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

[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.’

“By instinct I have been truthful, but not non-violent. As a Jain muni once rightly said, I was not so much a votary of ahimsa as I was of truth, and I put the latter in the first place and the former in the second. For, as he put it, I was capable of sacrificing non-violence for the sake of truth. In fact, it was in the course of my pursuit of truth that I discovered non-violence.” said Gandhi. (Harijan, 28-3-1936,) (Prabhu and Rao, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi).

Dasgupta also asserts that Gandhi’s pursuit of truth was no idle, idealistic pursuit. His commitment to truth stood him in good stead in practical politics, for it enabled him to deal with men and situations with a great measure of objectivity. Dasgupta differentiates between the struggle for the sake of truth undertaken by scientists and other spiritual aspirants and Gandhi’s thrust on truth. ‘What is new is the movement to seek truth by means of truth itself, by making truth itself an instrument in the search for truth. With Gandhiji, truth was so powerful a thing that there was no need of a false armour or mythical power for self-protection.’

The other crucial observation the author makes is that ‘his truthfulness was not merely in external things. For he tested his every thought and impulse on the touchstone of truth and then alone proceeded to act, and he tested every action and every experience of his on the same touchstone. So, there was no way he could be led up the garden path by anyone.’

Talking about Gandhi’s God and Religion, the author concludes that Gandhi’s was the only known instance of a spiritual aspirant wanting to see God face to face through politics and service to the country. He goes on to add that Gandhi did not feel any sense of shame or hesitation in bringing religion into politics or sociology; on the contrary, he regarded religion as vital to his work in the field of social reform and emancipation.

Dasgupta also draws the contrast between the impact of Gita on other revolutionaries and Gandhi. ‘The call of the Gita took Sri Aurobindo away from politics and sent him into total seclusion, and the same Gita inspired revolutionaries in India to wage armed struggle. And it is the Gita that Gandhiji called the non-violent yoga of action and adopted it as his path towards the realisation of God. Earlier, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in his Gita Rahasya, had put up a stout defence of intense karma yoga or the yoga of action, against the paths of renunciation and devotion- which he rejected. However, there is no trace of non-violence in his thesis.’

Dasgupta saw Gandhi’s religion as a humanist religion that could not brook any kind of narrow-mindedness or reaction. ‘Gandhiji said that God can be worshipped through service to men, especially the oppressed and the downtrodden. His life was guided by the belief that the lowest, loneliest and lost were to be served first; for their claim to our service is the truest. God is not only man’s God (Naranarayan) but the God of the poor (Daridranarayan). The central principle of in Gandhiji life was that God has to be realised by means of service to the poor as the manifestation of God.’

Dasgupta also points out that while Gandhi brought religion into politics, he was totally opposed to state interference in religious affairs. ‘To that extent, he was like the progressives, completely in favour of segregation of state and religion. It was for this reason that he wanted India to be a secular state. He even disapproved of stopping cow-slaughter by force of low, for he believed that there could be real cow protection only by means of an awakening in the hearts of Muslims, a feeling of love for the cow and respect for the religious sentiments of Hindus. On the other hand, he once personally instructed the termination of a calf’s life because the poor thing was afflicted with an incurable disease and in great agony. He also believed that the state should not interfere in religious education.’

The author acknowledges the practical utility of religion for Gandhi. ‘Gandhiji would take the help of religion in order to commune with his audience and created, at the commencement of a meeting, a mood of peace. […] Critics of Gandhiji’s prayer meetings may have had a point at a theoretical level, but at the practical level, those meetings served a very good purpose. C.Rajagopalachari even said that Gandhiji’s greatest gift was his prayer meetings.’

Dasgupta makes an in-depth study of Gandhi’s conversations with Gora [Ramachandra Rao] in the book, An Atheist with Gandhi. He notes the fact that one was a believer in God and the other an atheist did not divide them as both were deeply committed to their ideals and were seekers of truth. He adds,
’We can have an idea of how doughty was Gandhiji’s scientific bent of mind from these excerpts from Ramachandra Rao’s book. We can also see the impracticability of Rao’s abstract idea of humanity. He thought that if men gave up their traditional religions and became a single humanity, then all religions would make their exit.

Lenin had argued against this kind of thought, says Dasgupta. He said that it was wrong to think that social equality could be brought about or the idea of ‘ one man – one nationhood’ could be made a reality on the basis of either religion or opposition to religion. Gandhiji did not want to create a change in the social order with the help of religion. He was involved in changing man and Society through political and economic means, do he did take the help of religion at times.’

Notwithstanding this elaborate exploration of Gandhi’s religion, Dasgupta himself says, in the Foreword, the one major aspect of Gandhi he has overlooked is his spirituality. He highlights the lacuna of such a picture in his preface: “The truly correct approach would be to present Gandhiji along with his God. To think that it was possible to explain Gandhiji’s greatness and show full honour to him and his experiments by keeping God out of the discussion, would be like showing the quality of milk through its watery content. It would be an act of irresponsible and senseless egoism, and would result in an incomplete representation of Gandhiji. No discussion of Gandhiji’s life can be complete if the spiritual Gandhi is kept out.”


Pannalal Dasgupta does an incisive analysis of Gandhi’s ideas on and methods of ahimsa and Satyagraha. He surmises that while Gandhi had ‘an innate and natural attraction for truth from his early year, ahimsa was not an innate trait for him. It was in pursuit of truth that he discovered non-violence.’ He attempts to answer the question, what Gandhi meant by non-violence, through Gandhi’s words. “Ahimsa is theory, no one knows. It is as undefinable as God. But in its working we get glimpses of the Almighty in his working, amongst us and through us.” (Tendulkar, Mahatma, Vol. V, p. 307) But his rational mind finds it to be inadequate and he tries to formulate Gandhi’s ideas on non-violence by letting it emerge from his work and writings. Dasgupta draws up a few conclusions at the outset.

It will not suffice to merely define non-violence as the opposite of violence. Nor can we see it as mental force as opposed to physical force, for there is an intimate connection between these two forces. Gandhi said in a speech at Midnapore, “People committed the mistake of thinking that all that did not involve killing was non-violence. Sometimes killing is the cleanest part of violence.” (Tendulkar, Mahatma, Vol. V, p. 307)

We cannot say love is non-violence. Inspired by heroic love, one may engage in a war against injustice, sacrificing everything.

Non-violence does not mean bypassing violence. He alone is non-violent who is not afraid of violence, because the bravery and effectiveness of non-violence consists in the very challenge it offers to violence. There is no such thing as the non-violence of the weak. Non-violence can transpire only when practised against violence. Good relations with good people are absolutely natural, but the test of true goodness is when there is good behaviour towards bad people.

The passivity of the weak is not non-violence. Non-violence is a tremendously active force. We can recall the aversion that Gandhi professed towards the term passive resistance and his quest to find an alternative term for it. Dasgupta says, ‘Those who thought that non-violence was to be used as an escape from death, those who wanted to see the country become independent but did not wish to die and who thought Gandhiji discovered non-violence to give refuge to their opportunism and cowardice, were utterly deluded people. Equally deluded were believers in armed struggle who thought that Gandhiji feared death and discovered a soft path in oder to avoid bloodshed in the country. Standing in Bombay’s Azad Maidan in 1931, Gandhiji declared: I would not flinch from sacrificing even a million lives for India’s liberty. I told so to the English people in England.’ Gandhi was not a pacifist either. He said at the brink of the second World War, “Now about the English pacifists. I know there are some great and sincere men among them, but they are thinking in terms of pacifism as distinguished from unadulterated non-violence. I am essentially a non-violent man, and I believe in war bereft of every trace of violence. As essentially non-violent man does not calculate the consequences.” Dasgupta expounds, “We can, therefore, understand that the so-called pacifism or the escapism of inaction had nothing at all to do with Gandhiji’s non-violence or satyagraha. The Mahatma gave an enormously important place to struggle, but it was struggle with a difference. It was struggle waged with the help of satyagraha, in place of war.

Constitutionalism is not non-violence. Dasgupta does not think there is any meeting ground between constitutionalists and Gandhi. He quotes what Gandhi said during a fast in 1932, approvingly, “Those who have to bring about a radical change in human conditions and surroundings cannot do it except by raising a ferment in the society. There are only two methods of doing this- violent and non-violent.”

Dasgupta takes umbrage at a statement by the then Indian Ambassador to the US, G.L.Mehta, and a subsequent writeup in the AICC-run periodical, the Economic Review, “Our national movement has been described as non-violent. And constitutionalism is but non-violence translated in political terms.” Dasgupta is piqued by this attempt to depict Gandhi as a constitutional statesman and observes, ‘he [Mehta] could not conceive of Gandhism except in terms of constitutionalism.’

“When every time, during mass movements, Gandhiji gave an intrepid call – ‘karenge ya marenge’ (let’s do or die) – to march forward, inspiring people to have no fear whatsoever from anything, hundreds of thousands of people came forward to break the law in response. Can that upsurge be called a constitutional movement?” he asks.

He says it was a revolution that Gandhi wanted to bring about. But it was to be a non-violent revolution. Even God became a revolutionary God at Gandhiji’s hands. His revolutionary fervour was not a bit less intense than that of the votaries of armed revolution, though their paths and means were different.

After Dasgupta does a thorough exploration of ahimsa and satyagraha, it is in these words of Gandhi that we find a precise exposition of ahimsa.

“I accept the interpretation of ahimsa, namely, that it is not merely a negative state of harmlessness but it is a positive state of love, of doing good even to the evil-doer. But it does not mean helping the evil-doer to continue the wrong or tolerating it by passive acquiescence. On the contrary, love the active state of ahimsa, requires you to resist the wrongdoer by dissociation yourself from him even though it may offend him or injure him physically. […]

Non-co-operation is not a passive state, it is an intensely active state, more active than physical resistance or violence. Passive resistance is a misnomer. Non-cooperation in the sense used by me must be non-violent and therefore neither punitive nor vindictive nor based on malice, ill-will or hatred. It follows, therefore, that it would be a sin for me to serve General Dyer and cooperate with him to shoot innocent men. But it will be an exercise of forgiveness or love for me to nurse him back to life, if he was suffering from a physical malady.” (YI, 25-8-20, quoted by N.K.Bose)

Dasgupta also honestly examines the relationship between armed revolutionaries like himself and Gandhi. ‘He had respect for them though he had no hesitation in telling them that they were wrong. It is totally wrong to say that Gandhiji viewed them with venomous and hateful eyes and that he wanted to keep them under his control. It is a fact that many fugitive revolutionaries felt free to go and hold talks with him and argue with him fearlessly.’ He also feels convinced that Gandhi spared no efforts to save revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh from the gallows.

He raises another pertinent point that cannot be ignored. ‘How could anybody who believed in violent armed revolution have faith in Gandhiji, who was a leader of non-violent satyagraha? Why should they expect Gandhiji to save the revolutionaries from the hangman’s noose, at the last moment? Though a man of non-violence, Gandhiji did all that was within his power to get the revolutionaries freed from prison and to save those who were sentenced to death from being hanged and in engaging lawyers to defend them in the law courts.’ Gandhi had said, “The Congress has to represent the whole country, and it cannot ignore the interests of those who do not believe in the Congress, of even those who would, if possible, want to pulverise the Congress.” It must be remembered that Bhagat Singh himself, unlike those who pillory Gandhi for his inability to save Bhagat Singh despite his honest efforts, did not expect Gandhi to save him.

Dasgupta is of the view that in the vast saga of Indian history, ‘two clear forces are seen endeavouring to provide effective leadership. One was Gandhiji’s non-violence and the other the revolutionaries’ violence. The latter did not and could not become strong.

Dasgupta does not think Gandhi had a dogmatic attachment towards ahimsa. He calls him a pragmatic idealist. He says, “Gandhiji responded to the call of history with all his strength, now and then rising above the delicate niceties about the differences between violence and non-violence. He was, of course, always alive to the fact that non-violence was a pre-eminent principle and practice of his life, but he could not wait till the country was ready for total non-violence.”

While Gandhi himself had unwavering belief in the utility of non-violence at any time and he would have personally adhered to non-violence in any circumstance, irrespective of the results, he did not come in the way of other leaders when they chose a violent response. Dasgupta refers to the ‘well-known example of his consent to the despatch of the Indian Army for the defence of Kashmir.’

“Gandhiji knew that when the Congress would be able to wrest freedom and the country would become independent, the new rulers would not adopt non-violence for the defence of the country and that non-violence would perhaps have no real adherent except himself. Yet, he did not consider this incapacity of the Congress or of the country to be hypocrisy. He thought that though, undoubtedly, the courage to renounce violence was not in evidence anywhere on earth, people’s faith in non-violence would gradually increase and not diminish. People would take time to shed habits ingrained in them over a very long period of time, and become free from slavery to the thinking patterns of the past. But by dint of his personal example, he would give the people the courage to tread the path and he would strive to clear all obstacles till his last breath. In other words, he was ready to take the country only so far on that path as she could tread, and was ever ready to be of service to her. He never hesitated in responding to the call of history.”

Gandhi himself was well aware of this fact and he has talked about it often. “If I had started with non-violence as a creed, I might have ended with myself. Imperfect as I am, I started with imperfect men and sailed on an uncharted ocean,” he wrote. (Harijan, 12th April 1942). ‘Gandhi was aware that people were not adopting non-violence as a fundamental principle. However, he thought that it would suffice even if they adopted it as a strategy or a programme of action,’ concludes Dasgupta. “I admit at once that there is a doubtful proposition of full believers in my Theory of Non-violence. But it should not be forgotten that I have also said that for my movement I do not at all need believers in the theory of non-violence, full or imperfect. It is enough if the people carry out the rules of non-violent action.” (Gandhi’s Correspondence with Government quoted by N.K.B.)

Even if this country finally abjures non-violence, Dasgupta avers, the historical role of Gandhiji cannot be denied because of his ability to create a common platform for all kinds of people to do their bit. “Looking, from this historical angle, we realise why, even if ‘Gandhism’ is deemed a failure, Gandhiji has been recognised as the Father of the Nation.” However, he does also emphasise that non-violence continues to have a place and that this place is gradually growing.


Dasgupta contrasts the love for the opponent, be they the British or the Germans or Japanese, that Gandhi professed with the fire spat by Stalin during the second World War on Germans. Stalin, he says, declared there could not be a fight against an enemy unless you hated him. While he concedes that this could be expedient during times of national crisis, it would be a grave mistake to adopt it as a permanent and fundamental policy. ’On the contrary, there should be a growing movement towards human brotherhood and internationalism that is preached by Marxism-Leninism. It will be against Marxism-Leninism if one gets caught in the mire of matching hate with hate. We shall always hate injustice but not the unjust man.’

Dasgupta also does not accept that it is an unchangeable belief of Marxism-Leninism that class struggle will finally take place only by recourse to arms in all countries and at all times. While he quotes one instance of Lenin saying ‘An oppressed class which does not use arms deserves to be treated like slaves’, he also points out that Lenin does not always talk in those terms. ‘He talked a thousand times about the creation of a classless society with the help of class war alone. But he did not always talk about the absolute need to take up arms. […] What is eternal is the need for class struggle.’ He proceeds to establish Gandhi’s place as a revolutionary through the Marxist lens, “It is accepted that revolution is necessary and the capacity to wage struggle is necessary, but today it is no longer valid to assert that the use of arms is inevitable and is the essence of a revolution. Hence, there is no fundamental contradiction between the spirit behind Lenin’s views and Gandhiji’s non-violent struggle.”

He emphatically dismisses the words of Mao-Tse-Tung that ‘revolution flows through the barrel of the gun. This gun-toting is not valid for all countries and for all times. The formula may perhaps be still more invalid at a future time. Statements like Mao’s may make one think that revolution and the gun are interdependent and necessary, that one is the concomitant of the other. Such tall talk can lead to an anti-social ideology, giving a boost to the morale of hoodlums. Struggle is certainly necessary but to assert that there can be no struggle without guns should be shunned. […] Such a struggle can be waged with no other instrument than Gandhiji’s strategy of non-cooperation and satyagraha.’

He presses on to stress that Gandhi never said that satyagraha was to be employed only in the freedom struggle and not against criminals and vested interests within the country. “My non-violence would not prevent me from fighting my countrymen on the many questions that must arise when India has become free…I know, however, that if I survive the struggle for freedom, I might have to give non-violent battle to my own countrymen which may be as stubborn as that in which I am now engaged. My collaboration with my countrymen today is confined to the breaking of our shackles. How we would feel and what we shall do after breaking them is more than I know.” (Young India, 30th Jan 1930)

Dasgupta does not mince his words when he addresses the Marxists on the need to embrace the methods of Gandhi, “We can see that it is as an instrument of liberation from all kinds of oppression and injustice, whether perpetrated by natives or by aliens, that Gandhiji placed satyagraha in the hands of the poor. It would be ridiculous if the Marxists wanted to refrain from using this instrument because Gandhiji was not a Marxist. Marx did not invent the instruments of strike and barricade fight. He only included the well-known know-how and current struggle techniques in the Marxist arsenal. The pistol, cannon and gunpowder are not the inventions of communists. Then how come these have been used by them? If the Marxists fight shy of using satyagraha because it is a weapon which Gandhiji put in the hands of the masses for their liberation struggles, we can only say that their dogma is more important to them than the interests of the people. “


In the movement for Indian Independence there were long periods when Gandhi did not launch or lead any nationwide struggle against the government, and focussed his energies on constructive programmes. From Nehru and Subhas Bose to Marxists, there were many people who were often disgruntled with this approach of Gandhi. Jawarharlal Nehru wrote in his autobiography: “To some extent I resented Gandhiji’s preoccupation with non-political issues, and I could never understand the background of his thoughts.” Subhas Bose also has recorded similar reservations in his book, The Indian Struggle. E.M.S. Namboodripad, in his book, The Mahatma and the Ism, also criticises Gandhi for his non-political activities.

Pannalal Dasgupta draws a parallel for such an approach with the communist movements elsewhere. He is appreciative of the practical sense of Gandhi’s approach. “Even those who wage a violent struggle have to bear in mind that the people’s power of endurance must remain intact till the end, and it is not possible in any conflict to keep attacking and achieving victories. From his experience of the strategies adopted in the Russian Revolution, Lenin did say that it was necessary to go on winning and mounting attacks, and that in a revolution the initiative had necessarily to be in the hands of the revolutionaries. However, Lenin’s suggestion is applicable to a revolutionary fight of a short duration. In the case of a protracted civil war, or guerrilla or partisan war, however, we have seen that it is not only impossible but rather detrimental to the fight to go on mounting attacks. This becomes clear from the revolutionary policy of Mao-Tse-tung. In a thirty-year-long conflict, there was no question of adopting a policy of piling attacks over attacks. What mattered in it was maintaining a defensive-offensive policy of advancing by means of bypassing the enemy’s attacks, and the power of enduring the pains that befell one’s lot.”

Gandhi was very aware of the strength of the masses. People were ready to break the law over an ordinary thing such as the common salt but there was no way of knowing if they were ready to stop paying all revenues and taxes, and risk losing their property and face police atrocities at their homes. If he had demanded the latter action from the masses their unity might have been shattered. Many who supported the struggle or at least stayed neutral might have been harassed by the government and estranged from the movement. Dasgupta considers Gandhiji’s measured approach to be scientific. He avoided many obstacles and mishaps. ‘Those who rush into satyagraha, without a proper understanding of the conditions, and hope for success only indulge in daydreams. It is a precondition of satyagraha that the people’s strength be gauged, their awareness be ascertained and their power of endurance and sense of idealism be taken into account. Also necessary is the technique to take the people forward step by step. It was never Gandhiji’s way to to start a movement on a big demand and then to back out. So whether it was a workers’ movement, a people’s movement in the native states, a Kisan or Harijan movement, or a direct action against the government itself, he would never put up an inflated demand. He always made a basic demand, which was the irreducible minimum and which could not be done without, and it was on that minimum demand that he wanted the people to wage an intense struggle.’ While many Marxists brand him as a moderate or conservative for failing to launch a larger struggle for socialism in 1930, Dasgupta sees it not as a question of moderation or extremism but of political insight. The scale of demand had to be dependant on the endurance and willingness of the masses and not on strength of a handful of revolutionaries. Gandhi said, “Let it be remembered that a Satyagrahi’s minimum is also his maximum.” There is also always a place for compromise in a satyagraha since its aim was not to vanquish the opponent but to win over his heart and mind. Dasgupta brings out this balance in Gandhi between demanding the essential minimum and the willingness to compromise.

Pannalal Dasgupta emphasizes the importance that Gandhi placed on the preparation and training for satyagraha. During the long intervals between satyagrahas, Gandhi was actively engaged in preparing people for the eventual satyagrahas through the constructive programmes. Dasgupta points out the main object of Gandhi’s constructive programme as mass contact. ‘He utilised the constructive programme to transform the Congress, which was till then a forum for the speeches of the educated elite, into a veritable mass organisation.’ He terms the leftists’ belief that masses cannot be rallied and organised except through struggles as an illusion.

“Gandhi was even more realistic and pragmatic than the Marxists in the field of action. He showed in no small measure the importance of the economic basis of political action, whereas the leftist and various Marxist parties believed in educating the masses in politics solely through political means. Gandhiji was able to educate the people in politics and bring them together around the party by means of his specific programmes. There was an economic foundation to his movement. In fact, he often said that in our times God can appear before the hungry people only in the form of bread. If God manifested himself in any other form, they would not care to look at him.”

Dasgupta also dismisses the criticism of leftists that Gandhi’s approach was economism or economic opportunism, since Lenin had to fight against economism in Russia. They considered his thrust on service to the people as the work of other social and religious organisations and viewed such constructive work in a political movement to be nothing more than a facelift to the the existing economic framework and counter-revolutionary. ‘The leftists kept themselves aloof from all kinds of economic and social service to the masses and were out to make them struggle conscious solely through their eloquence. If the leftists had only cared to study Marxism-Leninism and Russian history properly, they might have spared themselves such an illusion. For, different kinds of economic and social work did exist there too, though certainly not on the scale that Gandhiji was introducing here. In the Chinese Revolution, Mao gave an important place to the service of the people and showed that mere revolutionary slogans and activities could not help organise and rally the people and that there could be a real growth in struggle-preparedness of the people only through constructive work.’

Gandhi wrote, “I know that many have refused to see any connection between the constructive programme and civil disobedience. But for one who believes in nonviolence, it does not need hard thinking to realize the essential connection between the constructive programme and civil disobedience for Swaraj. I want the reader to mark the qualification. Constructive programme is not essential for local civil disobedience for specific relief as in the case of Bardoli. Tangible common grievance restricted to a particular locality is enough. But for such an indefinable thing as Swaraj, people must have previous training in doing things of all-India interest. Such work must throw together the people and their leaders whom they would trust implicitly. Trust begotten in the pursuit of continuous constructive work becomes a tremendous asset at the critical moment. Constructive work therefore is for a non-violent army what drilling etc. is for an army designed for bloody warfare. Individual civil disobedience among an unprepared people and by leaders not known to or trusted by them is of no avail, and mass civil disobedience is an impossibility. The more therefore the progress of the constructive programme, the greater is there the chance for civil disobedience.” (Young Indian 9-Mar-1930, quoted by N.K.B)

In the final analysis, Dasgupta summarises the objectives and outcomes of constructive programmes as follows:
Gandhi kept the constructive work free of politics making it difficult for the government to interfere and halt these programmes
These became mass contact programmes with the people over a sustained period of time.
Many non-political persons were drawn into the movement to render service to people.
Service to people was seen as an end in itself and not merely a means to politicise people.
Freedom was not something that could be captured but can only be attained by working for it. Constructive work would lead to winning the freedom and also become a part of nation-building process once the freedom was won.
If constructive programmes were operationalised as envisaged, it would not be necessary to be dependent on government employees to implement programmes. The dependence is high today because the constructive programmes were dropped.
Gandhi wanted to lay the foundation of an exploitation-free economy of independent India through these constructive programmes.
Through constructive programmes every aspect of people’s lives was touched. ‘It was Gandhiji’s direct link with every occurrence and every development in the lives of the people that bestowed on him the status of the Father of the Nation, and not any particular ideal of Gandhism.’

Dasgupta also notes how Gandhi’s charkha symbolised freedom and non-violence. ‘There is labour in feudalism, in capitalism and also in socialism. The labour of feudalism and capitalism is the chain of slavery, whereas the labour of socialism – sarvodaya is full of the joy of freedom. It is precisely for this reason that those who, at the very sight of the charkha, considered it a symbol of the past, could never understand Gandhiji.’

In the process of constructing this argument, we can see that Dasgupta equates sarvodaya with socialism.


As a book written in Bengali, it had to deal in detail about the relationship and conflicts between Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, and Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose. Dasgupta allocates two long chapters to deep dive into the details.

Tagore and Gandhi shared many common ideas. They had much mutual regard. But Dasgupta considers Gandhi to be a spiritual man of action, while Rabindranath was a worshipper of beauty and a lover of al the great, good and glorious things of life, though he never preached a consumerist philosophy. He believed, like Keats, ‘Beauty is truth; truth, beauty.’ But he could never choose Gandhi’s difficult path of ‘Truth is God’.

Tagore did not suspect that Gandhi had ideas of revivalism but feared there was streak of revivalism among Gandhians. Dasgupta also dismisses those suspicions while quoting Gandhi’s words to the students, “You will not therefore consider that I have not given you a warning against being misled into wrong doing under the name of revival of culture.”

Dasgupta rates the overall impact of Gandhi to be much higher than that of Tagore. He is critical of Tagore staying away from politics, which has resulted in his progressive writings and songs not being on the lips of the struggling masses but on those of urban elite . He says, ‘Gandhiji proved to be more progressive than Rabindranath in the realm of action. Though Rabindranath did command deep respect from the people, it was from Gandhiji that they got more strength for marching along the road to freedom and progress.’

The relationship between Gandhi and Bose was more complex. Dasgupta records that it was Nehru, at the instance of Gandhi, who had proposed the name of Subhas Bose for president and he was chosen unanimously during the first term. In 1939, Subhas was keen on launching Civil Disobedience movements and wanted Gandhi to personally lead them. However, with the world on the brink of a war, Gandhi, and Nehru, were of the opinion that satyagraha at that stage would only help carry forward Hitler’s fascist ideology. It was against this backdrop that Subhas stood for a second term as president and won, despite opposition from Gandhi this time. Dasgupta traces the subsequent events that led to the ouster of Subhas from the Congress.

Dasgupta sees the seeds for disagreement between Gandhi and Bose in Gandhi’s disinclination to give an ultimatum to the British Government as suggested by Subhas. Gandhi did not feel the inner strength required for a satyagraha to be present in the country at that time. He also feared that the growing communal disharmony between Hindus and Muslims, fuelled by the Muslim League, was not conducive for a united movement. Moreover he was reluctant to take advantage of the troubles of the British. The reluctance was overcome only in 1942 when the British had left them with little choice.

Dasgupta also assesses that Subhas was not a full-fledged follower of the path of violent revolution. Initially he neither toyed with the idea of an armed resistance nor of taking external help. However, he was also not a full believer in non-violence. He did not reject weapons and warfare. If he did not believe in non-violence he should not have remained in Congress and put faith in Gandhi’s leadership for such a long time. It would have been proper for him to form and lead a mass organisation outside Congress from the beginning. He did not do that because he realized only Gandhi could take politics to the doorsteps of the common people.

Dasgupta conjectures, “If, despite the differences of opinion and approach, Gandhiji had chosen Subhas Bose as his trusted lieutenant in the years preceding the Second World War, then India’s history of the later years would perhaps not have been so tragic. However, there did exist a yawning ideological gap in their views and path. It was certainly difficult, if not impossible, to blend non-violence with realpolitik. Realpolitik has no qualms in resorting to arms when necessary, though it will use non-violence when possible. However, Mahatma Gandhi’s most fundamental mission was to give the world a new weapon for fighting imperialism, namely non-violent resistance.’ Pannalal Dasgupta further terms Gandhi as ‘much more than a political leader or a statesman; he was a prophet. A prophet invariably fails in his own time, but from his failure and sacrifice, humankind obtains an eternal value- the value which illuminates the prophet’s life and serves as a timeless and universal lesson for humanity at large. A statesman gives his best to his own time or epoch and is then spent out, whereas a prophet, who is a profound spiritual explorer, offers an inexhaustible treasure for all time.’

The author recounts the tender nature of the bond between Gandhi and Bose that towered over the conflicts. ‘In spite of their differences, there was a truly deep bond between Subhas Bose and Gandhiji. In every letter of his to Subhas Bose, Gandhiji kept reminding him that whatever be his political differences with him and his brother Sarat Bose, in no circumstances would they ever raise a wall between them. Bapu repeatedly expressed his love to Subhas and his longing to nurse the sick Subhas back to health. For his part, Subhas Bose too never forgot to express in his replies his deep personal affection and regard for Bapu.’

In his final analysis, Dasgupta says, ‘both these great leaders made important contributions to India’s development although each had his own share of mistakes.’


Pannalal Dasgupta also delves deeper into Gandhi’s preference for Jawaharlal Nehru as his political heir. He says, “there was no paucity of so-called Gandhians who were closer to Gandhiji than Nehru from the point of view of ideology and loyalty. Nehru was a believer in machine culture and socialism, was indifferent to questions like God and religion, was at best agnostic and was no believer in austerity in living. What made Gandhiji nominate such a person to don the leader’s mantle after him? This was not merely a matter of personal predilection; nor was it even a question of competence. Behind this was the force of historical continuity.”

Dasgupta then cites Sardar Patel declaring, “Our leader is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Bapu appointed him as his successor in his life time and proclaimed as such. It is the duty of all Bapu’s soldiers to carry out Bapu’s behest.”

The author then proceeds to give a lucid reasoning: “This however, does not mean that Gandhiji made Jawaharlal his successor because he believed him to be the best of Gandhians. Gandhiji was not much bothered by the question of how far Gandhism would remain intact or change or grow in the hands of Nehru. What weighed with him was in whose hands the onward march of the next phase of India’s history would be most powerfully dynamic and effective. If such a person was found, he would pass on the mantle to him. It did not matter to him whether Gandhism could thereby be kept alive or not. This was what Gandhiji meant by the phrase ‘ reducing oneself to zero’. This was what Gandhiji commended to others and to himself. To see this in any other light is to belittle Gandhiji.”

‘In his declaration “Jawaharlal is my political heir”, only the historical compulsions and obligations of Gandhiji are brought to light. Jawaharlal was never a votary of non-violence and, of course, he was an agnostic to the tip of his fingers. Gandhians like C.Rajagopalachari, Vinoba Bhave and Rajendra Prasad were closer, in their own ways, to Gandhiji than Jawaharlal was, but he did not nominate any of them as his heir. Gandhiji’s historical responsibility had endowed him with the inner vision and foresight whereby he could see that Jawaharlal would be a better vehicle than his other followers in taking India forward towards the fulfilment of her historical destiny.’


Dasgupta does a comprehensive comparison between the socialism of the Marxists and the sarvodaya of Gandhi. He presents his views on how Gandhi insisted that the change has to begin from the individual while the communists were focussed on social change and were negligent of changing the individual. He looks at how Gandhi brought ethics into economics.

Gandhi’s ideas on Trusteeship have found few takers among Gandhians and have been severely criticised by Marxists. Dasgupta considers that ‘Gandhiji’s trusteeship doctrine was by no means a camouflage of an ulterior motive to perpetuate capitalism,’ but, he adds, ‘the doctrine was in many ways unrealistic and ultimately had to be given a go by.’

Dasgupta also presents a very clear understanding of Gandhi’s Nai Talim – his education policy. He also assesses Gandhi’s contribution to the upliftment of Dalits and Women.

He expounds on the distinction that Gandhi brought between rights and duties. He comments that a ‘keen observer will find that he has influenced the politics of leftists and even of the Marxists. Today there is no party which has not accepted, explicitly or tacitly, the importance of moral values in politics. It was Gandhiji who brought morality into politics, taught us to be mindful of the means that we adopt to achieve our ends and to be devoted to truth. There is a form of groupism that continues unabated in politics, but because of Gandhiji’s influence there is no violence in it. After Gandhiji’s massive advocacy of non-violence, it is not easy for the kind of politics in which an opposition or dissident leader is quietly done away with to find a place in India. We have developed a sense of commitment towards morality and non-violence.’

He has also written a critique on the various books on Gandhi by Marxists. He says about one set of writers amongst them, which rings true even today, “This group of writers do not evince the least empathy. When they review Gandhiji’s life and struggle they do not make the least effort to understand the gradual, painful evolution of a very ordinary, peace-loving man of liberal temperament into an anti-imperialist fighter. On the contrary, they dig up a weak spot or a drawback and blow it out of proportion in order to show up all his work in a poor light. This is hardly rational or in good taste. Nobody would say, least of all, Gandhiji himself, that there was no flaw anywhere in Gandhiji’s life and struggle. He never laid claim to omniscience although some devotee or the other might hold him up as omniscient or even an incarnation of God. But our Communist friends are hell-bent to explain his entire life by holding on to a word or two.”

Spending his days in the prison during the 1950s, he was feeling positive about the path that India was taking.

“No doubt, today there is no dearth of violence and cowardice in the country, but none can deny that, in the eyes of the world, India symbolizes the ideals of peace and non-violence. To which source do the visions of Panchasheela and World Peace, that guide Indian foreign policy, owe their inspiration? This ideal emerged out of the seed-bed of Gandhiji’s non-violent movement alone. If today the rights of the masses in the politics of the country are recognized as paramount, what makes this possible and why were the rights respected so naturally and spontaneously? Again, if the ideal of socialism has been so smoothly adopted in our Constitution, how has this been possible? We would do well not to forget Gandhiji’s singular contribution in these areas. It is for us to work hard and realise its depth and significance. Today we see the dynamic spirit of modern India being applauded. What is the secret of this lustre and grandeur? It is Gandhiji who has given us the spirit and we are imbued with it, though, its actual realization is in the womb of time.”

He speaks very highly of Vinoba’s Bhoodan movement.

“The various disciples, devotees and followers of Gandhiji continue doing their kind of Gandhian work in numerous fields and places. Out of all these activities, a new form of Gandhism has emerged. Those who have inherited even a little of his power have encouraged a creative flowering of Gandhism so that it does not stagnate or become a static concept. Men like Gandhiji do not appear often on the earth. No single individual or group can fill his place. It is only mankind, in its entirety, which is capable of being a true successor to a person like Gandhiji.”

He rightly proclaims that ‘Gandhiji’s vision was always focused on the lowliest and the poorest. His one great experiment was to be involved with the most helpless, the poorest, the daridranarayan,’


Another interesting aspect of the book is the retractions by the author, made at the time of publishing, of his own arguments, written 30 years earlier when he was in jail. He has added footnotes to present the retraction instead of editing his original writing in order to depict his own journey. It’s a truly Gandhian act.

The author had written with hope that education and blending of different cultures will break walls and bring people together. He revised this opinion, and added the footnote saying, “We cannot, in terms of reality, blindly accept that the spread of education and culture necessarily advances man’s thought and consciousness and thereby enlarges the field of rationality. Today all the countries of the world are getting very close to one another thanks to revolutions in transport and communication, but this has also led to an increase in mutual rivalry and conflict among them. Hence we cannot come to the facile conclusion that the spread of so-called education and culture will necessarily lead to broadening of the mind and liberalisation of thought. “

Even more pertinent is the change in his views on the human interaction with nature. He had written earlier, “We can all live decently by exploiting nature and through the application of science. Production and distribution can go on very well without the need for imperialism and capitalism and so these forces have outlived their utility.”

In the later footnote, he notes with great candour, “This was written in the mid-fifties, and my views have changed since then. However, as there are even today many progressives who believe that the earth’s reserves are limitless and all men can be assured of the highest standard of living with the help of science and technology, I have left intact what I wrote in prison decades ago and am retracting my wrong statements in this footnote. Today, knowledgeable people talk about the limits to growth. The earth’s non-renewable resources are getting depleted very rapidly and the atmosphere, water and the environment are increasingly getting polluted. If things proceed at this rate, it is beyond doubt that the earth will start gasping for breath in the not-too-distant future. The present crisis of man is the result of his pursuit of consumerism.

Today, anyone who believes that social conflicts and class differences can be ended through economic affluence and that equal distribution of wealth can be brought about smoothly is only wallowing in sweet dreams. […]

Whatever may be the differences between the communists or Marxists and the capitalists in their perceptions of man’s relationship with man, they think almost alike in the matter of man’s relation to nature, for both believe in exploitation of nature, squeezing out its resources, to serve man’s unbridled consumerism. Both are for plunder without qualms. However, it is imperative for everyone to recognise the fact that man can vandalise nature no longer except at his own peril. […]

Alas, it has to be conceded that since the time these lines were written, the golden dreams about the development and progress of the newly independent countries and the socialist countries have also betrayed signs of becoming moth-eaten. These countries too have been caught in the grip of consumerism which has deluded them and led them astray. […] Gandhian thought seems to be all the more relevant in finding answers to these issues.”

Thirty more years later, both Pannalal Dasgupta’s words and Gandhi’s thoughts sound truer than before.


Revolutionary Gandhi is quite a remarkable book on a remarkable man by a remarkable man written in remarkable circumstances. A review of the book cannot do justice to the breath and depth of the work. It deserves to be read in full. Though no one book can give a complete picture of Gandhi, one must admit that this book succeeds to a great extent in doing that.

Book : Revolutionary Gandhi
Author : Pannalal Dasgupta (in Bengali. First Edition : 1986)
Translator : K.V.Subrahmonyan (First Edition : 2011)
Publisher : Earthcare Books,
10 Middleton Street, Kolkata 700071
email: earthcarebooks@gmail,com Website:

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