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Gandhi in Bombay: Towards Swaraj – Review

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Gandhi in Bombay: Towards Swaraj

Usha Thakkar and Sandhya Mehta
Published: 2017
ISBN No: 978-0-19-947070-9
Pages: 330
Price: 795
Publisher: Oxford University Press

Gandhi in Mumbai : Towards Swaraj is a timely contribution to discourses of historical, cultural and social transformation and dialogues of democratization. In times where Gandhi is appropriated as a “symbol of cleanliness”, the book serves as a genuine intervention in recreating the revolutionary spirit of the great national leader as well the city; Bombay. Like Gandhi, Bombay, now Mumbai, is also reduced to an appropriation of being merely a “commercial center”; its revolutionary spirit is forgotten and often dismissed. The book brings alive not only the activism and philosophy of the great leader but more fascinatingly the city’s revolutionary history, its ties with cultural forms and social agencies that made the city the hub of freedom struggle. The book brings alive the cultural/national formations that had given ideological shape and direction to the emergence of the Gandhi as a leader and Bombayas a revolutionary site of struggle for independence.


As the book states, it is interspersed with Gandhi’s letters, speeches, published writings, rare photographs that depict the important events of independence movement in Mumbai to provide a scintillating vision of the Mahatama and the city. As noted by the renowned Gandhi scholar Lord Bhikkhu Parekh in the forward, “…Gandhi’s association with the city…has not yet been told…The book fills in that gap…” Through a detailed description of Gandhi’s activism, the book maps his stories of success and failures in negotiating with the aspiration of swaraj in the city of Mumbai.
The introduction of the book provides glimpses of Gandhi’s links with the city before 1915 while the rest of the book provides a more detailed description of his activities post 1915. Describing Bombay as a multilayered in its social, economic, religious and cultural formations, the city is rightly described as dynamic that accommodates the possibility of co-existence of opposites (modernity and tradition) with ease. From the rule of Hindu and Muslim kings to the Christian British, Bombay witnessed migrant movements, it has been the hub of commercial and financial activities, has been receptive to developments in communication, education and politics and most importantly enjoyed its iconic status as the birthplace of cinema. The book compiles the making and the journey of the Mahatama and vibrant city through a historical lens. Arranged in a chronological order, the chapters of the book outline details of important meetings Gandhi attended and people he interacted with from 1915-1918, the second chapter elaborates on the freedom struggle against the Rowlatt Act in 1919, the third chapter explores subjects of Khilafat, national week, Non Coperation in 1920, the fourth focuses on Tilak Swaraj Fund and bonfires of foreign cloth, chapter five, six and seven notes important developments of freedom struggle and its aftermath upto 1941; such as aftermath of Dandi, and Gandhi’s return from Round Table Conference. Chapter eight narrates the details of the Congress session at the Gowalia Tank Maidan and the course of the quit India movement while the ninth chapter discusses Bombay’s tribute to Kasturba Gandhi and Gandhi- Jinnah talks.

The book provides glimpses into the growth and practice of nationalist consciousness under Gandhi’s leadership in the city. It details Gandhi’s activism as he inspired people to think afresh about the British rule and question the then prevailing injustice. It also brings alive episodes of national and local relevance as it paints vivid descriptions of Gandhi’s non violent struggle, bonfires of foreign cloth, the Quit India Movement, birth of the khadi bhandars, fundraising activities for Harijans along side the freedom struggle and massive support from the merchant and business communities of the city. Though Gandhi cared little for cinema and art, the literature, films and music of the times reflected and remained committed to his call for freedom and patriotism. Through the details of Gandhi’s public meetings on the roads, by lanes, market places and amidst British built Gothic structures, the book explains the special relationship that the city and the leader shared in the making of the history of nationalism. Places such as Kalbadevi, Vile Parle, Wadala, Giragum, Parel, Lower Parel, Crawford Market Square, Grant Road Abdul Rehman Street, Chawls Maidans Hornimon Circle and education institutions such as Wilson College, theatre houses(to name a few) come alive as sites negotiating with aspiration of Gandhis swaraj. Thus, one gains an understanding of the cultural transformations in the city by examining its physical and non physical public spheres through a linear historical perspective. It also gives an insight who its agents were, from legal luminaries like Justice Ranade,, BadruddinTayabji, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, to Parsi philanthropists and visionaries, Student unions,labour unions, Merchant Associations, Christian missionaries, educationists and freedom fighters. It explains the ability of the city to accommodate varying functions of different groups that inhabited it and made it a heterogenous space. Almost every area of Bombay has been addressed and small details of almost every corner of Bombay as having a story of its rendezvous with Gandhi’s activism(especially accounts of small shops and households responding to Gandhi’s call for swadeshi and swaraj) explains not only Gandhi’s mass appeal at grass root level but also the city’s unique involvement in the struggle for independence.

Bombay’s unconventional involvement in the freedom struggle and its Gandhian legacy is absent, forgotten, almost deliberately wiped off today as historic spaces such as maidans have become spaces for more “useful” activities such as private cricket coaching! Diminishing open spaces, strong capitalist forces replacing local markets and mills with commercial mall culture, advent of multiplex culture, politics of regionalism, vertical growth of city and communal diharmony are few instances of power hegemonies that have destroyed the revolutionary and critical spirit of the city. As one reads the book one can also feels a sense of loss as the descriptions seem mere nostalgia and show little resemblances to the spaces as they exist today; as Mumbai. True to its claim, it offers nothing more than descriptions, there is no critical analysis, yet it opens the opportunity to dig out the both Gandhi’s and city’s variegated temporalities and critical lineages, in order to construct both Gandhi’s and the city’s obfuscated political and philosophical history.

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