The Peregrinations of a Supposed Revolutionary:  The Many Guises of Udham Singh

Part II of Udham Singh:  A Colonial Massacre and the Birth of a ‘Revolutionary’

Sardar Udham is curiously both an ambitious film that is lured by the idea of the epic and at the same time marred by a profound unself-reflexivity and insularity that also characterized Udham’s own life.  To say this much is already to invite the wrath of those who have canonized Udham as a great shaheed, a worthy addition to the country’s gallery of martyrs, but the film inadvertently furnishes grounds for taking the view that however courageous Udham may have been, he worked with a very limited if not impoverished conception of ‘revolution’.  The film does not purport to be a full-length biography, but it is tempted into being one.  The viewer acquires no knowledge of his life before the massacre, except for the fleeting remarks shared between police officers about his childhood at an orphanage after the loss of both his parents at an early age.  Attempts to claim Udham as a Khalsa Sikh doubtless also have something to do with the fact that he was raised at the Central Khalsa Orphanage from 1907 onwards.  The film commences in 1931, when Udham was released after four years in jail after being caught with a cache of arms and prohibited political literature which led to his conviction under the Arms Act.  We see Udham moving from one country to another, assuming aliases, taking up jobs in which he had little interest but which apparently allowed him time to foment his plan to assassinate O’Dwyer. Udham worked in various factories, as a peddler, carpenter, and engineer, and even as a lingerie salesman and as an extra on a film set. Throughout his adult life, the film suggests, Udham remained laser-focused on his objective just as Bhagat Singh remained his idol.  Whatever the vicissitudes and setbacks of life, Udham never lost sight of the objective he had set for himself, and similarly it is the teachings and memory of Bhagat Singh that animated him.  Just why it took him more than twenty years after the massacre, and some seven years after his arrival in England, to snuff out O’Dwyer’s life remains something of a mystery.  But what is even more striking is that Udham does not appear to grow very much in these years:  he was never a very lettered man to begin with, and where Bhagat Singh was to the end of his young life—he was sent to the gallows at the age of 23 in 1931—a keen if not voracious reader, Udham does not seem to have had any attachment to books.  The only book that left an impression on him was Heer Ranjha, perhaps in the rendering of Waris Shah, and it on this book that he chose to take an oath when he was put on trial for the murder of O’Dwyer.

It may be that, in Sircar’s own view, some of Udham’s movements do not quite add up to the main narrative, but their omission from his film point perhaps to Udham’s provincialism and certainly to the filmmaker’s own inability to comprehend the place of the wider Indian diaspora in the making of Udham Singh.  The film is silent on Udham’s intriguing years in Africa—according to some accounts, in Nairobi, and more likely in Uganda, where Indian labour was the backbone of the railways—where the young political rebel could conceivably have developed a sharper sense of the solidarity of the working class.  Even more tellingly, Udham’s first long trip to the US in 1924, resulting in a long stay of three years, is omitted from the narrative.  Udham is said to have become involved with the Ghadar movement in the US, but the American sojourn also netted him a wife—a Mexican woman, no less, if only because the Johnson-Reed (Immigration) Act of 1924 and other anti-Asian legislation shut out virtually all Asians from the US and compelled Indian men already in the US to take Hispanic women for their brides.  The only half-decent biography of Udham by Anita Anand, The Patient Assassin, furnishes more details than we have ever had of Udham’s life with Lupe Hernandez, whom he deserted, along with their two children, when he left the US in 1927.  Apparently Udham’s many supporters seem to have swallowed whole the notion that revolutionaries can be forgiven not only their excesses but such derelictions of family duty and parental responsibility if for no other reason than that making “revolution” is a forbidding task and that revolutionaries must not be subjected to the standards of bourgeois society.  In the US, in any case, Udham would for some time have been part of the Punjabi-Mexican community, though we can also locate him in the vortex of what the scholar Vivek Bald has charmingly described as ‘Bengali Harlem’, a network of Indians who merged into Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and African American communities where present-day Global South solidarities were anticipated in their own fashion.  These already elusive histories do not even leave a trace in Sircar’s film.

Udham Singh’s comings and goings may suggest to some that he was a man of cosmopolitan interests, or a theorist of revolution who was inspired by the idea of contributing to a worldwide upheaval of the working class, but this would be a very charitable interpretation of a peripatetic existence that remains something of an enigma.  To be sure, the film hints that Udham was aware of some of the immense footprint of the British empire, and he would have come to know that the Irish were among those who had withered under English oppression.  He was at one time even a gunrunner for the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and in one scene he tells an IRA man, ‘We had our Bloody Sunday’, a reference of course both to the Amritsar massacre and to the killings of civilians by British troops at a football match in Dublin in 1920 during the Irish War of Independence. In his broken English, Udham explains to the Irishman, ‘Your revolution and mine are the same.  You lamb, I lamb:  the butcher the same.’ But there is no hint that, in twenty years of this itinerant living, Udham derived a keener understanding of the struggle in India, or that he arrived at fresh insights after his interactions with the working class and communist political activists in Africa, Europe, and the United States.  Udham’s links to the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA) were largely through Bhagat Singh, though the precise historical record of their association is tenuous at best, and even Udham’s activities as a HSRA member were quite limited.  He seems in the film to go in and out of shadowy meetings with self-styled revolutionaries in Moscow and London, and there is much talk of ‘revolution’, but slogans do not make a revolution.  Indians, V S Naipaul would have said with his characteristic cynicism, are exceedingly good at shouting and sometimes coining slogans; but what is the more surprising thing is how many academics have been taken in by stories of the gallantry of the HSRA, which was as much of a slogan-making factory as it was a bomb-making workshop.

‘Let the world know’, Udham says to detective inspector John Swain at their last meeting before he goes to the gallows, ‘that I was a revolutionary.’  We are no wiser at the end of this film than we were at the beginning as to what is a revolutionary. Udham was in the vicinity of the massacre and, the film strongly avers, arrived at the blood-soaked Jallianwala Bagh later in the evening; and he then took an oath that he would avenge the massacre.  He nursed this grudge for twenty-one years before felling O’Dwyer with shots from his revolver and thereby demonstrating his patriotism, but what is “revolutionary” about such a practice of politics?  It is doubtful that Udham knew, but the one man who had reflected for decades on these matters, on political upheaval, violence, and the radical transformation of society, was Mohandas Gandhi.  We do not need the life of Udham Singh to write about Gandhi; however, it is impossible to engage with either Bhagat Singh or Udham Singh except in the backdrop of Gandhi, who absolutely dominated the political scene and whose presence was inescapable to anyone who sought to enter into politics.  One would not know this from watching the film, where Gandhi is mentioned but once, and from which the innocent viewer might walk away with the impression that freedom from colonial rule was wrought by a bunch of young boys and some girls wielding country-made guns and shouting themselves hoarse with the slogan, ‘Inquilab zindabad’ (‘Long Live Revolution’).  The martyr’s supporters, no doubt, have little time to spare for Gandhi, who was as usual forthright and uncompromising in his denunciation of the assassination of O’Dwyer and the injuries inflicted on Lord Zetland (Secretary of State for India) and two other English politicians as an act of ‘insanity’ which had caused him ‘deep pain’. While expressing his condolences to ‘the deceased’s family’, Gandhi noted that ‘such acts have been proved to be injurious to the causes for which they are committed’ (Statement to the Press, 14 March 1940).  Unlike the enterprising and brilliant if self-serving V. K. Krishna Menon, who at first unequivocally repudiated Udham’s act as ‘abhorrent’ but then engineered his appointment as junior counsel for the defence of Udham once he saw the enthusiasm with which expatriate Indians as well as Indians at home were willing to embrace the assassin, Gandhi remained consistent in adhering to the view that his differences with O’Dwyer and Zetland alike did not permit him to condone murder or an act of insanity. Writing a few days after the death of O’Dwyer, Gandhi described it as incumbent on the exponent of nonviolence to ‘make every Englishman feel that he is as safe in our midst as he is in his own home.  It fills me with shame and sorrow that for some time at least every Indian face in London will be suspect’ (Harijan, 23 March 1940).

What Sardar Udham misses, in common with nearly every film that has ever been made on Bhagat Singh, the HSRA, and Udham Singh, is the opportunity to cast the relationship between these revolutionaries and Gandhi as something other than purely adversarial.  It is Gandhi who was the principal author of the Congress Committee Report on the Punjab Disturbances, an extraordinary retort to the official Hunter Commission and a devastating indictment not only of the colonial machinery of repression but specifically of the culture of violence bred by both O’Dwyer and Dyer.  O’Dwyer knew of Gandhi’s role in the making of the Congress report, and there is a point in the film where O’Dwyer, shown promoting his book, The India That I Knew (1928), critiques Gandhi for suggesting that he, O’Dwyer, had sought to suppress political consciousness among Indians. Whether Udham—and the HSRA revolutionaries—knew or even cared is an interesting consideration.  But there is another point of intersection, one which often escapes the attention of commentators.  Whatever his distaste for violence, and his principled repudiation of acts of political sabotage and assassination, Gandhi was adamant that the colonial state was never to be permitted to cast political acts as common crimes.  Gandhi abjured the methods adopted by the HSRA, and even more so the rank opportunism of someone such as Vinayak Savarkar, but he recognized the political nature of their acts.  It is this outlook which shaped even his relationship to Savarkar, whose tendency to political chicanery and encouragement of violence among others Gandhi deplored even as he saw it fit to state that Savarkar deserved attention as a political offender.  Udham, one hopes, would have seen in Gandhi a supporter of his own adamant repudiation of the colonial attempt to cast him as a common criminal, as this exchange in the film between the prosecutor and Udham shows:

            Udham:  I was in jail for four years [1927-31].  But not for a crime.

            Prosecutor:  Why on earth would anyone be in prison for four years if they

                        had not committed a crime?

            Udham:  No, no, no crime.  I was fighting – fighting for freedom . . .

(to be continued)

See also Part One, The Making of Sardar Udham: A Massacre, a Young Man, and the Burden of Revenge.

Terence MacSwiney, Hunger-Striking, and the Intertwined Histories of India & Ireland

No one in India today remembers the name of Terence MacSwiney, but in his own day his name reverberated throughout the country.  He was such a legend that, when the Bengali revolutionary Jatin Das, a key figure in the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army and a comrade of Bhagat Singh, died from a prolonged hunger-strike in September 1929, he was canonized as ‘India’s own Terence MacSwiney’.

Terence MacSwiney died this day, October 25th, in 1920.  Ireland, in the common imagination, is a land of poetry, anguished lovers, political rebels, verdant greenery—and drunkards. All of this may be true; one can certainly spend far too many evenings in an Irish pub, downing a pint of Guinness or Harp.  MacSwiney was a poet, playwright, pamphleteer, and a political revolutionary who got himself elected as Lord Mayor of Cork, in south-west Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence. Indian nationalists followed events in Ireland closely, for though people of Irish extraction may have played an outsized role in the brutalization of India during the British Raj, the Irish themselves were dehumanized by the English and waged a heroic anti-colonial resistance.  In India, the Irish were called upon to suppress such resistance.  One has only to call to mind Reginald Dyer, the perpetrator of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, who though born in Murree (now in Pakistan) was educated at Middleton College in County Cork and subsequently at Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons, and Michael O’Dwyer, the Limerick-born Irishman who as Lieutenant-Governor of the Punjab gave Dyer a free hand and even valorized the mass murder of Indians as a ‘military necessity’.

England did little in India that they had not previously done in Ireland, pauperizing the country and treating the Irish as a sub-human species.  The Irish were ridiculed as gullible Catholics who gave their allegiance to the Pope.  They were no better, from the English standpoint, than the superstitious Hindus.  MacSwiney, born in 1879, came to political activism in his late 20s, and by 1913-14 he had assumed a position of some importance both in the Irish Volunteers, an organization founded ‘to secure and maintain the rights and liberties common to the whole people of Ireland’, and the Sinn Fein, a political party that advocated for the independence of the Irish.  He was active during the ill-fated Easter Rebellion of April 1916, an armed insurrection that lasted all of six days before the British Army suppressed it with artillery and a massive military force.  Much of Dublin was reduced to rubble. It is unlikely that the uprising would have disappeared into the mists of history, but in any case William Butler Yeats was there to immortalize ‘Easter 1916’:  ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’  For the following four years, MacSwiney was in and out of British prisons, interned as a political detainee.

It is, however, the hunger-strike that MacSwiney undertook in August 1920 that would bring him to the attention of India and the rest of the world.  He was arrested on August 12 on charges of being in possession of ‘seditious articles and documents’—an all too familiar scenario in present-day India—and was within days convicted by a court that sentenced him to a two-year sentence to be served out at Brixton Prison in England.  MacSwiney declared before the tribunal, ‘I have decided the term of my imprisonment.  Whatever your government may do, I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month.’  He at once started on a hunger-strike, protesting that the military court which had tried him had no jurisdiction over him, and eleven other Republican prisoners joined him.  It was one thing for the large Irish diasporic population in the United States, whose predilection for Irish Republicanism was pronounced, to support him; but far more arresting was the fact that from Madrid to Rome, from Buenos Aires to New York and beyond to South Australia, the demand for MacSwiney’s release was voiced not only by the working class, but by political figures as different as Mussolini and the black nationalist Marcus Garvey.  The days stretched on, and his supporters pleaded with him to give up his hunger-strike; meanwhile, in prison, the British attempted to force-feed him.  On October 20, MacSwiney fell into a coma; seventy-four days into his hunger-strike, on October 25, he succumbed.

The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Euston, London, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M
The funeral procession for Terence MacSwiney at Cork, October 1920. A still from the Gaumont documentary, ‘Funeral of the Lord Mayor of Cork’, on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qU16rhRHP7M

In India, MacSwiney’s travails had similarly taken the country by storm.  It is assumed by many, as a matter of course, that Gandhi was greatly ‘influenced’ by MacSwiney, but though he was doubtless moved by his resolve, patriotism, and endurance, Gandhi distinguished between the ‘fast’ and the ‘hunger-strike’.  Nevertheless, MacSwiney was a hero to armed revolutionaries—and to Jawaharlal Nehru.  Writing some years after MacSwiney’s death to his daughter Indira, Nehru noted that the Irishman’s hunger-strike ‘thrilled Ireland’ and indeed the world:  ‘When put in gaol he declared that he would come out, alive or dead, and gave up taking food.  After he had fasted for seventy-five days his dead body was carried out of the gaol.’  It is unquestionably MacSwiney’s example, rather than that of Gandhi, that Bhagat Singh, Bhatukeshwar Dutt, and others implicated in the Lahore Conspiracy Case had in mind when in mid-1929 they commenced a hunger-strike to be recognized as ‘political prisoners’.  That hunger-strike was joined by the Bengali political activist and bomb-maker, Jatindranath Das, in protest against the deplorable conditions in jail and in defence of the rights of political prisoners.  Jatin died after 63 days on 13 September 1929.  The nation grieved:  as Nehru would record in his autobiography, ‘Jatin Das’s death created a sensation all over the country.’  Das would receive virtually a state funeral in Calcutta and Subhas Bose was among the pallbearers.

A nationalist print from around 1930 called ‘Bharat Ke MacSwiney’ (‘India’s MacSwiney’).  It shows Jatindranath Das, who died on the 63rd day of his hunger-strike on 13 September 1929, in the lap of Bharat Mata, reposing in ‘eternal sleep’ having done his duty to the nation.  Image:  Courtesy of Vinay Lal.

Though Gandhi was the master of the fast, the modern history of hunger-striking begins with Terence MacSwiney. It is quite likely that Gandhi recognized, more particularly after MacSwiney’s martyrdom, how the hunger-strike as a form of political theatre could galvanize not just a nation but world opinion.  However, the life story of MacSwiney should resonate in India for many other reasons besides the singularity of MacSwiney’s admirable defence of the rights of his own people.  As I have suggested, England under-developed Ireland before laying India to waste, and Ireland was in many respects as much a laboratory as India for British policies with regard to land settlement, taxation, famine relief, the suppression of dissent, and much else. It is equally a highly disconcerting fact that the story of the Irish in India suggests that those who have been brutalized will in turn brutalize others.  The precise role of the Irish in the colonization of India requires much further study.  On the other hand, the legend of Terence MacSwiney points to the exhilarating if complicated history, which in recent years has begun to be explored by some scholars, of the solidarity of the Irish and the Indians.  Indians have long been familiar, for instance, with the figure of the Irishwoman Annie Beasant, but transnational expressions of such solidarity took many forms.  At a time when the world seems convulsed by insularity and xenophobic nationalism, the story of MacSwiney points to the critical importance of sympathy across borders.

Georgian translation by Ana Mirilashvili available here.

Gasping for Oxygen: Homage to Sunderlal Bahuguna, 1927-2021

With the passing of Sunderlal Bahuguna on May 21, the great social activist who added the “Chipko Movement” to the glossary of environmentalists worldwide, COVID has found one of its most illustrious victims.  Bahuguna was hospitalized on May 8 after testing positive for the coronavirus and breathed his last nearly two weeks later, dying from complications arising from COVID.  His death is rightly being mourned as a monumental loss to the Indian environmental movement.  He was also, however, one of the last great witnesses to the Gandhi era—that is a loss which is almost inestimable.

Continue reading

The Assassins of Gandhi’s Memory

Vinay Lal

The assassins of Gandhi’s memory are everywhere in India today.  They lurk in many of the highest offices of the land, in legislative buildings, in the alleys and byways of Indian cities, and most of all in middle-class homes where it is an article of faith to hold Gandhi responsible for the partition of India, condemn him for his purported appeasement of Muslims, dismiss him as an anti-modernizer, ridicule his unstinting and principled advocacy of nonviolence, and sneer at him for his effeminizing politics.

Statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the Indian Parliament complex, New Delhi.
Continue reading

Gandhi, Secularism, and Cultural Democracy

(on the occasion of the birth centenary of Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi, 2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948)

“Gandhiji at Prayer Time, Parnakuti, Poona”, gouache on paper, 1944. The artist is Chittaprosad, the great advocate of the rights of workers and revolutionary artists. Nikhil Chakravarty described in the newspaper People’s War the circumstances under which he painting was done: “Saturday the 6th of May. The papers flashed the news that Gandhiji was going to be released [from the Aga Khan’s Palace, where he had been detained after his call to the nation to “do or die”] at 8. Without a moment’s ado, Chittaprosad and myself took the next train to Poona. Excitement and speculation ran high, but the people as a whole seemed to be as yet too dazed to celebrate it as a day of national jubilation.”

Since the high and the mighty in this ancient land of ours will use the opportunity of Gandhi Jayanti to garland the statues of the Mahatma and spin the usual homilies about the eternal values of truth and nonviolence, values which are being shred to pieces in India, I can turn to the more humble work of attempting to lay out briefly what remains of Gandhi in an India that is increasingly taking the turn towards becoming a Hindu nation.  The attacks on Gandhi are coming fast and furious from every corner.  His assassin, Nathuram Godse, is being hailed by some Indians as a martyr, a true shaheed.  Reportedly, Godse is trending at #1 on Twitter in India. Gandhi’s statues are vandalized and in social media he is accused of the worst atrocities that can be imagined.  Yet Gandhi was in his lifetime synonymous with India.  When Nehru was once asked what is India, he replied with this short sentence:  “Gandhi is India.”

Continue reading

Nonviolence in the American college air: Gandhi and the Education of James M. Lawson

Part III of The Birth of a Nonviolent Activist

In this, the final excerpt from the second half of our first conversation in December 2013, which is reproduced here in public interest and as a birthday tribute to Rev. Lawson, who turned 92 on September 22, we discuss his college years and in particular how he fostered his interest in Gandhi.  As was mentioned in the previous excerpt, Gandhi’s name appeared frequently in the African American press; indeed, there were lengthy articles in virtually all the black-owned newspapers which discussed the struggle for freedom in India, the possibility of raising a “Negro Gandhi” in the US, and the difficulties of adopting Gandhi’s methods in the US.  In our later conversations, some of these questions were taken up for discussion; in this excerpt, Lawson describes mainly how he came to Gandhi’s work, his embrace of nonviolence and disavowal of pacifism (with which nonviolence is often confused), the manner in which Gandhi’s name was being circulated in certain circles, and the place of some key figures who appeared as exponents of Gandhi’s ideas in the United States.  Among the latter were A. J. Muste, a Dutch-born American clergyman associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements who served as the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) from 1940-53 and once famously submitted Thoreau’s essay on ‘The Duty of Civil Disobedience’ along with his 1040 tax form, and Richard Gregg, a now somewhat obscure figure whose book, The Power of Nonviolence, is a sadly neglected treatise of political resistance that literally served as the handbook for two generations of Americans interested in nonviolent political activism.  A 1960 reprint of the book carried a foreword by Martin Luther King Jr. Unlike Muste, Gregg had a deep familiarity with India and he lived there for many years; he maintained his interest in India even in later years, writing a book called The Philosophy of Indian Economic Development (1958).

Continue reading

Just Who Are the Racists? And the Progressives? Excerpts from a conversation with Rev. James Lawson

Today, at 10 AM (California time), the Reverend James M. Lawson, one of the principal architects of the “civil rights movement”, and at the age of 92 an extraordinary fount of energy who remains a peerless example of the practitioner of nonviolence who leads by his moral example, and I–together with Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, a lifelong activist in human rights struggles–will be taking part in an hour-long panel discussion on “Gandhi, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Continuing Quest for Justice and Peace”.  Rev. Lawson was last seen on the national stage just a few weeks ago, when he was called upon to speak at the funeral ceremonies for Representative John Lewis, a long-time Congressman from Georgia who was one of Lawson’s proteges in Nashville where the nonviolence training workshop was pioneered by Lawson.  John Lewis, of course, went on to become a major figure in the movement, taking part in the freedom rides, becoming the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and, perhaps most famously, marching alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma.  Rev. Lawson delivered a stirring funeral oration for John Lewis.

Continue reading

Was Mohandas Gandhi a Racist?

Part II of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

The desecration of Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC, it should be made clear, was no accident.  Those who vandalized Gandhi’s statue had anything but diplomacy in mind: if anything, we might say that they belong to the school of thought which holds that it is time to stop being diplomatic about Gandhi and to bare the truth about the supposed Mahatma.  A “new” narrative has been coming into shape about Gandhi over the course of the last ten years, one which is openly hostile to him and intent on exposing the venerated man for all his evils. (That it is not altogether new is not a subject that I can take up here: criticism of Gandhi in India dates back to at least the early 1920s, though it was not “race” that was in question then.) We have been told that Gandhi never fought for the working class, just as he never opposed caste; he was also, as some would have it, unspeakably cruel to his wife, neglected his own children while posing as the “Father of the Nation”, and should be held responsible for practically having handed over a large chunk of India to Muslims and therefore authoring the idea of Pakistan.  The intelligence of some of these critics can be discerned from the fact that they claim that Gandhi was also a friend of Hitler—this on the grounds that he addressed, which indeed he did, two letters to the Nazi leader which began with the salutation, “Dear Friend.”  There is not the slightest recognition here that Gandhi knew no enemies:  he recognized that he had political opponents, but the word “enemy” was not part of his vocabulary. Nor is there any understanding on their part that Gandhi was a firm believer in the idea that the spark of divinity resides in every human being: as I have written elsewhere, a man’s acts may be monstrous, but no man is a monster. This is one reason among many why he was a firm opponent of capital punishment, being of the view that it is given to no human being to take the life of another human being.  When he wrote to Hitler, he did so in the hope, not the expectation, that he might be able to make him see the desirability of abandoning the path of violence. He wrote to him for the same reason that Churchill, in a direct broadcast to the United States as late as 8 August 1939, declared that “If Herr Hitler does not make war, there will be no war.”  Gandhi may have been hopelessly naïve, but that is no crime.  British censors ensured that his letters never reached Hitler. Continue reading

What’s in a Statue?  The Downfall of Icons, and Lately of Mohandas Gandhi

First of two parts of The Desecration of a Statue:  Gandhi and Race

A month into the national civil uprising that has shaken the United States, the rage of common people, and doubtless their own sense of social justice, has led to many outcomes—some with precedent, some without, and some on a scale never witnessed before.  The looting of the first few days received outsized attention from the press and managed, in some respects, to divert attention from the much larger and well-organized nonviolent protests that were far more characteristic of the demonstrations precipitated by the brutal killing of George Floyd. Continue reading

*The Imprint of a Man’s Life:  Visualizing Gandhi’s Biography

ScenesFromLifeOfGandhi1950

Fig. 1:  “Pujya Gandhiji Ki Jivan Caritra”, or The Life Story of Revered Gandhiji: a print from the famous workshop of Hemchander Bharagava & Co., Delhi.

One more Gandhi Jayanti [Birth Anniversary: October 2nd] has gone by and the thought that occurs to me is this:  just how was the life of Gandhi conveyed, in his own lifetime and in the aftermath of his death, to his countrymen and women, across towns and in India’s hundreds of thousands of villages?  What did they, who could not read, know of his life in panchayats and little hamlets?  Did the Patuas or Chitrakars move from village to village and unfold the panels of their scrolls and so make vivid the episodes drawn from Gandhi’s life?  If they did so, the scrolls appear not to have survived.  There is something suggestive, in this regard, about a touching scene in the classic movie, Garam Hawa:  the workers at the shoe factory of Mirza Sahib are gathered around a man who reads from a newspaper an account of Gandhi’s assassination.

There may thus have been many modes by which the life of Gandhi was put into circulation and the mind instinctively turns to biographies.  Of biographies of Gandhi there is now no end, and each generation, so says Ramachandra Guha in justification of yet another life of Mohandas, needs its own Gandhi.  India sent us Mohandas, Mandela is reported to have said, and we sent back a Mahatma, and it is in South Africa that the first slim biography of Gandhi was penned.  Many of the biographies that followed are, as befits an epic life, gargantuan in scope.  There was, at first, D. G. Tendulkar’s Mahatma in 8 volumes; various volumes by Pyarelal appeared at a leisurely pace over the course of a few decades. But these works were published many years after independence, as is true of something like 700-800 biographies of Gandhi in English alone.

Anthologies of Gandhi’s writings began to proliferate around the mid-1920s, and his own ‘lieutenants’, most famously Mahadev Desai and later Pyarelal, were quick in bringing out systematic narratives of his satyagraha campaigns. The two volumes of Gandhi’s autobiography, written in Gujarati and rendered into English by Mahadev, appeared in 1927 and 1929, but the autobiography takes the story of his life only to the early 1920s. Gandhi’s writings began to be disseminated by Navajivan Trust, a publishing house that he had established in 1929, but nevertheless it is unlikely that most Indians would have become acquainted with the contours of his life through published works.

By the early 1920s, print makers, working out from a number of cities, among them Delhi, Kanpur, Allahabad, Lahore, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, had begun to take the narrative of the nationalist movement to the masses.  These prints may have been passed from one hand to another; they may have been framed and placed prominently in homes, but it is also likely that they were affixed to walls, doors, or poster boards in public spaces.  Gandhi figured prominently in these prints, many shaped around the non-cooperation movement, the Salt Satyagraha, or the teachings with which he became associated on subjects such as the constructive programme, swadeshi, and the economic impoverishment of India under colonial rule.  One of the more striking of such prints, from the Delhi-based Hemchander Bhargava & Co., takes as its subject the totality of Gandhi’s life, from cradle to ‘martyrdom’, and offers cues on how Gandhi’s life was stitched into the fabric of the nation.

BhargavaScenesFromGandhi'sLife1950

Fig. 1a:  “M. Gandhi Jivani”, that is “The Life of M. Gandhi.”  This is a variation of Fig. 1: the print is identical, except for the fact that the background blue is a darker shade of blue, and the longer caption of Fig. 1 has been replaced with a shorter and less ornate caption.

Entitled “Poojya Gandhiji ki Jivan Caritra” (The Life Story of Revered Gandhiji; fig. 1), the print invites the viewer to read Gandhi’s life through rites of passage or critical events.  The narrative commences at the bottom left with the infant Gandhi; moving along a vertical axis, the viewer encounters him at various stages of schooling in his native Gujarat and England before he arrived in South Africa as an attorney.  It is there that he developed the idea of nonviolent resistance:  in doing so, he stripped himself of his Western clothes and donned the garb of a satyagrahi.  As the viewer moves along the horizontal axis at the top of the print, the next phase of his life is vividly brought to the fore.  In 1915, Gandhi returned to India with Kasturba, and campaigns at Champaran and Kheda acquainted him with the conditions of Indian peasantry.  By the mid-1920s, Gandhi was preoccupied with the constructive programme, and finally in 1930 he launched the next phase of mass nonviolent resistance with the Salt Satyagraha.

The viewer, at this point, moves vertically down the right side of the print.  Gandhi made his way to London for the Round Table Conference to negotiate the terms of India’s future; he also met with the King-Emperor. In the mid-1930s, he installed himself at an ashram in central India.  Visitors to his ashram almost invariably found him spinning. He appeared to have withdrawn, once again, from the struggle for political emancipation; however, the print can also be read as inviting the viewer to reflect on the relationship of political independence to economic independence and social change in Gandhi’s thinking.  He launched the final phase of the freedom struggle with the call for the British to ‘Quit India’.  With this, the print-maker turned to some of the people who filled the last years of Gandhi’s life:  Nehru, children, and his grandnieces Manu and Abha.  The two young women were his constant companions and sometimes dubbed his ‘walking sticks’.  Finally, Gandhi’s life is brought to a close with his assassination:  the martyred Gandhi is placed squarely in the center of the print and both dominates and anchors the entire narrative.

SharmaScenesFromGandhi'sLife1948.jpg

Fig. 2:  “Bapuji ki Amar Kahani”, the Immortal Story of Bapuji.  This artist is described as the Chitrakar Lakshminarayan Sharma, and the publisher is Picture Publishing Corporation, Bombay.

Other similar prints of Gandhi’s life story circulated as well.  From Picture Publishing Corporation in Bombay we have a print, created by Lakshminarayan Sharma, with some significant, indeed extraordinary, variations (fig. 2).  The narrative is structured in a like fashion, but the Indian tricolor, which is noticeably missing in the first print, occupies a good portion of the lower third of Sharma’s print and offers a different framing device.  The baby’s cradle is draped in the tricolor, as if to suggest that Gandhi was ordained from birth to lead the country to freedom; on the bottom right, Gandhi foregrounds the flag and the words, ‘Sampurna Swaraj, 15 August 1947’, suggesting that he successfully shepherded the country to its destiny.  Most significantly, Gandhi lies in complete repose, his body adorned by the tricolor.  The script at the bottom enumerates the date of his death; the smoking gun suggests that the satyagrahi met a violent end.  “He Ram” are the words that Gandhi is thought to have uttered as the bullets pierced his body and he fell to the floor, but both the assassin, Nathuram Godse, and his younger brother Gopal would dispute that Gandhi said anything at all.  The text to the right, “Bapuji Ne Diya Jalaya / Uski Jyoti Barayen Hum” (‘Bapuji lit the flame, It is for us to further that light’), read in conjunction with his draped body and the globe that he has conquered with his stride suggests not only that Gandhi has merged into the nation but that he belongs to the world.

There is much else that is captivating in Sharma’s print, but it is in the juxtaposition of the two prints that we can discern what is remarkably different in openly pronouncing Gandhi the “Father of [the] Nation.”  I have had various occasions to remark, elsewhere in my published work, that Gandhi was just as much Mother to the Nation as he was Father of the Nation.  It is not even remotely accidental that Manu’s greatest testimonial to Gandhi is a little book called, Bapu, My Mother.  The print from Picture Publishing is, if we may put it this way, far more masculine in its sensibility and representational apparatus. It excises not only Kasturba, who was Gandhi’s life companion for something like 60 years, from the narrative but all women.  One can dispute the degree to which Gandhi was comfortable with idea of women’s complete autonomy, but it is inarguably the case that Gandhi played a critical role in bringing women into the public sphere.  There is not a hint of this in Lakshminarayan Sharma’s rendering of Gandhi’s life story (fig. 2).  The Bhargava print (fig. 1), by contrast, is sensitive to the place of women in Gandhi’s life, and in its recognition of the role of women in the Salt Satyagraha it offers more than just an affirmation of how women came into the freedom struggle. Gandhi sought not only to liberate India from colonial rule but to emancipate politics from its association with an unforgiving masculinity.

A biography is seldom only a chronological narrative of a person’s life; these prints are no exception.  We may, in conclusion, take a few illustrations of how the print from Hemchander Bhargava’s workshop seeks to offer a decisive interpretation of Gandhi’s life.  It is attentive, for example, to the sartorial Gandhi:  as we encounter Gandhi along the different stages of his life, we find him stripping himself of clothes and trying, in his own words, to reduce himself to zero.  Of Gandhi it can be said that he commenced his adult life vastly over-dressed and ended it, by the reckoning of some, vastly under-dressed.  His dhoti and shawl are not just blood-stained; blood drips down.  The nation, too, has been stained by the dastardly act of the assassin; the country is drained, dripping with the blood of the innocents.  The loss of blood points to the sacrifice of the Mahatma, but was this sacrifice in vain?  Was the martyrdom of Gandhi necessary so that he could begin life anew?

(First published in a shorter version in the Hindu Sunday Magazine (6 October 2018) as “The Imprint of a Man’s Life”; the online version called “Gandhi and the Printed Image” can be accessed here: https://www.thehindu.com/society/gandhis-story-in-images/article25113640.ece)