While reading Gandhi's writings it is important to remember that he was mostly addressing the poor people of India, not the sophisticated Western educated elites, so he writes in an idiom that his audience readily understood. The language, metaphors and symbols may not be readily understandable to us and if we read him him literally, we run the risk of not understanding his meaning and trivializing his intentions. By ridiculing his idea of making the village the center of the economy or his focus on spinning, we risk ignoring his concerns. He himself said that his general ideas are more important than his specific solutions which are contextual.
Part of the reason why Gandhi is unpopular is because of the behavior of some later Gandhians who practiced what Gandhi did not preach. They were self-righteous disciplinarians who imposed discipline on others in unattractive ways. For Gandhi, discipline was internal to the individual and was something a person achieved after a long struggle with one’s own passions. For these Gandhians however, discipline often meant using the state’s coercive apparatus to impose it on people. Whereas Gandhi’s discipline was accompanied by strong sense of compassion, humility and a self-deprecating sense of humor, many of these Gandhians seemed to be doing social work for personal moral salvation than because of genuine concern for the poor.
In Gandhi in His Time and Ours, David Hardiman gives the example of one such Gandhian, Morarji Desai. He wrote an autobiography similar in style to that by Gandhi with the exception that he seemed blind to the possibility that he could ever have been in error. He describes proudly how as Home Minister of Bombay, he worked hard to discipline the masses. He undertook measures like posting police to create the right atmosphere of ‘discipline’ and censoring films ‘which could lead society astray’. As PM, during a conversation with the rebel Naga leader Z.A. Phizo, he was heard saying, ‘I will exterminate the Nagas without compunction.’
Another of these self-righteous Gandhians who never seemed aware of his mistakes was Vinobha Bhave. He supported the emergency, one of its slogans being that discipline is the need of the hour. He wanted discipline to be imposed from above rather than each individual cultivating it himself as Gandhi desired. There were others who adopted Gandhi's ideals of simplicity and high morals but made such a mockery of it that it imperiled the ideals. All ideals are corroded by time. Even in his own lifetime khadi became a livery of hypocrisy and opportunism. What he had conceived of as cloth to be woven by the poor for their own use making use of locally available materials is now marketed as fashion apparel worn by bored celebrities.
Gandhi was given to 'thinking in public', taking seriously the questions put to him and trying to answer them to the best of his ability. Unlike present-day politicians, he didn't read from a manuscript carefully prepared by somebody else according to the results of rigorous market research. In 1942, Louis Fisher stayed for a week in Gandhi's ashram and interviewed him on a variety of topics. He gives his impression of the interactions in Mahatma Gandhi – His Life & Times:
He had great charm. He was a remarkable natural phenomenon, quiet and insidiously overwhelming. Intellectual contact with him was a delight because he opened his mind and allowed one to see how the machine worked. He did not attempt to express his ideas in finished form. He thought aloud; he revealed each step in his thinking.
You heard not only words but also his thoughts. You could therefore follow him as he moved to a conclusion. This prevented him from talking like a propagandist; he talked like a friend. He was interested in an exchange of views, but much more in the establishment of a personal relationship.
Even when evasive Gandhi was frank. I was asking him about his dreams of the post-independence India. He argued back and forth. 'You want to force me into an admission,' he said, 'that we would need rapid industrialization. I will not be forced into such an admission. Our first problem is to get rid of British rule. Then we will be free, without restraints from the outside, to do what India requires. The British have seen fit to allow us to have some factories and also to prohibit other factories. No, for me the paramount problem is the ending of British domination.'
That, obviously, was what he wanted to talk about; he did not conceal his desire. His brain had no blue pencil. He said, for instance, that he would go to Japan to try to end the war. He knew, and immediately added, that he would never get an opportunity to go and, if he went, Japan would not make peace. He knew too that his statement would be misinterpreted. Then why did he make it? Because he thought it.
Gandhi asserted that a federal administration would be unnecessary in an independent India. I pointed out the difficulties that would arise in the absence of a federal administration. He was not convinced. I was baffled. Finally he said, 'I know that despite my personal views there will be a central government.' This was a characteristic Gandhi cycle: he enunciated a principle, defended it, then admitted with a laugh that it was unworkable.
In negotiation, this faculty could be extremely irritating and time-wasting. In personal conversation, it was attractive and even exciting. He himself was sometimes surprised at the things he said. His thinking was fluid. Most persons like to be proved right. So did Gandhi. But frequently he snatched a victory out of an error by admitting it.
This type of thinking and answering would be a handicap in today's world of social media. Bits and pieces of his answers would be taken out of context and distorted and travel far and wide in the blink of an eye. The internet is full of such misrepresentations of his writings. In addition, the politician of today must give short and snappy answers and must feign certainty where he can give only probabilities. Also, he should never admit his error. Gandhi does not fit the bill in any of these criteria.
George Orwell thought that a Big Brother with a 'Ministry of Truth' would be required to make history disappear. But in Aldous Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. Judging by what most people, especially the educated, city-based, modernized Indians, think of Gandhi, Huxley was right.
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