Exactly one refrain emanating from the 1970s generation encapsulates the significance of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday: a complaint that October 2nd is a Dry Day.
That’s what Gandhi has been reduced to after 65 years: a symbol of Prohibition that middle class India must vocally protest against. Of course, not with malice because somewhere deep down, Gandhi still commands respect.
I picked the 1970s generation because this generation has benefitted the most from liberalization and the reforms that followed during the NDA regime. Among other things, these benefits have included exposure to various cultures across the globe, which has shaped and changed its worldview. One of the most significant of these changes is the casting away of the irrational taboo—rooted in fear—against alcohol, a taboo to which Gandhi contributed in great measure. Contrary to what Bapu claimed, middle class India has discovered the immensely liberating effects of alcohol. Put another way, today’s middle class India has definitively discarded Mahatma Gandhi. Quite long ago. And most certainly not under influence.
However, while it lasted, Gandhi’s influence was enormous and almost all-pervasive. So much so that even a fine mind like Sita Ram Goel’s developed temporary opaqueness when it came to the subject of Mahatma Gandhi. The harshest criticism Goel reserves for Gandhi is a mild rebuke on the subject of the latter’s inordinate Muslim appeasement.
Now, don’t believe anybody who talks about how “complex” it is to write about Gandhi’s legacy. They’re either ignorant or hypocritical. There’s no third explanation. If not for any reason but for the simple fact that Gandhi happens to be perhaps the earliest and the most successful PR exercise—an exercise that still endures in the West. It’s as if there was no other contemporary leader in India who could effectively fight the British. It’s as if India had to await the Mahatma who came from South Africa, and in a few years, take over the Congress party and deliver freedom to the nation. Not characteristically very different from say, Jesus Christ and Mohammad.
But let’s cut the PR props.
Consider this: a sample of Gandhi’s “legacy” occurred in his own lifetime when the actual worth of the force of his “moral” and whatever other purity and force that supposedly made the mighty British tremble in their knees was put to test. The same throngs of Congress stalwarts who slaved for years at Gandhi’s feet simply bypassed him when the British announced that they wanted to finally quit. And then we have the well-known story of how the claim of “Partition over my dead body” was violently shattered. In both cases, he was left alone. Fasting. Only this time, nobody cared whether he lived or died at the end of the fast.
Bereft of all frills, Gandhi’s actual legacy is just twofold. One, he killed the spirit of free, fearless and robust intellectual discourse, which was thriving until the time of Balagangadhar Tilak and later, briefly, Aurobindo Ghosh. It is worth recalling what D.V. Gundappa wrote (which I’ve translated earlier) in this connection as early as 1928.
Newspapers prior to Gandhi’s time freely carried writings and debates on a broad range of diverse topics. It was commonly accepted by all readers that every question or issue had two, three, or even four alternative or differing perspectives. It was also equally accepted that it was essential to objectively examine each of these perspectives. Thus, Gokhale had his own path carved out, Tilak had his, Lala Lajpat Rai had his, and Surendranath Banerjee had his. Public discourse freely and gladly welcomed and allowed space for everybody. People examined the merits and deficiencies of disparate opinions.
After Gandhi entered the scene, people lost this practice of critically examining any topic or issue and approaching it from multiple perspectives. The emphasis suddenly shifted in favour of a unilateral political voice which therefore meant that no obstacle should hinder the Mahatma’s leadership. The impression sought to be conveyed to the British as well as the international community was that India had spoken if Gandhi had spoken and that he had no opposition. Gradually, a situation arose where people began to believe that unless this impression was convincingly made, we wouldn’t achieve Independence. No public gathering or speech was complete without the slogan of Gandhiji ki Jai! Slowly, this escalated to the level of thought—nobody could even think about Gandhi without the mandatory Mahatma prefix.
Our newspapers and opinion-makers quickly followed suit. Their stance was that perchance somebody found something to disagree with even one thing that Gandhi said, he or she had to compulsorily suppress its expression. Thus the national atmosphere of discourse quickly became one where nobody could ever think of something different from what Gandhi thought. The minds of the general public—both literate and otherwise—soon became habituated to conformity, which then turned to blind loyalty towards a partisan idea.
In this light, is it any wonder that a sub-standard mind like Nehru so easily became the first Prime Minister? And is it any surprise that people with original thought and spotless conduct were shunted out of the Indian National Congress barely years after we achieved Independence?
Two, Gandhi castrated India—I use that word with caution. Historically, the one thing that enabled India to withstand and successfully repulse the Islamic and other alien onslaughts for nearly a thousand years was the Kshatra or the warrior spirit. The native kingdoms were badly beaten and subdued but they were never fully conquered. They rebounded with double the vigour and reclaimed their ancestral homeland. In fact, as long as the Marathas and Ranjit Singh were around, the British found it really tough to take control of the entire country. And to their credit, praise is due to the British strategy: they spotted that this spirit of Kshatra was one of the biggest obstacles they had to overcome. Which they did. Indeed, from the 1857 revolt till the founding of the INA, there was not a single instance of a nationwide armed uprising against the British. Of these 85 years, Gandhi hogged the freedom struggle for a precious, ruinous 27 years (I’m counting from 1920 when he took over the Congress party’s leadership) and injected liberal doses of toxic non-violence into an already-oppressed nation. Christopher Hitchens, in a damning but highly accurate assessment, observes that Gandhi’s was not a “struggle for India, but with it.” (Italics in the original)
And because he is painted as the man who got us freedom, the logical question arises: did he really get us freedom? Put another way, did India really fight to obtain freedom? If we had really fought for freedom—if we had shed the blood of our own people and that of the British, there’s no way—and this has to be said again—we would have allowed a clueless person like Nehru to become Prime Minister. The maximum hardship that the leading non-violent lights of the freedom struggle had known were a few beatings and spells in jail—our first Prime Minister was fashionable even as a prisoner. Those who actually shed blood were few in number and mostly disorganized and fought in individual capacity and were therefore easily vanquished. Worse, they were chastised by that Apostle of non-violence who had patented the definitions of freedom struggle and patriotism. India didn’t really fight—with sweat and blood—for freedom. India blindly followed the personal prescriptions of right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral of one man. Barring the Dandi March, everything Gandhi touched turned to ashes. Pick any major failed epoch of the freedom struggle and you will see the Mahatma’s non-violent imprint of doom on it.
Gandhi’s heady potions of ahimsa and satyagraha robbed Indians of the incentive to put up a fierce resistance, the kind that actually made the British tremble in their knees, the kind that Subash Bose inspired. The idea of a violent freedom struggle is not the fact of using violence as an end in itself. Violent freedom struggle is effective when it is used as a brutal, fatal, and the ultimate weapon aimed at making it prohibitively expensive for the colonizer to remain for a minute longer in his ill-gotten empire. Indeed, the British couldn’t have asked for a better boon than Gandhi whose idea of a non-violent resistance must have amused them to no end. While they were merely beating up thousands of Gandhi’s minions, they meted out a different sort of treatment to the hapless millions in their other empires in various parts of Africa (it’d be instructive to find out if Gandhi had read Conrad’s heart-rending Heart of Darkness).
An even uglier facet of Gandhi’s legacy is hypocrisy. For a Mahatma who waxed eloquent about leading a moral and virtuous life, it boggles the mind how and why he was unable to instil these values into the heart and head of his blue-eyed boy. Nehru was as anti-Gandhi as it could get in these matters. While the Mahatma preached the evils of alcohol to the whole country, the blue-eyed boy showed no compunction in enjoying his favourite scotch or whatever other drink. While the Mahatma used the poor Manuben among other women as experiments to test the strength (or weakness depending on how you look at it) of his…err…passions, Nehru’s amorous exploits were as legendary as they were public knowledge. A truly moral and ethical person would’ve disowned a guy like Nehru the moment he was caught with his pan…errr…going wayward. Not only did he not disown him, he gifted the Prime Minister’s chair to the blue-eyed boy.
The result of this stifling of the intellect and castration has been disastrous. Even today, even the puniest of nations would’ve given a bloody reply to something like 26/11. What are we still doing? Let’s hear it from the mouth of S.M. Krishna, just 16 hours ago:
“In a difficult relationship like the one we have had with Pakistan, one should have lots of patience. India is known for its patience and perseverance. Patiently we will move in the direction in which we want,” Krishna said.
In other words, the perfect Gandhian approach. Not too different from what Gandhi wrote to Hitler addressing him as “My friend” (sic) :
It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success? Any way I anticipate your forgiveness, if I have erred in writing to you.
In other words: moving a foe, barbarian, and tyrant through kindness and purity of heart and universal love and appeal to peace. Coming from a lesser mortal, this can be accurately described in one word: delusion.
Belated Gandhi Jayanti.