Gandhi was willing to stand up for the Untouchables, just not at the crucial moment when they were demanding the right to pray in temples in 1924-25. He was worried about alienating high-caste Hindus. “Would you teach the Gospel to a cow?” he asked a visiting missionary in 1936. “Well, some of the Untouchables are worse than cows in their understanding.”
Gandhi’s first Great Fast—undertaken despite his belief that hunger strikes were “the worst form of coercion, which militates against the fundamental principles of non-violence”—was launched in 1932 to prevent Untouchables from having their own reserved seats in any future Indian parliament. Because he said that it was “a religious, not a political question,” he accepted no debate on the matter. He elsewhere stated that “the abolition of Untouchability would not entail caste Hindus having to dine with former Untouchables.” At his monster rallies against Untouchability in the 1930s, which tens of thousands of people attended, the Untouchables themselves were kept in holding pens well away from the caste Hindus. Of course, any coalition movement involves a certain degree of compromise and occasional hypocrisy. But Gandhi’s saintly image, his martyrdom at the hands of a Hindu fanatic in 1948 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s adoption of him as a role model for the American civil-rights movement have largely protected him from critical scrutiny. The French man of letters Romain Rolland called Gandhi “a mortal demi-god” in a 1924 hagiography, catching the tone of most writing about him. People used to take away the sand that had touched his feet as relics—one relation kept Gandhi’s fingernail clippings—and modern biographers seem to treat him with much the same reverence today. Mr. Lelyveld is not immune, making labored excuses for him at every turn of this nonetheless well-researched and well-written book.
Yet of the four great campaigns of Gandhi’s life—for Hindu-Muslim unity, against importing British textiles, for ending Untouchability and for getting the British off the subcontinent—only the last succeeded, and that simply because the near-bankrupt British led by the anti-imperialist Clement Attlee desperately wanted to leave India anyhow after a debilitating world war.
It was not much of a record for someone who had been invested with “sole executive authority” over the Indian National Congress as early as in December 1921. But then, unlike any other politician, Gandhi cannot be judged by actual results, because he was the “Great Soul.”