Skip to main content

Witness to History


Shreekant Sambrani reviews Rajmohan Gandhi's new book, in Business Standard

Rajmohan Gandhi is best known as Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson. But he has many other claims to fame. His maternal grandfather was another towering figure from India’s struggle for independence, Chakravarti Rajgopalachari. His father Devdas Gandhi, the youngest son of the Mahatma, was an illustrious editor of the Hindustan Times .Rajmohan Gandhi himself was the resident editor of the then Madras edition of The Indian Express. He is the founder of the Indian branch of Moral Re-Armament (now Initiatives for Change) as well as its longtime head. He ran the weekly Himmat , which defiantly survived Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. He has lectured at various universities and institutions in India and in the United States. His most memorable contributions are his wellresearched biographies of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajgopalachari and Badshah Khan. They were well reviewed as were most of his other books. He has known personally almost all political personalities of the last 75 years, barring perhaps those belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its political offshoots, the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party. He has been their outspoken critic.

Therefore, I readily agreed to review his most recent book, especially in view of its title. His reflections would seem to be particularly appropriate in this amrit kaal because of who he is. I must confess to feeling atinge of disappointment when I saw the book. Given the subject and the author’s vantage point position through the entire period of independent India’s existence, it appeared to be particularly slim at all of 118 small-sized pages of about 300 words each (a normal book page has 450500 words). On reading it, I found my disappointment compounded by the fact that nearly half the book deals with events before 1947. Further, in my opinion, the five essays in the volume do not constitute a book unified by a central theme. Unless, of course, one considers the debunking of some of the positions of the Hindu majoritarian movement to be the theme. But on completion, I am glad that I read it, with a wistful thought as to how much more satisfying this project could have been.

Mr Gandhi opens with an essay titled “Yes, there is Ram”. It deals with the near-universal adoration of the mythic figure of Ram in India. Most leaders of the Independence movement were also Ram devotees for the most part. Yet none of them was offended by the fact that a mosque stood on the plot purported to have been the birthplace of Ram. The author contrasts this with the near manic movement for the restoration of the site for those who wanted to build agrand temple there. The Supreme Court did not consider that claim historically justifiable but still gave the plot to its new claimants in 2019 (the mosque was destroyed in 1992 by an uncontrolled mob). Mr Gandhi is perturbed by the aggressive stance of the claimants, which he thinks is contrary to the essence of Ram and how earlier leaders and philosophers perceived it.

Mr Gandhi’s essay on partition and whether the Congress leadership was complicit in it aims to refute claims recently gaining currency that this was indeed the case. There is much historical evidence to show that this is not quite true and the author marshals it well to support his point. In alater essay, the author uses documented evidence to show how Gandhi has been relevant to India at all times in its independent existence, and even more so at present.

The most engrossing essay is titled “India after 1947: A partly personal story”. Mr Gandhi narrates his personal encounters with various leaders - Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri, K Kamaraj, Indira Gandhi, Acharya Kripalani, Morarji Desai, among others. He offers us his assessments of these giants of modern Indian history, which are spot on. The limited space available for this review permits me to quote just one, that of Nehru, now prominent by his near-absence in the list of heroes of Independence compiled by the current ruling establishment: “In today’s India, a great many are deeply offended by the false stories disseminated about that astonishing, if also human and flawed, figure, whom millions loved, More than his 14 years in prison, more than his 55 years of tireless service, more than his accomplishments as prime minister for 17 years, it is his embrace of dissent and debate that many recall and miss today.” This reviewer couldn’t agree more. One must also agree with his observation that “Th[e] destructive trait of Indian history [is] ‘Forgive your foes, finish your allies’.” We need look no farther than Patna.

Surely Mr Gandhi has far more to tell us about this period because, as he says, “I had not only imbibed the oxygen of the freedom movement. I had been curious about its goal and details, had known some of the deceased warriors and many who were still alive. Capturing and preserving the movement’s stories was an exercise Ihad to begin.” One would dearly like to believe this book is just the first step of that exercise undertaken by this conscientious witness to history.