Gandhi accepted his faults, so should we

Be aware of demagogues and don’t let national icons become a political tool. There’s nothing wrong in seeing Gandhi as a human who achieved great feats and yet had many flaws.

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Today is Gandhi Jayanti. His 149th birth anniversary. Official celebrations are of course being carried out. Narendra Modi is on an overdrive to ‘prove’ that he ‘inherited’ the legacy of Gandhi. His ‘swachch bharat’ campaign is nothing but an attempt to deviate from the real issues of the nation.
Gandhi has both devotees and detractors. Many people love his ‘spiritualism’ but in the Congress party, in those days many did not agree with his ‘spiritualism’ yet remained with him because of his political battle. The fact is that even if we disagree with many of his views, even me, Gandhi remains the person who influenced our political destiny in the 20th century. He was the person around whom India’s political struggle revolved during the British Raj.
The crisis in India is making the icons gods and putting them on a pedestal so that nobody can criticise them. It is not merely with Gandhi but others too. India today is a country of ‘camp’ followers who can be ‘rational’ about ‘others’ but mindlessly follow their ‘own’. We do not question our own because we feel that they are completely perfect. All the political leaders or human beings have negative sides too and they must be critiqued where they fail. The attempt to make a superhero is a dangerous thing which disallows people to learn from the mistake.
Gandhi was the ‘first’ brand that the capitalist world created. In a democratic society you don’t need this branding but when we inherit imported democracies, these brand are used to promote the political interest of the power elite. Branding is done carefully and the biggest casualty of branding is historical facts. Once a person becomes a brand, you cannot discuss his failures or darker sides. That happened with Gandhi. The state promoted him at the cost of others as if the freedom movement remained confined to him. Historians became his devotees who were not writing history but ‘puranas’ and ‘mythologies’ and the result is that our children still feel ‘de di hame aazadi bina khadag bina dhaal, sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamaal’. These are simple generalisations and over-glorification of the person who was definitely the leader of our political movement.
Gandhi gave us political tools to fight against the might. One must learn from his skills of mobilisation. You may differ with him but he had the capacity to bring together the huge number of political leaders from diverse cultural backgrounds. Congress became a movement where he said that it is not merely a political battle but focus on village level issues including untouchability and problems of the peasants. Before him, the Congress party was a Hindu upper caste party but to Gandhi’s credit, he ensured the representation of Muslims in it.
Gandhi knew the impact of symbolism. He knew that Indian masses would love an image of a saint or a sanyasi. He used the religious symbols. It was dangerous and damaged us more than helping us, but then for the short term gains of popularising mass movements he used everything. More than him, his devotees too made him a ‘miracle’ man. People used to do miracles in the name of Gandhi. The huge number of people that used to throng Gandhi’s meetings were not necessarily politically enlightened people but came to see him as a miracle person as well as a messiah of Hindustan. A person in the saffron robe even today is respected in our villages so you can imagine those years when literacy was virtually below 50 per cent and poverty was rampant.
Gandhi emphasised his mission with two points. One, communal harmony and the other eradication of untouchability but he failed on both as he was looking for simpler solutions for these issues. The issues emerge from our prejudices and cannot be resolved through politically one-upmanship, patronising approach or a photo-op. For untouchability, he said that it was the ‘biggest’ sin of Hinduism but didn’t offer solutions for its removal. Will it go simply by calling it a son or will it go by other means. He felt that Hinduism was great. Untouchability is a sin but the caste system is wonderful. How is it possible that if the caste system, which is the root of untouchability could be considered as wonderful. Unlike Dr. Ambedkar, who wanted to challenge to the power of religious text and their sanctity, Gandhi silenced Ambedkar by saying that those who do not believe in the sanctity of Shastras can leave Hinduism and he would have no issue with their conversion to other religion.
Frankly speaking, Gandhi was a conservative do-gooder. He grew up in Gujarat and saw the surroundings. He was definitely not a ‘philosopher’ who could challenge primitive cultural values. He was a political leader who used different methods to engage people. These methods were oversimplified by his bhakts but nevertheless, I would say, Gandhi was honest in many things. He did not hide things unlike our politicians and intellectuals today. He never hid his religiosity as he believed in it.
One of the worst decisions of Gandhi was his behaviour towards Ambedkar during the round table conference. Gandhi was arrogantly humble when he denied Ambedkar the right to claim leadership of the untouchables. Gandhi wanted to claim all the rights for himself in terms of representation. We do understand that he wanted untouchables to remain a part of Hinduism and was doing his duty as a humble Hindu. Nothing wrong in that, but to deny a great intellectual belonging to the community, who suffered the pain of it, a right to speak for the vast untouchable community, was Gandhi’s biggest blunder.
His second blunder was the inability to accept his defeat at the Round Table Conference that gave untouchables rights for a separate settlement under the Communal Award in 1932. Gandhi fasted against it in Pune and compelled Ambedkar for a compromise which was the reason for a political reservation.
Gandhi today is not alive today because of what he wrote or did. He is alive because he created a mass movement all over the country. As I said, there were a number of Gandhians and others who associated with him. He guided them in doing vocational work, engagement with the community and more. Perhaps, that was his biggest power. His second biggest power was the creation of a responsible and accountable leadership. The Congress leaders might have their own religious and caste prejudices but they were broadly honest.
Gandhi’s historical hour was in Noakhali during the beginning of our freedom struggle when the nation saw a huge communal carnage and people killing each other. When the political class was engaged and sitting in Delhi, he walked in the streets of Noakhali and called for peace and togetherness.
Gandhi was killed by hatemongers who are enjoying power in his name. Remember, despite hatred, it was not Dalits, OBCs, Adivasis, Muslims who killed him, but a brahmin Nathuram Godse. It is these hatemongers who celebrate Gandhi’s killing because he talked of peace and harmony which was the biggest threat to those who harvest the crop of hatred.
Remember Gandhi for his power in bringing people together. His strength in speaking the truth. His strength is not hiding his religiosity and yet talking about equal rights for all. His strength in mass mobilisation and creating institutions. Mass movement as a big political movement is Gandhi’s power. And yet, don’t make him a god or a superhero. Learn from his failures too. Learning from failures provide us power and strength. Gandhi’s failure of not being able to challenge religious orthodoxy is costing the nation today.
The two issues he devoted his life to are threatening us even today. Caste system is alive and thriving and growing strength to strength. He believed that the Savarnas should take care of the untouchables but the savarnas have shown that they won’t change. They will continue to nurture their hatred and contempt against the Dalits. So, Gandhi definitely failed. He was trying to find a solution for untouchability from a religion which created it. Without challenging the brahmanical institutions you cannot bring any changes in India’s social system. Gandhi was a great man, an apostle of peace but he remained meek to brahmanical domination which is costing India heavily, even today.
The communal hatred against which he fought lifelong is now spread all over like a virus. We failed to handle it because on both the side, Gandhi promoted religious leadership and wanted them to sit together. Secularism became Hindu Muslim Sikh Isaai sitting together. All men who never wanted to challenge the authority of their ‘religions’. All men who were happy with their ‘personal laws’. All men who were not keen on independent voices of women. All men who were not keen on caste questions inside their religions. And the result is that this sarv-dharma secularism has become the biggest threat in our attempt to create a united India.
India is at the crossroads. It cannot be a one man’s idea. It has to be a collective consciousness. It must learn from all. It needs a constitutional morality today. This is the only way out. Let religion be just a personal affair. Let us not learn our moralities from religion. Gandhi actually addressed that constituency of people who take guidance from religious leaders, which is huge in India. Even today, Deras, Babas, Gurus are guiding our political parties. Will we challenge them? I am sure Gandhi would not have done so but his inability to challenge religious wrongs is costing us today.
Gandhi will live in India. Both for his great work as well as his dark sides. Let us remember that he accepted his faults too. He might not have been great or a giant but he died as a martyr and was killed by those, who paradoxically claim to hail the brahmanical values which Gandhi could not challenge all his life.
Gandhi was essentially a man of the masses. He got his strength by working and engaging with people. A man of great humour, Gandhi remained active until his assassination. But after his death, the work that people should have been doing was done by the government. Shoving Gandhism in our throat without ever questioning, made Gandhi a figure of hatred among many. Remember, as long as an icon is in the hands of people, he will be great and revered but when government and power try to appropriate him for their political purposes, there will be objections.
It is important for all of us to keep our icons out of the government control if we really wish to gain from their work and unite people against the forces of obscurantism and hatred. Always feel that these leaders were amidst political movement and taking decisions according to need and time, so remembering their differences and focussing on their basic values, we can move ahead. Whether Gandhi or any other icons, the biggest dangers to their values are the ‘bhakts’ who make them superheroes and any dissent of their values is considered as ‘anti-national’ or anti-people. Beware of bhakts.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a human rights defender and has recently published a book ‘Rise and Role of the marginalised in India’s freedom movement.’



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