return to South Africa in 1902, at the behest of his compatriots, heralded a new phase in his career. Re-establishing himself in Durban, he embarked upon his first journalistic venture with the creation of a weekly paper entitled Indian Opinion, in which he started a relentless press campaign for the rights of South African Indians. In 1"904, influenced by reading Ruskin, and by his advocacy of a simple life and a return to nature, he moved with a few friends and disciples to a farm in Phoenix near Durban, his first experiment in communal life. In 1905 he took his family to Johannesburg, where he opened a lawyer's office and, for the first time in his life, enjoyed a considerable measure of professional success. To all appearances he was destined for the life of the publicist more than that of the activist, but the promulgation in August 1906 of the draft of a new Transvaal Asiatic Amendments Act, which sought to impose registration and fingerprinting of all the Indians of the province, led to as pate of protests, in which Gandhi took the lead.


From 1906 onwards Gandhi entered fully into political life and enlarged his appeal to other categories of the South African Indian population, beyond the merchant elite. Between 1907 and 1913 he gradually perfected a technique of political agitation which he called satyagraha, to distinguish it from the term 'passive resistance', with which it was generally equated. In 1909 the first biography of Gandhi, by Reverend Joseph Doke, an English clergyman in South Africa, appeared and gave him an audience beyond South Africa, in India and Britain. Thus, at the same time as his life took a new turn, his legend was born. In 1909 he also wrote his first major political text, Hind Swaraj, which remained the only systematic elaboration of his political philosophy, a text in which hevirulenrly criticized Western civilization and its effect upon India.


The 1909-19 period was a crucial phase of transition in Gandhi's life. During five years of political struggle in South Africa, culminating in the October 1913 miners' march from Natal to Transvaal-which in some ways prefigured the more famous Salt March of 1930-he refined the method of mass agitation which he later employed on such a massive scale in India. In a negotiation with Smuts, the South African premier, in July 1914, he obtained significant concessions for Indians, in particular the suppression of a vexatious tax and an acknowledgement of the validity of Hindu and Muslim marriages that had been contest- ed by a court in 1913. His South African stay thus ended on a note of success, albeit of a limited nature.


Having gone back to India for good in 1915-after a few months' stay in London during which he helped raise an ambulance unit for' the war among Indian students-he kept a low profile for some time. This was a phase of slow accumulation of forces and of learning about India, a country about which he knew so little, having spent two de-cades away from it. His first active intervention was in Champaran in Bihar, where he helped local peasants fight the oppression of British indigo planters. Then came a workers' strike in Ahmedabad, where he had established his ashram, in which he played the role of mediator between capital and labour. The Champaran episode, in particular, made his name familiar for the first time to the Indian masses. During these years he progressively lost his illusions about the benevolence of British rule. While in 1918 he had actively campaigned for recruitment to the Indian Army in the First World War, he became indignant at the promulgation of the Rowlatt Bills (a series of laws aimed at repressing political dissent) in March 1919. He found himself suddenly the object of public attention when he launched, almost single-handed, the Rowlatt satyagraha in April 1919. The initial response was overwhelming, but from Gandhi's point of view the movement was a failure as his calls for non-violence went unheeded and Punjab became engulfed in an orgy of arson and violence. This culminated in the Amritsar massacre, perpetrated at Jallianwala Bagh by General Dyer, who ordered his troops to fire upon a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, leaving hundreds dead. In spite of his own admission of a 'Himalayan blunder' in calling such a movement before he had devised ways of actually leading it, he became all at once a major player in Indian politics, so that, when in 1920 the Khilafat agitation aimed at the defence of the Califate of Islam, the existence of which was threatened by British policy towards the defunct Ottoman Empire-acquired momentum, he was in a position to mobilize the Congress Party in support of the Khilafatists. At the end of 1920 he launched the non-cooperation movement, which pursued the triple objective of defending the Khilafat, setting right the Punjab wrongs, and, for the first time, obtaining swaraj or self-rule.


From 1920 he became the leading figure of the Indian nationalist movement fighting British rule. Although the sudden end of non- cooperation in February 1922, following a massacre at Chauri-Chaura in the United Provinces of twenty-two policemen by an enraged crowd of demonstrators, left many of his supporters puzzled and unhappy, his trial by a British court and subsequent imprisonment gave him the aura of martyrdom which he always knew how to use to his advantage. In jail, he found the time to write his famous autobiography, conceived as something of a response to a book by Romain Rolland. 1 During the 1922-47 period, he alternated between phases of withdrawal and active participation in nationalist politics. When he came out of jail in 1924, he chose to devote most of his time to social reform activities, in particular to the promotion of khadi (handmade cloth) and the fight against untouchability. He let others conduct the day-to-day political struggle and intervened only occasionally in the life of the Congress Party.


In 1928 he came out of semi-retirement to lead once again the nationalist party as it fought for new constitutional reforms. When, in December 1929, Congress adopted as its objective complete independence (Poorna Swaraj), it was left to Gandhi to define the concrete modalities of a campaign. In January 1930 he launched the call to Civil Disobedience and started the campaign with the celebrated Salt March of March-April 1930. For almost a year the Indian nationalist movement, under his guidance, and, after his imprisonment in May, that of his lieutenants, openly challenged British rule, provoking the wonder and admiration of international public opinion at the almost complete lack of violence in such a large-scale agitation. The Mahatma was then at the pinnacle of his glory and crowds literally worshipped 1 R. Rolland, Mahatma Gandhi, Paris, 1924.


him. But he did not lose his sangfroid, and, when the opportunity arose to seek a compromise, he seized it eagerly. The pact he signed in March 1931 with the viceroy, Lord Irwin, led to the temporary suspension of Civil Disobedience and Gandhi's participation in the second Round Table Conference in London, which debated the shape of new constitutional reforms.


Having failed to obtain significant concessions from the British, Gandhi went back to India and, before he could launch a new campaign of agitation, was arrested. While the movement gradually weakened, Gandhi tried, from his jail, to dissuade the Untouchables from accepting separate electorates in the new constitution, going on a hunger strike to put pressure on the British and on the Untouchable leader Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. Ambedkar had to give in to the intensity of popular feeling aroused by Gandhi's 'fast unto death' and sign the Poona Pact, by which he renounced separate electorates, a concession which was then accepted by London. In 1934 Gandhi officially put an end to Civil Disobedience in spite of the fact that none of its avowed objectives had been reached.


When he came out of jail Gandhi chose again not to involve himself directly in the political struggle, and, from a new ashram in Sevagram near Wardha in Central India, focused more than ever on a 'constructive programme', the fight for temple entry for Untouchables and the Struggle for khadi. He also devoted a lot of attention to education as he thought the inadequacy of the existing educational system was a crucial cause of India's poverty. Although he was not openly active in politics, he retained enormous moral influence and played a crucial role in the decision, taken by the Congress in 1937, to form governments in provinces where it had gained a majority under a new constitution giving more powers to provincial governments. The compromise lasted two years, ending only with Viceroy Lord Linlithgow's unilateral decision to declare war on Germany without consulting the Legislative Assembly. The Congress answered by resigning from the provincial governments it headed.

For the following three years, Gandhi, while sticking to his view that India's participation in the war was contrary to his credo of non- violence, sought a compromise with the British and actually avoided hampering the war effort. In 1940-1 he launched a limited campaign of civil disobedience which had a weak impact, but the failure of the Cripps Mission, sent in March 1942 by the British government, to produce a compromise between London and the Congress over constitutional reforms, led him to reconsider his stance. In August 1942, while the Japanese, having overrun Burma, reached the Bengal border, he launched the 'Quit India' movement. London's reaction was swift; Gandhi was arrested, while the movement, which took a violent form, was severely repressed.


From his jail in 1943 Gandhi embarked upon a new 'fast unto death' to protest against Linlithgow's accusation that he was behind the unrest in 1942, but British intransigence forced him to call it off without having obtained an apology from the government. In 1944, Gandhi suffered a grievous blow when his wife Kasturbai, who had be- come a very close associate in the struggle, died. His health deteriorated, which led to his release from confinement. In September 1944 he opened direct negotiations with Jinnah to try to find a compromise between the Congress and the Muslim League over the question of Pakistan, but failed because of stubbornness on both sides. This was to be his last direct intervention in the process which led to independence and Partition.


Between 1944 and 1947 he remained largely in the background, leaving Nehru and Patel to negotiate the final agreement with the British and the Muslim League. In spite of his personal opposition to Partition, which he viewed as the negation of his entire lifework- based on the idea that differences between religions were only superficial he chose not to oppose it. Had he chosen otherwise, it would not have made much difference; for, in spite of his enormous prestige in India and abroad, he was increasingly isolated politically. His interventions in 1946-7 were mosclygeared to limiting communal violence, first in Noakhali, where he spent several weeks risking his life to help restore calm; then in Bihar, where his intervention helped put an end to massacres of Muslims; later in Calcutta where, on the eve of independence, he managed to obtain a lull in the violence which proved lasting; and finally in Delhi, where his mediation avoided further massacres at the end of 1947. Despite growing physical exhaustion, he was planning a visit to Pakistan to try to defuse tension between the two newly independent countries, but on 30 January 1948, at his daily prayer meeting held on the grounds of Birla House in New Delhi, he fell to the bullets of a Hindu extremist militant, Nathurarn Godse. His earthly life ended in this brutal way, but among the mourning mil- lions, in India and elsewhere, there also began a posthumous life which has been particularly rich and eventful.


The existing overabundant literature on Gandhi focuses mostly on his personality and his ideas at the expense of a balanced appreciation of his historical role. About Gandhi's personality, I will focus only on certain relatively unexplored areas. I will pay greater attention to his ideas, or at least to some of them inasmuch as they inspired his actions as asocial reformer and political leader. Priority will be given to his role as a leader, for had he not initiated and led one of the great political movements of the twentieth century, it is most unlikely that much attention would have been paid to his ideas, some of which were extremely idiosyncratic.








I. Perceptions of Gandhi


Images of Gandhi


Gandhian Iconography


Gandhi and the West: The Saint and His Critiques


Gandhi's Image in France


Gandhi on the Screen: Consecration of the Icon


Gandhi in Indian Eyes: Diversity of Perceptions and Practices



The Impossible Biography of Mohandas K. Gandhi


Gandhi's Biographers


Gandhi and the Limitations of Biography as a Genre


Gandhi as His Own Biographer: The Autobiography



Gandhi's Posthumous Life


Gandhi in India After 1948: A Disputed Legacy


Gandhism and Its Interpreters


Gandhi and Political Philosophy


Gandhi, Political Ecology, and Alternative Movements


II. Gandhi in History


Birth of A Leader


Private Life, Public Life


The Contribution of South Africa


The Emergence of a National Leader in 1915-1920


The Transformation of Gandhi: Towards a New Political Idiom



Gandhi And Indian Independence


Gandhi and the End of Fear


Gandhi as an Organizer


Gandhi's Role in Anti-British Campaigns, 1920-1942



Gandhi and Indian Society: The Reformer And His Legacy


Gandhi and the Dignity of Manual Labour


Gandhi and the Reconstruction of the Indian Village


Gandhi and the Fight for the Abolition of Untouchability



Gandhi In the Time-Frame of Indian History


Between Victorian Intellectual and Neo-traditionalist



Gandhi and Bourgeois Nationalism


The Nature of Gandhi's Charisma


Gandhi and the Expectations of the Peasantry



Gandhi and Non-Violence


Non-violent Resistance: Gandhi's Contribution


From Satyagraha to Non-violence: A Gandhian Itinerary


Nationalism and Non-violence in India in Gandhi's Lifetime: Myth and Reality


Gandhi and the Pacifists


The Exemplary Nature of Gandhian Non-violence




Select Bibliography





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