In Defence of the Vanguard : Gandhi (II)

One of the most significant determinants of Indian Politics since the beginning of this millennium has been the burgeoning reach of the social media. Social media has become a force to reckon with, and the political fortunes of many a political parties and social movements can be attributed to this network. Not just in India, but world over, political and social reform movements, like Black Lives Matter in the US, the populist Five Star movement in Italy and the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP in the recent past can be attributed in part to intensive social media manoeuvring. While it is easier more than ever to organise and speak out, the growth of fake news, proliferation of conspiracy theories and chat room hate, have been its side-effects, so much so that the ‘Father of the Nation’ has not been spared.

A couple of years back, I was scrolling my facebook feed (facebook then was still the sojourn of millennials, unlike the bastion of the middle-aged it has become today). A post caught my eye, “the true colours of Gandhi’ it read, on clicking it I was bombarded with conspiracy theories and deeply disparaging remarks about Gandhi and tales of his misdemeanor(which had no root in reality). The question of why would anyone resort to such means, vexed me deeply and today turns out there might be an answer. But to do that one must sketch the vast and complex life of the Mahatma and truly talk about the ‘true colours of Gandhi’

Gandhi, Gujarat and the UK

Gandhi as all know was born in what is modern day Gujarat. His father was a Dewan, in the Princely state of Porbandar and Gandhi had a difficult childhood, vitiated by all the social-evils imaginable. From stealing from his father, to contemplating suicide, Gandhi had in many ways the upbringing of a truant teenager. But these formative years, shaped and deepened his conviction in truth and non-violence, which he would go on to propound as a philosophy later in his life. Gandhi decided to cross the seas, something which was his first act of ‘disobedience of societal norms’ and studied to become a barrister in the United Kingdom. In his time there ,Gandhi had a brush with many ideologies and even struggled with speaking in public, a fear which he overcame with great difficulty. After having called to the bar, Gandhi left for India, upon his mother’s death and stayed on in India doing minor drafting work. And then came the call to go to South Africa, a pivot which gave us the Gandhi we know today,

Gandhi and South Africa

Gandhi arrived in South Africa for a case involving Muslim traders and stayed on. During this period Gandhi was well aware of the common bonds that united the Indian Diaspora in South Africa. He was appalled at the discrimination brown people had to undergo in South Africa; the push for action came with the incident of Pietmatisburg. Gandhi became a crusader for the rights of brown people in South Africa; he underwent incarceration and fought legal battles. The foundation of Gandhi as a reformer was laid in South Africa.

Now here one must acknowledge the furore over Gandhi’s ‘racist’ comments and beliefs and address them. Gandhi  was infact a believer in supremacy of the White and Indian race over the Black race, whom he has been quoted to have called ‘savages’, when he first ‘arrived’ in South Africa. But he soon shed that belief, something his critics have yet to acknowledge. When evaluating this facet of his personality, one must not commit the most common fallacy one is wont to, ‘Judge 19th century Gandhi by 21st century values’. Gandhi’s believes were infact widely held and exhorted by many people of his time. Gandhi outgrew those beliefs, which is evident in his support for liberties of Black people, later in his life. The greatest condonation comes from the greatest crusader against the apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Mandela has acknowledges Mahatma Gandhi as his Guru and called himself a ‘pilgrim to the shrine of Gandhi’ on his visit to India.

Gandhi and India

Gandhi came to India in 1915, the time of a lull in Indian politics. Congress had split in 1907 and much of the national movement was divided and scattered. It fell on the likes of Gandhi to pull the Congress together. This was a time when Gandhi, who had thus far lived abroad and learnt of India only through newspapers and occasional interactions with his mentor Gokhale and other nationalist leaders, actually got to know India. He travelled extensively and led the Champaran Movement in 1917, which made him a truly national leader. He met Patel during the Bardoli Satyagraha, and a bond was forged which lasted till his death. The aforementioned satyagrahas were Gandhi’s first awakening in India, and both were resounding success. The story of the national movement is common knowledge and there is no point elaborating it. One must however delve into the facets of Gandhi and his relationship with other leaders.

Gandhi’s Philosophy and the Ashram

Gandhi is known world over for his unique philosophy, which till today has a staunch, and sometimes misguided set of practitioners. Gandhi was a believer as we know of truth and non-violence and the proponent of the tool of Satyagraha. Satyagraha was an all encompassing doctrine, the core of which was truth. Gandhi believed that all religions were in their own way disposed towards truth and there was more than one way of finding the truth(‘T’ruth as he wrote it) i.e. God.

Gandhi’s unique political organisation was based on mass mobilisation and Civil Disobedience. This he derived from the seminal work of Henry Thoreau, ‘Civil Disobedience’. Thoreau was an American transcendentalist philosopher, who was best known as a tax-resister, a practice Gandhi was to adopt in the Non-Cooperation and more importantly in the Civil-Disobedience Movements.

Gandhi was a staunch critic of industrialisation. Had he been alive, he would have been appalled at the damage we have done to the world, through our conspicuous consumption and production. He presaged the loss of jobs through modernisation and called for villages to become ‘self-sufficient’ units. While it is hard for us to predict what that India would have looked like, maybe the brouhaha over GDP growth would have been replaced by Gross National Happiness.  

Another crucial aspect of Gandhi’s philosophy was Stoicism. Gandhi often was known to have no ill-feeling towards the British themselves but only their government. He took the entire wrath that the British spewed stoically and challenged their government, not their existence. Infact one of the longest and Best friends of Gandhi was British national C.F. Andrews, someone who was the only person who was privileged to address him as ‘Mohan’, and not one of his plethora of sobriquets. Gandhi can also been seen to have been inspired by Greek Philosopher ‘Epicurus’.  Gandhi’s Ashram closely resembled ‘Epicurus’ Kommune’ a place where one could live with ones friends and savour the small gifts of life. Much like Epicurus, who was much defamed, so much so that we have a word ‘Epicurean (meaning one who indulges in sensual enjoyment of life) named after him, Gandhi’s Ashram too was much defamed. While it is true that Gandhi was deeply eccentric, the accusations against Gandhi, much like those on Epicurus, of orgies and lasciviousness, do not stand any chance. These conspiracy theories, much in the vogue these say should be completely ruled out.

Gandhi, Patel and Bose

The present government at the centre, has for long championed the name of Patel and drawn parallels with the incumbent PM Narendra Modi. But the truth is Patel’s ideologies were deeply different from NaMos. Patel was a life-long Congressman and believer in the secular tapestry of India. Gandhi has been accused by many of sidelining Patel and propping Nehru. These allegations are baseless. Patel never expressed his willingness to become PM, let alone be sidelined. The choice of the PM aptly reflected the political situation of the time. Patel was a conservative, and the Congress party was then comprised of people from all ideological spectrum. It was only right that Nehru who was a centrist, become the PM of this ideological coalition. The tales of love lost between Patel and Gandhi are myths created for political mileage says Gandhi Chronicler Ram Guha(recommend Ram Guha’s blogs for further reading). The appropriation of Patel by the Janta Parivar is a deep misunderstanding and the Congress which clearly forgot Patel, soon after his death is equally to be blamed for it.

Bose similarly had ideological differences with Gandhi, but that Bose was an adversary of Gandhi is similarly a politically motivated propaganda. Bose named regiments of the INA after Gandhi and Nehru. He began his much publicised radio addresses as the leader of Provisional government of India in exile, by addressing ‘the father of the nation’.

One sees today an attempt to malign Gandhi also by juxtaposing him with Bhagat Singh, something which should not be done. Bhagat Singh was a brave-heart whose sacrifice though great, was not condoned by Gandhi given his violent means. Gandhi writes to Rajguru and explains his stance

You must know that it is against my creed to punish even a murderer, thief or a dacoit. There can be no excuse for suspicion that I did not want to save Bhagat Singh. But I want you to realise Bhagat Singh’s error. The way they pursued was wrong and futile. I wish to tell these young men with all the authority with which a father can speak to his children that the way of violence can only lead to perdition.

Gandhi’s failure in asking for clemency for Bhagat Singh, should not be understood as his arrogance. A similar action by Dalai Lama proves this point. Tibetans have been immolating themselves for sometime now, asking for freedom. But Dalai Lama says that he can’t indict, nor condone people who do this. For if he criticizes these acts the families of the dead would feel their children died for nothing. But if he were to support them, then more such immolation would follow. Gandhi’s neutrality on this issue, saved many such brave-hearts from falling prey to militant nationalism.

At the end of this abnormally long post, one must concede that Gandhi was in many ways just as human, his greatness though came from his unique approach to problems. While it is untenable on our part to follow his teachings religiously, we have much to learn from this man and much to introspect. We can surely debate his actions, but to indulge in name calling and innuendos for narrow political gains would do great disservice to our rich heritage. Gandhi continues to be a beacon of humanity, in a world where public life has been overtaken by the likes of Gaikwad and the Shiv Sena.


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