In conversation with Tridip Suhrud, India’s foremost Gandhi scholar
Tridip Suhrud, 52, is a multilingual scholar and translator renowned as an authority on Gandhi and his intellectual tradition. While he was director of Sabarmati Ashram, he had helped create the Gandhi Heritage Portal, a free digital archive running into over 1.4 million pages. Armed with knowledge of all three languages in which Gandhi wrote, Suhrud has brought into the public domain literature on the man unpublished for long. Now professor and director of Archives at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, he is working on the diary of Manu Gandhi, a companion of Gandhi, that covers the crucial period of 1942 to 1948. He is also collaborating with other scholars on projects involving a tranche of Gandhi’s letters to his sons from prison and testimonies of over 7,000 indigo cultivators recorded in Champaran, Bihar, by Gandhi and others. Suhrud’s latest work is an annotated and contextualised edition of Gandhi’s An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Seated in his study in CEPT Archives, he spoke to Open about the life and times of one of the most discussed leaders in modern history, a god-like figure for many and a whipping boy for many others. Edited excerpts:
How did you discover Gandhi?
My introduction to Gandhi happened through pleasurable ways, not through political theory or history. It happened through literature. For a long time, the only language I could comprehend was Gujarati, which in a certain period [1915-1940] was imbued with Gandhi’s presence. Virtually every poet, novelist and writer engaged with him, and therefore my early exposure to Gandhi was through them. In Gujarati literature, that is called the Gandhi yug. My introduction to him was mediated by stories, poems, essays, travelogues and translations people around him wrote, and you began to wonder who this person was. That is how my journey began. And when I started, I didn’t realise the journey would take hold of my life. It has been like that for three decades. I have sought to understand modern India through the Gandhian intellectual tradition, which doesn’t include Gandhi’s writings alone, but those of others as well. The likes of Vinoba Bhave and Kishorlal were at the forefront. Mahadev Desai was a great scholar of the Bhagavad Gita. Their works kept me going. To approach Gandhi thereafter is to go through his writings, and it is a serious commitment—which means reading 100 volumes of the Collected Works of Gandhi. Every serious scholar of Gandhi has to do that. It is nothing unusual. The advantage I probably had is I read and write in all three languages in which Gandhi wrote: Gujarati, Hindi and English. I began to read Gandhi in three tongues and that is how you begin to capture the cadence of his language. My work has been to engage with him through his writings, contextualise them, and so on—and it is not something that’s fashionable. But it has given me intellectual joy. Comparing editions and to be able to annotate them (including Hind Swaraj and An Autobiography) has been great fun. My work is centred on understanding Gandhi’s textual practices, which is akin to understanding his practices as such.
What are you working on next?
Several books. I am also trying to understand the meaning of Gandhi’s silences and his actions—what does the act of walking mean for him? What does it mean for him not to eat salt, to pray, to spin the wheel, and so on. Why does Gandhi think that salt is something that could shake the foundations of an empire? He has thought a lot about salt since he was in South Africa [before 1915]. He mentions in Hind Swaraj  that there is injustice over salt. As part of his dietary experiments, he stopped eating salt. It was also part of his habit of cultivating a palate in which you are not hooked to taste… What I am saying is he did not hit upon an idea like salt by mere accident. It was a long process. What interest me are these aspects of Gandhi.
When he comes back from South Africa aged 45, he is a fully formed man. Then India begins to surprise him and he begins to surprise India
My work in the past several years has been also to draw attention to people around Gandhi, whose lives and writings illuminate his life. One of them, of course, is Manu [his grandniece]. We know she joins him at the young age of 14, and then grows into being the only constant companion he had during his last phase. The letters she has preserved have become an important part of the Gandhian archive. My attempt is also to bring out what has been hitherto unavailable about him. That is the second aspect of my work.
The third is that, as a caretaker of Sabarmati Ashram, my work was to bring the archive into the public domain through the Gandhi Heritage Portal. We began modestly, but it is the largest repository of information on Gandhi, running into 1.4 million pages. It is available free.
How often do you think about Gandhi?
That is the only thing I think about. See, the Ashram is a special place. You keep wondering as to why hundreds and thousands come to the Ashram every day. We once did a kind of a survey over three days in December 2015 or 2016, and we found that per day, 46 languages were spoken at the Ashram. And when you spend a large part of your day there, you engage with the community, visitors, through archives, library and all… I rarely thought of anything else while I was there.
Is Gandhi the intellectual often overshadowed by Gandhi the politician? Isn’t it surprising that Gandhi wrote so much despite being so busy?
No. It should not come as a surprise because Gandhi was also a man of letters, both figuratively and literally. The Collected Works alone include 33,000 letters he had written to people. He communicated—and that was how he primarily communicated—and engaged with the people of India and the rest of the world. From 1904, he has been a newspaper person and continued to own, write and bring out publications such as Young India, Indian Opinion, Harijan. He wrote weekly columns for them. And sometimes more than once a week. He was a constant writer. We also know that he wrote incessantly and mostly using both hands. As someone who had to deal with his handwriting, I often prefer the Gandhi who writes with his left hand to the one who writes with his right. It is somewhat laboured but far more legible. He wrote on trains and woke up at the wee hours to write. What should come as a surprise is how little we think of Gandhi as an intellectual. We think of him as a person of action, but we forget that Gandhi read copiously—he read all the time. His one lament was that he was not able to read enough. Very few people know that the first public library of Ahmedabad [MJ Library] began with a donation of 10,000 books that Gandhi gave. The most delightful thing about him is that when he was anticipating a sentence, he began to make reading lists. I was reading a letter he wrote to his son Devdas: ‘This time I have decided not to ask for books from the prison because I have 200 books waiting to be read.’
What kind of books did he read?
He read every major thinker of his time. He also read literature. He not only read books on philosophy and political economy, but also technology and religion. He read very deeply on Indic intellectual traditions. There were people around him who also read as much. Mahadev Desai was an intellectual of a high order, yet he performed the role of Gandhi’s secretary. He was the one who brought Tagore to Gujarati. Others included the likes of Pyarelal Nayyar, Mashruwala, JC Kumarappa, Acharya Kripalani and Shankarlal Banker. I would also include Dr Ambedkar, Sardar Patel and Pandit Nehru in the Gandhian intellectual tradition. Gandhi engages with these people all the time.
Gandhi did not hit upon an idea like salt by mere accident. It was a long process. What interest me are these aspects of him
Did Gandhi stall Ambedkar’s rise in Indian politics, as some allege?
The Ambedkar-Gandhi debate is one of the greatest debates of modern India. It was the most ennobling debate that we have had. What Ambedkar is able to teach Gandhi, neither Gandhians nor Ambedkarites are able to recognise. Thanks to his engagement with Ambedkar, Gandhi begins to understand a fundamental category of life: humiliation. Gandhi had understood humiliation only in the racial context, as a subject of the Empire, but not from the viewpoint of a lower-caste person. Gandhi talked of untouchability as a sin. Ambedkar taught him that there is a category more fundamental than sin: humiliation. That actually broadens Gandhi’s vision. He becomes a better human being and a thinker afterwards. Does he go as far as Ambedkar would have liked him to go? No. Is there a failing there? Yes. Are there shortcomings? Most certainly. But I think both Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar become larger than themselves through their encounter… Dr Ambedkar was a towering intellect and perhaps the most gifted intellectual in Nehru’s Cabinet. Some of the roles he played in Independent India came to him because of who he was, and some others because Gandhi insisted there can be no Government without Dr Ambedkar. Mind you, it was not a concession. It was, in fact, a recognition that this man has a lot to contribute to the country—the framing of the Constitution being just one of them. I have always felt that pitting Gandhi against Ambedkar is not going to serve the cause of fighting either against untouchability or all forms of humiliation. Gandhi and Ambedkar put together make for a far greater force than one can comprehend. After all, theirs were not personal fights but ideological divergences that kept altering. They were a formidable force as allies as they forged ahead with the task of rebuilding a just and modern India.
Are you convinced there were no personal hostilities?
I do not think so. I was told this moving story when Pyarelal lived in Connaught Place [Delhi]. One day [a few months after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948], he was walking back from a coffee house to his little apartment. An official car stopped next to him and out came Dr Ambedkar running. He had a wedding card in his hand. Then he told Pyarelal, “Bapu would have approved” [of Ambedkar’s decision to marry Savitri, his second wife]. So I think there might have been moments of rancour. There are moments when he is appalled by Gandhi. There are moments when he is unable to get along with Gandhi’s associates. But I don’t think there was animus.
But people often quote Ambedkar selectively for political purposes.
These things happen. Each group of followers makes choices of this kind. But there are always those who are looking at something that is not selective, something that enables rather than disables. How well did Gandhi understand untouchability?
The criticism that Gandhi didn’t understand untouchability enough is fair. The question is, does he make an honest attempt to understand it? Does he make a life-long attempt? Does he move away from his early positions? The answer to all of this is ‘yes’. Why he doesn’t go far enough is probably because of his cognition. Among modern Indians—and I would include Tagore, Nehru, Patel, Aurobindo and Jinnah among them—who else engages with untouchability with the sense of having committed a sin other than Gandhi? His engaging with the subject was crucial. At least thanks to him, a large number of Indians not born Dalit began to comprehend better how dehumanising untouchability is. They did not think much about it before.
The diaries of Manu are expected to uncover a lot of details about the post-1947 phase of Gandhi, whom she calls ‘the lonely pilgrim’
Was Gandhi dissuaded from addressing caste fissures because he was preoccupied with uniting people for the freedom struggle?
I don’t think so. He was not afraid of divisions. Otherwise why would he, at the height of success in mobilising people, soon after the Dandi March, abandon the political project and dive deep into the social project [at the apex of which was the campaign against untouchability]? What did Gandhi do between 1932 and 1942? The only thing he talked about was untouchability. In what came to be known as his ‘Harijan tours’, he crisscrossed the country tirelessly, trying to talk sense into Indian people, that we are probably unfit for freedom.
Lately he has become a whipping boy for the extreme right and the left alike.
Which is fine… See, there are three main assumptions we have of Gandhi [depending on how groups look at him]. One is more of an expectation that he should be perfect. Why? Do we have that expectation from anyone else in this world? The other stems from the need that he should always be available to us. When there is a crisis in our collective life, we expect Gandhi to provide an answer. The third is that Gandhi is the source of all evils. It is a strange predicament that we have created for ourselves.
To what extent were Gandhi’s experiments shaped by his voracious reading?
Deeply. You give him a book that inspires him and he translates that into a philosophical programme [as he did by establishing the Phoenix Settlement in South Africa after reading John Ruskin’s Unto This Last]. He would read a book on the body, on healing, on naturopathy, and want to experiment on himself. He would read about diets and pursue dietary experiments. A lot of his experiments emerged as a conversation with texts, practices, traditions and so on. In An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, there are references to a cultural trend in Manchester [UK] of people skipping breakfast, and then he comes up with a decision to follow that immediately. He is very contemporary in that sense. He is constantly making and unmaking himself.
Did the West shape him more than India?
Initially, the young man who goes to London is an unformed intellect. He is curious and has read stuff. But at 18, he is no intellectual by any measure. He is thrown into this great metropolis of the world which offers him intellectual excitements. He begins to read Latin, learn about vegetarianism, picks up from all those disenchanted with modernity, gets in touch with trade unions, studies Christianity and so on. To deny that he was influenced by Western intellectual traditions would be to deny the possibilities of understanding Gandhi. And then he began a meticulous study of Islam, intellectual and philosophical thought, etcetera. He is always fascinated by people of faith, but he realises that his calling is different from theirs. He is deeply moved by the personal life of Jesus. He is attracted to the life of Prophet Muhammad. He constantly meditates upon the life of Socrates and also the story of Prahlad. He is moved by big ideas. Big figures come to him as lamp posts. Gandhi has always been in touch with the world around him.
What did he learn in South Africa?
Many things. His idea of Indian social life expands widely. South Africa provided him his first intimate contact with Islam and Muslims. And also with the people of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar and so on. His understanding of the poverty of India and its political economy comes from there. His understanding of law and the Empire comes from there. He pioneers what today is known as the Public Interest Litigation. His understanding of the power of satyagraha and the printed word comes from there. South Africa in very large measure forms Gandhi. When he comes back to India aged 45, he is a fully formed man. Then India begins to surprise him and he begins to surprise India.
Why did right wing forces try to denigrate him?
I don’t think there is denigration. There is unease. I think one has to choose words carefully here. Why does Gandhi cause deep unease? Because of his social, philosophical cultural vision. And thanks to the kind of life he leads. Are the right wing the only ones who are ill at ease with him? No. Even his followers were. But what is unnerving is that some people thought India would be better served without him. Yes, there is a very deep unease. We don’t know what to do with him. And that unease still remains. The significance and the salience of Gandhi is that he is not dead. Why else do we need to whip a man 70 years after you killed him with the finality of three bullets?
Gandhi talked of untouchability as a sin. Ambedkar taught him that there is a category more fundamental than sin: humiliation
Of all those opposed to him, wasn’t it only the Hindu Right that wanted him dead?
Listen, the fact remains that he had to be killed, and we found it desirable to do so. I don’t think it is the guilt of one individual or group. It was a collective responsibility.
Why do you say that?
I say that because it achieved two things. One is that his killing brought an end to the mindless violence that followed India’s Partition. He has said in his final months that the only proof of non-violence he could give was to die a violent death. It is a strange formulation that only people who think seriously of martyrdom the way he did could make. Second, his death also gives India a period of relatively less strife for more than 15 years, where a democratic project, an institution-building project becomes easier than imagined. Those were the two noteworthy gifts of that death. That he would be killed, he had no doubt about. That was not the first attempt on his life. Did he fear death? No. Did he fear a violent death? Certainly not. What he feared was a purposeless death. Would we have liked him to die of flu and malaria and typhoid? He wanted a certain kind of demonstration of his faith, and I think in that sense Ashis Nandy is right: that he co-authored his own assassination. It is a perceptive insight. It would have bothered him and bothered us if his were a purposeless death. The culmination of his life in a violent act at a particular juncture in India’s moral history is very important. The country somehow missed a great opportunity in his death. Very few people realise this: Ramdas, Gandhi’s son, held out this moral possibility to us soon after the great man’s death—to abolish the death penalty. But the Indian state failed him and fails us today. What if the Indian state were to say, ‘We abolish the death penalty with the abolition of this penalty for Gandhi’s assassin?’ It would have been a great moral victory for the state. I’m sure Gandhi would have been very uneasy with the death sentence [of his assassin Nathuram Godse].
Have you ever thought about why Gandhi never wanted to join the government?
It is such a trivial question. Why would he want to join the government? Governments are important for us. It was not important for him. Why would holding an office of power be of such significance to Gandhi? It would have been anomalous to think of Gandhi wanting to hold political power.
You have worked on a book on the tragic life of his son Harilal.
Yes, it was a tragic life, but Gandhi wasn’t entirely responsible for it. Do you want him to be a normal middle-class father? On one hand, we want him to be perfect, and, on the other, a middle-class father who would take care of the petty interests of his descendants? No. Both are not possible. And Gandhi had often made it clear that his notion of family had altered. It was a failure of a dialogue [between Harilal and Gandhi], but what is our expectation from Gandhi? Turning his political and moral advantage to petty gains for his sons? I was interested in an inquiry into that relationship and hence I worked on the book. I was going through a tranche of letters between Gandhi and his son Devadas encouraging him to better himself and in a very affectionate way. It is a completely different Gandhi we discover in these unpublished letters. Very interestingly, Gandhi wrote to his four daughters-in-law with great love. He wrote to them on a range of subjects from politics and family to pregnancy and lactation. And the daughters-in-law respond to his letters.
Why did Jinnah have strained ties with Gandhi?
Jinnah and Gandhi got off on a bad start, with the latter insisting the former speak in Gujarati. Gandhi came and changed the nature of politics. A lot of people saw themselves pushed to situations where they didn’t know how to deal with mass politics. Gandhi completely changed the idea of politics and organisation.
Was Gandhi marginal to the Congress’ interests around Independence?
Around the time we started feeling that we were going to win freedom towards the end of World War II, Gandhi was only marginal to the scheme of things in the Congress. He came back into relevance only when we turned against each other after Partition… None of them—Jinnah or the Congress or the British—ever imagined Partition would lead to such massive migration. Gandhi is the only leader who knew what communal violence would do to the country and that it starts with people leaving regions where they felt unsafe. His work in Noakhali, in Bihar, in Calcutta became crucial in this context. In Noakhali [now in Bangladesh] he asked Hindus not to leave, saying he would create conditions for their safety. He said the same thing to Muslims in Calcutta and Bihar. He could alleviate the sufferings of the people in India’s east where Partition-related losses were much less compared with those in western India. The diaries of Manu are expected to uncover a lot of details about that phase of Gandhi, whom she calls the ‘lonely pilgrim’.
What is the hallmark of Gandhi’s writings?
Total transparency. Because he even talks about his desires and his failings.