activism books

Book review: Mohandas Gandhi, by Talat Ahmed

The last biography I read was of Elon Musk. Here’s a contrast – Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience, a new biography by Talat Ahmed for the ‘Revolutionary Lives’ series from Pluto Press.

There are lots of biographies of Gandhi of course, but this one is able to respond specifically to the way that Gandhi is viewed in today’s culture. Not just as the default source for half the quotes on the internet, but as a stated inspiration to those who want to change the world. As the author says at the beginning, if people are going to point to Gandhi as an inspiration for their own activism, it is “imperative to reflect on Gandhi’s life in order to gain insights into his strategy – and also its limitations.”

The book therefore outlines Gandhi’s methods and successes, but also his compromises and contradictions, showing what non-violent resistance was able to achieve and what it couldn’t.

We begin briefly with Gandhi’s childhood in a middle class family in an Indian princedom, and training in law in London. Here there are some interesting details about his emerging philosophy, drawing on Thoreau, Ruskin and Tolstoy. We read about his involvement with the Vegetarian Society, and the state of race relations in Britain at the time.

Then it’s on to South Africa, where Gandhi was a successful lawyer for many years. His early campaigns were to protect the interests of Asians, and it was this activity that made him famous in India. Here we also see some of the contradictions in Gandhi, in particular the way he objected to apartheid conditions: he did not campaign for an end to them, but for Indians not to be classified as black.

In returning to India Gandhi made a deliberate effort to break out of his middle class circles, walking the country and meeting poorer rural communities and lower castes. Over the coming years his activism would shift from justice issues to more nationalist causes against the British empire, culminating of course in independence and partition.

For those unfamiliar with the details of India’s history – and I’d include myself in that – there are some myths to sweep away. “The story of India’s struggle for independence was anything but non-violent” as Ahmed says. There were uprisings before Gandhi, and other movements besides his own. Neither was Gandhi limited to the iconic non-violent protests that have made him famous. “Remember that Gandhi was a British-trained barrister, with ample experience of political activity” writes Ahmed, a figure who was “shrewd, calculating and extremely clever.”

As a political biography, the book is full of factions, parties and alliances. It digs into movements and how they inter-related, as Gandhi engaged with Hindu nationalists, Muslim groups, Communists and the empire itself. Those looking to get a sense of Gandhi as a man or as a teacher might want to look elsewhere, as the concern here is the role that he and his methods played in a wider and complicated political setting.

The book gives a clear account of Gandhi’s activism, drawing out its strengths and its weaknesses. It complicates the popular understanding of Gandhi, and sets his contribution in a wider context. In that sense, this is a more useful book for activists than for general readers.

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