Amartya Sen on Gandhi and Bengal: An Excerpt from the Foreword to 'A Frank Friendship: Gandhi and Bengal, a Descriptive Chronology'

Through this meticulous compilation of newspaper reports, letters, excerpts from contemporary accounts and Gandhi's own writings, and the extensive annotations that bring to light many known and unknown characters and events of the time, as well as accounts of Gandhi's interactions with the 'greats' of Bengal such as Rabindranath Tagore, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray, Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das and the impactful Bose brothers reveal their extraordinary personalities, we see a man continually evolving as a politician and a strategist in the struggle against colonialism, an organizer of mass-struggles and of individual initiatives, mainly his own.

Buy ‘A Frank Friendship: Gandhi and Bengal, a Descriptive Chronology’, Compiled and Edited by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, with a Foreword by Amartya Sen, on our website.

Read an Excerpt: Amartya Sen on Gandhi and Bengal

. . . what could have been the reason for the apparent mixture of adulation and sense of estrangement that Bengali intellectuals apparently had on the subject of Gandhiji? The adulation does not, of course, need any special explanation - Bengal shared it with the rest of the world - but there is more of a case for probing into their alleged distance. What could explain that?

None of the usual suspects can be easily pinned down for responsibility. Let me begin with some delicate matters of cultural propensity and special taste, before I move on to weightier political considerations. Could it have been Bengal's loyalty to Rabindranath Tagore, so lionized in Bengal, with whom Gandhiji did have a number of altercations? However, that hypothesis, while fitting well with the much discussed sensitivity in the Gandhi-Tagore relationship, cannot really be marshalled in to get an explanation of the seeming tension between Gandhiji and Bengal. For one thing, Tagore himself, with all his differences with Gandhiji, admired him hugely.

There were well articulated differences between the two (expressed with some force on both sides), and Tagore did confess later that he had "blamed Mahatmaji for exploiting [the] irrational force of credulity in our people, which might have had a quick result in a superstructure, while sapping the foundation."[1] But Tagore went on to say, "Thus began my estimate of Mahatmaji, as the guide of our nation, and it is fortunate for me that it did not end there." Indeed, Tagore's overall assessment of Gandhiji is well captured by his statement, "Great as he is as a politician, as an organiser, as a leader of men, as a moral reformer, he is greater than all these as a man, because none of these aspects and activities limits his humanity. They are rather inspired and sustained by it."

If that line of putative explanation would not work, at least in this elementary form, could it have been Gandhiji's puritanism and famously austere life style that made the more easy-going Bengalis somewhat sceptical? For example, Bengal has never been a "dry state," free - as far as regulations go - of alcohol, unlike so many other states in India. Going into less "materialist" matters, many Bengalis take great pride in the fact that Bengal was ahead of the rest of India in the development of a culture of modern theatre, which had thrived well enough in early India (with innovative use of what was modern theatre in the ancient world), but many centuries after that, nearer our time, most of the Indian cities were doing without theatre altogether, often with censorious articulation of the folly of that line of exposed entertainment. Could it be that Gandhiji's puritanism was a big divider in this case?

This line of explanation does not work either. Despite Gandhiji's self-imposed constraints on his own life, he was not a great champion of imposing his tastes on the society at large, particularly through legislation. Furthermore, Bengal saw much puritanism on the part of many local intellectuals who were seriously critical of what they took to be frivolity - or worse. Indeed, in my own school days, anti-puritans in Kolkata loved telling the story of a local guardian of morality, Heramba Maitra (the famous Principal of the City College), who - when asked by a young man whether he knew where the Minerva Theatre was - had replied with intense scorn that he did not know, and then, after reflecting on the fact that he had just lied, ran back, huffing, to catch the baffled inquirer, to tell him, "I do actually know, but I will absolutely not tell you."

In contrast, as far as theatre is concerned, Gandhiji was not only not critical of people's propensity to have fun, he actually liked seeing plays himself, at least he did so in Kolkata. In fact, he saw a play on his very first evening in Kolkata on 31st October 1896. He went to another play a week later on 7th November.[2] Indeed, the pioneering Bengali theatre could take much pride in the patronage that it received, in its early trailblazing days, from the Mahatma.

Where, then, is the explanation? Perhaps we should move from matters of culture and taste to those of politics. It might be thought that it was Bengal's uncertainty about non-violence that made Bengali intellectuals hesitate about giving the Mahatma the unreserved admiration that would have been the natural sentiment to expect. The apostle of non-violence certainly stood far apart from the Bengali "terrorists" (as the British called them, not entirely without reason) who wanted to bomb India's way into independence. He differed radically also from Subhas Chandra Bose, the Netaji, who raised the Indian National Army from the British Indian troops captured by the Japanese army in the Second World War, and used that quickly formed army to fight the British. Earlier on, Gandhi did have quite a fight with Subhas Chandra Bose when Bose was elected to be the President of Congress and was working for a departure from Congress's unconditional commitment to non-violent struggle.

Did not even the Mutiny of 1857, with all its gore and ferocity, along with valiance, start in Bengal? Was not the defence of political violence in the cause of independence a major preference in Bengal? More generally, is violence not a larger part of Bengali life than elsewhere?

That line of hypotheses is also hard to sustain. The mutiny, at least in one of its manifestations, did start in Bengal, in Barrackpur to be exact, and yet Bengalis were hardly active in that enterprise. The main thrust came from the north and west of India, and even the sepoys leading the mutiny in Bengal had mostly come there from further west.

In Gandhiji's own days, Bengal was also full of followers of unconditional non-violence, led of course by the Mahatma himself. There were many different political currents working in Bengal, and those who rejected unconditional non-violence were well matched - in fact numerically far exceeded - by those committed to getting the British out through entirely non-violent means. Rabindranath Tagore, to come back to him, showed his unshakable support for struggling without killing, both in his fictions and in his other writings. Rabindranath's condemnation of terrorism, despite his recognition of the high-minded dedication of the protagonists, is the major theme of his novel, Char Adhyay ("Four Chapters"). His admiration for the power and quality of political non-violence comes out most sharply in his play, Muktadhara, with a marvellous and ultimately victorious leader in the form of Dhananjay Bairagi (a character clearly modelled on Gandhiji himself), leading the people against tyranny through totally non-violent means. It would be hard to find an explanation of the alleged tension in Bengal through searching for a violence-loving people's unified scepticism of the sage of non-violence.

Indeed, despite the reputation of Bengal of being a place of hot-headed seekers of violent confrontation (perhaps generated by Bengal's non-negligible ability to make speech go very much further ahead of its deeds), even violent crime is far less common in Bengal than in the rest of India. It is, in fact, quite remarkable that Calcutta, while being one of poorest cities in India (and indeed in the world), also has an exceptionally low rate of violent crime - indeed absolutely the lowest, by a big margin, among all the Indian cities. Violent crimes include of course murder. The average incidence of murder in Indian cities (including all the 35 cities that are counted in that category) is 2.7 per 100,000 people (it is 2.9 for Delhi). In contrast, the murder rate is only 0.3 per 100,000 in Kolkata.

But what about communal violence to defeat which Gandhiji went to Bengal in the immediate post-independence days of 1947? Is there a propensity in Bengal to go that way? Certainly, the fire of communal violence was well lit there when Gandhiji came to squelch the flames. However, those were very odd days when the politics of partition was being played out over India, but especially over Bengal. Bengal's record in keeping communal peace has been excellent since then in both parts of Bengal (that is, both in Bangladesh and in West Bengal) over many decades after the post-partition violence ultimately died out. Certainly, in the long run Bengal has done much more to keep its promise to Gandhiji (as the Hindu and Muslim leaders jointly told him, "we shall never again allow communal strife") than has Gandhiji's own state of origin, viz. Gujarat, or for that matter Maharashtra (including Mumbai) and Delhi. So a clash of instinctive propensities - of violence against non-violence - is not going to be a natural line of explanation of the "frank friendship."

I do not think that any ready explication emerges that would explain what could have caused a widespread scepticism in Bengal of Gandhiji's intellectual and moral position. That recognition takes us back to our point of departure, which itself needs critical scrutiny. Was there really such extensive scepticism about Gandhiji in Bengal? The harbouring - and celebration - of contradictions within a generally adoring persuasion is no stranger to Bengali intellectuals. Rabindranath Tagore too experienced some of that mixture, especially in his early decades.

I have discussed elsewhere why I think that the argumentative propensity of Indians as a whole is quite high, and that we cannot understand some features of Indian history without taking note of this tradition. Within that general heritage, Bengal's propensity to raise the decibel level of argumentative articulation is quite distinguished. From the blustery eloquence of that "frank friendship" it would be hard to judge how distant the parties involved really were.


[1] For full references to the Tagore-Gandhi exchanges used in this essay, see my The Argumentative Indian (Penguin, 2005), Chapter 5.

[2] Gandhiji's first visit to Kolkata was on the 4th of July 1896, when he arrived by ship from Durban, but he left the same day, without spending an evening in Kolkata. So 31 October 1896 was his first evening in the city. We do not know what plays he saw on October 31 and on November 4, but Gopal Gandhi provides notes on the plays running in Kolkata at that time, in the Royal Bengal Theatre, the Emerald Theatre, the Star Theatre, and the Minerva Theatre, and evidently Gandhiji had a choice between quite a few Bengali plays. He was evidently encouraged sufficiently by his first experience to go quickly for a second evening of Bengali drama.