By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Millions of people around the world think they have heard Mahatma Gandhi speaking in English -- although it was actually Gandhi channeled through the voice of actor Ben Kingsley in the famous 1982 movie by Richard Attenborough.
But very few English speakers have heard Gandhi directly. That's because there were only two occasions when he was recorded speaking in English, according to his grandson and biographer Rajmohan Gandhi. One speech, about religious issues, was recorded in the 1930s. The second, especially historic because it was just a few months before Gandhi was assassinated, was made on April 2, 1947.
For decades, this second speech has been largely lost to the world. A few years ago, an Italian cellphone company made a commercial using excerpts, and scattered fragments are available on the Internet.
Recently, however, the second speech surfaced in -- of all places -- downtown Washington. It had been lovingly preserved for 60 years by John Cosgrove, a former president of the National Press Club. Cosgrove's copy came from Alfred Wagg, a journalist who recorded the speech in New Delhi and produced four 78-rpm LPs that included both Gandhi's voice as well as Wagg's own commentary about the Indian independence leader. Cosgrove discovered the significance of the recording during a chance encounter with Rajmohan Gandhi, when the author came to the Press Club this past spring to promote his new biography.
Gandhi's speech -- made with the uneven diction of an elderly man who sounds as though he has lost most of his teeth -- had the same themes he visited over and over throughout his life: the importance of nonviolence, the eradication of the caste system in Hindu society, amity between South Asia's Hindus and Muslims, and a world united against violence and exploitation.
"A friend asked yesterday, did I believe in one world?" Gandhi says at one point in the speech. "Of course I believe in World One. And how can I possibly do otherwise? . . . You can redeliver that message now in this age of democracy, in the age of awakening of the poorest of the poor."
Gandhi preferred to speak to Indian audiences in their own languages. He regularly used Hindi, although his native tongue was Gujarati. This speech was made to a gathering of Asian leaders, for whom English was a common language.
The speech is especially poignant not only because we now know Gandhi had barely 10 months left to live, but also because of something it does not explicitly note. It was made precisely one day after Gandhi had set in motion one of the most audacious political initiatives of his career.
On April 1, 1947, Gandhi proposed that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of India's minority Muslim population and ardent champion of the creation of a new state called Pakistan, be installed as the first prime minister of India -- a united India. It was a staggering suggestion, roughly along the lines of Abraham Lincoln inviting Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, to be president of the United States of America -- in order to avoid the carnage of the Civil War.
Gandhi placed his radical idea before Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British viceroy of India. Mountbatten was floored, since Gandhi was essentially saying he would ask his own Hindu-dominated Congress Party to relinquish the power that was about to fall into its lap after decades of struggle.
Jinnah proved intrigued by the offer, according to an account Mountbatten wrote of the conversation, but Gandhi's colleagues in the Congress Party were horrified. A few days after the speech, they rejected the plan.
India was divided and Pakistan born in August 1947, with millions of people killed and displaced during the partition of the subcontinent. Several wars have broken out between India and Pakistan in subsequent decades, and the public acknowledgment of nuclear weapons on both sides 10 years ago has made this conflict between South Asian neighbors one of the most dangerous standoffs in the world.
Despite Gandhi's success in persuading the British to leave, his ideas about community amity deeply offended many Hindu nationalists unwilling to accommodate India's Muslim minority. Even as Alfred Wagg was recording the April speech, the emotional riptides that produced the conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi were already swirling. On Jan. 31, 1948, a Hindu extremist fired three bullets into Gandhi's chest at a public prayer meeting in New Delhi.
The quiet idealism of Gandhi's speech -- along with his radical ideas about love and nonviolence -- were consigned to the world of what-ifs.Tough Love
There was much about Mohandas Gandhi that resembled a force of nature, extraordinary to behold -- from a distance. To those in his immediate presence and to those who saw politics in essentially pragmatic terms, Gandhi often seemed equal parts tyrant and madman. He made extraordinary demands of himself and those around him. He rarely told his audiences what they wanted to hear.
"Christianity became disfigured when it went to the West," Gandhi says at one point in the April 1947 speech, possibly referring to the violence of the recently completed Second World War and the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. "I am sorry to have to say that, but that is my feeling . . . [the] West today is pining for wisdom. [The] West today is despairing of multiplication of atom bombs, because a multiplication of atom bombs means utter destruction, not merely of the West, but it will be a destruction of the world, as if the prophecy of the Bible is going to be fulfilled, and there is to be a perfect deluge."
Worries about violence were never far from Gandhi's mind: Two spates of sectarian strife had erupted in India in the months before Gandhi's speech. The first was in the eastern province of Bengal, where Muslims killed Hindus. Weeks later, in Bihar, Hindus retaliated against Muslims. In short order, the death toll climbed into the thousands.
Gandhi saw these blood baths not just as political setbacks but as personal failings. In his mind, there was no clear line between the personal and the political. "Sins" in the public sphere reflected "personal sins" for Gandhi. Accordingly, he began to punish himself.
He cut back on his already meager supply of food and sleep. He began to conduct tests of his own chastity -- taking breaks from prayer meetings and politics to write public accounts about his experiments not just to remain chaste, but to not even think about sex, even in his dreams. A widower by now, Gandhi invited a niece to share his bed to test their mutual commitment to chastity. If he could keep his mind completely pure, Gandhi told his associates, he believed the violence would end.
Gandhi's "experiments" triggered knowing winks from skeptics and critics. And his allies were horrified that he seemed to spend as much time trying to cleanse his soul as solving political problems. Several tried to keep the Mahatma's "experiments" hush-hush. But Gandhi held that secrecy was another form of dishonesty. He announced his experiments in the press, solicited feedback, and encouraged a colleague who was critical of him to take his concerns public.
In the months before his April 1947 speech, Gandhi began rising at 4 o'clock each morning, and sometimes at 2, to pray. He was 77 years old, but he undertook a walking tour from village to blood-soaked village in Bengal, covering nearly four dozen villages in as many days. He discarded footwear as one of his self-inflicted punishments, and ignored the cuts and blisters on his feet. At each village, he sought out cobblers and farmers and spent the night in their huts. If he was to speak on behalf of the vast numbers of people who lived in poverty in India, Gandhi reasoned, he had to live like a poor person himself.
"If you really want to see India at its best, you have to find it in the Bhangi cottage, in a humble Bhangi home," Gandhi says at one point in the 1947 speech, referring to one of the lowest and poorest castes. "Of such villages, so the English historians teach us, are 700,000. A few cities, here and there; they don't hold 7 crores [70 million] of people but the 700,000 villages do hold nearly 40 crores [400 million] of people."
Gandhi's self-denial and tour of rural poverty was rooted in political philosophy. The central reason people turn to violence, Gandhi believed, was that they were afraid. Fear of others, fear of the unknown, fear of losing one's possessions and fortunes, fear of loss, fear of death -- these were the things that prompted people, groups and nations to seek physical protection, to seek arms and armies. Fear was the root cause of corruption and greed.
The way to destroy fear, Gandhi argued, was to give up the things that people held precious in the first place. When you have no possessions, you fear no thieves. So Gandhi gave up most of his possessions. He gave up emotional ties to family and friends. Sacrificing food, sleep and sex were only a way to show that the needs of his physical body -- and life itself -- could be held lightly.
Even more than nonviolence, courage was Gandhi's central message: During his "pilgrimage" to put an end to the sectarian strife, for example, he sought out Muslim hosts during his nightly halts to demonstrate to his fellow Hindus that most Muslims wanted to live in peace.
When grieving people caught up in the sectarian strife came to him for solace, Gandhi offered little comfort. He asked them why they were not braver, why they were not willing to welcome the blows of their tormentors. Evil and violence, he counseled, quoting Jesus, could not be overcome through resistance, but only through patient suffering -- "resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." To colleagues aghast at such coldness, Gandhi explained his job was not to give people consolation, but to show them their own hidden reserves of strength.
When Hindus retaliated against Muslims in the state of Bihar, Gandhi inflamed angry Hindus when he demanded that state leaders protect Muslims. He warned his colleagues in the Congress Party of dire political consequences -- and a fast unto death -- if they did not protect minorities.
Gandhi's interlocutors rarely enjoyed these interactions, because they knew he was not bluffing. When the old man said he planned to fast unto death, it was not a tactic. In his everyday actions, it was clear he really did value his principles above his own life.
It is Gandhi's sincerity that gives his words in the April 1947 speech their power. Many leaders have been far more articulate. If Gandhi is compelling, it is because we know he is that rare person who actually means what he says.
With the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima fresh in his mind, Gandhi talked about finding a way to help the West turn away from violence.
"What I want you to understand -- if you can -- that the message of the East, the message of Asia, is not to be learned through European spectacles, through Western spectacles, not by imitating the tension of the West, the gunpowder of the West, the atom bomb of the West," Gandhi told his listeners.
"If you want to give a message again to the West, it must be a message of love; it must be a message of truth; there must be a conquest -- " Gandhi's words are cut off at this point by a rousing cheer.
Characteristically, Gandhi stops the applause: "Please, please, please," he says. "That will interfere with my speech and that will interfere with your understanding also. I want to capture your hearts, and don't want to receive your claps. Let your hearts clap in unison with what I am saying, and I think I shall have finished my work."