Indian liberals must reconsider their rejection of Mahatma Gandhi

By Shivam Vij for The Print, 2 October 2019

Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Westminster Square in London. Photo by Shivam Vij

Was Gandhi gay? Was he racist? Did he assault his nieces? Wasn’t his food faddism a bit too comical? Was he the enemy of Dalits? With questions like these, over the decades, Gandhi has been assailed and brought down by the holier-than-thou radicals of the world. In doing so, they have helped the world forget the central reason why Gandhi mattered: his political techniques of resistance.

You don’t have to agree with Gandhi on anything at all, and you could still be inspired by satyagraha, by non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. Some years ago, when Anna Hazare sat on a fast, there were people who were irritated by his use of Gandhian means of politics. What a fraud, they said, he is not Gandhian, he’s an RSS agent. Yet, even Narendra Modi once sat on a Gandhi-style ‘Sadbhavna’ fast.

In fact, all that Ambedkar had to do to counter Gandhi during the Poona Pact, Osho wrote, was to sit on an indefinite fast himself.

The point is that Gandhian means don’t have to match Gandhian ends.

Research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, has shown that the most successful rebellions are the ones that use non-violent civil disobedience. The only condition is that a large number of people – 3.5 per cent of the population, according to her research – have to be involved in the movement. It is for this reason why anybody engaged in politics, Left or Right, must study Gandhi’s means of doing politics. By picking up a fistful of salt he challenged the British Empire. That is the sort of thing that makes Gandhi timeless and relevant regardless of his political ideology.

Pick and choose

Gandhi is so vast that you can take from him what you like. He wrote so much, he was documented so widely, he has been debated endlessly, that you can make whatever you want of Gandhi. And yet the Left-liberal intelligentsia, the self-serving Congress party, the Lohiaite socialists, the radical Ambedkarites, and the brooding Communists have all conspired to bury Gandhi.

The burial of Gandhi has helped in the rise of Hindutva. Yet, the only people to whom Mahatma Gandhi matters is the Hindutva right. They cannot reject him as easily as they have discarded Nehru. Modi’s answer is to reduce Gandhi to sanitation. Sooner or later, they will find a way to appropriate Gandhi as a good Hindu as opposed to the bad Nehru.

As for the Congress party, the wider opposition, the Left-liberal intelligentsia — Gandhi is dead. He does not matter; worse, he does not show them the way anymore. Gandhi is seen by them at best as a relic of history not relevant to post-Independent India, and at worst as a casteist, racist, misogynist old man best not spoken about.

If the opposition were to take Gandhi seriously, they could learn a lot from him. They would learn political communication and campaigning from him. They would know the way out of intractable issues, such as communal politics. They could perhaps even learn how to assert morality in the face of injustice. The man who took on Indira Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, was inspired by Gandhian thought.

Event management Gandhi-style

Had the opposition learnt from Gandhi, they would have known that it is futile to do anything for a day. Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who visits Uttar Pradesh like a tourist, will again be marching in Lucknow for a few hours Wednesday.

When Gandhi was undertaking his salt march, the very idea was to bring about greater public awareness and participation, making it a campaign that touched people. He could simply have gone to Dandi and picked up salt. The march was undertaken after a lot of preparation, with his followers going from village to village and telling people that the Mahatma would stop overnight there, and what he would like them to do.

Narendra Modi also goes about doing politics through planned events. His critics rubbish it as event management. Yet, these events capture people’s minds and result in 303 seats. If these critics were alive in Gandhi’s time, they would have criticised him for event management. The problem is that the opposition do not know event management, nor do they care.

It may be difficult to defend Gandhi’s views on economics in the modern world (though a world where consumption economies are bringing about climate change, one may want to look at them anyway). Ambedkar won over Gandhi on caste. Prohibition (which Gandhi backed) is certainly against individual freedom, although we cannot pretend alcoholism is not a widespread social problem. But we don’t have to follow every word Gandhi said. His power lay in the means, the ends can change with time and place. It is for these Gandhian means that liberal thought in India must reconsider Gandhi.

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