My Gandhi, your Gandhi

Gandhi, the most famous dissenter of the 20th century, has become a “Master” who is above reproach.  


As another Oct. 2 passes by, the author reflects on the ‘mindlessness’ that afflicts both worshippers and critics of Bapu.

“But they killed you, the naked you/your blood with mud was gooey goo/Sadist fool, you killed your body
 many times before this too/Bapu, bapu, you big fraud, we hate you.”

Me ena Kandasamy, “Mohandas Karamchand”.

Last year, the Malayalam poet and activist Sugathakumari refused to release a book of poetry by writer Meena Kandasamy. The reason was that the collection contained the above poem on Gandhi, “Mohandas Karamchand,” which in her view, contained “objectionable” views about the Father of the Nation. According to Sugathakumari, “The poem is so derogatory and insulting to the Mahatma that I can’t release such a book with my hands.” After all, she was “a person who has always regarded Gandhiji as a master.”

One of the tragedies of our Republic is that over sixty years, Gandhi, the most famous dissenter of the 20th century, has become a “Master” who is above reproach. It is this myth-building that scarcely wants to look at the imperfections of Gandhi that forces people like the British historian Perry Anderson to prick the halo that surrounds Gandhi as he did through a recent polemic. For Anderson, the silence around critical Western works on Gandhi “is an intellectual scandal which reflects poorly on local opinion.”

Nevertheless, Gandhi's critics, from the Dalits to feminists to communists, have managed to escape the culture of deification to launch scathing criticisms. It is possible to understand the Dalitanger when theyask: How can a mind as astute as Gandhi’s not see the eviscerating oppression of the untouchables, and the sheer impossibility of simply “reforming” a caste society of the scale that India has by just hoping for an upper caste change of heart? The fact that we are still legislating laws to end manual scavenging, after a hundred years since Gandhi returned to India to begin his political career, raises serious questions about the Gandhian path to ending caste.

While such questions are absolutely vital, these critics have also fundamentally failed in one important measure: by reducing Gandhi to his worldly person and actions, they have completely ignored the ideas that have transcended his bodily existence. Ironically, here, they are united with the worshippers of Gandhi who have mindlessly “followed” him.

The tragedy of deification is that more than the fact that Gandhi the person was not critically evaluated; it completely rendered harmless his radical and “dangerous” ideas, like non-violence. As a result, we have been forced to consume trivialised versions of them through popular kitsch like the Gandhigiri of a Munna Bhai. The critics too, by only focusing on the project of reducing Gandhi to a mere mortal, missed what is truly revolutionary about his thought, that the act of telling the truth can shake the foundations of the mightiest of powers. Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden — no Gandhians — are only the latest examples of the quest for truth since the birth of human societies.

They also miss the fact that the irony of propagating truth is that the propagator itself cannot help escape its clutches. So if Gandhi strayed from the path of truth in keeping the Hindu community together at the expense of the untouchables (as Kandasamy’s poem would accuse: “You knew, you bloody well knew/Caste won’t go, they wouldn’t let it go”), or employed duragraha in his political opposition to Ambedkar, and in his relationship with women in his many experiments of brahmacharya, he cannot emerge unscathed.

To truly honour Gandhi is not to deify him, but to hold Gandhi against Gandhi; to turn the search for truth and the insistence on the truth to his person as well. In a story from 1939, my spouse’s grandfather and his friend go to see Gandhi who was travelling through Agra railway station in one of the thousands of political journeys he has undertaken. But surging crowds and a stampede led to the friend being critically injured. Aghast at his friend’s fate, grandfather writes to Gandhi blaming him for the incident, and accusing him of being a political exhibitionist who was craving publicity. Gandhi writes back expressing remorse and also stating that that he could not but publicise his political travels.

Questions have always been asked of Gandhi and satyagraha demands that this practice be strengthened. Yet, the truth-seeking about Gandhi cannot descend into tawdriness (which, needless to say, is not backed by any scholarship), like the recent equation of Gandhi with Asaram Bapu!

Gandhi might have failed on many counts and there will be contradictions in his application of ahimsa, brahmacharya and satyagraha. But where he will not fail is in inaugurating a new imagination in modern politics which has been suffused with power and violence. When we recoil in horror at pre-modern and medieval barbarities, we ignore that the birth pangs of modernity have been devastating. The political scientist R.J. Rummel estimates that in the 20th century, 260 million people have been killed in democide, that is, by their own governments. Remember that this is beyond the number of deaths in wars and battles. And to think Gandhi lived in the same century!

Authoritarian governments have obviously killed more people than democracies, and it is obvious where the solution lies. But there cannot be a democracy without dialogue. As the Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud puts it: “Satyagrah or dayabal (the force of truth or the force of love) is a dialogue humanising those who engage in it.” We, of course, are in the beginning of the new century and living under more democracies than ever before in human history. The world is also not becoming more violent as argued by Joshua Goldstein, the author of Winning the War on War. He points out that the last decade has seen the fewest number of war deaths in 100 years.

While this is indeed a cause for some relief, violence has obviously not disappeared. And, we now have something that we did not possess before, the ability to destroy the entire planet at the press of a single button. While we kill less, we have increased the ability to kill everything, including ourselves, manifold. More importantly, the contours of violence have changed. Violence in the present is not simply the physical elimination of human beings, but a violence that encompasses our entire existence. The violence of imagination, for example, that has finally cloned human embryos, raising unprecedented ethical dilemmas despite the professed benefits.

A hundred years ago, Gandhi’s prognosis of modernity and Western civilisation was derided as the delusions of a man stuck in time. But now, Western philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues in his book Living in the End Times that the “global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point.” He speaks of “the ecological crisis, the consequences of the biogenetic revolution, imbalances within the system itself (problems with intellectual property; forthcoming struggles over raw materials, food and water), and the explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.” The human and ecological destruction already wreaked by people who did not understand communism is also already before us. Can we believe, in this conjuncture, that ahimsa (even if there is nothing like absolute non-violence) along with aparigraha — non-possession — another concept propagated by Gandhi, will not have at least some answers to the current crisis?

But the narcissism of our age makes us believe that all answers lie within the modern, even when estimates say we have caused more destruction to the planet in the last 60 years than the whole of prior human history! To question this does not mean that we take the impossible flight to the past, to seek answers only in tradition, as if there is something like that frozen in time. There is no Ram Rajya from the past waiting for us. It means that the answers can only emerge through a productive dialogue between modernity and tradition, between the past and the present. It is here that Gandhi stands as an irascible reminder of the incompleteness of the modern, its materialist excesses, its emptiness and its severance of one human from another. If Kandasamy rebukes Gandhi for haunting us now, “with spooky stick, a eerie laugh or two,” she is unwittingly correct.

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Gandhi is to extricate politics from its eternal association with power and amorality/immorality to see it is an ethical realm, even if he is criticised for the religious hue that he gave it. The demonisation of politics and politicians continues; the latest example of which is the Anna Hazare-led civil society movement. The confining of the political as an autonomous sphere beyond good and evil is a pathology of our present condition which leads us to talk in the language in which, say, human beings with hopes and aspirations become mere “collateral damage.” Gandhi’s revolt is against this by merging the political, the personal and the ethical.

A material reorganisation towards a just society presupposes the force of truth as well as the force of love. But the Gandhi of the future cannot just be the Gandhi who actually lived. It will be the idea of Gandhi. But not an idea stretched seamlessly that it became the Gandhi of the peasants of Gorakhpur in the 1920s, as documented by the historian Shahid Amin, who were looting and committing violence in Gandhi’s name! It will also not be the Gandhi that Ambedkar called “petty-minded.” It will not be the Gandhi staring at us from currency notes and statues. It will be a Gandhi chastened by his critics. It will be a humbler Gandhi fulfilling his promise of dialogue, but because of that, shining more luminously. It is only then my Gandhi can become your Gandhi as well.

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Printable version | Apr 25, 2017 5:57:59 PM |