Patriots > Freedom Struggle under Mahatma Gandhi > Desai, Mahadev Haribhai
Desai, Mahadev Haribhai (1892-1942)

Gandhiji made many men and they in their turn made the Mahatma what he was. One of these was Mahadev Desai who worked as Gandhiji’s secretary for 25 years with unmatched devotion and affection. He was born on 1 January 1892 at the Village of Saras in Olpad Taluka of Surat district, where his father Haribhai Desai was a school teacher. The family originally hailed from Dihen in the same district. Mahadev lost his mother Jamnaben when he was only seven years of age.

The family belonged to the Anavil Brahmin caste, one of the leading communities of the district. A keen mathematician and an avid reader of Gujarati literature, Hirabhai had great fascination for the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagvat Gita, and by sheer hard work and sincerity he rose to become the Principal of a Women’s Training College at Ahmedabad. Mahadev too inherited many of his father’s qualities. At the young age of 13 Mahadev was married to Durgaben in 1905 and later the couple had one son, Narayan.

Mahadev Desai received primary and secondary education at different places like Surat, from where he matriculated in 1906, winning a scholarship for higher education. He joined the Elphinstone College at Bombay in 107 and graduated from there in 1910. He joined the Law College thereafter and got his LL.B in 1913. Throughout this formative period, he was deeply influenced by his teacher at Dihen, Manishankar, a strict disciplinarian and a lover of English language; by Jivanram Vaidya, recounting stories from the Puranas and Upanishads; and by Surbhai, the village doctor, and his musical sessions.

The ardent devotion of Bhagat Purshottam Sevakram at Bulsar and that of Arjun bhagat at Ghadkhol near Ankleshwar (whose compositions he latter collected and published in 1925), also left a deep impression on Mahadev Desai. Moreover, Dayalji Desai, of his own caste and a prominent nationalist leader of the district, left a marked imprint on Mahadev’s young mind by his patriotic feelings, idealistic way of life and utter simplicity, and inspired him to work on Gandhan lines.

After graduation Mahadev, while working for his livelihood, translated Lord Morley’s ‘On Compromise’ into Gujarati and won the hand some prize of a thousand rupees. This work was later published in 1925. He tried to practice law in courts but was not successful, and through his friend Vaikunthlal Lallubhai Mehta secured a job in a Cooperative Bank. But Mahadev soon got tired of the irregularities being practiced there as well as a lot of traveling involved in the job, and left it.

He had already cultivated a taste for reading since his College days, and all through this drab life he made an extensive study of literature in Gujarati, English, Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindi and Marathi. The month of August 1917, when Mahadev left Bank job, proved fateful, as he met Gandhiji on 31 August and found in him his Guru. Hereafter Mahadev as Gandhiji’s Secretary moved like a shadow behind him till his death.

After Mahadev Desai joined Gandhiji, three important events took place in their life as well as that of the country. These were the Champaran Satyagraha (1917), the Bardoli Satyagraha (1930), and in

all these Mahadev actively participated and courted arrest. In 1921 Gandhiji sent him to edit Motilal Nehru’s periodical, the Independent, Allahabad, and there too he was arrested and jailed. After his release in January 1923, he returned to Ahemdabad and looked after the editorial work of the Navajivan.

His sharp editorials on the hollowness of 1919 constitutional reforms and his tirade against the British Government kept up the tempo of the freedom struggle. Between 1924 and 1928 he toured the country with Gandhiji, explaining the sailent features of the freedom striggle. He accompanied Gandhiji in 1931 to the Round Table Conference in London. In the Quit India Movement of 1942, he along with Gandhiji was arrested and sent to the Aga Khan Palace for imprisonment, where he died peacefully on 15 August 1942, deeply mourned by the nation and by Gandhiji in particular who now considered himself an orphan.

After 1917 it was of course Gandhiji who profoundly influenced Mahadev Desai. Mainly through his writings Mahadevbhai interpreted Gandhian philosophy. That is why his friend Dr. Verrier Elwin called him “Bapu’s Boswell”. Learned introduction to the English translation of Gandhiji’s ‘Anassakti Yoga’ not only reveals Gandhiji’s ideas but his own understanding of Eastern and Western philosophies and religions. He also very effectively wielded his pen to explain some of the basic Gandhian tenets like Hindu-Muslim unity, removal of untouchability, improving the lot of women, promotion of Khaddar and cottage industries, labour welfare, need for basic Education, freedom for suppressed nationalities and Truth and Non-violence.

He has to his credit scores of articles published in the Young India, the Navjivan and the harijan on a variety of subjects from ‘Garud-Puran’ to the British policy in India. Due to his profound scholarship, clarity of mind, lucid style and chaste language, they carried great weight. His habit of keeping a diary with meticulous details has given eight voluminous works, published after his death, called ‘Mahadevbhai’s Diary’.

His original works either in English or in Gujrati include: ‘With Gandhi in Ceylon’ (1928); ‘The Story of Baardoli’; ‘Swadeshi-True and False’; Unworthy of Wardha’; ‘Eclipse of Faith’ (1929); ‘The Nation’s Voice’ (1932); ‘The Epic of Travanancore’ (1937); ‘Gandhi Sevva Sangh’ and ‘Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’ (1940); ‘kheti ni Jamin’ (Gujarati,1942); and ‘The Geeta according to Gandhi’ 1942); and ‘The Geeta according to Gandhi’ (1946).

His other Gujarathi works are on ‘Veer Vallabhbhai’, a biography of Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan in ‘Khudai Khidmatgar’, ‘Ek Dharmayuddha’ and ‘Sant Francis Xavier nun Jeevancharitra’. His translation include those from English and Bengali: ‘Satyagrah ni Maryada’ (a translation of Morley’s ‘On Compromise’), Sarat Chandra Chattopadhaya’s ‘Viraj Vahu’, and Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Prachin Sahitya’, ‘Chitrangada’ and ‘Viday abhishap’. Mahadev desai presided over the twelfth Gujarati Journalists’ Conference.

Devdas Gandhi is recorded to have said, “I wonder if half a dozen sectaries could do the work which Mahadev did alone.” Today, Mahadev Desai Samaj Mahavidyalaya in Gujrath Vidyapith, Ahmedbad, stands as a living monument to Mahadevbhai’s memory.

Author : V. K. Chavda