‘Every single Viceroy of India, whether they liked it or not, had to deal with Gandhi’

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Harjeevan Gill speaks to author and historian Talat Ahmed about her new biography of Mohandas Gandhi, the battle over his legacy in India today and what Extinction Rebellion can learn from him.

There’s been so much written about Gandhi. What was the motivation behind writing your book?

Yes there are lots of books about Gandhi — you could fill an entire library with the number of biographies and political theses. Some of the literature is very good indeed and there are lots of historical works dating back 30 or 40 years where historians have mined all kinds of archival material in order to try and make sense of Gandhi. Much of that work has been very useful and it certainly influenced me in my own thinking.

You also have many books written by members of Gandhi’s family. Some are very probing and very interesting, for example one by Rajmohan Gandhi, his grandson, which came out almost a decade ago. Others are quite hagiographic and lightweight, and they tend to reiterate the well-established trope of Gandhi as the father of modern India, the peacemaker, the pacifist, the non-violent revolutionary, and so on. That’s not particularly useful, because it papers over all the contradictions.

Gandhi is an interesting figure because some people regard him as being genuinely revolutionary, while others are a bit more critical of him. For example in the communist tradition Palme Dutt describes him as being the “mascot of the bourgeoisie”.

I wanted to write a critical account of Gandhi, but one that recognises that you can’t ignore Gandhi either in the picture of modern South Asia or of Indian independence, because he did play a major role. Here was a man who had never occupied a political office and yet after the First World War every single Viceroy of India, whether they liked it or not, had to deal with Gandhi.

The approach to Indian independence before Gandhi was dominated by a very liberal conservative approach predicated upon elite Indian national leaders having polite discussions with British officials. When Gandhi returned to India in 1915 after studying in London and working in South Africa, he talked about mass action. He was able to motivate and mobilise such huge numbers of people.

One of his admirers, Martin Luther King of the American Civil Rights Movement, said Gandhi had mobilised more people than any other human being in history. Now that is quite a bold statement, but if you look at Gandhi’s campaign and the numbers of people that were motivated and answered his call to mass civil disobedience it is quite extraordinary.

That’s why I think it’s important for activists to understand Gandhi and to learn from his example. There is a lot of stuff which is very good — but then there are also some questions that have to be asked. I think that in asking those questions we will come closer to having a fuller evaluation of exactly what the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience can be about and how effective they can be against the full might of the capitalist state.

Your book has been out for a few months and you’ve been doing meetings on it. What’s the reception been like?

It is getting a good reception because Gandhi is still a figure that people look to as an example of how to resist. We’re living through an era right now where we have organisations like Extinction Rebellion (XR) who are practising the politics of civil disobedience and non-violent direct action and they invoke Gandhi. This is true in Britain but it’s also true in India, where there is a developing XR movement which is utilising Gandhi’s methods.

It is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth and that in itself is producing quite a lot of literature and articles. It is also the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre, which was a real turning point for Gandhi himself and for the movement for independence.

Amritsar, where British troops fired on unarmed protesters, killing hundreds, propelled Gandhi to become a foe of the British Empire. Before that he’d been quite willing to collaborate to a certain extent — he had recruited for the British war effort, both in South Africa and in the First World War. Amritsar really made him see British power in India in a different light, and he became quite opposed to the Empire and decided to demand freedom.

So there’s been a lot of interest in Indian history and a deep engagement with Gandhi. I’m an historian and it is fascinating to me that many people who see themselves as activists and want to use Gandhi’s tactics, in reality have read very little about him, either what he wrote himself or books about him. People have a desire and a thirst for a greater understanding and knowledge about Gandhi and what he stood for.

In India at the moment we have the right wing, Hindu nationalist BJP (Indian People’s Party) in power led by Narendra Modi. The BJP has close ties with the paramilitary organisation the RSS and it was an RSS member who assassinated Gandhi in 1948, the year after Indian independence was won. How is Gandhi received now in India?

You’re absolutely right about the assassin of Gandhi being drawn from the ranks of the RSS and the RSS is the hard political core of the BJP. It is very interesting that for almost 70 years the heirs of the RSS, particularly before the formation of the BJP, have avoided talking about Gandhi. They’ve been able to do this because after his assassination Gandhi’s mantle was very much carried by the Indian National Congress.

But in the last 20 years the BJP has been rising and Modi won a resounding second election just a few weeks ago. This means there is a battle over Gandhi’s legacy.

The enormous commemorations on the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth are being orchestrated by Modi’s government. He wants to show that he is also a “true follower” of Gandhi.

At the same time members of Modi’s party re-enacted Gandhi’s assassination because they want to argue that his assassin is a national hero. Modi has come down quite hard on these individuals, but he hasn’t expelled them from the BJP. This all points to the difficult trajectory for the BJP in terms of Gandhi — it won’t be a straightforward matter for them to try and appropriate Gandhi for their own purposes.

How can the political lessons of Gandhi’s non-violence inform us today in the discussions happening around XR’s actions and the climate change movement?

One of the most exciting things in the last six months has been seeing a new generation of people move into political activity over the crisis of the planet and the environment. These are individuals and groups who are willing to use mass civil disobedience and mass organisation to disrupt the normal working of society, whether it’s blocking bridges, gluing themselves to pavements, and so on. It’s certainly caught the imagination in a way that most normal politics and mainstream political organisations just don’t do.

The fact that people are brave enough to put themselves out on a limb and the way that they invoke Gandhi in all of this is also very exciting. But I think there are debates within XR and the wider climate movement about what kind of strategy will be the most fruitful.

On the one hand you have those who say it’s important to be peaceful, to have mass action and be willing to be arrested. In that they point to Gandhi and that is fantastic. But there is always a question, which is what happens when our non-violence comes up against the violence of the state? Gandhi in his own lifetime had to encounter this time and time again.

All of his campaigns were based upon non-violence — the non-cooperation movement in 1920-2, the Quit India Movement in 1942, civil disobedience in 1930. But the problem is your opposition is not playing by the same rules. In colonial India the British state came down very hard on non-violent protesters — beating them up, harming them, mass arrests, and so on.

I live in Edinburgh and there’s been an XR camp. It was set up for five days in June outside the Scottish parliament because inside parliament they were debating amendments to the Climate Change Bill. There was a row about whether zer-carbon emissions by 2045 was acceptable. XR wanted to have a symbolic but political protest outside. Inside the camp there were all kinds of workshops taking place. There was a demonstration, cultural activities, people had glued themselves to pavements. On the Monday evening the police turned up and started arresting people and beating people up. That provoked some discussion about what the response should be when that happens.

In many respects part of my book has been about using all of Gandhi’s campaigns of civil disobedience as case studies to look at exactly how he went about prosecuting those campaigns, what was the basis those campaigns were predicated upon, and what happened when the masses got involved. You have to look at what worked but also what the problems and weaknesses were.

Unfortunately there were many problems and weaknesses. Gandhi, because he was so wedded to non-violence, whenever any violence erupted — no matter which side it was caused by — he always called a halt to the movement immediately. But if you call a halt to the movement you begin to lose momentum. It will be interesting to see how this plays out with XR’s activities planned for the summer and autumn.

If we really want to bring about a decent world, and Gandhi did want to bring about a decent world, then we are going to have to go for a strategy and tactics that builds on Gandhi but also goes way beyond him.

Mohandas Gandhi: Experiments in Civil Disobedience, by Talat Ahmed is published by Pluto, £14.99.