3 SEPTEMBER 1954, Page 25

Choosing Gandhi

My Gandhi. By John Haynes Holmes. (Allen 8‘..Unwin. 10s. 6d.) WHO was it who declared that the world must choose between Ford and Gandhi? And what if Ford himself had chosen Gandhi? That Ghanshyamdas Birla did so should perhaps have resolved the contra- diction, for Mr. Birla is a financier and industrialist with great means and nation-building ideas, who for thirty-two years maintained with Gandhi an intimate filial relationship that ended only when Gandhi was assassinated in the grounds of Birla House in New Delhi, in the first year of India's new independence. At last we have a record of this extremely important partnership; but those who, still intent on opposites, examine these pages to determine which was exploiting the other will find no answer that they have not already provided in their own minds. The witness is largely in letters and memoranda, not in the hyperbole of recollection; and the sympathy and esteem which it reveals were mutual.

Through the eventful years on which his book casts so many interest- ing lights Mr. Birla was 'not a Congressman but a Gandhi-man.' He comes of a merchant-community from the near-desert of Rajputana, and the University of Rajasthan now established in what Was his insignificant paternal village of Pi lani is only one evidence of a career as remarkable in beneficence as in personal success. He thinks that it was his feeling for religious values (he compares his family tradition not inaptly with Quakerism) which attached him to Gandhi, rather than the latter's power as a political leader. But although there was more than one occasion of disagreement, Mr. Birla seems never to have doubted that Gandhi was the man to lead his country towards a free, reformed and self-confident existence. 'I started as his critic and ultimately became his fast devotee.' But the relationship was robust in a sense which that last word may not at once convey. 'Myself, a businessman, I would not run after a sentimentalist'—so runs a note which he made during a series df important conversations in London in 1935.

Mr. Birla's own part in' the struggle' has sometimes been misunder- stood, notably in what developed, as he writes, into 'a first-class row' With Lord Linlithgow at the end of 1940. The charge of financing the Civil Disobedience Movement, though it was not made indignantly, Was deeply felt by Mr. Birla, who felt that the trust reposed in him by Viceroys and Secretaries of State (or by some of them) had been injured. His explanation goes into the record. Gandhi 'did not either ask me to subscribe to Civil Disobedience Movement funds or divert any of the sums received through me for such a purpose.' Much caller the veteran nationalist Lala Lajpat Rai had spoken of Mr. Birla as supplying 'the sinews of war' • and the extent of his contributions, even as suggested by the modestly offhand references in this book, must have been prodigious. Two quotations may illustrate the character of these proceedings. 'My thirst for money,' wrote Gandhi in October, 1927, 'is simply unquenchable. f need at least Rs.200,000 for Khadi, Untouchability and Education. The dairy work makes another Rs.50,000. Then there is the Ashram expenditure.... You can give me as much as you like for whatever work you have faith in.' Later, on an enquiry as to how a donation of Rs.78,000 was to be spent, Mr. Birla wrote to Gandhi's secretary: 'I leave the matter entirely to the discretion of Mahatmaji. If he is not hard pressed for money, I would suggest that preference be given to such schemes as may bring Swaraj nearer. Hindu-Muslim Unity and uplift of Untouchables are the two items which I think are at present very essential in the interest of Swaraj.' The sinews were only a part of Mr. Birla's services. He worked hard for all the causes that interested him. He was largely respons- ible for the foundation of the two Harijan weeklies which carried Gandhi's words everywhere. His intelligence and negotiating skill were of great value at critical times, for instance in securing .the Yeravda Pact on Untouchability and in persuading the Congress Party to take office in the Provinces under the 1935 Constitution. What is above all illuminating in his own display of documents is the position which he held, and earnestly used, as unofficial ambassador to the leading figures in British politics. These letters and notes of meetings, rather than the correspondence with Gandhi h.mself, are the core of the book. Fascinating in themselves (they cover, for instance, two meetings with Winston Churchill at Chartwell), they also remind us that the long communication of minds which preceded the relinquishment of British power was not a matter of revolutionary discussions in Soho cafés or Bloomsbury, lodgings, but of patient, serious and civilised exchanges in which figure names like Hoare, Lothian, Schuster, the late Lord Derby. ('one of the most charming personalities I have met'), Anderson (now Waverley), Halifax of course, and even Baldwin.

Mr. Birla's book is not a chronicle. On some subjects such as Hindu-Muslim differences and the conflict between village handi- crafts and large-scale industrialisation, on which one might have expected much from him, we get next to nothing. But those who see the setbacks (or indeed the wrong turnings) on the road to historical fulfilment in India as due in most cases to avoidable misunderstand- ings and false suspicions (orr,both sides) will find eloquent texts in what Mr. Birla calls at the outset 'a book about the importance of knowing people.' He never forgets his theme, for it has been the theme of his own political activity. He has not set out to write a book about himself, yet one cannot put it down without feeling that this man who once declined a British knighthood has deserved to be remembered with honour in our country as well as in his own. May Gandhi's care for his disciple's health CI note what you say about the effect of prunes') confer longevity upon so fair-minded a public man.

Dr. John Haynes Holmes's short memoir is a book of a quite different character. It tells us nothing new about Gandhi or his activities, though it does reinforce the evidence for the overwhelming personal'impression that he was able in so many cases to make. 'Had the Mahatma not come into my life, I must sooner or later have been lost. As it was, he saved me.' Such is the testimony of a liberal American clergyman who feels that even in a flood of books about his subject his own tribute must be paid. It might be con- sidered over-written if it were not so patently sincere. But those who believe in the present relevance of a full understanding of what Gandhi did will not rest content with hagiography.