A Reply to Andrew Roberts’ Review of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

A new book on Gandhi by Joseph Lelyveld has caused a stir even in the popular press in the UK and has been banned in the state of Gujarat in India. Among the reviews, one by well-known historian Professor Andrew Roberts expresses a very negative view of Gandhi. Antony Copley of the Gandhi Foundation, and a historian himself, responds.

A Reply to Andrew Roberts’ Review of Joseph Lelyveld’s
Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

Dear Andrew,

I can see why you felt driven to write so distasteful a review of Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi. As a historian, indeed it could be said as a hagiographer, of Churchill, you must always have been on the lookout for some way of getting back at Gandhi. For all his achievements as a liberal reformer in the pre-1914 government and as a war leader Churchill died a disappointed man. His life’s ambition had been to save the Empire and he had failed and none bore so great a responsibility for his failure as Gandhi. And of course his contempt for Gandhi as the Inner Temple lawyer, posing in his eyes as a half-naked fakir, betrays his grim awareness of where his imperial ambitions had met their nemesis. Whereas as General Smuts had the insight to recognise a person of high moral stature, Churchill was hopelessly blinkered. His was an odd dichotomy for we can see in his passionate opposition to appeasement the need to stand up to Hitler but he was quite unable to grasp, as a defendant of appeasement like Halifax had, that through Gandhi was the one possibility Britain had for that gradual change from Empire to Commonwealth, one of the more admirable transpositions of British policy in the 20th century.

Jawarharlal Nehru famously told Richard Attenborough when he gave the go-ahead for his film on Gandhi, don’t turn him into a saint and I agree with you that we do Gandhi no favours by writing hagiography. Gandhi was such an exemplary leader just because of his all too human frailties. Yours is an attempt to belittle Gandhi’s achievement in the public sphere and to diminish the man in the private. You readily take up any half-truth going and turn it into calumny. It is a careless and slapdash attempt at character assassination. Wavell would be very surprised to find himself Vice-Roy in 1942: it was the unimaginative Linlithgow who locked up Gandhi and the Congress High Command after the Quit India satyagraha of August 1942. Wavell was only his successor in 1943.

So firstly, your sour commentary on Gandhi the private man.

Interpretation of Gandhi’s deeply troubled struggle to harness his sexual energies has already become a well rehearsed attempt at salacious denigration. We now understand how Gandhi sought in all those experiments with the truth, as he saw them in his Autobiography, a way of overcoming weakness and gaining strength for the awesome challenge he was undertaking against imperialism. Here is one explanation for his admittedly somewhat obsessive concern with diet. And diet was also one way at controlling sexual desire. Who are we to judge Gandhi if he convinced himself that sublimation of sexual desire was one vital resource in his awesome political struggles? Of course it put almost intolerable constraints on his followers and asceticism has always been psychologically costly. It was when Gandhi faced the simply horrendous possibilities of communal madness leading to partition, fearing that his sexual self-control was slipping and that he would then lack the force to face the impending holocaust, that he embarked on that embarrassing experiment with his grandniece Manu. Indeed, he did find the energy to bring communal harmony to Noakhali. But many have doubts about the wisdom of that experiment. But you show no interest as to what lay behind it.

And now comes another kind of controversy over his personal life. Was he the lover of the German Jewish architect, Hermann Kallenbach? There is nothing new here at exploring the possibilities at such relationships in the lives of famous Indians: Nehru has been seen as having such a relationship with his tutor and indeed possibly with Mountbatten. It is all grist to the biographical mill. Personally I would not want to reject such a proposal on grounds of the nature of its sexuality: we have had to struggle far too hard in our lifetime to see the acceptability of homosexuality as a part of the spectrum of human sexuality only to fall into the trap of prejudice and here use this possibility as a means of expressing contempt for Gandhi, something you seem all too ready to do. It is also worth pointing out that in Africa, a continent with such an appalling track record of intolerance, South Africa is a rare  exception, a country with an extremely enlightened legislation and indeed a recognition of civil partnership. Would that India was anywhere near being so tolerant and enlightened.

Margaret Chatterjee is the best person to comment on Gandhi’s friendship with Kallenbach. She has written so sympathetically of Gandhi’s friendships with both Kallenbach and Henry Polak in Gandhi’s Jewish Friends. Quite clearly this was the friendship that changed Kallenbach’s life, a rich Johannesburg architect, who became one of Gandhi’s earliest European followers, drastically reduced his material way of life to embrace Gandhi’s ideal of ashram poverty, deeply engaged with Gandhi over all matters dietary, and came to the rescue of Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns when he bought Tolstoy farm outside Johannesburg to meet the crucial needs of Gandhi’s struggle against the pass law and internal restrictions on migration. There is a wonderful story of their journey to England together in 1914 when Gandhi criticised him for his expensive pair of binoculars and Kallenbach ended (or was it Gandhi?) by joyfully throwing them into the sea.

But a sexual relationship? Obviously one will have to look at the evidence Lelyveld has discovered but on face value it seems  improbable. The earliest use of the fast by Gandhi was when a case of sodomy came to light between two boys at the Phoenix Farm ashram. Gandhi was apparently in great distress and Kallenbach tried to dissuade him from so extreme a response but eventually concurred, and indeed there were to be two fasts, presumably because the boys after the ending of the first had renewed their affair. By any modern standards Gandhi had pretty regressive attitudes to human sexuality and just possibly behind brahmacharya, his vow of celibacy, lay some repressed element in his makeup. But we know that Charles Andrews felt strongly attracted to Gandhi but Gandhi increasingly kept him at an emotional distance, and the same was true of Madeleine Slade. Are we seriously to believe Gandhi made this extraordinary exception of Kallenbach?

It might be best to respond to your other slurs on Gandhi’s role in the public sphere on narrative order.

You point to some radical inconsistency in Gandhi the opponent of Empire working as an ambulance driver in the wars against the Boers and the Zulus. Firstly Gandhi will make no sense unless you accept his commitment to oaths of loyalty, his belief that Victoria had pledged Britain to care for its Empire and it was not to be till the outrageous massacre at Amritsar in 1919 that Gandhi brought himself to break that oath of loyalty and engage in non-violent resistance. But secondly you need to know that the  ambulance brigades were made up of all the different Indian communities in South Africa and was an experiment in nation-building and that Gandhi was deeply moved by the courage of the Boers and here was one inspiration for his freedom struggle, though in his case a non-violent one. And yes it is true Gandhi was too much a man of his times to reach out to the black majority in South Africa; that was an expansion of the imagination that his son Manilal was to undergo.

Then you find fault with Gandhi’s attitudes to one of the leaders of India’s Muslim community, Jinnah, and the leader of the untouchables, Ambedkar. Here Gandhi’s battle was as an integral nationalist. Jinnah had emerged at the Lucknow Congress of 1916 as the promising new leader of Congress but it had come at the price of accepting separate  electorates for Indian Muslims. Gandhi did not contest Jinnah’s leadership on grounds of his being a Muslim but his being possibly the classic Anglicised Indian. As Gandhi sought to make sense of where the nationalist movement had reached on his return from South Africa he was keenly aware that it had to change from one led by a westernised elite and pursuing a narrow constitutional path to one reaching out to the Indian population at large, above all to its peasantry, and becoming an authentic mass movement. He tried to undo the damage as he saw it of a separate electorate, which threatened a divide between Hindus and Muslims, by  seeking an alliance with the Khilafat movement. But indeed when this petered out the damage to communal relationships became all too apparent.

It was for this reason that Gandhi was so passionately opposed to Ambedkar’s campaign for separate electorates for Indian untouchables. Ambedkar, a brilliant constitutional lawyer and chief architect of the Indian Constitution, was a formidable opponent. Gandhi’s attack on untouchability was all of a piece. He sought the entrance of untouchables to caste Hindu temples as way of their integration into the caste system. He embarked on a fast unto death in Poona in 1932 at Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorate as a means of staving off any further division of the Indian body politic. And who would in comparable circumstance accept separate electorates for Afro-Americans or Hispanics in America or ethnic minorities in the UK?

But his stand had of course consequences. Jinnah, who might have ended his days as a barrister in London, returned to play the communal card, with disastrous consequences. However, at the end, knowing he was dying, he tried to steer the new state of Pakistan towards religious tolerance and to extend friendship to the Hindu minority.

You also ridicule Gandhi’s practice of satyagraha. Yes, it is true that violence in 1919 just possibly might have led to independence in the same way as in Ireland. John Grigg made this case a long time ago. But equally probably the colonial state would have had the power to fight back. It was this awareness that led Aurobindo Ghose, Gandhi’s most outstanding precursor as a national leader, to recognise that a tactic of violence would not work. And yes, satyagraha began to look fragile as a strategy as the world closed in on World War II. At least over Czechoslovakia Gandhi was no appeaser and indeed the Czechs did possess the powers to resist Germany by conventional means, had they not been betrayed at Munich. And yes Gandhi had no answer to the plight of the European Jews though possibly had a case against immigration into Palestine. Was he so misguided in 1942? The evidence suggests that he had every expectation that the British would stay on anyway to protect India for their own imperial interests against Japan and you overlook the obvious fact that the Japanese were allied to the Indian National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose and, had they won in 1944 – in fact all the evidence suggests they were at the end of their advance – Bose would have mitigated any Japanese brutality. The whole point of satyagraha is an argument about consequences, that a violent struggle can but lead to a violent society. Hence his calling off the campaign in 1922 following the violence at Chauri Chaura. Here is a wisdom that was widely recognised in Eastern Europe in 1989 and possibly today in the Arab Spring.

I wonder if you can bring yourself to see Churchill’s bête-noire in a more charitable light?

Antony Copley
Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Kent

View Andrew Roberts’ review

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2 Comments on “A Reply to Andrew Roberts’ Review of Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India”

  1. April 1, 2012 at 8:30 am #

    ‘ It was when Gandhi faced the simply horrendous possibilities of communal madness leading to partition, fearing that his sexual self-control was slipping and that he would then lack the force to face the impending holocaust, that he embarked on that embarrassing experiment with his grandniece Manu.’
    I’m afraid this is not true.
    Gandhi has given different reasons at different times for sleeping naked with women including the notion that it helped correct their posture.
    His urging Manu to go out and get raped during the period of communal violence indicates it was not sexual continence, at least on her part, which would magically heal the wound of partition.
    Gandhian Ahimsa, as Prof. Gier and Prof. Parel and many others have pointed out, is an extremely advanced Virtue Ethics or perhaps something to do with Buddhism or maybe Heidegger or something because it teaches that you should kill your daughter if someone wants to rape her but only if you then joyfully surrender your own body to the would-be assailant so that he may slake his ire upon your shuddering and all-too-alive body rather than your girl-child’s corpse.



  1. A Reply to Andrew Roberts' Review of Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul …-Ashrams in India | Ashrams in India - April 18, 2011

    […] when a case of sodomy came to light between two boys at the Phoenix Farm ashram Original post: A Reply to Andrew Roberts' Review of Joseph Lelyveld's Great Soul … Posted in Ashrams, Gujarat, New, ashram, book, boy, by, de, el, india, light, of, om, […]


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