When an Indian attacks Gandhi and Nehru, the two great architects of the Indian state, you can usually figure out why. It has something to do with her contemporary politics. When a Brit does the same, and when the attack is largely personal, it's a lot more difficult to diagnose. Perry Anderson is, according to his Wikipedia page, "often identified with the post-1956 Western Marxism of the New Left. He is Professor of History and Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles and a former editor of the New Left Review." So his motivations are presumably more theoretical. But his three part, 65000 word, reflection (if one can call it that) in the London Review of Books (Parts one, two, and three) is one of the most vicious hatchet jobs I have ever come across. It is also, taken at face value, completely gratuitous: it contains no new facts and reviews no new book. So why?
It should not come as a revelation to anybody that Gandhi had beliefs that any modern intellectual would vehemently oppose. He was a traditional and highly superstitious Hindu. Because he was naturally sympathetic to other Indians and other religious believers, he read and talked about Islam and Christianity. But his take on these faiths was anything but sophisticated, and his ideas about how to unite people of these divergent faiths was often insensitive. Moreover, Gandhi had bizarre beliefs. He believed, for example, that sex was wrong except for the express purpose of procreation; he tried to subdue his own sexual feelings, and as an old man he slept naked with his niece to prove to himself that he was, at last, chaste. Finally, his vision for the Indian state was that it would be Hindu, and organized on Hindu principles, but in a way that Muslims and Christians could embrace. Well, dear reader, you don't need me to tell you that that's a bit of a head-scratcher.
Perry Anderson makes out of this a huge take-down of the man.
The reason for Nehru's attitude to Gandhi is obvious. Or at least I would have thought so. Before Gandhi, the independence movement and the Indian National Congress were elite movements that had traction only with lawyers and other middle class professionals. Gandhi, by contrast, was able to mobilize the masses, not so much with an explicitly Hindu dialectic, but with a Hindu way of life. He was a man who renounced worldly comforts in a way that Hindus valorize, and this gave him a mythic status in rural India. As for Nehru, his own father was one of the leaders of Congress, but as a young man he was immediately able to appreciate that it was Gandhi and Gandhi alone who was able, in the span of just a few years subsequent to his return from South Africa, to tranform a talking society into a mass movement. And what a mass movement! For millions to resist the law but to do so non-violently. Obviously, this was historically unprecedented.
Anderson is offended by Gandhi's homespun beliefs. He points out, for instance, that in order to capture the Muslim public, he endorsed the Caliphate (or Khilafat) movement—a retrograde faith-based reaction to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Jinnah, another liberal intellectual, was aghast. The liberal consensus of the elite was shattered by Gandhi's religious populism. This gave Muslim intellectuals like Jinnah a reason to split off from Congress, and to appeal directly to the Muslim masses. Ultimately, this led to partition. But before it did, it made independence a mass movement. And this was Gandhi's achievement. And the religious polarization that followed was probably the cost.
Anderson's attacks on Gandhi and Nehru are extremely painful for me to read, and I won't go on about them. But back to his motivation. His hero is Subash Chandra Bose, who was rejected by Congress. Bose was for violent confrontation with the Raj, and this led him to take refuge with Hitler. Ultimately, he joined the Japanese, and turned captured units of the Indian Army in South-East Asia into an anti-British force. Bose's Indian National Army marched against the Allies, and was ultimately defeated. The large scale execution of its officers and NCOs by the British is one of the great tragedies of the war and one of its more brutal episodes. But of Bose's defection to the Axis and his sympathy with Hitler there can be no doubt. One might sympathize with Ukrainian nationalists who joined with the Nazi invasion of Stalin's Soviet Russia. It is less easy to take Bose's side, and the Congress did not.
So here's the bottom line for the former editor of the New Left Review: Gandhi and Nehru were not members of the Communist Party of India. They did not support violent resistance to the British. They did not tolerate Congress Party members who joined with Hitler. Their revolution did not put millions in concentration camps. Villains! They stood against History.