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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 41, Dated 13 Oct 2012
    CULTURE & SOCIETY  
    BOOKS

    How ‘Mahatma’ Betrays Gandhi

    Is a flattened, boxed and labelled Gandhi the parable of our times, asks Aditi Saxton

    Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

    IN A summarily scathing scan, an early template for modern practitioners of the negative literary review, György Lukács appraised Rabindranath Tagore as a libellous pamphleteer in intellectual service to the British police. The thrust of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher’s objection was that the ‘universal’ quality ascribed to Tagore, his ‘eternal truths’ have nothing to say “to the people of that age in their sufferings and their strivings.” He damns Tagore’s work as a feeble crony nationalism, that seeks to equip colonies for self-rule by ardently imitating the English. And in the self-serving cupidity of a self-avowed patriot, Sandip from The Home and the World, he sees a contemptible caricature of Gandhi.

    The Impossible Indian
    Faisal Devji
    Harvard University Press
    213 pp; Rs 893


    ALSO READ

    A Trail Run Cold

    Suffer Cheerfully
    Gandhi versus Hindutva

    Jinnah Vs Gandhi
    Roderick Matthews
    Hachette
    336 pp; Rs 499


    The Man before
    The Mahatma

    Charles DiSalvo
    Vintage Books
    472 pp; Rs 599


    Lukács’ underpinning notion is that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was specifically not the purveyor of universal truths in the vein of Tagore, far too active to be classed as pacifist. Almost a century and a quarter after his birth, the Gandhi we inherit, through versions of hagiographies as history, is all about the essence of mankind, the bigger life lessons — tethered in an era of upheaval but true for all time. He is not a mouthpiece but an embodiment of a venerated idea, that by surrendering you can conquer. He is life as message, he is the change he wished to see, he foresaw that the world was sufficient for man’s need but not his greed, and service before self to him wasn’t an emblazoned motto but a mode of life.

    The mere mention of his name is an invocation of a higher order of spirituality on any political action. In immediate memory it’s yoked to the Arab Spring. Yemenese Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkol Karman in her visit to New Delhi did the obliging incantation, saying it was he “who inspired the peaceful struggle world over and it became Gandhi brand name, Gandhi copyright”. This in no way detracts from Karman’s accomplishment that her English is clunky. And if the usage is unfortunate, it is also accurate. Gandhi suffers from the fallout of an overexposed brand, weakened by the jingle appeal of once potent slogans — ahimsa and satyagraha.

    The compendium of scholarship that follows in Gandhi’s hallowed steps has had a deeper tread, even as common conceptions of him grow flimsier, more lightweight, collapsible into epigrammatic quips that nonetheless headline what pass for popular up risings, like the post-26/11 ‘Be the Change’ campaign. New books, academic Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian, historian Roderick Matthews’ Jinnah Vs Gandhi and law professor Charles DiSalvo’s The Man Before the Mahatma, are outlier manifestations of an annually renewed public interest in Gandhi, each historically rigorous and topical. I heard the more typical representation of the once-yearly remembrance: on this Gandhi Jayanti we should see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, and listen instead to the good music on Radio 92.7 FM.

    Matthews’ book contrasts Jinnah and Gandhi’s vision for a nation. It’s roped in by its own refereeing of a match between boxers in different categories, but determined still to declare the heavyweight as champion. It is regardless, a clear tripartite exposition that puts events, people and systems of political thought besides Gandhi’s stated public actions. And Gandhi was a man of many, many words. Returning to India as a middle-aged man in 1915, he was a political tenderfoot, considered innocent of India, whose reputation rested on his role in mobilising a disenfranchised community at another imperial outpost. He came armed only with a manifesto, Hind Swaraj, which has since acquired the reverential veneer of a revealed text, hastily inscribed as it was on the nine-day voyage onboard the SS Kildonan Castle, and observed in principle for the rest of his life. From under the aegis of the measured moderate Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who insisted upon a year’s political moratorium spent touring the country, Matthews shows us that Gandhi comes out of the corner with both arms swinging. In early 1916, bouncing with confidence and zeal, he roundly scolds the rajas and potentates of princely states for their ostentation, the Viceroy for layers of security separating him from the people, and asks the question he will pose repeatedly. What will replace the rule of the Englishman?

    He had formulated a rousing retort. Satyagraha was never a path of protest leading to a political goal. If reducible at all, it is a system of thought that seeks through suffering, spiritual succour and love to draw an opponent into the resolution of conflict. Love in the time of Facebook would call that shaming. It was an outrageous and, at the time, practically indefensible attack on the principles of the Enlightenment. It pities the poor souls trapped in their Western conceit, slaves to industrialisation. They’d never know the beauty and the simplicity of the self-sufficient Indian peasant. But Satyagraha, despite periodic and insistent proclamation of it being the need of the hour, the call of the day, has slacked. With Independence gained, the fearful trip was done, the prize we sought was won, and Gandhi’s murder in 1948 took the wind out of sails already flapping feebly. Matthews reckons, “Fate has been kind to the Mahatma. He never achieved his dream, and so, unlike Jinnah’s it has remained unsullied by failure.”

    In involved academic circles, his political failure is touted as fact. The graph is plotted on three major disruptions: Civil Disobedience (1920-22) with the Khilafat as cause was suspended when 23 police officers were burnt by a mob at Chauri Chaura; Non-Cooperation (1930-31) where he deploys considerable media savvy to garner support for the Dandi March is a qualified success that ratchets down further when factoring the very significant human cost of non-violence; and Quit India (1940-41) despite the address at Gowalia Tank, may not be ascribable to him anyway, after his partially voluntary withdrawal from the affairs of the Indian National Congress. Faisal Devji argues that Gandhi is radical, and as a practitioner of his own philosophy, not obdurate and narrow but astute and coherent. The crests and troughs of a career do not take a jot away from his contribution to universal thought; for envisioning “what a ‘citizenship of the world’ might look like, that does not invoke the rights of man”.

    Gandhi’s modern, progressive appeal elides the violence he considers inherent to capitalism. Quotes regularly unearthed in his writing are examined with a curiosity reserved for flies fossilised in amber, or are hauled over historical hot coals since placing them within Satyagraha is unwieldy. Homilies to the Britons to give up their beautiful islands and beautiful buildings to Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini, assertions that the Holocaust could be turned into a “day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant” are consistent with his position. If conceived as a concentric ripple of goals, Gandhi’s conception of Swaraj is the closest circle, its proximity blurring the acuity of his vision. But the Satyagraha he advocated (skills acquired at London’s Inner Temple were purposed to project his Inner Voice) was the one to strive for and he saw it clearly.

    DiSalvo in The Man Before the Mahatma traces how a diffident man, with faddish views on diet and sex, finds his centre as a big fish in the small South African pond. The fixity that critics see as a dodge and feint tactic for divisive agendas are the measure of the man — some Muslims, among them Jinnah, thought him a wily proponent of Hindu raj while some Hindus, among them his assassin Nathuram Godse, thought he violated “the just interests of some thirty crores of Hindus.” The Left construed his nationalist demands an elaborate cover for big business interests, and the Right considered his anti-industrialisation regressive.

    Gandhi mainly suffers from the fallout of an overexposed brand, we akened by the jingle appeal of once potent slogans

    1n 1922, to Lukács, who sees him with a panoptic lens that still cannot peer at future epitaphs, Gandhi is an influential man not bogged by bourgeois concerns, an accomplished anti-imperialist who with some adroit marshalling, can march with the Marxists. Gandhi does after all believe that a leader should be made in the image of his people. That it involves not a capitalist uplift but a spiritual elevation of the masses is either a falling out of rank or a minor shuffle, worth tracking either way. In 2012, distorted by the long angled lens of time, there’s no sharp image to focus on. The contemplation of a moral existence is now a matter of sliding definitions and declensions. The philosophical challenge Gandhi posed to the engine of capitalism, becomes corporeal, bound to a wizened, slightly stooped and spectacled silhouette, so handy to a global imagination. The renunciation of the whole panem et circenses of hyper consumption is already a relic, an ahistoric blip on civilisation’s radar. Which may be why Gandhi is now ossified as a multi-volume footnote to his own quotable quotes.

    Aditi Saxton is Features Editor, Tehelka.
    aditi@tehelka.com


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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 41, Dated 13 Oct 2012
 

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