ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Racial Inequality, Coolie, and Collective Mobilisation

Gandhi in South Africa

The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, New Delhi: Navayana (2015); pp 343, Rs 595.

This is an important and ambitious book. Its main objective is to address the competing constituencies, ambiguities and tensions surrounding Gandhi’s South African years. Set against the dominant narrative of Gandhi as a great inventor of the new tactic and theory of non-violent popular anti-colonial politics, it seeks to demonstrate that, principally, Gandhi’s political imagination was limited to equality within the Empire, and his tactics were shaped by a conservative defence of class, race and caste privilege. Its main objective is to challenge the story of Gandhi transforming from a Mohandas to a Mahatma on African soil (pp 24–28).

At the end, the book presents a homogenised image of Gandhi focused on his personal and political failings, to counter the iconic image of the Mahatma in mainstream historiography by removing the very ambiguities and tensions it promises to highlight. Out of a number of important issues raised in the book, I want to focus mainly on three interrelated areas that preoccupied Gandhi in South Africa: racial inequality, Indian indenture, and social movements.

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