When It Comes to Businessmen Friends, Modi’s Gandhi Comparison Is Not so Flattering

Despite the influence he wielded on the people, Gandhi was not part of the government. His relationship with industrialists needs to be seen very differently than that of a government functionary or authority.

The recent statement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi where he refers to the relationship Mahatma Gandhi shared with G.D. Birla has brought forth a series of questions. For example, M.K. Venu, writing for The Wire, has raised the following question: “Would Gandhi have endorsed the use of violence on the people by the state apparatus to bulldoze a mining project by G.D. Birla?” Rajni Bakshi, writing for Firstpost, talks about Gandhi’s wish that industrialists adopt the principle of ‘sadhan shudhhi’ (fair means) and that their trade does not exploit daridranarayan (poor).

I believe that these questions about the nature and extent of Gandhi’s association with industrialists need a closer look.

It is important to clarify that I don’t think Gandhi’s association with industrialists can be compared with the prime minister’s. For one, in spite of the influence he had on the party and the people, Gandhi was not in the government, nor did he hold any position of power. Such an association needs to be seen very differently than that of a government functionary or authority. Besides, Gandhi saw problems with business houses as they functioned then, wished for their hriday parivartan (change of heart) and advocated the principle of trusteeship. He also fasted in support of the textile mill workers’ strike in Ahmedabad.

Having said this, it is important to understand that although Gandhi was against mega-industrialisation and large machines, he was supported by some of the top industrialists of the time in both cash and kind. Ved Mehta explains this in his book, Mahatma Gandhi and His Apostles. “Most of the money for the support of both Gandhi and his movement was donated by three merchant princes: Ambalal Sarabhai, Jamnalal Bajaj and Ghanshyamdas Birla.”

There can be no denying that some of the top industrialists of the country not only provided funds to Gandhi, but some among them were also his friends, advisors and colleagues. It is important to note that Gandhi continued to maintain close relations with, and get support from even those industrialists whose ‘sadhan shudhhi’ was under question.

Gandhi’s relationship with two industrial houses – the Tatas and the Birlas – provides an insight. Gandhiji maintained relations with the Tatas even after the powerful resistance in the early twenties in the form of Mulshi satyagraha against a large dam being built by the Tatas near Pune. The repression faced by the satyagrahis at the behest of the Tatas is well documented in the book Mulshi Satyagraha by Rajendra Vohra.

Further, Gandhi’s association with the Tatas continued even after the strike of workers in the Tata factory in the early twenties at Jamshedpur, in which workers were fired upon and some even killed. This incident is described by John L. Keenan, who joined the Tata Company at Jamshedpur in 1913. He went on to work with the company for 25 years and was the general manager of the company during the last eight years of his tenure. He writes:

“…Soldiers detailed to prevent the men from destroying plant equipment ordered the prankish strikers to leave. They emphatically refused. The soldiers were ordered to load and take aim. The men, like overgrown children, laughed at the soldiers and their officer. The order was then given to fire. Thirteen strikers were killed and many more taken to the hospital…”

There are other records of strikes by workers in Tata factories since 1920 onwards.

An entry in the diary of Mahadevbhai Desai, a long time close aide and secretary of Gandhi, describes the latter’s visit to Jamshedpur. Two years ago [1923] there was a dispute with the company, there was a strike and unrest led to firing too. However that is an old history.”

Mahadevbhai then records Gandhi’s address to the assembly:

“It has been my great desire to see the greatest enterprise of Hindustan for many days now. We enjoyed Tata’s hospitality for two days. He showed us his township with a lot of love and even now, he continues to shower immense love. I am the younger brother of the Parsee community. I doubt if any other community has supported me like the Parsees. When I was in South Africa, Ratan Tata had sent me huge support – he was the first to send Rs 25,000, and he had written that I could ask for more if required. Therefore, I am under a great obligation to the Tatas. Even today, Tata has shown a lot of love and has resolved the old differences that were going on.”

Gandhi was also close to G.D. Birla. Ved Mehta writes in his book, “Ghanshyam Das Birla, benefactor and follower of Gandhi for thirty – two years, gave more money for his causes than anyone else”.

However, their relationship was not limited to fundraising. Birla was the founding president of the Harijan Sevak Sangh in 1932 and remained so till 1959. Gandhi spent his last days at the Birla house and was shot there.

There are several pointers that Birla did not adopt sadhan shuddhi in his business. In the book, Communications and Power, Propaganda and the Press in the Indian Nationalist Struggle 1920-1947, by Milton Israel, he says:

“In an editorial [in the Bombay Congress Bulletin] titled ‘Suffering is not over’, Purshotamdas Thakurdas and G.D. Birla were attacked for exporting bullion to England. ‘The Indian traitors dealing in bullion have deliberately impoverished us to enrich the enemy … the bullion merchants have struck a direct blow at our struggle for independence … Sir Purshottamdas and Birla have made lakhs from this immoral traffic.’”

In the book, India as an Organisation: Volume One: A Strategic Risk Analyses of Ideals, Heritage and Vision, by Dipak Basu and Victoria Miroshnik write:

“On December 8, 1947, workers in Birla Textile Mill in Delhi went to the manager asking for the cost of living bonus. They received a reply in terms of gunfire and rifle butts. The workers sent a delegation of five workers to see Gandhi at the Birla house. Gandhi refused to see them. In 1938, Subhash Chandra Bose, when he was the president of the Congress Party, drew Gandhi’s attention to the inhuman working condition of the jute mills of Birla in Bengal.”

The book Gandhian Way: Peace, Non Violence and Empowerment, Celebrating Hundred Years of Satyagraha, edited by Anand Sharma says:

“When Birla set up a mill in the princely state of Gwalior, the government obtained land for him without paying adequate compensation to its poor owners. When Gandhi received complaints about the working conditions in the mill, he asked Birla for an explanation, Birla blamed local ‘agitators’, for stirring up trouble.”

It is also interesting to understand why an industrialist like Birla supported Gandhi. It is best explained by Birla himself in his autobiography, In the Shadow of the Mahatma – A Personal Memoir. The book reproduces a letter written by Birla to Sir Samuel. He says, 

“I always make a distinction between Gandhiji and the Congress. I am one of his pet children. I have liberally financed his Khaddar-producing and untouchability activities. I have never taken any part in the Civil Disobedience movement. But I have been a very severe critic of the government and so have never been very popular with them. I wish I could convert the authorities to the view that Gandhiji and men of his type are not only friends of India but also friends of Great Britain. He alone is responsible for keeping the left wing in India in check.”

Recalling his interview with Sir Henry Craik in the book, Birla writes:

“There is already a section growing up gradually which believes that even the best should not be achieved by constitutional means … they will continue to preach hatred against the classes and the government, whether it is alien or Indian. Gandhiji is fighting against this mentality. He attaches more importance to non-violence than even to swaraj. But how long is Gandhiji going to live? It is essential that some settlement should be made in Gandhiji’s life time which may bring the government and the people closer to each other. This would be beginning of the new kind of education which would teach people to believe that the government is their own institution which should be mended and not ended. If the mode of this education is not immediately changed, very serious harm will be done. A revolution of bloody type may become inevitable factor. And this would be the greatest calamity not only to India but also to England. Tories may say this would be India’s funeral. I say it would be funeral for both. He [Craik] said, ‘I have no doubt about his (Gandhi’s) sincerity and I admit he has checked the tide of communism.’”

The extensive diaries maintained by Mahadev Desai also confirm beyond doubt that Gandhi and Birla shared a special relation.

To conclude, Gandhi was close to even those industrialists whose practises were under question. The growing closeness of one section of the Congress party and the elite class ultimately led to the formation of the Congress Socialist party within the Congress in the thirties and later the separation of the Socialists and those with left leanings from the party altogether. This history, although less known is well documented.

It is important to note that there were questions about and even protests against the industrial houses Gandhi was associated with. In today’s context, with increasing centralisation of wealth in the hands of a few corporate houses and the principle of trusteeship never having taken roots, these questions are sharper and protests stronger. Therefore Modi’s defence of closeness to corporate houses as the PM of the country has to be viewed in this context when he simplistically referred to Birla and Gandhi. 

Nandini Oza was an activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan. A researcher and writer, her books have been published both in English and Marathi.