Revolutionary Gandhi by Pannalal Dasgupta: Gandhi through the eyes of a Marxist

August 19, 2020

[Published in the August, 2020 issue of the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.]


There is no dearth of great books on Gandhi. One of the best books that I have read on Gandhi is Pannalal Dasgupta’s ‘Revolutionary Gandhi’. The book excited me for many reasons. First, the content, which presents all aspects of Gandhi as integral to the whole. Next, the context – the stories on the author of the book and how the book was written are, by themselves, interesting. And then, the story of how I came across the book makes it memorable for me personally.

Inspired by Gandhi’s writings on Nayee Talim and Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution, I had felt the urge to move to a village. Around that time, we had met a couple from a village near Madurandakam. Sriram and Karpagam, along with their friend Siddharth, had taken up farming in that village, having left their IIT degrees and urban lives behind. We visited them there on a rainy day, walking through a slush of mud. The simplicity of their lives held a great appeal for us. During the course of the long conversation that day, Sriram recommended the book, Revolutionary Gandhi, as a must-read book on Gandhi. This meeting helped us to move towards the village with more conviction.

Shortly afterwards, we made the move to a village near Coimbatore. At the government library in Coimbatore, one of the first books that I stumbled upon was Revolutionary Gandhi. I lived up to the expectations set by Sriram. Later, hearing me rave about this book, the veteran Gandhian leader, K.M.Natarajan, procured this book from Kolkatta, and gifted it to me. He kept urging me to write a detailed review about the book.

The book was originally written in Bengali in 1954-55 under the title Gandhi Gabeshana, when Pannalal Dasgupta was in jail. It was published in 1986. It took another 25 years for an English translation to come out. (By K.V.Subrahmonyan – ‘if no Bengali came forward, why not a Tamilian attempt’.)

Pannalal Dasgupta was the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party at the time of his arrest. Pannalal and his associates, while working at Jessop Company, had planned a shut down due to unaddressed grievances. When Pannalal was away, the protests turned into violent riots. As the leader of the group, he too was sentenced for life imprisonment. His excellent work in jail drew the attention of authorities; Jayaprakash Narayan visited him. He was released along with other political prisoners when Prafulla Sen became the Chief Minister of West Bengal. As his excellent translator says in his introduction, ‘This best-selling masterpiece in Bengali was the fruit of a transformation which came into his life. A political extremist, who formerly believed in violence as a means to social justice, turned once and for all into a complete Gandhian. Pannalal Babu became, like his hero, a true holistic revolutionary.’

At a time when many Marxists, especially in Bengal, were, by and large, critical of Gandhi, Pannalal Dasgupta presented a holistic picture of Gandhi through Marxist lens. “I believe that I understand the cult of Marxism-Leninism fairly well. I have read the works of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro and also Che Guevara and put their ideas to use in the field of practical politics. Both in prison and outside I have lived the major part of my life along their philosophical lines. As I involved myself in all areas of India’s freedom movement, I was also well acquainted with the Congress and the Gandhian movement. During my long prison terms, I had the opportunity to listen to and read about different ideological viewpoints.” He further states, “Indian communists have never tried properly to understand Gandhiji. So I have tried to acquaint people with the two most important phenomena and ideologies of our times, Gandhism and Leninism. I have explained Gandhism in the light of Marxism and also analysed Marxian thought and action in the Gandhian light.”

Many decades after he had written this book in jail, he felt the urge to publish it because of the continuing relevance of Gandhi he felt during his constructive work in the villages, and the unbridled materialist pursuits of man that he observed around him. “Limitless consumerism is the biggest danger that faces mankind today,” he notes and considers Gandhian approach to be essential to counter it, since he kept counselling caution in such restlessness. “I believe that Gandhiji is a living reality and, as days pass by, people will be bound to take more and more interest in the man, his thought and work. Gandhiji raised some fundamental questions to which no ideology or ‘ism’ has yet been able to furnish a proper answer.” He cites Vinoba Bhave approvingly elsewhere, “To change the direction is the simplest way of outstripping others.”

In this essay, I am attempting to give an introduction to this unheralded book that deserves to be read widely, largely using the words of Pannalal Dasgupta himself, juxtaposing with the quotations of Gandhi from the book.


Pannalal Dasgupta likens Gandhi’s quest for truth to the main aim of science, which, he says, is ‘the search for truth’. It was Gandhi’s quest for truth that led him to non-violence. ‘Gandhiji believed that it was unjust to employ secretiveness and deceptive strategy in a struggle against an adversary. His moral objection to armed, violent struggle was mainly on the ground that it was inevitably accompanied by secretiveness, underhand methods and deceit. It was not the sight of death that turned him nonviolent. On the contrary, his conscience was unfailingly clear when, in his own nonviolent struggle, he had to bring people constantly face to face with death.’ His first and foremost emphasis was on truth and not on non-violence nor even God. Hence, Gandhi changed his maxim ‘God is Truth’ into ‘Truth is God.’

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