Book Review: Gandhi through a Marxian lens

REVOLUTIONARY GANDHI By : Pannalal Dasgupta; Translated from Bengali by K. V. Subrahmonyan; Published by : Earthcare Books, Kolkata.

Written in Bengali in 1955 by Pannalal Dasgupta of the RCPI, an English version is only available now. KV Subrahmonyan has done a brilliant job in painstakingly translating 'Gandhi Gabeshana'

The book was originally written by Indian author and a top communist leader Pannalal Dasgupta in 1955 and the English version offers an insight into the thinking of Gandhi on socialism and how he thought it could help form a nation. “Revolutionary Gandhi” tells its readers of Gandhi’s firm belief that a thorough change in the socio-political environment must start with an individual, rather than with society as a whole. Gandhi’s approach to socialism was inspired by the spirit of putting oneself in order first. “Beginning with oneself was central to all his thoughts and actions. He also felt the need for a classless society and had no hesitation in calling himself a socialist or even a communist.”  Pannalal argued that on hindsight, left-leaning Indian freedom fighters had failed to recognise Gandhi as a true revolutionary force. He even ventured to state that this was a historical blunder. Pannalal should know. After all, he was a revolutionary communist leader – widely known as the indomitable rebel – during the years India was fighting for her independence from the British. The 490-page “Revolutionary Gandhi” is not the ordinary biography or narrative-based book on Gandhi; rather it offers a valuable, penetrating vision into the thoughts of Gandhi while in the midst of preparing his non-violent campaign against the British. The book gives us a chance to understand and see for ourselves the inner character and underlying truth for all the actions taken by Gandhi, including his decision to embark on the non-violent movement, as well as on his fallouts with other nationalists at that time, including with his one-time ally and revered leader, Subash Chandra Bose.

Pannalal had done extensive research for this book, and had quoted various authoritative sources, including from Gandhi’s own writings, to establish a single thesis – to show Gandhi in a new light to the Indian leftists and to present the historical Gandhi to the so-called diehard Gandhians. For any reader of Gandhi, the two chapters on ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (truth force) are well worth reading as the author has attempted – successfully, if I may add – to formulate Gandhi’s ideologies and definitions of these two concepts, which have now become universal catchphrases.
There are 18 chapters in “Revolutionary Gandhi”, including two which give excellent insight into Gandhi’s relationships with Indian freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose and the great Indian thinker Rabindranath Tagore.

Other interesting highlights include Gandhi’s views on Hindu-Muslim unity, education, women empowerment, religion, the Harijans and his experience with the truth. A chapter is also dedicated to Gandhi’s perception of individual life, where he expounds on his concept of socialism.
Translator Subrahmonyan (picture below) though not a Bengali, has succeeded in keeping Pannalal’s underlying message intact. “Shed your ego. That’s what Gandhi wanted to teach everyone. His sadhana throughout his life was to reduce himself to complete insignificance,” Subrahmonyan told this writer. “The formula for life is to equate oneself to zero,” he added. Gandhi himself had said: “Think of ‘I’ and ‘0’ in juxtaposition and you have the whole problem of life in two signs”. “He has left us with so many lessons to learn. This book will show us some of them,” said Subramonyan.

The story of the book: “Revolutionary Gandhi” is no ordinary book indeed. It would not be wrong to say that it has been a work-in-progress from 1954-1955 when the author was languishing in the Alipore Central Jail in Kolkata, serving a life sentence over a mishap which occurred in a fight against a factory management. Pannalal was then the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI) and had taken responsibility for the incident. He was later released when there was a change of the Bengal government. While he had worked on the manuscript in 1954, the first edition of the book in Bengali was only published in January 1986, followed by the second edition in December 1998. Pannalal had always harboured the intention to have his book translated into English and the opportunity for that arrived when he met the saintly Subrahmonyan in Haridwar in the early 1990s. However, since no copies were available then, translation work only started on a few years later. “Gandhian philosophy was his (Pannalal’s) every breath of life. He was political extremist turned holistic revolutionary. “I offered to translate ‘Gandhi Gabeshana’ into English. If no Bengali came forward to translate it, why not a Tamilian attempt?” quips Subrahmonyan in his note in the English version of the book. Subrahmonyan told this writer that he only translated three pages per day, calling it an arduous task that nevertheless deepened his understanding of Gandhi.

Pannalal passed away in West Bengal in 1999, at the age of 96, just before Subrahmonyan could complete his translating task. “Pannalal died when almost all chapters had been translated. I completed the translation three months after his death,” said Subrahmonyan, who is 80 now and has lived in ashrams in many parts of India for more than 40 years, including in the Himalayas.
Gentle and erudite in speech, he is conversant in seven languages and passable in another handful.
Having completed the translation, Subrahmonyan had to wait for another 11 years for a publisher to release the English version, in which time the translator had moved to the Ramana Maharishi Ashram in Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. “In 2009, I met Ramanendu Chatterjee at this ashram through whom the initiative to publish the English translation through Earthcare Books was revived,” he explained. His translated version was eventually ready for sale in January 2011.

About the Book:
Pannalal Dasgupta (aka Panna Babu) wrote the Bengali original of this outstanding, insightful book on Gandhi in 1954-55, when imprisoned in the Alipore Central Jail. An indomitable revolutionary himself, he realised that Gandhi was indeed an extraordinary revolutionary who sought a radical change in the human condition, which could not be brought about without causing a ferment in society. Gandhi was a dreamer, but also a man of action par excellence. His revolution was unique in that it had to be non-violent, and had, at every step, to be tested on ‘the touchstone of truth’. “Truth is God,” he declared. His enquiry pervaded all fields of life: food, agriculture, education, health, society, man-woman relationship, cottage industry, uplift of the downtrodden, religion, politics, struggle, and above all, human freedom. The book delves deep into Gandhiji’s personality to understand his spiritual quest, which he insisted was an intrinsic part of his political activity. In a strikingly original chapter, Panna Babu examines Gandhi’s views in the light of Marxism, and Marxian thought and action from the Gandhian perspective. He regrets that the Indian leftists failed to recognize Gandhi as a true revolutionary and an incomparable leader of the Indian masses. That was a historical blunder. Entire chapters are devoted to Gandhiji’s relationship with Rabindranath Tagore, and with Subhas Bose; as also to his views on Hindu-Muslim unity, constructive programme, economics and ethics, and trusteeship. In the end, the issue of Gandhism – and whether there is something as Gandhism – is incisively discussed, including the relevance of Gandhi in modern times. Doubtless, he raised many fundamental questions to which no ideology or ‘ism’ has yet been able to furnish a satisfactory answer.

About the AuthorPannalal Dasgupta (born in or around 1905) founded the 'Tagore Society for Rural Development' in 1969 with financial assistance from Jayaprakash Narayan. The activities of the Society are now spread over the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. In 1978, Panna Babu also revived 'Amar Kutir' in 1934 which was once a refuge for the activists of the freedom movement. In the fifties, he was greatly influenced by the non-violent revolutionary Gandhi. Ha was also keen on reviving the charkha or spinning wheel, in consonance with Gandhi's vision of self-reliant production by the masses.

K. V. Subrahmonyan (KVS), born in 1932 in Tamil Nadu, translated this book from Pannalal Dasgupta's original in Bengali, titled Gandhi Gabeshana. He is conversant with several Indian languages and a few European ones as well and has lived in ashrams and done social work for more than forty years.

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