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Gandhism in the UK and US

Gandhi in the West: The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest by Sean Scalmer (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press), 2011; pp vi + 248 (hardcover), Rs 795.


Gandhism in the UK and US the US, the communities organised around the African-American church
Usha Thakkar were significant to the extension of the Gandhian way. This volume is a result of careful

he quest for truth by non-violent means, opposition against exploitation and inequality in all forms, efforts for development of all in society and striving for the full civic engagement of citizens are Gandhian principles that never fail to attract the attention of scholars and activists. Many like Lanza del Vasto, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi acknowledge Gandhi as their inspiration. Many involved in the struggles against colonialism and exploitation all over the world evoke his name.

Transnational Gandhism

Though Gandhi himself did not approve of “Gandhism”, it has survived in myriad forms reflected in the expressions and work of millions ranging from Nobel Prize winners to ordinary persons across cultures and countries. As Scalmer points out, the transnational career of Gandhism is a history not just of individuals and nations, but also of connections, campaigns and international fl ows. Scholars like Leonard A Gordon, Sudarshan Kapur, Thomas Weber, and Dennis Dalton have worked on some aspects. However a major, comparative and long-term study of “transnational Gandhism” has not been done so far. And this is precisely what Scalmer successfully has done in this book.

This book explores the questions regarding Gandhi and the west in a particular context. The summer of satyagraha (more often called “the fi rst New

Economic & Political Weekly

april 28, 2012

Gandhi in the West: The Mahatma and the Rise of Radical Protest by Sean Scalmer (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press), 2011; pp vi + 248 (hardcover), Rs 795.

Left”) stretched only from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s. The movements for civil rights in the US and the antinuclear campaign in the UK during the 1960s were important factors that reshaped western politics. The author traces their history to an earlier generation’s struggles to understand and emulate Gandhi’s ideas and activities. The author is aware that it is not possible to make an in-depth study of Gandhi’s global infl uence in a single volume. So he wisely limits it to the history of Gandhism in the UK and the US and justifies this selection on the grounds of engagement, connection, influence and comparability. The UK was the colonial power Gandhi protested against; and the US was among the first to recognise his signifi cance while the engagement of African-Americans was important in the subsequent career of Gandhism. The historical connections between these two powers as well as with India are important. Campaigns with a Gandhian tinge emerged in both societies

– initially America’s civil rights movement and, later, a British campaign against nuclear weapons. The similarities and differences between the two also allow for comparison. It is interesting to note that in Britain, non-conformist and mostly middle class Christians were Gandhi’s keenest supporters, while in

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research and brings together a huge amount of rich and useful material on Gandhi in the west that includes journalistic and literary writings, books, memoirs, photographs and political comments. It draws from a wide variety of sources. Based on the study of article accounts registered in the relevant databases for newspaper coverage in the New York Times, Chicago Daily Tribune, and The Times, the author shows the high points of such coverage. To quote him,

Western press coverage of Gandhi is like a mountain shelf: a sudden and small peak in the early 1920s; a deep valley; a towering summit over 1929-32, perhaps double the size of its nearest neighbours; an incomplete fall; a plateau; and then a smaller peak in the early 1940s, lasting until Gandhi’s death in 1948. Each peak relates to a period of popular struggle for Swaraj: the ‘noncooperation’ movement from 1919, the Salt Satyagraha from 1930, and the ‘Quit India’ campaign launched in 1942 (p 44).

Image of Gandhi in the West

The book begins with the initial image of Gandhi as formulated in the UK and US. Gandhi is shown by the media as a person with an ugly face, emaciated frame, protruding ears and with an “effeminate” quality – a subject who is a cartoonist’s delight. His display of his body, the diet and fasts, the squatting and loincloth are subjects of criticism and ridicule. He is fitted in within a well developed racial hierarchy; his lustrous eyes and unusual personality also make some see him as a particular kind of Oriental: spiritual, child-like, feminine and poor. It is interesting to note that


Gandhi’s body has been studied by scholars like Alter (2000), and his dress by Tarlo (1996). The west took a long time to understand and respond to Gandhi’s political ideas and activities. The news about Gandhi that reached the west was slow, piecemeal, and often distorted. For decades he was depicted by the newspapers there as a kind of agitator. He was also interpreted as a naive fool or a person challenging authority in a deliberate and even intimidating manner. Gandhi’s friends in the west attempted to reply by questioning the misleading headlines, and by writing and lecturing in Britain and the US. More importantly, Gandhi himself acted as a competent journalist and writer.

Correspondents like Webb Miller and William Shirer, Negley Farson, E Ashmead-Bartlett, and Robert Bernays covered Gandhi and his movements. Webb Miller’s evocative accounts of the satya grahis being beaten appeared in more than 1,300 newspapers around the world. Time named him Man of the Year in 1930 and as shown by the author the New York Times published more than 500 articles that referenced the Mahatma that year (p 27).

Writers have found him to be an interesting subject. The first biography of Gandhi M K Gandhi: An Indian Patriot in South Africa was written by Joseph K Doke in 1909. Romain Rolland published the first major biography Mahatma Gandhi: The Man Who Became One with the Universal Being in 1924. Gandhi himself wrote The Story of My Experiments with Truth. The list of other notable writers on Gandhi and his work includes John Haynes Holmes, Millie Polak, Muriel Lester, Reginald Reynolds and Louis Fischer. Early influential books in the west on his political programmes are Richard Gregg’s Power of Non-violence (1934) and Krishnalal Shridharani’s War without Violence (1939).

Satyagraha in the West

Gandhi owed to both the traditions – Hindu as well as the western. The location of Gandhi within Hindu traditions and his concerns regarding western philosophy have been deftly analysed by Bhikhu Parekh (1995). Vinay Lal (2009) has explored important issues related to Gandhi and the west. It was only after several decades of intellectual exploration that the westerners began to experiment with satyagraha. It was not easy for them to understand Gandhi’s terminology of words like satyagraha; he was developing new concepts and new words. The literal meaning of the term satyagraha and expressions like “passive resistance” and “non-resistance” proved to be inadequate to convey the meaning of satyagraha. The need for a far more complicated quest for intercultural communication and understanding was consequently felt.

Gandhians in the west started their experiments in the middle of the 20th century. In Britain they lay down on footpaths and squatted at military gates. At the close of 1951, Hugh Brock, stalwart of the Peace Pledge Union and editor of its mouthpiece Peace News, had announced

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plans for a non-violent struggle in the UK, named “Operation Gandhi”, appealing to the British people’s conscience. The Aldermaston anti-nuclear marches with tens of thousands could not be ignored. America’s non-violent pioneers began their journey almost a decade or so earlier than their British comrades. In Chicago, members of the new Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), schooled in the Fellowship of Reconciliation, pledged themselves to eliminate all racial segregation and discrimination, and called their method interracial and direct nonviolent action. The movement for African-American civil rights gained strength. A boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Albana began in Decem ber 1955, when 50,000 residents united under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr from February 1960, a “sit-in” movement spread from Greensboro, North Carolina and within a month, mass protests had jumped the borders of seven states.

Discontinuities, Continuities and Legacy

As the westerners made efforts to apply Gandhism, they realised that the situation required adaptation. This required new terms and forms and performances, leading to a rethinking and even reshaping of the Mahatma’s techniques. Slowly the scene changed. The author shows effectively that the character of non-violent performance was altered in three important ways: size, tactics, and suffering. The new protests became larger than their precursors. It was realised that greater numbers were more effective. The character and spirit of non-violent protests were also subject to change. Increasingly, activists approached non-violence as a tactic or a technique, not as a complete philosophy.

The demonstrations of the early 1960s were marked by shouting, foul language and threats; these were very different from the earlier ways of erect bearings, silent passage and respectable dress. The place and importance of voluntary suffering also changed. Now it was not in the hope of conversion but for commanding the attention of the mass media. Non-violent acts offered a chance to expose an enemy, and thereby to win a

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growing number of friends. Increasingly, media attention, the elicitation of publicity and pressure became important. Gradually the simple events of peaceful protest and sacrifice were relegated to the middle pages of the newspaper and television also lost interest.

The author succinctly observes that though the Mahatma himself was displaced from the public mind, his infl uence lingered in three important ways. First, Gandhism survived in the activity of veteran experimenters, a few of whom became advisers in the new era of mass action. Second, it was reproduced by the presence of non-violent institutions, many newly formed that sponsored protests, and trained participants. Third, it can be traced through the choreography of the protests themselves. The assumptions were the same as expressed by Gandhi and later translated by Richard Gregg: offering of a direct appeal, willingness to suffer, necessity of non-violence and the belief that love would convert. The author perceptively observes that though the mass protests of the 1960s were bigger and more exhilarating, and less identifiably Gandhian than their precursors, they did not mark a complete break with what had gone before. On the contrary, the continuities with earlier years were personal, organisational and performative (p 178). And as he says, “For the historian looking back from a longer distance, however, the continuities impress much more than the departures” (p 204).


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Gandhi presents a radically different paradigm through his movements and inspires introspection as well as action, often questioning prevalent axioms and practices. His alternatives have not lost their constructive elements. The author traces some history of Gandhism as it was received in the west. In his own words, his aim is “recuperative, but also political”. Through revisiting the past, it becomes possible to gather resources for the present. And, in chronicling the complicated and transnational history of “satyagraha, we might learn not simply how to understand the world, but perhaps also the means to change it (p 8). The ways of understanding the world are not easy; the means to change are even more difficult. However, the efforts have to continue and in that context, this book about a rather unexplored part of history is helpful.

Usha Thakkar ( is with the Institute of Research on Gandhian Thought and Rural Development, Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya, Mumbai.


Emma, Tarlo (1996): Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Joseph, S Alter (2000): Gandhi’s Body: Sex, Diet, and the Politics of Nationalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

Parekh, Bhikhu (1995): Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination (Delhi: Ajanta Publications), 1st Indian edition.

Vinay, Lal (2009): Gandhi’s West, the West’s Gandhi, New Literary History, Vol 40, No 2, Spring, 281-313.

– Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, J Krishnamurty, Gerry Rodgers

  • Gerry Rodgers
  • J Krishnamurty
  • – T S Papola

    – Kamala Sankaran

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