REVIEWS
Volume 13 Number 4
Roots of Violence: Springs of Healing
01 August 2000

Charis Waddy joins Indian historian Rajmohan Gandhi on a journey through the history, pain and hope of his subcontinent.


A walk through South Asian history--with the compass points of revenge and reconciliation as guide. This is the Himalayan-scale journey that Professor Gandhi puts on offer in his new book, Revenge and reconciliation: understanding South Asian history (Penguin Books, India, 1999). Its two or three millennia of history are daunting: its theme is simple and up-to-date. Retaliation is a universal human reaction. Also always present is the possibility of forgiveness and a new start.

Sitting on the ramparts of Delhi's Red Fort on the 50th anniversary of India's Independence, not far from the place where his grandfather was assassinated, Rajmohan Gandhi envisaged this book. Written and published in India, under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, it is addressed to his own people and their neighbours across South Asia, in Pakistan, in disputed Kashmir, in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. To write such a book, to be candid without being judgmental, is an achievement in itself. To listen in to such a conversation between closely-linked yet often warring elements in that vital area, is a privilege.

To offer not new facts, but fresh insights, is the author's aim. Reading, it is tempting to get lost in the intricacies of history, and necessary to return again and again to the insights which are universal. One of them is the value of listening--to one's neighbours in dialogue, to what is said and to what is unsaid.

What does history say about Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims? About the comparative failures of the 'reconciliation' strand offered by the Buddha, by the Emperors Asoka and Akbar? About British rule? The longest chapter is about the post-Independence leaders of South Asia. He writes with compassionate understanding about the cost to the families concerned, and especially to the women: Indira and Sonia Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, all of whom have suffered bereavement.


The book is the culmination of a career which began when editor Devadas Gandhi entrusted his son's journalistic training to The Scotsman in Edinburgh. Many years followed in Delhi as Resident Editor of the Indian Express and Chief Editor of the periodical Himmat. This experience led him to embark on a number of biographies of influential figures in modern South Asia: 'The South Asian violence around me has impelled me to search for its historical roots.' His books include lives of both his grandfathers--Mahatma Gandhi and Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, who became Governor-General of independent India--and also of Muslim figures bridging the gulf between India's two main communities, notably Eight lives: a study of the Hindu-Muslim encounter (SUNY, Albany, New York, 1986).

Books such as these, on 'history's wellsprings', may (he says) 'cause pride... also disappointment or even pain.... I console myself that frankness is indispensable at the ending of a millennium.'

This may be even more to the point as the next millennium begins. In the final chapter he looks forward to 'The new century: strategies for reconciliation'. As it opened, 'revenge was found alive and well' in South Asia, and 'reconciliation still correspondingly weak'. Does this 'reflect a tussle taking place in all of us'? Fresh questions have to be asked. He asks them of the reconcilers, the teachers, as well as of the vengeful.

Most important perhaps is his stress on strategy--strategies--for peace building. Reconciliation is not a one-off act, but a demanding choice, a protracted process. If war was globalized in the 20th Century, can mankind mature and can living together with our neighbours become global practice in the 21st?

Gandhi is just retiring from the Centre for Policy Research. In wishing him well it is to be hoped that he will find leisure to help others to look as honestly at their heritage and character as he has at his own. Sidelights on world history in his present book are a help in this. Few before have compared the Mahabharata with the Iliad, writings of the same era. Ancient Indian texts have parallels in the Old Testament books. He notes Britain's conquerors, Roman and Norman: I for one had never thought of Britain's experience for centuries as a conquered land. The American Civil War, centred on slavery, was contemporary with India's mid-19th Century rising--First War of Independence to Indians, 'Mutiny' to the British.

One key insight is the distinction between non-violence and reconciliation. He chronicles the moving story of his grandfather's part in the Independence struggle. The Mahatma's emphasis was always on the individual (and indeed this theme runs all through his grandson's book). He aimed to win the British, rather than to defeat them. Through all the pain they inflicted he managed to see them not as stereotypes but as individuals, whose hearts might be reached.

One touching example is the Mahatma's wedding present to the young Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, married three months after Independence was won. Gandhi wrote to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, asking him to take them a small tablecloth: 'This little thing is made out of doubled yarn of my own spinning.... Please give the bride and bridegroom this with my blessings, with the wish that they would have a long and happy life of service to men.'

It is to be hoped that the gift reached the young couple, with something of its significance.

Gandhi's writing is part of a flow of works on forgiveness and reconciliation, giving reasons for hope from different centres of conflict and spiritual backgrounds. One other such book is No future without forgiveness (Random House, London 1999), in which Archbishop Desmond Tutu details the story of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Like Gandhi, he is always inclusive, never judgmental: 'God does not give up on anybody'. He looks for a process which 'encourages the new culture of respect for human rights and accountability... restorative rather than retributive justice'.

Another book published in 1999 is Forgiveness--breaking the chain of hate by Michael Henderson (Bookpartners, Wilsonville, Oregon, 1999). Gandhi and this English writer have been spurring each other on for decades as they covered aspects of contemporary history from very different angles. Their latest books are in many ways complementary, Gandhi facing the magnitude of the task, and Henderson marshalling the good news available to reconcilers at work.

No doubt there is more to come, as courageous acts of apology and forgiveness open closed and bitter hearts in our poisoned societies. As one who has a family history connected with different parts of the British Empire--India among them--I find myself newly aware that there is unfinished business in my own attitudes. Are there fresh ways of looking at our own past that could put it to work in the service of the common future? Perhaps Indian friends will help us to find them.

Gandhi is a realist. History, politics and plans mean people. To face the future with hope, he turns again and again to the individual, and especially the ordinary Indian who against all odds toils and laughs and shares what little he or she has. 'It is those who listen--to others in dialogue and also to inner inspirations of grace--who may bring healing,' he reflects.

At the close of his book he looks out on his own city of Delhi, with its torment and cruelty, and its energy and life. 'A healing process in Delhi might speak to all of South Asia,' he writes.

'In the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of darkness, light persists. Right now, at the peak of summer, I am aware of a rain-bearing, life-giving storm outside the room where I write this, and also a flow of traffic, a flow of life.... This evening, as I take my constitutional, I will again hear happy laughter from children, see eagerness in teenage eyes, and watch the straight-backed istri couple working away at their makeshift ironing platform, as they have done, late hour after long hour, for years.

'May the Good Spirit that quickens the rain and kindles the laughter, the eagerness and the dedication use willing women and men to reconcile South Asia's ingenious, impossible and lovable inhabitants!'

It is a prayer for the whole world, as well, which he moves our hearts to join .
Charis Waddy


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