Wednesday, 25 February 2009


'Gandhi."  by Taya Zinkin
This short biography by Taya Zinkin portrays Gandhi not as a saint, but very much as a man who was always in the process of discovery: trying to find a simple and non-violent lifestyle. The book deals with his early life in India, and follows him through a journey of discovery in England, South Africa and finally back to his homeland of India. It is well researched, and a fine illustration of how Gandhi's life was, as he entitled his autobiography, "The Story of My Experiments with Truth".
In India, Hindu society was divided, on religious grounds, into four rigid social groups, or castes. These are the priests, soldiers, merchants and cultivators. Finally, outside the caste system, and therefore with no social standing or rights whatsoever, are found "the Untouchables, people so low that they cannot be touched because their contact is so polluting."
It has been noted by James Cameron that this rigid caste system was perfect for British rule; all that the British had to do was to secure themselves a position above the top of this ladder of inequity.
But however much this anti-democratic system might have suited the British at the start of the Empire, it rapidly came into conflict with the ideals of justice and charity of a civilised British society. As Mrs Zinkin observes, considerable unrest occurred in India "because the British had interfered with age-old Hindu custom, like the killing of baby daughters and human sacrifice to the Goddess Kali".
Moreover, under British rule, it had been insisted that the children of Untouchables should receive education, "but even then these children had to stand at the back of the class, as if they had a contagious disease." The British could do no more; they "were helpless in the face of tradition."
Although Gandhi came from a Hindu background, he broke across this caste system. At an early age, into order to train in England as a barrister, he had to break a caste taboo by crossing sea. He faced a caste boycott - deprivation of status amongst his own countrymen, and treatment as an Untouchable. Events such as these led him to see that the caste system was an evil which must be abolished, and so, indirectly, to his death at the hands of a Hindu fanatic who saw him as a traitor to his faith.
Nevertheless, Gandhi's fight proved successful, and "the first thing that independent India was to do was to make the practice of Untouchability a criminal offense under the constitution."
The book also shows that Gandhi was able to apply his methods of "non-violent civil resistance" only because, despite all its faults, British rule was essentially just, civilised and humane. As Orwell commented: "It is difficult to see how Gandhi's methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the nights and are never heard of again".
Because the British held to such high ideals of justice and freedom of speech that Gandhi was able to embarrass them by showing the deficiencies and inequities in
British laws in India that did not stand close comparison with the ideals of British justice; ironically, such knowledge resulting from his training in British law. In this respect, Maucaulay ' s words form a fitting epitaph to British rule in India: "To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have so ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title of glory all our own."

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