Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - I

 (I heard that Richard Nixon once started a speech by saying, ‘Before I begin my speech, I want to tell you something.’ Similarly, before I begin my post, I want to tell you something. This is the longest series by far that I have attempted or is likely to attempt in future. I hope I have a couple of readers left at the end of the series. 

It may be that some may confuse their incomprehension of my flowery language with novelty and profundity. Perish the thought. I have taken the material from various books and articles that have been available for years. I have only edited, sliced and diced them to suit my purposes. I lay no claim to originality or to exhaustive knowledge of the topic. But as Thomas Henry Huxley said, "If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,  is there anyone who knows so much as to be out of danger?")

"The fact that I have affected the thought and practice of our times does not make me fit to give expression to the philosophy that may lie behind it.  To give a philosophical interpretation of the phenomenon must be reserved for men like you." - Gandhi to S. Radhakrishnan, 16 September 1934

The most famous text from Ambedkar's collected volumes is called "Annihilation of Caste", a long essay that is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Indian society. It is freely available on the internet. Ambedkar wrote Annihilation of Caste as a speech on the invitation of an anti-caste group, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore. The group found the text of the speech offensive, particularly the parts where he criticized Hindu sacred texts such as the Vedas. They wanted some changes in the text which Ambedkar refused to make and he said that this would be his last address as a Hindu. As a result, it decided to cancel the event. Ambedkar then printed 1,500 copies of the speech himself and distributed them. 

Arundhati Roy came out with an annotated version of the text with the same title. The first half of the book is a long essay by her titled "The Doctor and the Saint" . Most of this essay is about Gandhi rather than Ambedkar which distracts one's attention from Ambedkar's hard-hitting undelivered speech. She deliberately tries to put Gandhi into a frame ( i.e., misogynist, casteist and favoring capitalists) by using some facts (which are true indeed) without mentioning the big picture. Gandhi had his foibles and fads, and had his own peculiar ideas on celibacy, diet and health but the simplistic analysis leaves you with a misleading picture about Gandhi's aims and intentions. 

Roy's quotes are not new or fresh discoveries. Gandhi wrote down everything he felt. The nearly 100 volumes that make up his collected works have enough material to ridicule and label him in unflattering ways. His critics reveal known facts as new findings to knock him down from the pedestal that he never claimed to inhabit. Roy says, 'To cherry pickers, he offers such a bewildering variety of cherries that you have to wonder if there was something the matter with the tree.' She seems to be blissfully unaware that she herself is one of those cherry pickers. Without actually knowing what Gandhi tried, and experienced and accomplished, many despise the caricature of Gandhi that they have created in their minds. Hannah Arendt says in "The Origins Of Totalitarianism":

Plato, in his famous fight against the ancient Sophists, discovered that their "universal art of enchanting the mind by arguments" had nothing to do with truth but aimed at opinions which by their very nature are changing, and which are valid only "at the time of the agreement and as long as the agreement lasts". 

He also discovered the very insecure position of truth in the world, for from "opinions comes persuasion and not from truth". The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality. 

In other words, one destroyed the dignity of human thought whereas the others destroy the dignity of human action. The old manipulators of logic were the concern of the philosopher, whereas the modern manipulators of facts stand in the way of the historian. For history itself is destroyed . . . whenever facts are no longer held to be part and parcel of the past and present world, and are misused to prove this or that opinion. 

Leftist and Western thinkers and philosophers, Roy and we all (educated Indians) included who are taught western morals and ideology often second-guess Gandhi and his intentions. Educated Indians have difficulty in understanding a politician who wore a loin cloth, heard 'inner voices' and used fasts to solve political problems. In India and elsewhere Gandhi has been criticized for being “anti-modern”, a hardline traditionalist, a blackmailer who used fasting as a means of getting his way; on the left he is seen as the “mascot of the bourgeoisie” and anti-working class. Lala Lajpat Rai, one of the leading lights of the Indian freedom movement said of this culture block that

such of Gandhi's contemporaries as have drunk deep from the foundations of European History and European politics, and who have developed a deep love for European manners and European culture, neither understand nor like him. In their eyes, he is a barbarian, and a visionary and a dreamer. He has probably something of all these qualities because he is nearest to the verities of life and can look at things with plain eyes without the glasses of civilization and sophistry.

Gandhi has been more appreciated, read and practiced seriously outside India than among the last two generations of Indians. A person who inspired leaders of the 20th century such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel to fight against injustice and discrimination and for equality would surely have had something extraordinary in him. These are people who have been there and done that and know what it takes to struggle against a brutal regime. Personally speaking, I have no hesitation in saying that Gandhi is several levels above any other political leader that India has produced before or since his time (keeping in mind that his political, social and religious activities cannot be neatly separated). I guess I am not as 'advanced' as most educated, middle-class Indians.

In Bapu Kuti, Rajini Bakshi makes a distinction between the historical Gandhi and the civilizational Gandhi. The historical Gandhi may be criticized and condemned as an ordinary figure. But the civilizational Gandhi, the Gandhi of the  ideas and concepts and uncomfortable questions scattered throughout his works about what a good society should be like, is a far more imposing and enduring figure. I am more interested in the civilizational Gandhi, especially his critique of modernity which many find queer. Getting lost in extreme statements distracts from the substance of his critique. He was an original thinker  who did not accept conventional wisdom and approached many familiar issues from surprising angles. (For an analysis of the inconsistencies of the historical Gandhi see Gandhi and his Critics by B.R.Nanda and The Good Boatman by Rajmohan Gandhi.)

The question underlying any study of Gandhi’s life is the relevance it has for the present day and the future. I have used various comments by Roy as a hook to write mostly about the civilizational Gandhi rather than the historical Gandhi. But it is to be  remembered that the convictions of the former self guided the actions of the latter self. Gandhi did not systematize his ideas but one should not be misled into believing that his actions were random unsupported by vision or thought. He had made it clear that `Thought is never complete unless it finds expression in action and action limits your thought.' In his life, precept and practice went hand in hand. That is why he said with confidence: `My life is my message.' As Ashis Nandy writes in an article Gandhi after Gandhi:

Gandhi could not live up to his principles partly because he was a practical politician, and the job of politics is to dilute ideological and moral purism. To use my favorite expression, borrowed from the obituary written on him by Arnold Toynbee, Gandhi was one prophet who was willing to live in the slum of politics. He could not afford to be a perfect Gandhian. It is a tribute to his memory when one calls him an imperfect Gandhian.