Writing on Gandhi in an India stricken by faux patriotism and jingoism causes gloom. A poem in Indian English provides an antidote.
Rajasthan, India. Children dressed as Mahatma Gandhi during Gandhi Jayanti, the national festival marking his birthday, on October 1, 2018. Shaukat Ahmed/press Association. All rights reserved.
It was the best day for Gandhi, it was the worst day for Gandhi. The President, Prime Minister, Governors and Chief Ministers paid tributes to Gandhi’s memory, some Hindu nationalists took to social media to pay tributes to Gandhi’s killer, thousands garlanded Gandhi’s statues, a few saffron-clad Hindus garlanded his killer’s statue, the world celebrated Gandhi’s birth anniversary on October 2 as Nonviolence Day, some countries marking the day by violent thoughts and deeds. In India, the day saw police action against poor farmers trying to enter Delhi to highlight their plight. Indian political leaders read out homilies, they sucked morality out of politics, they called on the nation to follow the Gandhian path, while their governments promoted economic policies that went against Gandhi’s vision.
In seminars and TV studios, some said Gandhi was more relevant today, some others said Gandhi was outdated in the modern age. Gandhi placed the poorest of the poor in the company of God by calling him Daridra Narayan. Politicians talk about the poor during the election campaigns, but once in power help the rich accumulate more wealth.
Gandhi is ignored by those who oppress the lower castes and women, deliver hate speeches against a minority and indulge in violence. Such incidents have increased and what is more vicious, the admirers of Gandhi’s killer have found a new voice through social media. They have “come out”. Their outpouring is linked to the Hindu-Muslim issue that features prominently in the mainstream TV channels and in the First Information Reports filed at the police stations in violence-hit towns and villages.
Godse-admirers come out
To mark this birth anniversary, scholar Vinay Lal had to write on “the killers of Gandhi in modern India”. The newly introduced “muscular” politics is on his mind as he refers to Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram Godse, angered by the Mahatma for effeminising Indian politics:
“The so-called toxic masculinity that is on witness in the streets of every town and city in India is not only a manifestation of Hindu rage and a will to shape a decisive understanding of the past, but also a reaction to the androgynous values that Gandhi embodied and which the Hindu nationalist tacitly knows are enshrined in Indian culture.
“What is different about the killers of Gandhi today is that they act with total impunity. They are aware of the fact the present political dispensation is favourable to them, and that much of the ‘ruling class’ despises Gandhi. The official pieties surrounding Gandhi Jayanti may be nauseating to behold, but October 2 is a necessary provocation.”
Vinay Lal says the display of respect is just to cover up the complete contempt and hatred for the “Mahatma”. He refers to a poem circulating on WhatsApp calling Gandhi a fool and traitor to the nation and to the fact that Gandhi’s assassin can be installed as a deity in a temple! Lal promises to write about this poem.
Avijit Pathak, who teaches sociology at the famous Jawaharlal Nehru University, writes: “Every year on October 2, I feel somewhat uneasy. From Rajghat (Gandhi Memorial) to Parliament, from the declaration of “pro-people” policies to the empty slogan initiated by the political class, I experience the death of Gandhi.”
He refers to the normalisation of the brute practice of stigmatising the “other” through lynching and cow-vigilantism. “From Gandhi’s time of colonialism, religious reform and the nationalist movement, we seemed to have moved towards a new reality characterised by what I would regard as a mix of neoliberal capitalism and militant cultural nationalism, and market driven consumerism and technocratic developmentalism.”
India’s public broadcaster dutifully screened Richard Attenborough’s famous film Gandhi. It shows the Mahatma stopping communal violence in Calcutta by going there and fasting. It shows Gandhi failing to prevent India’s Partition on the basis of religion. The film moves the secular Hindus to tears with Gandhi calling Hindus and Muslims as the two eyes of mother India. It angers the Hindu nationalists when Gandhi is shown pleading with Jinnah to give up his demand for Partition and to be the Prime Minister of an undivided India!
Those committed to social and economic equality feel enthused by Gandhi’s advocacy of the untouchables and women. But the extremist patriarchs and the high-caste goons perhaps switch off the TV! The pacifists thank the film-maker for reminding the nation of Gandhi’s warning that an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. Some others see it as a conspiracy to weaken Hindus.
Fortunately, the screening of the Richard Attenborough film passed off peacefully! He made the film just in time. He shot it in India when ultra-nationalism was not in vogue and sectarian elements used to express their views in private. Political marginalisation of Muslims was unheard of. A civilizational state was yet to aspire to be a nation-state.
Attenborough’s film introduces Gandhi’s key principles even to those who only know that Gandhi was born on October 2 because on this day the schools and offices are closed. Through simple dialogue, the film highlights the foolishness of India imitating the western consumption model, and not building self-reliant village communities, ignoring the value of handicrafts and local resources and indigenous skills. Gandhi’s critics have considered these views quaint, anti-modernity and anti-industrialisation, while even some scientists have admired Gandhi as an “innovator”. R. A. Mashelkar coined the term “Gandhian engineering” to popularise his concept of frugal techniques for “doing more for less for more”.
Ironically, it was Gandhi’s call for Swadeshi, (spirit of self-reliance) that fired the Indian scientists to develop high technology when India was denied it in fields ranging from super-computers to atomic energy and from space to military hardware. While roads in India named after Gandhi have shopping malls stuffed with imported underwear and toys, the leaders of America and Europe have become firm believers in Swadeshi by campaigning against imported goods and people!
But now, since some western economists and activists have started admiring the Gandhian vision of sustainable development, the TV debates are not dominated by the sceptic experts. It was Gandhi who relentlessly tried to impress on the world leaders that the earth has enough for human needs but not for human greed!
Gandhi would have been quite amused to observe all this. One wishes to hear his typical humorous comments. He would have quipped on seeing a photo of his statue being vandalised or on reading a news report that the tallest statue in India will not be of the Father of the Nation but of his follower Sardar Patel!
Gandhi’s birth anniversary yields a rich harvest of cartoons exposing the political elite’s hypocrisy and its use of the ceremonies held on this national holiday. The expected editorials appear on the lip service being paid to the Gandhian principles. The visual media displays the images and symbols associated with Gandhi.
Gandhi remains relevant for publishers and for collectors of images and sketches. He remains invaluable for the brand mangers hired by politicians seeking votes and the commercial organisations seeking customers.
With his global appeal, Gandhi enhanced India’s brand image. Gandhi even figured on an Apple hoarding in Silicon Valley! On this 149th birth anniversary, the Government took a rare public diplomacy initiative by producing a video with collected clips of artists from 124 countries singing a line of Gandhi’s favourite song that says that only the one who feels the pain of others can be said to be a good person. “Vaishnava jan to tene kahiye, je peed parayi jaane hai…”, the 15th century devotional song in Gujarati, was in the set of hymns sung every day in Gandhi’s Ashram. It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea to present this song to a global audience.
A unique product popularised by Gandhi during the freedom struggle has got noticed internationally, thanks to some well-known fashion houses in France and other countries. Khadi, hand-woven cloth made from hand-spun yarn, attracted experts by the feel and look of its texture. For the same reason and not for the underlying Gandhian principle, many affluent Indians too started buying superfine khadi. On Gandhi’s birth anniversary when khadi is subsidised by the Government, New Delhi’s flagship khadi store did a record sale exceeding 100,000 pounds sterling. It had to extend its business hours to handle increased footfall. So, in this case the ideological past profitably fused with the materialistic present.
Gandhi used his spinning wheel every day for meeting his own requirement. He spun yarn for a piece of lace that he gave as a wedding gift to Queen Elizabeth. (The Queen gave this piece of lace to Prime Minister Modi whose minister promptly claimed that the gesture showed the esteem in which Modi is held! The Queen’s magnanimity silenced those who want Britain to return the Kohinoor.)
Gandhi popularised khadi as a substitute for the British cloth. He propagated khadi as an instrument of uplifting the rural poor and making communities self-reliant. Khadi provided livelihood to countless village artisans. In the post-liberalisation India, the khadi movement suffered, and the impressive turnover of a few glamorous metropolitan outlets does not tell the entire story. Many khadi centres remain in a bad shape and heavily dependent on the state subsidy. Take just one example of a khadi centre opened by Gandhi in 1925 which is “dying, much like his legacy”. The news report says the trust running the first-ever All India Spinners Association in a Punjab village was once famous for its khadi but is now dying of neglect. Today 20 of the state’s 28 khadi trusts are running into losses. As a result, the artisans have either migrated or changed their profession.
The famous fashion houses have given a “modern” touch to khadi. This year the simple but elegant Gandhi memorial in the national capital has been equipped with digital displays! The memorial was spruced up after a court criticised its poor maintenance.
Displaying devotion to the museumised Father of the Nation and ignoring his principles have gone hand in hand for years. “Gandhi and iconography” has been studied by scholars. The image of his reading glasses came in handy for publicising a public sanitation campaign launched by Prime Minister Modi. All see the spectacles Gandhi used to wear and read the reports of sanitation workers killed by lethal gas while cleaning the sewage lines. The contractors do not give them the gas masks and the same tragedy is repeated over and over.
Incidents of the Dalits and Muslims being lynched are not rare. Gandhi would have launched a movement against the atrocities being committed against them. He would not have remained silent about the criminalisation of politics. Some 30 per cent of the legislators have criminal cases registered against them. The Supreme Court says it cannot bar them from fighting elections unless they are proven guilty.
India’s youth today does not feel inspired by Gandhi who faces worse than neglect from the Hindu nationalists, capitalists and the middle classes of the new India. The trusteeship principle has been abandoned by the capitalists many of whom had once responded to Gandhi’s call. Moderation has been marginalised. The money-mad Indians indulging in conspicuous consumption wear their contempt for Gandhi on their sleeves. Sustainable development has never been taken seriously by the governments.
Do many new Indians read Albert Einstein’s words that generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon the earth?
Or Nelson Mandela’s words that Gandhi was the first person to show us the method of organised, disciplined, mass protest. Gopal Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, asks: What does one say of the ‘mass’ politics and the ‘causes’ of today’s India? “On its thoroughfares, streets, by-lanes, village tracks and a hundred different hideouts, it damages, disfigures, destroys.”
Richard Attenborough’s film picturises Gandhi’s fast in Calcutta as he extinguishes the fire of communal violence and restores sanity. Viceroy Lord Mountbatten writes to Gandhi: “In the Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers and large-scale rioting on our hands, In Bengal our forces consist of one man, and there is no rioting. As a serving officer, as well as administration, may I be allowed to pay my tribute to the One-Man Boundary Force…”
What Mountbatten saw as a heroic feat is viewed differently by those promoting communal strife to use it as a political tool for consolidating Hindu votes through religious polarisation! For them Gandhi’s fast made the evisceration of secularism a bit more difficult.
It is said that Gandhi could work his magic on Britain, but he would have found it difficult to deal with Hitler’s Germany. “One of Gandhi’s achievements was to show Britons the reality of their own consciences, to reveal to them the gulf between their religious pretensions and political ideals, and their actual practice as imperialists”, writes author George Woodcock.
Gandhi worked his magic on Indians of his time. Years later in mid-seventies, some Indians told V. S. Naipaul that since the death of Gandhi truth has fled from India and the world! Naipaul saw an inversion of Gandhianism in the emergence of a violent Hindu cult like the Anand Marg and wrote about the “ease with which Hinduism can decline into barbarism”. Now in 2018 there is no Anand Marg, but many Indians share Naipaul’s fear.
The 149th birth anniversary provokes one to fantasise about Gandhi’s appearance in today’s India. Suppose in his prayer meeting he talks about the Gita and the Sermon on the Mount in the same breath and says that the latter “went straight to my heart”. Suppose he eulogises India’s syncretic tradition and calls for freedom from fear and from cultural insecurity that have been inflicted on the people. Suppose he repeats his words that “religion is outraged when outrage is perpetrated in its name” and that “truth is God”. Suppose he asks politicians not to tell lies. Suppose he tells them to stop abusing their opponents and start loving them.
If that happens, Gandhi will have to abruptly end his prayer meeting and go on a fast! Will Indians ever again march on the street singing Gandhi’s favourite song about the Supreme Being named Ishwar as well as Allah and praying to Him to bestow sanity on all human beings?
Writing on Gandhi in an India stricken by faux patriotism and jingoism causes gloom. A poem in Indian English written in the seventies by Nissim Ezekiel provides an antidote.
The Patriot begins:
I am standing for peace and nonviolence.
Why world is fighting and fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,
I am simply not understanding….
L K Sharma has followed no profession other than journalism for more than four decades, covering criminals and prime ministers. Was the European Correspondent of The Times of India based in London for a decade. Reported for five years from Washington as the Foreign Editor of the Deccan Herald. Edited three volumes on innovations in India. He has completed a work of creative nonfiction on V. S. Naipaul His two e-books The Twain and A Parliamentary Affair form part of The Englandia Quartet.