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Gandhi: The Leader
By Muriel Lester
I first went to India in 1926. I went specifically to see Gandhi. In London we had only come to hear about this new Indian leader just after the first World War. Some of us had studied his movement through Romain Rolland's biography and we eagerly devoured a fat volume that came our way containing a year's issues of Young India.
My month's stay at the Ashram brought me great satisfaction, but no surprises. I was accustomed to community life in the East End of London. Self-identification with "the poorest, the lowliest and lost" had been the practice of Kingsley Hall. A regular discipline of prayer, sometimes starting in the small hours of the morning, was familiar. Since early in the century I had been one of the many Europeans and Americans who considered non-violence to be an essential part of Christian practice, and as a result thousands of us had been in and out of prison, visited by the police and heaped with ridicule.
What then was this terrific significance that pervaded the Ashram? One recognised it perhaps as being the burning focus of a historic era which covered some thirty years in which the Place, the Time and the Man of Destiny had come together. And as a result our poor old earth was given another reprieve, another chance to get saved from self-destruction. Also we thanked God that this leader had the salt of humour always available, even at 3.50 a.m.
Before I left India I went to the Indian National Congress at Gauhati and was with Bapuji in Calcutta. Here he initiated me into the implications of the Vow of Truth. "Muriel, if when you get home you intend to speak a single word of criticism of the British Administration in India, you must call on the Viceroy now before you leave India and tell him what you find wrong. You must give him the opportunity of disproving your criticism. Also it would not be fair to go without calling on the Governor of this Province and telling him what you are going to report in England." This seemed to me an intimidating and dolorous programme. Who was I, a nobody from East London, to go up the marble steps of the Viceregal Lodge and tell the dignified servants clothed in crimson plush that I wanted to have a talk with Lord Irwin?
But Gandhi wholly ignored my feelings and continued in his usual unconcerned, unsentimental, matter-of-fact voice to give me further directions. "On reaching London you must go straight to the India Office and tell them what you are doing." Here I protested violently, for I am a Socialist and the Secretary of State for India was then a man whose Conservative policies I loathed. But Gandhi remained adamant, unpitying, unperturbed. "It's necessary for you to go", he continued. "Some of these men may help you. If they don't, you must turn their refusal into your strength."
Well, it all happened just as he predicted and I really did get great help from some of them. One became a life-long friend, another a benefactor to Kingsley Hall and time mellowed my pugnacity towards the other. Three years after the Round Table Conference in 1931, during which he stayed as our guest in the East End for ten weeks, I returned to India. On the great anti-untouchability tour and in the Bihar earthquake area tour I was with him, travelling by night and attending an endless succession of meetings by day. As he was giving his autograph to hundreds of people, he sometimes wrote his motto beneath it, "Truth is God." Once he suddenly turned to me and remarked, "I know the Bible puts it the other way round, Muriel. It says 'God is Truth.' Both texts mean the same thing. I've only twisted the sentence this way round, in order that people's minds may be jerked into understanding what it really means."
Nonviolence, naked truth, non-theft, a continuous prayer, discipline, all became personified in this humble, vigorous, selfless, laughter-loving man of God. He never kept aloof or lost the common touch; never used long words or abstract nouns; never said a thing he didn't mean, nor propagated a theory that he didn't practice.
So by this man Britain was freed from the false position of having four hundred million Indians subject to her; new courage and confidence came to the Western nonviolent movements whose humble members in a dozen countries stood firm through two world wars, sometimes even unto death. Vinoba and his followers are gaily on the march; and in hundreds of thousands of Indian areas a Gandhi-trained village worker is living the good life and inspiring his fellows.
There is no need for "Gandhi to return." God's Spirit is at work in the humblest and the simplest, as well as in the great, all over the world.
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