By Amit Roy
EVENTS to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi have thrown up the fact he made an effort to get through to the elite class of Indians who often benefited from British rule – and hence visited Cambridge twice.
The first trip was on November 7, 1909. When he was in Britain in 1931 for the Second Round Table Conference that was discussing the future of India, he made his second visit from October 31-November 1 that year.
On November 7, 2019 – the 110th anniversary of his first visit – there was a discussion on “Gandhi, Cambridge and India” in the Bateman Auditorium at Gonville and Caius College.
Co-hosted by the Centre of South Asian Studies, the discussion was chaired by Dr Shruti Kapila (Cambridge) and included Prof Romila Thapar, the eminent historian attached to the Jawaharlal Nehru University who had come from India as had Prof Rajeev Bhargava from the Institute of Indian Thought in Delhi.
All the academics were agreed that Gandhi remains as relevant today in dealing with divisions in society as in his time.
Asked by Eastern Eye how an increasingly disunited kingdom should deal with the bitterness caused by Brexit, Prof Thapar said to much laughter: “I wouldn’t know about Brexit – that’s your problem.”
Thapar wanted more people to protest: “I think that protest is terribly important… How do we say that we don’t accept it? How do we treat the people who are supporting it?”
Earlier she noted: “Gandhi’s spectacles are everywhere in India – billboards, advertisements. I find myself getting deeply upset by this because of all the things that Gandhi did, in all the issues he stood for and fought for, surely, cleanliness and objections to open defecation are not the main things for which we remember him today. It’s upsetting it should be reduced to that.
“Let’s not forget that if there is anything that history teaches us it is that regimes that are in some way wishing to control society more and more do eventually meet up with dissenting groups. And what we are really waiting for at the moment given the huge spread of rightwing politics all over the world and politicians wanting more and more control over society is dissenting groups to come up. And say, ‘No, we don’t accept this. We will oppose it in a particular way.’ It is crucial in today’s world. We have to look for it. We have to find it, we have to discuss it. And this also relates to things like civil disobedience.”
Prof Sujit Sivasundaram, director of the Centre of South Asian Studies, drew attention to a report on Gandhi’s second visit in the Cambridge Daily News in November 1931.
It said that “Mr Gandhi paid a visit to Cambridge this weekend to hold a conference with a select group of Cambridge thinkers, both men and women, with regards to important issues which were being worked out at the Indian Round Table Conference in London. Very early on Sunday morning, at about 5.30, Mr Gandhi went for his usual walk… They (his party) went around the colleges by way of the streets and on the way back were able to go through Trinity to the Backs, the porter opening the gates for them.
“He also visited King’s College Chapel in order to see the beauty of its architecture and stained glass windows, which he very greatly admired. He was pleased to find that electric light had not been admitted into this glorious ancient building.
“At 8.15pm he attended a meeting… which was crowded to the doors with both English and Indian students. Asked whether there would be a resumption of civil disobedience in India if the Round Table Conference broke down, Mr Gandhi said that this seemed to him to be not unlikely.
“An English student who was going out into the Indian army asked what he could do to serve India. Mr Gandhi replied that he must make friends with the people of the country and refuse to adopt patronising ways. He must be absolutely simple and humble.
The question of why some people in India want to build a statue to Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, also came up.
“It’s the enemies of Gandhi who keep him alive,” was the explanation from Bhargava.
Professor Saul Dubow (Cambridge) and Professor Prof Faisal Devji (Oxford) also took part in the discussions.
Lord Jitesh Gadhia, who had a behind the scenes role in organising the event, was present, as was Lord Karan Bilimoria. Both attended Cambridge University, as the Indian high commissioner Ruchi Ghanashyam pointed out. Earlier, she mentioned that Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi had all been to the university as had mathematical genius Srininavasa Ramanujan.
The Cambridge-India relationship was set into context by the university’s pro-Vice Chancellor, Prof Eilís Ferran, who explained: “110 years ago today Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most iconic figures of the 19th and 20th century visited this city to address a group of Indian students.
“And the fact that we are gathered here today to continue discussions is testament to the profound impact his thinking, his words and his actions had on the history of India.
“We have a long and deep level of engagement with India. Our academics work in partnerships with their counterparts in Indian institutions tackling some of the issues that challenge both of our countries and indeed the wider world. Students from India and Cambridge benefit from this engagement, expanding their knowledge and understanding to encompass many aspects of our complex world.
“Cambridge University Press has nearly 1,000 publications available about India – history, science, technology, politics, languages, laws, economics, films – the list is extensive.
“We are continually striving to strengthen our engagement in and with India so that together we can work forward on an equitable and sustainable society. We depend on our colleagues and friends in India and Cambridge and elsewhere to achieve that goal.”