‘The Saint has left our shores,
I sincerely hope forever.’
Jan Christian Smuts, the South African minister,
uttered these words in 1914. The saint was none
other than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on his
way home to India after 21 years in South Africa.
Saintliness certainly came to personify Gandhi’s life
and his demise at the hands of an assassin’s bullet
sealed his iconic status and sanctified him as the
Mahatma, India’s ‘Great Soul’.
As the ‘father’ of non-violent direct action Gandhi is
credited for providing the inspiration behind Martin
Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, the
peace campaigns of the Greenham Common women
and today with protests over climate change and war.
In India and elsewhere Gandhi has also been criticised
for being ‘anti-modern’, a hard line traditionalist, a
blackmailer who used fasting as a means of getting his
way, on the left he is seen as the ‘mascot of the
bourgeoisie’ and anti-working class. There are
elements of truth to all these accusations but it is
important to bear in mind that bourgeois nationalism
is far from straightforward, much less pure and
fundamentally flawed. Indian nationalism was no
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