FEatured in our December 5 – 10 Online Auction.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi) (1869-1948) Letter To Diwan Sir Mirza Ismail, Peshawar, May 8, 1938
Documents and letters have the ability to transport us through time and space, catapulting readers deep into the heart and mind of their creator. Unlike an artifact, the written word provides us with a rare and direct glimpse into an inner world kept largely hidden from the public eye, helping us to understand the motivations and private sentiments of some of history’s greatest minds.
Waddington’s is privileged to offer a five-page signed letter from one of the most important figures of the 20th century, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, as featured in our Cabinet of Curiosities auction offered online December 5 – 10. For the first time, the letter has been transcribed and made viewable by the public. The full text is reproduced at the bottom of this article.
Sir Mirza Muhammad Ismail: the recipient
The letter lot is addressed to the Diwan (Prime Minister) of Mysore, Sir Mirza Muhammad Ismail (1883-1959). Born into a Shia Muslim family who had fled to India from Persia, Ismail entered the Mysore public service in 1905. Rising through the ranks from Assistant Superintendent of Police to a position as the Maharajah’s private secretary, Ismail’s talents as an administrator were soon recognized, with the Maharajah appointing him to the coveted role of Diwan of Mysore in 1926, a position he held until 1941. Ismail’s tenure coincided with a tumultuous period in Indian history, but despite these difficulties, was known as “very liberal, humane, far-sighted and wise…a visionary who was tactful and diplomatic.”
Gandhi and Ismail had a mutual admiration, and enjoyed a close friendship and working relationship. Ismail publicly supported Gandhi and his movement, praising the Mahatma in an 1933 address to the Mysore Assembly as an “ardent patriot” and “far-seeing, sagacious statesman… qualified far better than anyone else to reconcile the conflicting elements in the country and to induce them all to march together a further stage along the road that leads to self-government.”
Mahadev Desai: the scribe
Gandhi dictated this letter to his secretary, Mahadev Desai (1892-1942), who was one of Gandhi’s earliest followers, joining his ashram in 1917. An accomplished translator, Desai had also studied to become a lawyer. Kishorelal Mashruwala, a close associate of Gandhi’s who also served briefly as the Mahatma’s secretary, described Desai thus: ‘In spite of being a learned philosopher, poet, writer, singer, he would turn into a sweeper, cook, washerman, secretary, clerk, teacher, an ambassador who could accomplish delicate errands with skills, an arbitrator who would remove every misunderstanding his master had about you, a man of highest balance.”
Desai’s diary, published under the title Day to Day with Gandhi, is the source for some of the most important insights into Gandhi’s life and struggles. Anthropologist Verrier Elwin noted that Desai was “the Plato to Gandhi’s Socrates,” explaining that it was Desai’s task to “make Gandhi real to millions. He made him, perhaps, the best know man in the world, certainly the most loved, through his words describing the life of the Mahatma.”
Indeed, it is Desai who acted as the bridge from “man to Mahatma” in his recording of this text. The letter is written on Indian handmade cotton fibre paper, reinforcing Gandhi’s emphasis on the need for national self-sufficiency and boycott of imported British imperialist goods. Through the handwriting, it is possible to see Desai struggling to keep up with his master’s thoughts as they were dictated to him, the quill finding no time to leave the paper, words flowing one into the next.
The satyagraha (peaceful protest)
The letter begins with “Dear Friend,” a salutation often used by Gandhi.
The topic of the letter concerns a satyagraha, or peaceful protest, held in Mysore. Satyagraha is both a term and an ideology created by Gandhi, who, as the father of peaceful protest, used the technique both in South Africa and in the Indian independence movement. The flag satyagraha is of particular importance, being a campaign of civil disobedience revolving around the right to hoist the national flag so as to challenge the legitimacy of British rule in India. Proliferating during the non-cooperation movement of 1920-1922 and continuing to be used until Indian independence in 1947, nationalists were encouraged to raise the flag without resisting arrest or retaliating against authorities. The flag was an issue especially close to Gandhi’s heart: in 1921 he wrote about the need for an Indian flag, proposing one with the charkha, or spinning wheel, positioned in the centre.
In this particular occurrence of flag satyagraha, members of the Mysore Congress hoisted the Congress (Indian) flag alongside the State (British) flag, which was forbidden by the British government. Ten Congressmen were arrested and the flag was taken down, which enraged members of the local population. On April 25, 1938, a large gathering of people sprung up at the village of Vidurashwatha to re-raise the flag. The crowd became restless, and police, fearing violence, opened fire into the crowd, killing several people—different sources mention between ten to 32 fatalities. The episode incited even more protests, and was a key moment in the march towards independence.
Gandhi was in close contact with Ismail during this crisis, referencing their letters in other correspondence (see page 123), noting that Ismail was keeping him updated from the official perspective. This letter is dated May 8, 1938, in the aftermath of the massacre, after which Gandhi had released a formal statement to the press.
Letters concerning an event of historical significance rarely come up for auction, and this one in particular sheds light on Gandhi’s thoughts in the midst of a crisis. The lot on offer at Waddington’s this autumn fills in a piece of the communications between two major players, offering fresh insight to historians and interested enthusiasts alike.
Communications from important figures about historic events are quite desirable and there is a particular interest in Mahatma Gandhi’s correspondence and effects. A typewritten letter from 1949 containing a plea for his and his followers’ release fetched £115,000 at auction in 2013, and a cache of letters written by Gandhi were purchased by the Indian government for £700,000 in 2012, with the Indian Ministry of Culture noting that “the letters are of importance to study the thoughts of Gandhi on various matters.” Most recently, a pair of eyeglasses belonging to Gandhi sold in August 2020 for £260,000.
Find Out More
This lot is included in our December 5 – 10 ‘Cabinet of Curiosities including World History & Culture’ auction. Please view the full auction gallery here.
Should you have any questions or would like additional images or information, please do not hesitate to contact Sean Quinn at [email protected] or by telephone at 416-847-6187.
Why should friendly messages be always sweet? That friendship which tastes uniformly sweet is to be suspected. My messages were no[t] meant to cause pain, but if they have I do not mind. The pain, I know, will be temporary. The ultimate effect, I am equally sure, will be beneficial.
You will take [o]ur assurance that my advice was not given under the influence of any person or any messages I had received from interested parties. I have been a life-long disinterested friend and well wisher of princes. I cling to the hope that they will play a useful and manly part in the [fa]st-developing regeneration of the nation.
You are wholly wrong in harbouring the suspicion that probably no trouble would have arisen if you [h]ad not released the prisoners, whether it was intrinsically sound policy or whether you did it to please Congress friends. Either way you did a creditable thing. Your credit is not diminished because of the unfortunate after-developments. I think your a[pp]ointment of the Co[m]mittee of Inquiry is sound, but at its best it is only in the nature of a palliative.
My point is that there should [n]ever have been any firing. It was an error of the first magnitude, no matter how it occurred. If the crowd had been left to itself what would it have done? I do not wish to suggest that under no circum[st]ances can firing be justified. But I do wish to draw the moral from the Mysore firing that the authorities should make it impossible for themselves to resort to firing, except when it is at the wish of the people themselves. No evil can possibly befall the State if it refuses to make itself responsible for such acts.
Do you not see that it is not a question of the Maharaja or you not having been sympathetic to the legitimate aspirations of the people? I can easily point out many an act of benevolence done under your stewardship. But they are a poor substitute in this age of awakening among the people for their own rule, good or bad. I suggest that even as you ar[e] responsible to [th]e Maharaja, as your beloved master[,] you are equally responsible, if not more, to the people who are the Maharaja’s masters according to Manu Smriti and even according to the tenets of Islam.
Of course you have a conscience as I claim to have for myself and I wont be guilty of asking you for any thing that would be in conflict with your conscience in any shape or form. But my suggestions are in the nature of an appeal to your conscience. The public statement I made was an imperative call of duty. Time will demonstrate to you the necessity for it. I have not criticised you or the Government in that statement. I have drawn the inevitable moral from the supreme event. I wanted the people not to cast greedy eyes on loaves and fishes but to fix them on the central point.
The privilege of friendship such as yours has come to me as from God. But if it is withdrawn, God will be responsible and not you. But I hope I shall ever remain the same to you as you have known me.”