This is a bi-annual ritual: the recalling of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on October 2 and January 30. Columnists, public intellectuals, politicians and activists contribute to a 24-hour cycle of Gandhi-ism. The critics of Gandhi are equally active, ensuring that his ideas and he are problematised. Once these days pass, it is back to work as usual, unless, of course, there is some other utilitarian need to recall the old man.
Two words that appear in bold letters when we think of Gandhi are ‘truth’ and ‘non-violence’. Critics will argue that this comes from the myth created around him and that he had no copyright on these expressions. As true as that is, the pre-eminence of these ideas in Gandhi’s discourse and work is unquestionable. In the Indian subcontinent, we often struggle with the intimate co-existence of critique and learning. We believe one nullifies the other. The reality, on the other hand, is that they need one another for any constructive movement. Hence, both hagiography and villainisation are self-defeating. With regards to truth and non-violence, it can be said without doubt that the intellectual, emotional and physical processes that Gandhi put in place were truly unmatched. This is the most fascinating aspect of his personal and public journey.
I constantly heard people speak of our times as the era of post-truth. But I did not know its meaning until I repeatedly came across its usage. Post-truth is a state where habits, feelings and impressions — rather than facts — are far more influential in shaping public opinion. This means that it is also easier to manipulate people. Many are convinced that post-truth is today the dominant influencer. The inference is that, in the past, it was not so; at least not to this extent. I beg to disagree. Post-truth has always been the way we have functioned as a social species. What we believe, trust, fear, love, eulogise or malign are not determined by facts, detailed analysis or data. They are almost always born out of emotions generated from embedded social practices. In order to fortify them, we call upon tradition, anecdotes and resort to convenient reinterpretations.
Gandhi’s greatest challenge was post-truth. The Indian social universe was overflowing with ways of living established by the powerful that inevitably oppressed the powerless. In order to tackle this inequality, Gandhi inverted the understanding of truth that the powerful had inherited and internalised. He dislodged truth from its long-held theological location of an ultimate divine revelation. Truth was not the direct target; it became a byproduct of honesty, humanism and compassion. Only goodness mattered. If that quality could be inculcated, truth would take care of itself.
Through this creative rearrangement, Gandhi subverted misrepresentations that Indian society was rampantly propagating. Significantly, this was not just an intellectual exercise; he possessed the emotional conviction to do so. Gandhi’s strength was not necessarily the rational argument. It often took root in emotional metamorphosis. Gandhi knew that change — be it in himself or others — could only come from the experience of ethicality. Hence, every device that he evolved sought to give each individual an opportunity to pause unselfishly.
Lies and half-truths
Once truth is removed from the spotlight, all the baggage that misleads us towards self-affirming untruths dissolve. What remains is brutal honesty. The truth that emerges from this state is not an unsullied pristine tale. It is, instead, a messy muddle of uncomfortable storylines. Gandhi, unfortunately, pushed this churning further to a puritanical, nearly monk-ish routine, which arrested the possibility for diversity in discovery. This is also possibly why Gandhi himself was unable to let go of some of his own post-truths! Something that stopped him from understanding caste and his own participation in the caste order. But we must marvel at the direction he took in addressing the knotty question of truth. He kept it in the present and forced people to recognise that they can experience it only through the interrogation of thought and action.
Gandhi’s spiritual centring too cannot be ignored. His religious practice resided in the ‘Hindu’. But this Hindu was a product of his own imagination. At the time that he put forth such a proposal, Hindu revivalist symbolisms were dominating the nationalistic theatre. Gandhi too turned backwards to cull out a more inclusive elucidation of his faith and incorporated many hymns, chants and rituals from the past. But what he was indeed doing was subversion. Attempting a new order in which democracy, equality, justice and resistance was at the core of its spiritual practice.
Today, we are struggling with a majority that is fed and believes lies, half-truths and connivingly formulated propaganda. No amount of trustworthy information seems to make a dent. People will only change if they find selflessness within. This requires an emotional evolution. Once this is even marginally achieved, the othering of people, the cruel insensitivity towards violence, and the pathological need to paint a false picture of the past will diminish. Gandhi has shown us a pathway.
Fear and hate
Where does non-violence fit into the scheme? Converting non-violence into politically charged action was a radical act, but it did not emerge in isolation. It was born from Gandhi’s reframing of the truth.
The self-reflective nature of his truth made non-violence non-negotiable. This truth was not competing with another version. It did not look to conquer or victimise, and allowed multiple honest perspectives to intertwine. Nothing needed to be erased, made superior or condemned, even if it meant the seeker himself would be indicted. Such a welcoming and non-competitive excavation of the truth could only be non-violent.
We are all engulfed in fear and hate. Every day we engage in an exercise of pointing fingers at some person or community for all evils. These accusations are built on post-truth and vileness. The targets are collectively despised, their ancestry mutilated, and lives dismissed. Someone else, who is not part of our artificially consecrated social fabric, is always at fault — the outsider. “The violence I unleash is only in my defence. I am safe-guarding our interests.” These are the common refrains. In the personal battle to fit in and establish or perpetuate personal relevance, we have normalised barbarity. Breaking out of this trap cannot be an incremental process. It requires a drastic break from the norm. Through a philosophical framework based on a profound re-imagining of truth and non-violence, Gandhi has given us the tools to make that change.
Gandhi was, undoubtedly, a revolutionary who systematically broke down the walls that kept people separated. What makes him special though is that, even when the anti-British sentiment was at its height, and everyone else was looking outside for activism, Gandhi reminded Indians that freedom can only be achieved through the realisation of internal liberty. This was his truth.
The writer is a musician, author and activist.