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India Would Have Been a Totalitarian Not a Liberal Country Without Gandhi
His liberalism shines even more brilliantly on the 75th anniversary of his death
Soon after the release of Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic, Gandhi, which depicted India’s founding father as a remarkable man who ejected the British from his country without a shot being fired, Commentary magazine, to its eternal shame, ran a review by neoconservative Richard Grenier: “The Gandhi Nobody Knows.” Grenier was incensed that the movie depicted a “saintly, sanitized Mahatma Gandhi cleansed of anything too embarrassingly Hindu.”
So he took it upon himself to set the record straight. If the movie was uncritically pro-Gandhi, Grenier was relentlessly anti-Gandhi. In a bid to titillate Western audiences, he dug up details about Gandhi’s unusual personal philosophy and religious practices, stripped them of all internal context and presented them in the most salacious light. The unmistakable picture that emerged was that Gandhi was a kinky, vain hypocrite. It was an odious exercise, but it had a huge impact, opening a mini-front in the culture wars that were then just getting started. In fact, so delighted was the American right with Grenier’s edge-lordism that he turned the wretched piece into a full-fledged book by the same name.
The irony of course was that the same right that took so much pleasure in this nasty and meticulous attack on the political idol of another country could not abide even reasonable criticism of its own slave-owning founders, a far bigger hypocrisy than anything Gandhi ever did. No doubt one reason why the American right wanted to take Gandhi down a peg or two was because it felt threatened by his scathing critiques of modern, commercial societies, especially at a time when Soviet socialism was an extant challenge to American capitalism and the U.S. way of life. And truth be told, Gandhi’s economic views were naive and wrongheaded.
But if the American right was upset with Gandhi’s romantic socialism, today’s Hindu nationalists are even more upset with his secular and pluralistic ideals, which they regard as an impediment to turning India into a Hindu state in the way that neighboring Pakistan is an Islamic one. And with a Hindu nationalist like Narendra Modi now prime minister, they are taking the opportunity to settle their long-standing beefs—no pun intended—with Gandhi.
The 73rd anniversary of India’s Republic Day last week saw the release of another movie, Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh, this time by an Indian director. It too attempts to reassess Gandhi’s views and life. How? By presenting his assassin, Nathuram Godse, as his moral and intellectual equal. As writer Salil Tripathi noted at The UnPopulist, the film is tantamount to a Lincoln skeptic making Abe Lincoln-John Wilkes Booth: A Debate.
Today, it is exactly 75 years since Godse assassinated Gandhi. There is no better time to clean up the twin smears of him by the Western and the Indian right. India’s preeminent historian and Gandhi biographer, Ramachandra Guha, does this with great aplomb in the essay below, offering a forceful reminder of Gandhi’s enduring relevance to the world. Guha shows how Gandhi’s innate humanism led him naturally toward liberalism, because it is the only political philosophy that delivered on the key Gandhian objective of defending the equal dignity of all individuals, regardless of caste, creed, language, nation or religion.
One way to defend liberalism from the right-wing reactionary forces stirring in the world is by defending its heroes. And Gandhi was nothing if not a quintessential liberal hero, as Guha’s piece demonstrates.
Today, we mark the 75th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom. So long after his death, does Gandhi still matter? Should he matter? In this column, I shall offer 10 weighty reasons why Gandhi, his life and his ideas still matter in the third decade of the 21st century.
The first reason Gandhi matters is that he gave India, and the world, a means of resisting unjust authority without using force oneself. Interestingly, the idea of satyagraha (righteous nonviolent resistance) was born in a meeting held in Johannesburg’s Empire Theatre on September 11, 1906, when Indians under Gandhi’s leadership resolved to court arrest in protest against racially discriminatory laws. Ninety-five years later to the day, the World Trade Center was blown up by terrorists. Two 9/11s: one seeking justice through nonviolent struggle and personal sacrifice; the other seeking to intimidate the enemy through terror and force. As history has demonstrated, as a form of protest against injustice, satyagraha is more moral, as well as arguably more efficacious, than the alternatives. After its first iterations under British rule in South Africa and India, Gandhi’s method has had many remarkable emulators, most notably perhaps the civil rights struggle in the United States of America.
The second reason Gandhi matters is that he loved his country and culture while recognizing its disfiguring qualities and seeking to remedy them. As the historian Sunil Khilnani once remarked, Gandhi was not just fighting the British; he was also fighting India. He knew his society, my society, to be characterized by a deep and pervasive inequality. His struggle against untouchability came out of this desire to make Indians more fit for true freedom. And while by no means a thoroughgoing feminist, he did an enormous amount to bring women into public life.
The third reason Gandhi matters is that while a practicing Hindu, he refused to define citizenship on the basis of faith. If caste divided Hindus horizontally, religion divided India vertically. Gandhi struggled to build bridges between these vertical, and often historically opposed, blocs. The pursuit of Hindu-Muslim harmony was an abiding concern; he lived for it and, in the end, was prepared to die for it too.
The fourth reason Gandhi matters is that while steeped in Gujarati culture, and an acknowledged master of Gujarati prose, he was not a narrow-minded regionalist. Just as he had space and love for religions other than his own, he had space and love for languages other than his own. His understanding of the religious and linguistic diversity of India was deepened by his years in the diaspora, when his closest comrades were as often Muslim or Parsi as they were Hindu, and Tamil speakers as often as they were Gujaratis.
The fifth reason Gandhi matters is that he was both a patriot and an internationalist. He appreciated the richness and heritage of Indian civilization, yet knew that in the 20th century, no country could be a frog in the well. It helped if one saw oneself in the mirror of another. His own influences were as much Western as Indian. His philosophical and political outlook owed as much to Tolstoy and Ruskin as it did to Gokhale and Raychandbhai. He cultivated deep friendships across the racial divide with, among others, Henry and Millie Polak, Hermann Kallenbach and C.F. Andrews, all of whom played critical roles in his personal and his public life.
I am now going to pause and explain how, without these five aspects of Gandhi’s legacy, independent India might have chosen an altogether different path than it in fact did. Because Gandhi eschewed violence in favor of dialogue, this helped India emerge as a multiparty democracy, not a single-party totalitarian state (which was the fate of most Asian and African countries which chose the violent path to self-determination). Because people like Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar emphasized gender and caste equality, these principles were encoded in our Constitution. Because people like Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru emphasized religious and linguistic freedoms, India—unlike many other countries—did not define citizenship on the basis of a single superior religion and a single superior language.
As the invocation of Ambedkar and Nehru suggests, I would not for a moment claim that Gandhi alone contributed to the creation of an independent India with a democratic and inclusive political ethos. However, he played a critical role, through his leadership and his repeated emphasis on democracy, cultural pluralism and social equality.
The sixth reason Gandhi matters is that he was a precocious environmentalist who anticipated that unbridled growth and consumerism could bring planetary disaster. As he wrote in December 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” This was extraordinarily prescient, for in emulating the capital-intensive, resource-intensive and energy-intensive path of industrialization pioneered by the West, China and India are indeed threatening to strip the world bare like locusts. In his life and his work, Gandhi advocated an ethic of restraint and responsibility on whose wider acceptance the future of our planet may depend.
The seventh reason Gandhi matters was his ability to grow and evolve as he had fresh encounters and new experiences. A famous quote probably mistakenly attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes runs: “When the facts change, I change my mind. And how about you, sir?” A quote actually made by Gandhi, in 1934, is this: “I make no hobgoblin of consistency. If I am true to myself from moment to moment, I do not mind all the inconsistencies that may be flung in my face.”
Over the course of his life, Gandhi changed his mind on three critical issues in particular. These were race, caste and gender, on all of which he shed his youthful prejudices in favor of more progressive positions. From being an unthinking racist, he became a principled anti-racist; from challenging caste hierarchies timidly and hesitantly, he confronted them directly and unreservedly; from assigning nonpolitical roles to women, he came to wholeheartedly encourage their participation in the public sphere and in the freedom struggle.
The eighth reason Gandhi matters is that he had a rare knack of making leaders out of followers. He identified talent, nurtured and developed it, and then set it free to grow further on its own. Many of the disciples who flocked to him became major makers of history in their own right. These remarkable followers-turned-leaders included Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, C. Rajagopalachari, Zakir Husain, J.B. Kripalani, J.C. Kumarappa, Sarala Devi (Catherine Mary Heilmann) and many, many others.
Gandhi’s ability to nurture future leaders is in striking contrast to the inability to do so of the three most influential prime ministers of independent India. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi have varied greatly amongst themselves in terms of character and political ideology. However, in one respect they are akin—the tendency to identify the party, the government, the State with themselves. Indira carried this personalization of power much further than Nehru, and Modi has carried it even further than Indira. Yet all saw themselves as somehow indispensable and irreplaceable. They did little to foster the next generation of leaders. (Outside politics, this trait of personalizing authority is also characteristic of many Indian corporate leaders, as well as heads of Indian civil society organizations, who likewise encourage an identification of the organization with themselves.)
The ninth reason Gandhi matters was his willingness to see the opponent’s point of view, coupled with his readiness to reach out to them and seek an honorable compromise. Thus, his patient attempt, over many years, to find common ground with political adversaries, such as Jinnah (founder of Pakistan) and Ambedkar, and with imperial proconsuls in South Africa and India as well. Gandhi had no personal dislikes or hatreds, only intellectual or political differences, and these also he hoped he could resolve. He had an absolute inability to bear grudges.
The 10th reason Gandhi matters is the transparency of his political life. Anyone could walk into his ashram; anyone could debate with him; indeed, as eventually happened, anyone could walk up to him and murder him. What a contrast this is with the security-obsessed lives of other political leaders, whether in his time or ours!
The lessons from Gandhi’s life that I have outlined here are not necessarily of relevance to his country alone. However, in a climate of aggressive religious majoritarianism, a political culture of invective and abuse, the purveying of falsehoods and untruths by leaders and governments, the ravaging of the natural environment, and the creation of personality cults, it may be in India that they matter most of all.
This article was originally printed in The Telegraph of Kolkata. It is used here with the permission of the writer.