E.S. Reddy, the Gandhi-Reservoir


This essay is reprinted, with permission, from a volume of essays in tribute to E.S. Reddy, edited by Jairam Reddy and Selvan Naidoo, and published by MicroMega in Durban.

A future biographer of E.S. Reddy would demarcate three phases of his life; his childhood and youth in south India, growing up amidst the fervour of the freedom struggle led by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress; his professional work with the United Nations in New York, when he did so much to co-ordinate and direct the international campaign against apartheid, while befriending many South African freedom-fighters in exile, among them the great Oliver Tambo; and his life after retirement from the UN, when, in his 70s and 80s, he was acknowledged as perhaps the most learned (as well as certainly the most selfless) of Gandhi scholars.

These three phases, were, of course, overlapping; with the Indian patriot influencing his work as an anti-apartheid campaigner and both deeply informing the research he did and the books he wrote on Gandhi and his legacy.

I myself got to know Mr Reddy some years after he had retired from the UN, and was now devoting himself more or less full-time to Gandhi. In the late 1990s I visited New York, and my friend Gopal Gandhi gave me a letter of introduction to E.S. Reddy, while describing him to me as a ‘Gandhi-reservoir’. Mr Reddy lived in a small flat in midtown Manhattan, with his Turkish wife Nilufer, who was herself a translator of the poet Nazim Hikmet.

They received me warmly, and we talked about matters Indian and South African. At this time, I was merely interested in rather than obsessed with Gandhi. But within a few years I was seeing myself as a ‘Gandhi scholar’. Whenever I was in New York I would visit that flat on 46th Street; in between visits, I kept up a steady correspondence with Mr Reddy, asking questions and being sent answers as well as attachments in return.

Enuga Reddy was one of God’s good men: soft-spoken, self-effacing, and utterly committed to decency in public as well as private life. I felt specially favoured, as doubtless others who had made the trek to his door also did. For I was one of many beneficiaries of his wisdom and his generosity. He saw Gandhi not as his private property but as belonging to the world and to the ages. Whatever he had, he shared and passed on.

In this tribute, I’d like to reproduce snatches of my correspondence with him, to seek to demonstrate what kind of scholar and human being he was. Let me begin with an exchange we had in August 2010, when he was preparing to go to South Africa to receive an award bestowed upon him by the Gandhi Development Trust in Durban.

‘It is a short trip,’ he wrote to me, ‘and I do not know how much I can do, and how many of my friends I can meet, after the long flight from New York.’ I replied: ‘It is wonderful to know you are going to South Africa, and many congratulations on the award. You are a South African democrat, an Indian patriot, and a citizen of the world.’

E.S. Reddy had been to South Africa once before, shortly after Nelson Mandela was released. At that time, during his second trip to that country, he was in his mid-80s. After receiving the award that he so richly deserved – few foreigners had contributed as much to the South African struggle for freedom, and certainly no Indian – Mr Reddy wrote this letter to two friends in his own homeland:

Dear Gopal and Ram,

I received the award yesterday. The ceremony was great. THEY MADE SPEECHES ABOUT HOW GREAT I WAS. I must say I was not convinced, as I met many heroes of the liberation struggle there. But I am convinced that I was able to be an instrument for promoting powerful international solidarity. I was in a key position and I used all my time and my skills to develop the strategy and get things done by the UN system, ambassadors, organizations etc.

I will go to visit [the] Mandela Foundation in Joburg but will definitely not ask to see Mandela. I demanded a dinner with fish curry from the entire Naidoo clan.

I am inspired to do lot more writing.

ES

To this I replied:

Dear Mr. Reddy,

How wonderful to hear of your travels, meetings, and receptions. Since you are yourself an authentic hero of the anti-apartheid movement, an objective chronicler (rather than self-effacing subject) would reword the phrase ‘I met many heroes of the liberation struggle’ to ‘I met many fellow heroes of the liberation struggle’.

I don’t know what Gopal‘s advice was, but please don‘t overdo the fish curry! We dont want  a repeat of the ailment you suffered last time in Turkey.

Lovely to know that you will write about this, and other things.

My salutations,

Ram

His trip to South Africa made Mr Reddy determined to write a short book about the Indians who had participated in the satyagrahas that Gandhi had led in South Africa. A letter dated October 16, 2010 thus informed me:

I have been looking at some issues of Indian Opinion for the period of the satyagraha. I thought of preparing a list of satyagrahis, expanding the small list I had prepared mainly from CWMG. That task is impossible as there are many variations in the spellings of names, and many last names without first names etc.

But in the course of my reading, it occurred to me that there should be a history of satyagraha highlighting the determination and sacrifices of the satyagrahis. Gandhi’s book is a view of satyagraha by the leader. He does mention and give credit to some leading satyagrahis or associates. But many more deserve to be honoured.

The information in Indian Opinion perhaps is not enough for a book. But even a booklet may be worthwhile.

I replied:

Preparing an essay/booklet on the S[outh] A[frican] satyagrahis would be an excellent idea. You are 100% right about Gandhi’s perspective—by the time he wrote Satyagraha in South Africa in the 1920s he had become the acknowledged leader of Indian nationalism (not just SA diasporic nationalism), which means of course that he would have (unconsciously) magnified his role even more.

You are, of course, best placed to write the booklet!

While I was encouraging my octogenarian mentor to get going with this historical project, other friends were chastising him for not writing about his own role in the struggle to end apartheid. In January 2011, after sending me some rare clippings, he wrote to me: ‘As you may have guessed I have been going through Indian Opinion, 1903-14. Ela Gandhi scolded me for wasting my time on what others can do (presumably South Africans) instead of writing my memoirs about UN and anti-apartheid, but I could not stop. That took me many days and I have made many photocopies.’

The letter continued: ‘My intention was to prepare a list of Satyagrahis, based mainly on Indian Opinion, though that will be only a fraction of the satyagrahis. And to prepare a Who’s Who of satyagrahis on whom biographical information is available. I do not know whether I will be able to do this, as it is a time-consuming task. I will see. In the meantime, I have gained a better perspective on the Satyagraha.’

I wrote back a letter of solidarity and support. ‘In research, one must follow one’s instincts and not those of friends, however esteemed they may be!,’ I told hi’: ‘The clippings on the ANC and Dube are utterly fascinating. And the work on Satyagrahis will be invaluable.’

In August 2011, eleven months after he had returned from accepting that award in Durban, he sent me this update on the progress of his latest research project:

Dear Ram,

As I wrote to you, I have been working on a Who’s Who of the Satyagrahis in South Africa. The draft is not yet in a shape to pass around. But I am sending it to you as you are, I suppose, trying to complete the first volume of the biography soon.

I felt there should be recognition of people who helped shape Gandhi. All books write extensively about European friends and associates and mention very few Indian satyagrahis. (Some of these, like Thambi Naidoo, had been politically active before Gandhi came on the scene).

Even descendants of the heroes of satyagraha do not know about their ancestors. I have had queries from some for information.

The list and biographical notes I have been able to collect from public sources are only for a fraction of the satyagrahis. Indian Opinion, the main source, tried to give the names for most of those jailed in the Transvaal phase. But in the final phase, 1913-14, the number was so large that few names are available. As a result the indentured workers who were heroic are nameless.

When names are given, Indian Opinion is very inconsistent in spellings — especially for ‘Madrasis.’  Very often only one name is given. So there are some duplicate entries.

In the first phase, until the end of January 1908, there were about two hundred satyagrahis. Many of them served a small part of their sentences, or none at all, before they were released under the provisional settlement.

Then there was the second phase from July 1908 to 1911; and the third phase, 1913-14 (really 1913).

It is frequently written that 2,000 went to prison in the Transvaal in the first two phases — but this may be an exaggeration. The total Indian population in the Transvaal was about 12,000. Women did not go to jail in the Transvaal phase, nor did small children. And some of those who went to jail were from Natal. I do not find in the Indian Opinion anywhere near two thousand. I believe no one kept a record. The number 2,000 was perhaps a guess from convictions. As several satyagrahis went to prison more than once (the record is 14), the number of satyagrahis was lower.

 I have to write a preface about the significant role of Indians in the freedom struggle in South Africa, well beyond their numbers. (My hope, which may never be fulfilled, is that this will be followed by a second volume on Indians who went to prison from 1940 to 1994.)

Then I have to write an introduction on the satyagraha and the satyagrahis.

I have to check this list with CWMG [the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi]. My list so far is based on the English edition of Indian Opinion; CWMG may have more names.

When I have a rough draft, I intend to send it to friends in South Africa to pass it around and send any comments or further information.

If I have a satisfactory text by mid-2012, I would like to publish this in India, and ship some copies to South Africa. I want to stress that these satyagrahis were Indian patriots who were fighting for the honour of India — and forgotten by India.

The Tamils of India and Parsis of India, in particular, should be proud of this heritage. And India should find ways to honour the memory of these forgotten sons and daughters.

Having said all this, I would welcome and request your comments.

With best regards,

ES

It was, of course, an absolute privilege to do just once for Mr. Reddy what he had done so regularly for me – offer advice on a piece of research. I read and commented on a draft, and the book was eventually published by Gandhi’s own publishers, Navajivan Press, with the title Pioneers of Satyagraha: Indian South Africans Defy Racial Laws, 1904-1914, and under the joint authorship of E. S. Reddy and the South African historian Kalpana Hiralal.

Mr Reddy had, as several of the contributors to this volume would know, an incredibly detailed knowledge of the minutiae of Gandhi’s life and campaigns, which was freely given to and eagerly drawn upon by greedy scholars from across the world. But beyond this command over the facts, he also had a deep, indeed, profound, understanding of Gandhi’s character and personality.

Mahatma Gandhi circa 1941. Photo: Wikimedia commons/Kanu Gandhi.

This was illustrated in an exchange we had in June 2011, over a newspaper column where I had contrasted Gandhi with the publicity-crazy holy men of our own time. I had focused in particular on Baba Ramdev, who had recently gone on a hunger-fast against corruption in New Delhi but fled when the police arrived at the venue.

My column began with this vignette from the past: ‘There is a photograph of the Second Round Table Conference in London, which shows every person in the room looking at the camera except for Mohandas K. Gandhi. The Maharajas, the leaders of the Depressed Classes and the Muslim League, the officers of His Majesty’s Government, all have their face turned at the photographer come to capture them. Not Gandhi, who sits in his chair, wrapped in a shawl, looking downwards at the table, waiting for the tamasha to end and the discussion on India’s political future to resume.’

I said of Gandhi that he was a politician and social reformer to whom ‘the moral and spiritual life was equally important’. However, unlike his political activism his moral quest was undertaken not in public but in the privacy of his own ashram. For Gandhi, solitude and spirituality went hand-in-hand. Thus, in between his campaigns, he spent months at a stretch in his ashrams at Sabarmati and Sevagram, thinking, searching, spinning.

On the other hand, I wrote, ‘Our contemporary gurus cannot be by themselves for a single day. When the police forced him out of Delhi, Ramdev said he would resume his “satyagraha” (sic) at his ashram in Haridwar. But within twenty-hours he left Haridwar, in search of closer proximity to his brothers in the media. Externed from Delhi, Ramdev knew that many television channels were headquartered in NOIDA. So he would go to them, since he knew that, despite their national pretensions, these channels would not send their reporters, still less their anchors, to the benighted state of Uttarakhand.’

As always (because Gandhi was mentioned) Mr Reddy read the column not long after it appeared, and sent me a long, meditative, note about it. He did not dispute my saying that people like Ramdev belonged to the history of publicity rather than the history of spirituality. But, he added, ‘I have difficulties with what you imply about Gandhi.’ His own understanding of the Mahatma’s spirituality he outlined as follows:

Gandhi did not pose for photographs. He gave permission to three sculptors, while in London (1931) but did not ‘pose’ for them. He was at work and they were allowed to be in the room.

But he was anxious to communicate with the people. He communicated by person during his tours and through [his weekly newspaper] Harijan. He also gave interviews to the Indian and foreign press — on political matters related to the independence struggle. He did not seek publicity for himself — as he was not after honours, office, power or money — but for the ‘cause’ which needed publicity. The result was publicity for both.

He wanted to bring spirituality (I suppose he meant ethics) into politics (as he felt [his mentor Gopal Krishna] Gokhale did), but not bringing a particular religion. Many people followed Gandhi because of reverence for him.
He meditated in private (sadhana). But his religion was not private. His prayer sessions were public (demonstrating respect for all religions as different ways to God).  … His spirituality required him to get involved in politics — to try to remove injustice. He did not confine himself to the Ashram like Aurobindo.

But he did not ask people to follow him because of his spirituality. He did not wear saffron, but the clothes of a poor peasant. He rejected the title of Mahatma as he was aware of his failings. He tried to persuade people without using religion, as he did not seek blind followers.

His trying to become a saint was a private matter. He meditated and found an ‘inner voice’ speaking to him. But his thinking was not all in private and in solitude; it was influenced by discussion with others.

There is nothing new in all this, but I wanted to stress that Gandhi did not fully separate spirituality and politics.

Mr Reddy and I had the occasional disagreement. One I’d like to recall here was with regard an essay on Gandhi’s legacy in South Africa, a draft of which I had naturally sent to the world’s greatest expert on the subject. Mr Reddy liked the essay on the whole, remarking: ‘You read so many books in your research, some I haven’t. I am a slow reader.’ Then he added: ‘But you made a terrible blunder in the last clause of your last sentence.’

What was my alleged blunder? This was to claim that ‘Gandhi had no interest in sports at all’. To rebut this Mr Reddy wrote: ‘Gandhi was chairman of the Indian football clubs in Durban and Johannesburg. He organized a football match in Tolstoy Farm. I believe he was also chairman of a cricket club. I have not read about his playing sports, but he used to bicycle in Johannesburg instead of renting a carriage — a barrister!’

Mr Reddy’s letter of chastisement continued:

I remembered that a first page of Indian Opinion in 1914 had an article on Gandhi and Sports. To find it I went to the index to Indian Opinion in the DVD and searched for ‘sport’.  Here are the results. (If I had searched for football and cricket, I might have found more results. I suppose you have the DVDs from Gandhi Museum.)

June 4, 1910, p.183. Segregated sports

May 4, 1912, p. 155. Indian sports grounds; colour bar in sports

May 11, 1912, p. 176. Indian sports ground

July 6, 1912, p. 230. Durban Indian sports Association

July 13, 1912, p. 240. Indian sports ground

August 10, 1912. p. 273. Indians as sportsmen

October 5, 1912, p. 335. The value of sports

July 8, 1914, p. 201. Durban Corporation and Indian sports

July 15, 1914, p. 207. Children’s sports

September 2, 1914, p. p. 247. Mr. Gandhi on sports

From this list of index entries, Mr Reddy said, ‘It looks like he [Gandhi] started protesting segregated sports. Then he is way ahead of his time. After the [second world] war, Indians in South Africa started a movement against racial segregation on sports. That developed into an enormous movement for boycott of apartheid sports, which played a key role in the struggle for liberation. Sam Ramsamy, chairman of SAN-ROC was a key figure in the sports boycott movement. It is his 75th birthday today — being celebrated in Durban. I did quite a bit in that movement and I sent a message to the meeting last night.’

The letter ended with my mentor urging me: ‘You should make up for your mistake by writing a column on Gandhi and sports. Otherwise, I will write an article later this year. But I have trouble publishing my articles, while you can reach a large audience.’

Gandhi as a young lawyer in South Africa. Credit: Facebook

Now sport was a subject I knew something about. I had spent much of my youth playing cricket, and had later written several books on the sport. So I wrote to Mr Reddy now saying that ‘I must (perhaps for the first time!) enter into an argument or disagreement! You are right about Gandhi’s chairmanship of clubs for Tamil footballers, but this was done out of social obligation, not love of sport.’ The Tamils in South Africa were passionate football players, and had thus invited their admired leader to be a patron of sporting clubs in Durban and Johannesburg. But, I told Reddy, ‘Gandhi accepted – out of affection (and admiration) for the Tamils, not love of sport per se. So far as I can tell, Gandhi did not (unlike Mandela and even Nehru) spontaneously or voluntarily play or watch sports after he left school.’

Mr Reddy was not going to back down so easily. So he responded: ‘What I want to say is that he recognised the importance of sport. He did not play football, but organized football matches. He may perhaps be regarded as a sports administrator in his younger days in South Africa.’

And further: ‘He was fond of walking and did bicycling. Isn’t that also a sport? I wonder, as I walk a little for my health on doctor’s orders.’

And further still: ‘Then he raised the question of segregation in sport. I admit that is not a question of sport but of public policy. I was excited to read about that as it links with my own work against apartheid sport.’

Mr Reddy ended his letter with a concession, writing that ‘I agree walking for health or bicycling to work is not sport. So we have very little disagreement left. Let it be a little as I want to write about segregation in sport in South Africa.’

To this I answered: ‘Thanks – in my social history of Indian cricket I have a chapter on Gandhi’s opposition to communally organized sport, consistent with his opposition to segregated sport in S[outh] A[frica].’

Having slept over the matter, however, Mr Reddy woke up with the feeling that he did have a substantive disagreement with me after all. So now he wrote a fresh mail, saying: “What bothered me was your ‘no interest in sports at all’. Couldn‘t one be interested in cricket – mad about cricket  – without playing cricket. Gandhi thought sports was good. He was associated with sports bodies. He encouraged sports competitions. He may have done this even in the 1890 s when he was trying to help the colonial-born educated boys to advance.”

Mr Reddy thought Gandhi did have an interest in sport, ‘but he had no time for playing sports as he wanted to devote 24 hours a day to his preoccupation or obsession of service to the community. I still do not have a different word to suggest. That is up to you.’

He then offered his own personal experience to persuade me to consider the matter more sympathetically from Gandhi’s own perspective. So he wrote, ‘For most of my life, especially since I was appointed secretary of the committee against apartheid, I was obsessed. I worked almost every night, every weekend, gave up half my leave and carried work in the other half. As a result I lost my love of poetry, of movies and other things. I did not even think of sports – I was never good at that any way. I am not proud of all this. I was not a good administrator, did not know how to delegate.’

While Mr Reddy lost interest in all these things, he insisted that ‘Gandhi did not lose “interest” in sports, I believe, until he left South Africa. He became a different man in India because of the mahatmaship he did not ask for.’

I stuck to my guns, telling Mr Reddy ‘you must allow that in this respect Gandhi really was deficient. You lost your zest for music and poetry because of your obsession with apartheid – I have lost my love of cricket now because of my obsession with Gandhi. But, in truth, the aesthetic side of Gandhi WAS somewhat or massively undeveloped. He was indifferent to art and the beauties of nature (remember, he didn’t let [his son] Manilal climb Table Mountain). His interest in music and sport was largely instrumental (promoting inter-faith harmony)—I think he may even have had a tin ear. He certainly didn’t know how to kick a ball or hold a bat.’

That Gandhi had deficiencies of course Mr Reddy was prepared to allow. Except that the weaknesses he pointed to were weightier than the ones I had identified. The correspondence concluded with the 88-year-old confiding to me one of his remaining ambitions: ‘I would love to try a book showing what was wrong with Gandhi in his early years in South Africa – racist statements, cruelty to his wife – he even hopes she dies so that he can do his work, patriarchy, etc. – showing how he evolved into a great man but was still deficient. Great men have great weaknesses.’

My correspondence with Mr Reddy was not always on serious matters of historical fact and interpretation. It occasionally had a lighter or more personal side, too. In April 2009 he wrote to me: ‘I miss your columns in The Hindu. Are you busy with your book – leaving cricket to Shashi Tharoor?’

I answered: “Thanks for your kind words re my lapsed Hindu column – but, as [the cricketer] Vijay Merchant once sagely remarked, it is better to retire when people ask ‘Why’ rather than ‘Why Not!’ I was getting a little bored with the column, and anyway needed space and time to focus on my books – had I still been writing for the Hindu I think you might have thought to yourself, ‘This fellow is repeating himself…’”

A year-and-a-half later Mr Reddy had occasion to write saying: ‘You are quoted in two stories in New York Times today – one on illegal mining and another on Kashmir. That is a public intellectual!’ I laconically replied: ‘More like a convenient fall-back guy for confused foreign journalists!’

A general election was due in India in the summer of 2014. As the campaign intensified, I was interviewed by a news magazine about the two main prime ministerial candidates, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Rahul Gandhi of the Congress. The magazine carried my remarks under the headline: ‘Rahul a spoilt child and Modi a megalomaniac’, says Ramachandra Guha’. Mr Reddy saw this before I did; sending me the link, he added an approving comment of his own: ‘I suppose now you have the status to take on the imposters, however high.’

In the event, the megalomaniac Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, and his party began to aggressively assert their Hindu majoritarian agenda. In January 2016 Mr Reddy sent me a mail which read: ‘I see you are making statements in lectures and interviews provoking the hindutvaites. That is worthwhile. But do you get any time to work on the second volume of Gandhi biography?’

I answered: ‘I take your caution, and will be more sparing in my public utterances! But I must assure you that I am indeed working on the second volume. I have written some 28 chapters so far, bringing the story up to May 1944. I decided not to burden you with the later draft chapters, since you have several must-be-completed projects on your desk already. Instead, I got the second Gandhi-reservoir, Gopal [Gandhi], to check for howlers and mistakes.’

Mr Reddy replied that I could send him my chapters to read, for, as he noted, ‘I have only three projects as of now. Two need little more work. Third, my reminiscences of anti-apartheid is an endless long-term project which I may not even finish in this lifetime. I am sending drafts to a friend in South Africa so that they can be deposited in a library if I pass away.’

The letter ended: ‘I am, in fact, spending time assisting Gandhi archives in Sabarmati in their ambitious project of transcribing and publishing the letters received by Gandhi, etc.’

Mr Reddy was, at the time of this writing, 91 years of age.

In October 2015, Mr Reddy and his wife Nilufer left New York City after living 66 years together in the city. They moved to Cambridge, Mass, where they would stay next to their daughter Mina and her children. Three years later, I was in Cambridge myself, and called on my mentor at his daughter’s home on Mount Auburn Street. Afterwards Mr Reddy wrote to Gopal Gandhi: ‘Ram Guha came to us for tea at short notice (20 minutes). We had a good time.’

Gopal replied, copying me: ‘How wonderful! Lucky him. He has sent me a lovely picture of you, sporting a stylish goatee. A keepsake.’

A year later Mr Reddy and I corresponded about the latest of his book projects. This was an edited anthology of Gandhi’s interviews to Americans. The publisher had taken several years to obtain permissions, and had just sent him the final text. ‘I went through the entire manuscript, 400 pages, this month, and made some revisions,’ he wrote to me, adding: ‘Their editor will now work on it. I hope it will be published soon — in the first half of the year.’

Alas, the publication was further delayed, for in the spring of 2020 the coronavirus pandemic began to wreak its path of devastation across the world. On the May 5, 2020 I wrote to my ninety-five-year-old Gandhi-reservoir, living in the United States, while still holding an Indian passport:

Dear Mr Reddy,

Good to hear from Gopal that you are doing fine. I hope you are able to read as well.

My wife and I have been in the Nilgiris for the past two months. It is very pretty and tranquil here, with no cases in the district. One feels almost as if one is living in an alternate reality.

You saw the War and Partition but few others did. This is certainly the most depressing global development of my own lifetime, just as the end of apartheid was the most uplifting.

With warm regards,

Ram

I received his reply the same day. ‘Thank you for the message,’ wrote Mr Reddy: ‘Happy to hear of life in the Nilgiris. We are doing very well. We do not go out. Our daughter and grandson who live upstairs take good care of us. We manage to read much and write very little.’

That was the last letter I received from Mr Reddy. On August 8, 2020, his daughter Mina wrote to Gopal Gandhi passing on this message to him from her father: ‘He wants you to know that he has entered the last stage of his life and is resting at home with hospice services. My mother and other family are caring for him.’

Gopal wrote back a warm and wonderful mail, of which I might quote some lines that captures the work and legacy of E.S. Reddy far better than I ever could: ‘What a life he has lived, so full of quiet but huge support to great causes, of which South Africa is the best known, and so full too of the highest scholarship. No “trained historian” can do more than he has for resurrecting Gandhi from dull nationalist narratives to his true place in the history of the global emancipations of the oppressed.’

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and biographer based in Bengaluru. His books include Gandhi Before India, which was dedicated to E. S. Reddy.

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Publish date : 2022-05-14 04:30:06

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