Dr. Ramachandra Guha on Gandhi’s Enduring Legacy

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[00:00:00] Charlie: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of the Learning Curve. We’re glad that you’re here. My name is Charlie Chieppo. I am a senior fellow at Pioneer Institute, and I am your guest co-host today together with Mariam Memarsadeghi. Mariam, welcome, tell us a little bit about yourself.

[00:00:39] Mariam: Charlie, it’s great to be with you. Great to be co-hosting again. I am a democracy activist. I work primarily to bring democracy to my homeland, Iran. I’ve focused a lot on providing civic education to people living inside Iran using the internet. And I often write about issues of democracy and human rights.

[00:00:59] Charlie: Well, clearly you are doing God’s work, and we are very glad to have you here today. So, as we usually do, we are going to kick off with our story of the week. And so, Miriam, why don’t you start for us and tell us what you’ve got for this week.

[00:01:15] Mariam: Sounds good. My story, Charlie, is a Wall Street Journal opinion piece about cancel culture and the 2024 college free speech rankings. It’s a video product that the Wall Street Journal put out and Michigan Tech has come out on top as the freest in terms of free speech and Harvard at the very bottom. And they do a very good job of explaining why it is that our country’s most elite, the most selective places of higher education, are the ones that are the worst when it comes to allowing students to speak their mind, to have their college years be a time of experimentation and free thought. It was really something that grabbed my attention because I’ve personally experienced being yelled at when speaking at college campuses. The worst experience I had was at London School of Economics, where I almost really couldn’t finish what I was trying to say. Ironically, speaking about the lack of freedom in Iran is what got me shouted down. You know, the worst part of all this is that it creates a climate of intimidation, which leads to self-censorship. And it’s the imposition of an ideology and the creation of red lines. And the irony is it’s at the place, it’s that four years when human beings want to be exposed to ideas that may be different from what they have been exposed to in their life, and it should be a time curiosity and open learning. Instead, it’s becoming a place where students are encouraged to police the speech of their professors and to intimidate fellow classmates. And really, it’s a lot like the blasphemy that regimes like Iran’s enforce. So, really, really concerning.

[00:03:13] Charlie: Well, I’ll tell you what Miriam, I’m really glad that you spoke about this this week, because I saw that I saw those rankings as well. First, I have to say that I’m a big, fan of Harvey Silverglate whose organization does these and, you know, I guess the most immediate reason why I was so excited that you covered this is that I’m just coming off four years of being an adjunct professor and I have to say two things. One is, I was stunned by the lack of various views or tolerance of different views. And what I found equally concerning was that just between the first year that I did it and the fourth year that I did it, it was noticeably worse. And so, it is really taking hold. It’s an important issue, and I’m really glad you brought that up today because I think people need to be very aware of it. Kudos to Harvey Silverglate and FIRE, the organization that did that.

[00:04:13] Charlie: My story this week is from the ABC TV affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas, and it is about the launch of Education Freedom Accounts, a voucher program in Arkansas. It’s being phased in over three years. This is the first year. It’s a $6,600 per student voucher. This year, for the first year, it is available to certain classes of people, including first-time kindergartners, students who enrolled in failing schools or in failing districts, students with disabilities, students who are homeless, students who are currently or were formerly in foster care, and children of active-duty military. There are about 4,400 families, from a majority of Arkansas counties, who are represented in this. And there are more than 90 non-district schools, kind of all stripes, who are participating.

[00:05:14] Charlie: This is going to be a three-year phase-in. By the third year, this program is basically going to be open to all students in Arkansas. So, I think it’s worth it bears watching. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the program develops. It’s going to be very interesting to see what the demand is, where parents choose to send their students, because there is really a broad array of places they can go. There’s not a lot of limits on where you can send your students and what the impact will be on the traditional public school system. So, I think it’s going to be very interesting to watch over the next few years to see how this program develops. All right. And coming up after the break is our guest this week, Dr. Ramachandra Guha, who is the author of a two-volume biography of Mohandas Gandhi.

[00:06:17] Charlie: This week we’re very pleased to have with us Dr. Ramachandra Guha. Dr. Guha is an award-winning historian and biographer based in Bengaluru, India. He authored the acclaimed two-volume biography Gandhi Before India in 2014, which was chosen as a notable book of the year by the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle. And after that Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World (2018), which was celebrated by the New York Times and the Economist. Guha also authored India After Gandhi in 2007, which was chosen as among the books of the year by the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and a book of the decade by The Times of London and The Hindu.

[00:06:56] Charlie: Dr. Guha has taught at Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley, the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study, Indian Institute of Science, the University of Oslo, and the London School of Economics. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, a master’s degree in economics from the Delhi School of Economics, and a PhD in sociology from the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. Welcome, Dr. Guha.

[00:07:23] Mariam: Dr. Guha, it is such a pleasure to be with you. I’ve been a big admirer and a student of Mohandas Gandhi. And we have taught at the Institute that I co-founded and co-directed for over 10 years, Tavaana, his teachings to the Iranian people. Doctor, you’ve written the definitive biography of Mohandas Gandhi, and you’ve argued that he’s the most influential political figure and thinker of the 20th century. Would you share with us, please, his essential spiritual and political leadership ideas that teachers and students alike should know?

[00:08:01] Dr. Ramachandra Guha: Yes. I will do that. But before, just to explain why he’s so influential, it’s partly because he lived his life in three continents. Most great leaders, for example, you know, FDR in the United States or Winston Churchill in England, are essentially spend most of their lives in their home country, but short spells overseas. Gandhi had a profound and intimate experience of England and Africa apart from his native country, India. And that gave him a kind of much more inclusive vision, universalist vision. I guess that was the case of other great news of the 20th century. Now, among, if one was to single out Gandhi’s fundamental ideal, obviously nonviolence would be top of the list, that a human being and disadvantaged community suffering discrimination or injustice must resist it, but do so nonviolently — not through terror attacks, not through Marxist revolutionary violence on the Soviet or Chinese model — but through collective nonviolence through which you can change your oppressor. So that’s the first great idea that he gave the world. The second great idea that he gave the world is that of interreligious harmony.

[00:09:14] Dr. Guha: So, Gandhi was not a religious fundamentalist, nor was he an idiot. He was a Hindu whose closest friends were Christians, Muslims, Parsis. And he argued that through interreligious dialogue and understanding you could reduce sectarian conflict.

[00:09:34] Dr. Guha: And he third great aspect of his vision, which we are only now beginning to recognize in this age of climate change, is that Gandhi was a precocious environmentalist.

Mariam: Yes.

Dr. Guha:  He recognized that the patterns of industrialization, urbanization, and consumerism that had taken place in the West were simply not applicable at a global level. So, you know, treading gently on the Earth, recycling, responsibility in your use of nature, all these are intrinsic to human rights. Of course, I’d be happy to give specific quotes to show what kind of precocious environmentalist he was. So, nonviolence, religious pluralism, and environmental sustainability were his three most enduring ideas. Of course, there were others too. He had a great gift of friendship. He was a wonderful [inaudible]a. But those are secondary to these three great ideas.

[00:10:26] Mariam: Thank you. In your first volume, Gandhi Before India, you cover his 1869 birth, his family, and his upbringing in India. Could you set the context of India in the late 19th-century, Gandhi’s background, religious foundations, and formative educational experiences that helped shape his early life?

[00:10:50] Dr. Guha: Yes. So, in the late 19th century, India was ruled by the British. However, The British were in control of two-thirds of what is now India through direct rule, and one third they ruled indirectly through a system of feudatory or subsidiary chiefs.

[00:11:08] Dr. Guha: You know, the Indian maharajas and nawabs of whom, of whom there were almost 500, each had small principalities. And Gandhi grew up in a small principality in Western India, in the present-day state of Gujarat. Well, his father worked for the king, worked for the Maharaja, and Gandhi was middle class, middle caste.

[00:11:30] Dr. Guha: He wasn’t born in a poor or disadvantaged background, nor was his family particularly wealthy. It was really, he was middle class, middle caste, that he wasn’t a Brahmin, nor was he an untouchable. But he was also a middle-ranking student. One of the discoveries in my research was his school marks sheets, which were in an obscure publication that I found, which no previous biographer had used. And he was always square in the middle of the class. But high school meticulous. He ran 404th out of 823 in the province. And I think that’s quite interesting because, you know, early on he never showed signs of intellectual brilliance of his morality. I mean, later on he became an original and incisive thinker and writer. As a schoolboy, he was consumed with the idea of studying law and his father died when he was in his teens.

[00:12:23] Dr. Guha: He also married when he was in his teens, which is quite common in those days in India. And then, of course, he was able to persuade his mother to allow him to leave his wife and his family and go to London to study law. So, that was his background in India, and his mother was very deeply religious. Which is respected. She fasted regularly, but she was also ecumenical. So, she was a Hindu, but prayed in a temple which had verses from the Quran. Gandhi’s own school had a party headmaster whom he admired. So early in life, he was exposed to religious and cultural influences that were not his.

[00:13:01] Mariam: Fascinating. So, in a sense, he was, living in his country, but in a cosmopolitan way.

[00:13:07] Dr. Guha: Well, of course his cosmopolitanism grew the more he traveled and he goes to London and South Africa and so on. But early on, you can get a sense of his interest in, his curiosity about other cultures, other people’s other ways of life. That came quite early to him in a society that was otherwise deeply conservative and community bound.

[00:13:30] Mariam: Hmm. Okay. In volume one of your biography, you detailed Gandhi’s experiences in England while he obtained his legal training at London’s Inner Temple. Would you talk about how his time in the UK informed his religious, racial, and intellectual worldview, as well as how London helped form his understanding of the British empire’s vast impact on the world?

[00:13:56] Dr. Guha: London in the 1880s — Gandhi was there from 1888 to 1891 — was the greatest city in the world. You know, it was the imperial city. Of course, it was the capital of the British empire and the British had control over large parts, not just of Asia, but also Africa. But it had people from all over. It was very rich, very prosperous. It was a thriving shipbuilding industry. It’s also a time of great intellectual ferment. Charles Darwin has published The Origins of Species, that’s three decades before Gandhi goes there. There’s enormous scientific creativity, the plays of Bernard Shaw are being staged. Karl Marx has just died, so there’s kind of a political radicalism also in the air, and that’s London Gandhi goes to. Now, Interestingly, Gandhi grew up — I should have said this earlier, but this is a good time to emphasize this point — Gandhi grew up in a vegetarian household. So, the caste he was born into, who are known as Modh Banias, the traditional merchant caste, were vegetarians. So, they did not eat rice because of custom and tradition.

[00:14:56] Dr. Guha: And when he goes to England, before he goes, he promises his mother that he will not drink alcohol and he will not eat meat. And of course, he’s looking around for a place to eat. He cooks at home. And it is in his walking journeys around London that he stumbles across a vegetarian restaurant. And he goes in. And there he meets vegetarians, English vegetarians, who, unlike him, are not vegetarians culturally, not because they’re forefathers for generations of vegetarians, but out of an ethical motivation, namely that they abhor the killing of animals. Because even if there was no such thing as cultural vegetarianism, many communities in India are vegetarian.

[00:15:38] Dr. Guha: The merchant caste that Gandhi was born into, the Jains, were religious, secular, vegetarian, but in England there was no nothing as cultural vegetarianism, right? It was really a 19th century ethical movement led by among others a markable man called Henry S. Salt, who started the Vegetarian Society of London and then Gandhi joined the Society. So, he, of course, he was studying law, but he didn’t have any law classes. He had to do exams at the Temple and he had to do his exams at the end of the year. But otherwise, he would read his books at home and he was looking for company, and he found company in the members of the Vegetarian Society.

[00:16:20] Dr. Guha: Now, that’s quite interesting because one of the friends was a doctor called Josiah Oldfield, who was a British doctor. And they became so pally that they decided to set up home together, to share an apartment. And this was incredibly revolutionary for a white man and a brown man to share an apartment in London. Of course, in India, it could be inconceivable when the British were rulers. So, that was one aspect, that he was making friends across the nation, probably. The other important aspect of Gandhi’s interest in vegetarianism, which was to influence his later career, was that he was asked to speak about Indian vegetarianism at meetings with the society. And after he gave a couple of speeches, he was encouraged to write about it. So, his first articles were published in the Journal of the Vegetarian Society of London about the differences between the cultural, traditional vegetarianism he had grown up with and the more ethical, moralistic, acquired vegetarianism of his English colleagues.

[00:17:20] Dr. Guha: Now, Gandhi was a prolific writer. He, you know, his collection works run to more than 90 volumes. And it’s quite curious and interesting and in fact quite endearing and charming that his first published essays were on vegetarianism.

[00:17:35] Mariam: Hmm. That’s fascinating. It’s a very personally driven ethic. It comes from the inside and the day-to-day life that he has. In Gandhi before India, you focus on the African Gandhi, his years in South Africa from 1893 until his return to India in 1915. He spent a long time in South Africa. Could you discuss Gandhi during this time, how Africa shaped his ideas and ecumenical view of religions, and how this early work anticipated the post-World War II African independence movements?

[00:18:11] Dr. Guha: Yes, of course. I mean, Gandhi was profoundly shaped by Africa. He wouldn’t have been the man and the leader and the thinker he became had he not spent two decades in Africa. But before I come to what he did in Africa and what he learned in South Africa, let me just alert you to the fact that it was completely by accident that he got there.

[00:18:32] Dr. Guha: He comes back from London with a law degree and wants to practice and make his name as a lawyer in India. But he fails, partly because he’s a very indifferent orator. Now that’s quite interesting. We are used to — we live in an age where politicians are wonderfully eloquent, either in a sophisticated way like Barack Obama or in a demagogic way like Donald Trump.

[00:18:53] Dr. Guha: But we expect our politicians to be compelling speakers, but Gandhi was not. And this of course meant, because he had a stammer and he was diffident, it meant he was not a particularly successful lawyer in Bombay, which was the center of the Indian legal profession. And he failed as a lawyer in Bombay. And he’s saved from professional obscurity by an invitation from South Africa to settle a business dispute. There’s a family of Gujarati traders and the two partners, who are cousins, are having a very bitter dispute about the business. And then it’s reached the courts. And since much of the correspondence is in Gujarati, which is Gandhi’s language. But the dispute has to be settled according to the canons of the English law, which Gandhi had studied. One of the parties to the dispute, a merchant called Dada Abdullah, calls Gandhi as someone who both knows Gujarati and knows the English law to represent him. But it’s interesting that he — it’s because he fails as a lawyer in Bombay, he goes to South Africa.

[00:19:58] Dr. Guha: He helps mediate a compromise between, an honorable compromise, between these two quarrelsome business partners who also happen to be cousins. And then he stays on for two decades to work for the rights of Indians there. So, it’s an accident, it’s an accident, and it’s really a circumstance that takes him to South Africa.

[00:20:17] Dr. Guha: Not, you know, he doesn’t go there out of choice, really. Now, once he goes there, once he stays in South Africa, again, go back to what I said about London. In London, he shares a flat with Josiah Oldfield, who’s an Englishman. When he goes to South Africa, he gets off the boat at Durban, and client, Dada Abdullah, meets him at portside, takes him home and he spends the night with a Muslim. It’s even more radical, because Hindus and Muslims in India lead very different lives. They have a very complicated, partly rivalrous and suspicious relationship. So, in South Africa, he gets to know the diversity of his own country. Now, for argument’s sake, Gandhi has succeeded as a lawyer in Bombay.

[00:20:59] Dr. Guha: [00:21:00] 95 percent of his time should have been Gujarati Hindus like himself, and probably from the same merchant class. In South Africa, on the other hand, his first client is a Muslim, where he starts a struggle for justice for the Indians who are subject to discriminating racial laws by the British colonial regime.

[00:21:19] Dr. Guha: His first partner is a Parsi. His most steadfast supporters are Tamils from a working-class background. So, he gets to know the diversity of India by being in the diaspora. If he had lived and succeeded in Western India as a lawyer, he would have hung out with people of the same caste, the same religion, the same linguistic group, the same social mores, the same dietary habits.

[00:21:42] Dr. Guha: So, India is an extraordinarily diverse land, as you know. And Gandhi recognizes that only by going to the diaspora. So, he becomes more universal, more cosmopolitan, more truly Indian. So, that’s his first major learning. That’s a cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious diversity of India, which is staggering and, you know, unequal anywhere in the world.

[00:22:04] Dr. Guha: Gandhi gets to know it only because he spent two decades in the diaspora. Then of course, his whole technique of nonviolence. There’s a long and interesting history to this. Partly he learned it from indigenous peasant tradition in Gujarat itself, where peasant communities, when they want to protest against very high taxes that the king levies on them, go peacefully and squat outside the king’s palace and don’t use violence. You know, they don’t do it in an armed insurrection, but just go and go on a strike, kind of a hunger strike outside the king’s palace until he would reduce their taxes. So that’s one source of nonviolence. The other source of nonviolence, interestingly, is the British suffragettes in London. So, Gandhi you know, South Africa is a British colony.

[00:22:51] Dr. Guha: Natal, where he is, is a British colony. And where he is protesting against racial discrimination in Natal and the Transvaal, he is asked by the Indians to go and represent his case to the imperial government in London. And he goes there first in 1906, and then again in 1909. And while he said the suffragette movement is at its most intense, these are British women radicals, like the Pankhurst sisters, for example, asking for the vote, which is denied to them because only men are allowed to vote.

[00:23:20] Dr. Guha: And they’re asking for the vote through nonviolent street protest. And got me deeply impressed by their courage. And he says, maybe we can adopt the same methods in South Africa to demand rights from the white racist authorities. So, there’s religious pluralism, there’s nonviolence, but then there is a third aspect of Gandhi’s discovery of himself in South Africa, which is kind of early anticipation of his environmental sensibility.

[00:23:49] Dr. Guha: It’s living close to the land. So, he reads John Ruskin’s book, Unto This Life, which is, which he reads on a train journey, and which advocates the simple life, working with your hands, manufacturing your own cloth, making your own cloth, growing your own food. And he sets up a farm outside Durban called the Phoenix Farm which is kind of the first of four such rural settlements he established in South Africa and two later in India where he practices, not just teaches, but practices a simple life.

[00:24:21] Dr. Guha: Hmm. So, those are the two decades, for instance, of Africa. Of course. they are aspects of his work which are less noble or less admirable. For example, he never takes up the cause of the native Africans. So South Africa in this time — Gandhi was there from 1893 to 1914 — South Africa in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century had three communities. It had the whites who were the rulers who are partly of English extraction and partly of Dutch extraction. It had the Indians, who were there as laborers and merchants. And then the most numerous were the Africans. And the Africans saw what Gandhi was doing, they admired his civil disobedience against the white rulers.

[00:25:05] Dr. Guha: African newspapers said maybe we should produce our own Gandhi, but Gandhi himself never actually at this stage tries to build a common front to the Africans, as early on in his career, he, in his life in South Africa in the 1890s, he makes some patronizing and [?] remarks about Africans being, you know, dirty and uncivilized.

[00:25:25] Dr. Guha: Later on, he sheds these prejudices, but it is a kind of a, you could say a weakness or a deficiency of his South African years that he does not recognize that Indians and Africans could actually build a joint front against white racist oppression. But later, in the 1920s, when he returns to India, he embraces the cause of the Africans and blacks in the civil rights movement in America, and he has, of course, correspondence with the great American thinker and leader, W.E.B. Du Bois, and later on, through his writings after Gandhi’s death, Gandhi even influences Martin Luther King. But as a historian and a biographer, it’s striking that in two decades in South Africa, Gandhi had Jewish friends, Christian friends, Muslim friends, Parsi friends. Friends from different Indian castes from different parts of India.

[00:26:16] Dr. Guha: But he had one South African acquaintance, the first president of Indian uh, of the African National Congress John Dube. But he wasn’t really able to connect, make connections between the plight of the Indians and the plight of the Africans.

[00:26:30] Mariam: It’s fascinating. Thank you so much.

[00:26:33] Charlie: That’s very interesting, Dr. Guha. This is Charlie Chieppo here and I just want to echo what Miriam said, we’re thrilled to have you. In Gandhi the Years that Changed the World, 1914 to 1948, traces his return to India through to his death. Would you discuss how Gandhi became a national leader in India, as well as talk about how his messages of nonviolence and moral self-reliance drawn from the Bhagavad Gita and American  Transcendentalists led to defying British rule?

[00:27:02] Dr. Guha: So, Gandhi comes back to India in 1915. And again, it’s a mystery that the biographer in me can speculate about but conclusively answer. Why does Gandhi leave South Africa and come back to India? You know, he spent two decades there. He’s the most admired leader of the Indian community and he’s also a well-respected lawyer and thinker who runs his own newspaper.

[00:27:25] Dr. Guha: My speculation is that Gandhi was politically ambitious, not in a you know, in a petty sense, but he wanted to make a greater impact in the world. And there were just 150,000 Indians in the diaspora, whereas there were 250 million Indians back home, and he wanted a larger stage for his ideas. You know, just as you know, shall we say a writer in a provincial paper in shall we say, some small town, in the Midwest wants to be published in the New York Times.

[00:27:54] Dr. Guha: I mean, it’s a very big, little human ambition. You want the largest state, stage for your creativity. So, Gandhi really comes back for that reason. When he comes back in 1915, his mentor, who was a remarkable social reformer and thinker, older than him living in Pune in Western India, a man called Gopal Krishna Gokhale tells him, you’ve been away for two decades. Don’t jump straight into politics and social work, spend a year traveling around India. So, Gandhi gets into a train compartment and travels all over India and gets to know the country he’d be away from for so long at first hand. You know, these people have different backgrounds. He meets peasants, he meets workers, he meets artisans, he meets teachers, he meets philanthropists, he meets princes, he meets, you know,

[00:28:37] Dr. Guha: You know, education in short. And then he starts, after a year and a bit of getting to know India, he starts, shall we say, dipping his toes in the ocean of Indian politics. So, in 1917, he organized his peasants for better treatment from landlords. He organized his workers in his home, in the town he lives in, Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, for better wages from the capitalists. And in 1919, he organized his first All India Movement, which is against a pernicious piece of legislation, akin to what  Bakkatees care in the Patriot Act, you know, which. A piece of legislation with the British introduced where all dissent is prohibited and this trial without jury and any dissenter can be arrested and sent off to prison.

[00:29:26] Dr. Guha: That’s how he starts his political journey. then he decides that British rule must go. This is after the horrible massacre in near Amritsar, the Golden Temple, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Where a British general called Dyer orders his troops to fire on an unarmed group of protesters killing more than 400, Gandhi decides that British rule must go and organizes a major, three major national movements, All India movements of civil disobedience first in the 1920s, then in 1930s, then in the 1940s.

[00:29:59] Dr. Guha: Now, however, Gandhi in the first of these movements in 1922, Gandhi gives a beautiful definition of swaraj or freedom — or swaraj is the Indian word, which I will just give to you and then explain the definition because it tells you the larger canvas of Gandhi’s legacy. Gandhi was not just a politician asking for freedom, political freedom from British colonial rule. He was a social reformer, a religious pluralist, a moral prophet, and so on and so forth. So, this is encapsulated in his definition of freedom or swaraj. He says swaraj, which is the Indian word for freedom or the Hindi word for freedom, he says swaraj is like a bed held up by four sturdy posts.

[00:30:42] Dr. Guha: And these four sturdy posts are nonviolence, Hindu-Muslim harmony, abolition of untouchability, and economic self-reliance. So, in between organizing these major political movements, based on nonviolence, Gandhi is trying to bring Hindus and Muslims on the same page, he’s trying to abolish untouchability, which is intrinsic to the caste system, which is kind of akin to slavery, where about one fourth of our population was treated as dirty and polluting and beyond the pale. And he’s also trying to forge means of relieving poverty, but in a sustainable way. So that’s why his movement takes so long because he’s working on multiple fronts, not just one. He doesn’t want to just drive the British out of India. He wants to make the Indians more capable of proper self-rule.

[00:31:32] Charlie: Fascinating. So, Gandhi’s Salt March was a 24-day, 240-mile act of nonviolent civil disobedience in the spring of 1930. It was a direct-action campaign of tax resistance and nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly. Could you talk about this Gandhi’s leadership role in the march?

[00:31:54] Dr. Guha: Absolutely. And the context for the Salt March is quite interesting because it’s not well understood. Gandhi wanted to get the British out of India, but through nonviolence. There were other Indians who were younger, more impatient, more extremist, who were inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and wanted to launch armed struggle against the British.

[00:32:15] Dr. Guha: They thought nonviolence was for sissies, it was for weak hearted, with women, and the really macho masculine thing to do would be to behead British officials, to assassinate them, through bombs at colonial offices, and to terrorize the British to leave India. And this movement of terrorism was particularly intense in the second half of the 20th century.

[00:32:40] Dr. Guha: And many young men were attracted to it, partly because of the example of Russia. Many young Indians admired Lenin more than Gandhi, which may seem strange to us today because of all what we know about the horrors of the Russian Revolution. But people, young people, young men are impatient. They want change fast. And the short march was in many ways an attempt by Gandhi to shift the political narrative away from violent revolution by saying, I will show you how to defeat the British and attack their injustices, their economic and political injustices, but nonviolently. I will march to the sea to break the British monopoly over salt.

[00:33:20] Dr. Guha: And of course, it had a deep moral core to it because it was nonviolent, unlike what the young revolutionaries were advocating. But it was also a brilliant piece of political theater, because here is this man, he is in his 60s, slowly marching day by day. At the end of a day’s march, he stops in a village where he gives a speech about the horrors of untouchability, the importance of respecting the rights of women.

[00:33:44] Dr. Guha: By this stage, Gandhi has also brought women into the Indian freedom struggle. And the next morning he starts again, and the press is covering him. And it’s just one lone sentinel, this kind of man in a loincloth, this kind of spindly, weak man in a loincloth taking on the British Empire.

[00:34:03] Dr. Guha: And when the march started, this will interest you. When the march started, Time Magazine that was published in New York, mocked Gandhi, the correspondent in India said, how can this pathetically skinny, weak, bony, skeletal frame take on the British Empire? What does he think he is? He’s some kind of lunatic.

[00:34:22] Dr. Guha: But of course, he gained more and more attention. There were parallel marches in many different parts of India. By the end of it, the British were very nervous. And the same Time magazine, which had mocked Gandhi when he began his march in the spring of 1930, at the end of the year, proclaimed Gandhi, the man of the year, which is what Time magazine does.

[00:34:41] Dr. Guha: And I think now it’s the end of the year because we don’t ostensibly use, you know, sexist language anymore, but that was the impact that the March had. So, by the end of the March, it was clear that the British would have to leave India. It took another 17 years, the kind of sympathy it had evoked around the world, quite apart from the enthusiasm and solidarity and emotional fervor that it has evoked within India itself, made it clear that, you know, that the British Empire, this was a kind of an extraordinarily powerful and morally charged challenge to the British Empire, which the empire would not be able to really withstand in the long run.

[00:35:23] Charlie: Well, boy, and you could certainly you know, it doesn’t take an historian to see the historic kind of influence that that had on, on future generations. After Gandhi’s death in 1948, his worldwide influence dramatically expanded and his vast published writings run 90 volumes. His example of nonviolence against unjust laws shaped Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, the Solidarity Movement in Poland, Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid leadership in South Africa. Could you talk about Gandhi’s enduring legacy in the 21st century?

[00:35:58] Dr. Guha: Yes, so I’d say again where I began with my first answer, I’d say the three enduring aspects of Gandhi’s legacy, one which you’ve pointed out to is the technique, collective nonviolence to resist oppression and discrimination, whether it is discrimination according to race or caste or gender or ethnicity. That’s one aspect of his legacy. The second aspect of his legacy is interfaith, I mean, you know, contrary to what, aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins believe, religion is something of faith in something beyond the human will and the human person.

[00:36:38] Dr. Guha: It’s something that provides human beings with a kind of anchor in this world. So, you can’t make religion disappear, but you can make it a less brutal, less violent, more caring, more understanding. Most religions have that. There’s a wonderful statement of Gandhi from the 1890s where he visits a group of Trappist monks in South Africa and he says, every religion can be devilish or divine, depending on what its proponents make it, you know.

[00:37:09] Dr. Guha: So, if you look at Christianity, there is the exemplary figure of Christ, but there are also passages in the Bible full of fire and brimstone and hatred at non-Christians. Likewise, Hinduism. I mean, Hinduism has profound philosophical and poetic depths, but it also practices the most horrific form of discrimination embodied in the caste system.

[00:37:29] Dr. Guha: So, I think Gandhi was his ideas about interfaith harmony, allowing people to practice your religion, but privately not bring it into, you know, how you deal with other religions, not melding it with state power. That I think is an idea which is adjoining the relevant. I think some people have, in India, we are turning our back on it. In India, we are becoming a Hindu fundamentalist state. In some ways we have the land of Gandhi, which is India, is turning its back on Gandhi under the current regime, which is a majoritarian regime, which stigmatizes and demonizes and discriminates against Muslims in particular. So, I think that is the second aspect of his work.

[00:38:05] Dr. Guha: A third is this whole idea of environmental sustainability, and there’s an extraordinary quote of Gandhi’s from 1928, which I’ll just repeat for your benefit and the benefit of your listeners. He says in 1928, God forbid that India should take to industrialization after the manner of the West.

[00:38:24] Dr. Guha: Then he continues, a single tiny island kingdom, namely England, is today, namely 1928, keeping the world in chains. And then he says, if India took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts. Now, India and China, you know, India was a generation of 300 million. He says if a nation of 300 million takes to civil exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts. India has about 1.4 billion, China is about the same. And by emanating unsustainable Western patterns of industrialization, we are collectively stripping the world bare like locusts. So, I think that is an aspect of Gandhi’s legacy and thought and precociousness that is something much in need of understanding and maybe even emulating today.

[00:39:15] Dr. Guha: About Gandhi’s extraordinarily distinctive qualities was that he pursued truth, the transparency of his own life. You know, if you wrote a letter criticizing him, he would reply to it, sometimes in public, the courtesy and civility with which he conducted a disagreement. You know, John Lewis, your great civil rights leader who died during the pandemic, he was a greater admirer of Gandhi. He was inspired by Gandhi. He said, one can disagree without being disagreeable. So, to look at debates and the differences, to tackle them through civility and courtesy. And in his own life, he was absolutely transparent. his autobiography was called My Experiments with Truth. Now, if you look at many political leaders around the world, including your country and my country, if they were to write an autobiography, an accurate title would be My Experiments with Untruths, you know?

[00:40:10] Dr. Guha: So, I think that’s the last aspect of Gandhi’s legacy, that is the transparency and openness of his personal life and the sheer decency of the man. As George Orwell said in his obituary of Gandhi, he said how clean a smell he leaves behind compared to other political leaders of his time, and it’s true, it’s even truer today.

[00:40:29] Charlie: That is just a great description of Gandhi’s obviously huge impact on the 21st-century world. And unfortunately, India is not the only country these days that seems to be moving toward this authoritarian rule, but I don’t think that Gandhi’s influence will be forgotten anytime soon.

[00:40:50] Mariam: So, Dr. Guha, how much do you think, because throughout this interview, you referenced, in passing, Marxist-Leninist thought and the striking contrast, that Gandhi’s contribution to the world is really the polar opposite. I keep thinking about, what happened there and why did that happen? How much do you, in the, the, the contrast to the terror and totalitarianism that came from that ideology and then the contribution that Gandhi made universally in the opposite direction towards greater freedom, greater justice, greater decency and fairness, how much do you think it’s because of his professional rootedness as a lawyer, as someone, as someone who is really exposed to rule of law principles?

[00:41:43] Dr. Guha: That’s a fascinating question. I haven’t thought about it in that way before, but clearly it has something to do with it. It’s interesting that Gandhi and Lenin are exact, almost exact contemporaries. Gandhi was born in 1869, Lenin in 1870. They both spent large amounts of time outside their homeland, Gandhi in South Africa, Lenin in Switzerland and other parts of Europe. Both are prolific writers. They both — Lenin he succeeds with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Gandhi first makes an impact on Indian politics in 1917.

[00:42:14] Dr. Guha: But of course, their worldview, their philosophy, their moral compass could not more radically differ. And some of it may have to do, as you say, with Gandhi standing as a lawyer, because as a lawyer you operate within a system which is about debates, words, it’s not about guns and bombs and terror. But I think it has to do a lot more with Gandhi’s principled commitment to nonviolence.


[00:42:37] Dr. Guha: And what has been in criticized by this, glorified by this. And of course that led to intolerance because, you know, as we know from the history of communist revolutions all over the world, you achieve power through violence and then you devour your own children. If you think of the Gulag, then the extermination … of their political opponents.

[00:42:55] Dr. Guha: Whereas Gandhi’s method of nonviolence led after Indian independence to a construction of a multi-party democracy, which is next year going to hold its 18th general election, apart from countless provincial elections. But again, it’s striking that in their respective lifetimes, intellectuals preferred Lenin to Gandhi. They saw Gandhi as kind of a backward-looking mystic some kind of fuddy duddy obscurantist. And then there was a man of action, a scholar who was decisive and now of course the pendulum is totally turned. Now, you know, intellectuals, after all that we’ve learned about the horrors of the Russian and the Chinese revolutions, will ever, you know, have this kind of the live admiration for Lenin that intellectuals of past times did.

[00:43:40] Charlie: Well, thank you Dr. Guha, that’s fascinating. We hope you might be willing to close the interview by reading a favorite passage from your Gandhi biography.

[00:43:48] Dr. Guha: So, I’m going to read to you the last two paragraphs of the first volume of my Gandhi biography, Gandhi before India, because I think they probably captured Gandhi’s philosophy succinctly and also show he’s so enduringly relevant to us in the 21st century. So here goes:

“Gandhi’s own belief in the power and relevance of non-violent resistance was enormous and unshakeable. As early as November 1907 in the Transvaal he said of passive resistance that it may well be adopted by every oppressed people and by every oppressed individual as being more reliable and more vulnerable instrument for securing the redress of wrongs than any which has hitherto fore been adopted. Two years later, in 1909, writing to the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy from London, Gandhi went so far as to claim that the struggle of the Indians in South Africa is, I quote, “The greatest of modern times. It is much as it has been idealized both as to the goal as also the method to reach the goal.” Unquote. As I write this in August 2012, 65 years after Indian independence, 44 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the United States, 23 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 18 years after the ending of apartheid, and in the midst of ongoing nonviolent struggles for democracy and dignity in Burma, Tibet, Yemen, Egypt, and other places, Gandhi’s words and claims appear less immodest than they might have seemed when he first articulated them a hundred years ago.”

[00:45:41] Charlie: Dr. Ramachandra Guha, thank you so much. This was really fascinating We really appreciate your time.

[00:45:47] Dr. Guha: Thank you.

[00:46:15] Charlie: That was a very enlightening interview. We have our Tweet of the Week this week, and this week it’s from Marguerite Roza who has been she’s a research professor at Georgetown. Who’s been warning us about of the fiscal cliff that a lot of school districts and schools are facing as the COVID money expires.

[00:46:33] Charlie: And she tweeted that Feds released ESSER III spend by state through July 31st. There’s 65 billion dollars left, which is about $1,300 per student to spend in 14 months. It’s interesting. The fastest spenders, which is more than 60 percent of the money are, have been Arkansas, Iowa, and Washington. The slowest spenders have been Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. She is holding a wild ride workshop on this coming fiscal cliff. And this is certainly going to be an issue, I think, that’s going to be worth watching as districts and schools face some very difficult funding challenges. All right. Well, Miriam, it has been a pleasure to work with you and to meet you.

[00:47:18] Charlie: Thank you so much for joining us this time. Hope we can work together again. And next week’s guest will be John Steele Gordon. He is a writer on the history of business and finance and the author of An Empire of Wealth: An Epic History of American Economic Power. We’ll see you next week.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Charlie Chieppo and Mariam Memarsadeghi interview writer and biographer Dr. Ramachandra Guha. The author of the definitive two-volume biography of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Guha discusses Gandhi’s formative educational experiences, spirituality, political leadership, and philosophy of nonviolent resistance, as well as his emphasis on moral self-reliance, interfaith dialogue, and social justice. He reviews Gandhi’s career, including how his experiences in the U.K. and South Africa prepared him to become a national leader in India, his role in the 1930 Salt March, and the push for Indian independence. Dr. Guha discusses Gandhi’s enduring legacy and influence on movements for freedom around the world. He concludes with a reading from Gandhi Before India, the first volume of his biography.

Stories of the Week: Charlie discussed a story from KATV in Arkansas about Education Freedom Accounts in that state, which more than 4,400 families are taking advantage of. Mariam talked about the Wall Street Journal opinion piece discussing the decline of free speech on many college campuses.


Dr. Ramachandra Guha is an award-winning historian and biographer based in Bengaluru, India. He authored the acclaimed two-volume biography, Gandhi Before India (2014), which was chosen as a notable book of the year by the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, and Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (2018). Guha also authored India After Gandhi (2007), among the books of the year by the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, and a book of the decade by The Times of London and The Hindu. Dr. Guha has taught at Stanford, Yale, U.C. Berkeley, the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study, the Indian Institute of Science, the University of Oslo, and the London School of Economics. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi; a master’s degree in economics from the Delhi School of Economics; and a Ph.D. in sociology from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.

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