Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7f

Gandhi challenges our assumption: why can’t you be quiet and strong? We live with a value system that can be called the Masculine Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight, preferring  action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. According to this ideal, a strong leader favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. It is a style that values quick and assertive answers over quiet, slow decision-making. The master-of-the-universe types are promoted over the gracious and soft-spoken types. The Feminine personality type displaying sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness is now a second-class personality trait.

But Gandhi showed the effectiveness of this leadership style. He did not, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it of Abraham Lincoln, “offend by superiority.” He tended to listen more than talk, to think before speaking, to dislike conflict. Raising his voice and pounding the table was unnecessary. He was tough and the same time never lost his decorum. Being mild-mannered, he could take strong, even aggressive, positions while coming across as perfectly reasonable. We tend to overestimate how outgoing leaders need to be. He once said, ‘In a gentle way, you can shake the world.‘

He was more interested in listening and gathering information than in asserting his opinion or dominating a conversation. He wasn’t concerned with getting credit or even with being in charge; he simply assigned work to those who could perform it best. This meant delegating some of his most interesting, meaningful, and important tasks — work that other leaders would have kept for themselves. The leaders under the masculine ideal, on the other hand, can be so intent on putting their own stamp on events that they risk losing others’ good ideas along the way. Gandhi said:

I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen. . . We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. 

Susan Cain says in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, 'From a Western perspective, it can be hard to see what’s so attractive about submitting to the will of others. But what looks to a Westerner like subordination can seem like basic politeness to many Asians.’ Don’t mistake  assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas. Appearance is not reality. Gandhi was, according to his autobiography, a constitutionally shy and quiet man. He learned over time to manage his shyness, but he never really overcame it. He couldn’t speak extemporaneously; he avoided making speeches whenever possible. 

A friend of Gandhi said that in  Johannesburg itself, there were 'several of his countrymen whose elocution, natural and unaffected, is far superior to his', that he spoke in a monotonous voice, he 'never waves his arms' and 'seldom moves a finger'. A student who listened to him when he shared a stage with Savarkar in London in 1909 said that he seemed shy and diffident; the students had to 'bend their heads forward to hear the great Mr. Gandhi speak'. His voice and speech were of a piece with his manner - 'calm, unemotional, simple, and devoid of rhetoric'.

While launching an agitation, he believed in systematically preparing himself and his colleagues rather than spontaneously  (or, as he would have it, haphazardly) 'rushing into confrontation.' Another friend says that while a student in London, Gandhi learnt that 'by quiet persistence he could do far more to change men's minds than by any oratory or loud trumpeting'. He was one of those rare individuals who was reflective as well as firm when he finally took a decision. 

But this passivity did not mean that he could be pushed around. An illustration of this point happened early in his life. As a young man he decided to travel to England to study law, against the wishes of the leaders of his Modh Bania subcaste. But he disregarded the order saying “I think the caste should not interfere in the matter.” He was excommunicated — a judgment that remained in force even when he returned from England. The community was divided over how to handle him. One camp embraced him; the other cast him out. Another man would protest for readmission. But he couldn’t see the point. He knew that fighting would only generate retaliation. 

The result of this compliance was that the subcaste not only stopped bothering him, but its members — including those who had excommunicated him — helped in his later political work, without expecting anything in return. Gandhi wrote later, “that all these good things are due to my non-resistance. Had I agitated for being admitted to the caste, had I attempted to divide it into more camps, had I provoked the castemen, they would surely have retaliated, and instead of steering clear of the storm, I should, on arrival from England, have found myself in a whirlpool of agitation.” 

This pattern — the decision to accept what another man would challenge — occurred again and again in Gandhi’s life.  His friends and well-wishers would be upset saying that he was weak, that he should have stood up for his beliefs. But Gandhi felt that he had learned “to appreciate the beauty of compromise.” Gandhi’s passivity was not weakness at all. It meant focusing on an ultimate goal and refusing to divert energy to unnecessary skirmishes along the way. Restraint, Gandhi believed, was one of his greatest assets. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:

Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups  trump the disadvantages of being alone.  

It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.  Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes.  This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7e

It is telling that, at his trial for the murder of Gandhi, Nathuram Godse complained bitterly about how the bania (merchant-class) Gandhi had shipwrecked Indian politics with his quaint and enfeebling idea of nonviolence. Gandhi understood well the homology between colonial dominance and masculinity, and he sought to bring to the body politic a conception of politics that valorized the feminine and the non-Brahminical. 

Nathuram Godse thus divined what many others did not, namely that Gandhi represented a threat to the idea of India as a masculine, modern nation-state, indeed to the very idea of “normal politics’. India had emerged as a new nation-state from two centuries of colonial rule, and India’s elites, among them some who were Gandhi’s associates, were keen that the country should take its place in the world as a strong nation-state resolutely committed to modernization, industrialization, and the kind of central planning that characterized the policies of the Soviet Union. 

Yet Gandhi had initiated a far-reaching critique of industrial civilization and the very precepts of modernity in his tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj. His critics worried that his pervasive influence would be detrimental to the development of India as an economic and political power. Gandhi was, though this could scarcely be admitted, a nuisance, even a hindrance; and when Godse pulled the trigger, there were certainly others who thought that the man had died not a moment too soon. 

India’s desire to be read as a nation on the make, a nation that wants to be taken seriously in contemporary world politics has roots in the inferiority complex brought about by colonialism which forever marked Indian civilization with a lack of manliness. Part of the ethos of manliness consists simply in gaining recognition, in being acknowledged. One long-lasting effect of colonialism has been that the Indian continues to look up to the white European male, who confers recognition upon inferiors, and who has established the standard that the Indian (like other formerly colonized people) must meet. 

The modernizing Indian middle-classes have been pressing for India’s admission into the Security Council, arguing that India’s might and importance as a nation ought to be recognized. It is the political and economic elite in India who keep saying that India stands third in the strength of its scientific manpower, that it is a member of the ‘Nuclear Club’, that its software engineers are feted in Silicon Valley, and that it is the only Third World nation to join a few of the post-industrial countries as an exporter of satellite and rocket technology. 

Ideas like ‘competitive spirit’ are used to develop pride in the nation, refurbish the ever fragile masculinity of man, and promote a cultural ethos that thrives on such notions as individualism and self-improvement. It is this ‘spirit’ of competition that causes heated discussions every four years about why India has less medals in the olympics than some country that nobody has heard of. 

The Indian political class has accepted the argument about Indian civilization’s effeminacy and the nuclear explosion was an assertion of its masculinity, and thus a second assassination of Gandhi. India is no longer a soft state, it will not present itself to the world with any ambiguity about its manliness. Thus the obsession with personal security of politicians — the Z security, the commandos — that actually terrorizes the ordinary citizen; this contrasts with the 'effeminate' Gandhi’s mingling freely with the crowds disdaining personal security. 

Gandhi was ‘a naked fakir’ not only for Churchill but also to many modern Indians who found his supposed glorification of poverty distasteful and thought that he would hold back India’s future generations. He is symbolically assassinated every year through the empty obeisance at his samadhi and converting him into a saint which is probably the most effective means of removing his influence on Indian politics. His ghost was finally exorcised with the nuclear explosions. Displaying astonishing chutzpah, the first explosion was carried out on Buddha Purnima and was codenamed 'Smiling Buddha'.

What is called “Hindutva” today represents Godse’s legacy, playing out his deep anxieties about the loss of Hindu potency. Gandhi was assassinated. Godse was hanged. But Gandhi vs Godse is a battle that goes on today.  We see, for instance, that the feminine (typically signifying vulnerability, passivity, emotion, and so on) is deployed against the  masculine (typically signifying impenetrability, control, rationality), and both become attributes of not just individuals, but of institutions, systems, communities, and even nations. 

The colonial denigration of the Krishna lore as vulgar made Hindu elites attempt to sanitize their religion. (One British Judge of the Bombay High court even pronounced Krishna 'guilty' of lewd sensuality.) For them a proper God should be like the Semitic Gods - perfect, all-knowing and awe-inspiring. How could a God sing, dance, play with women and steal butter? So the image of Krishna wielding a discus on the index finger of his right hand is promoted. But temples depict the cowherd Krishna rather than the bad omen of the more war-like Krishna of the Mahabharata and popular culture still celebrates the butter thief God.

A crucial characteristic of Hinduism for centuries has been that, unlike other religions, the Gods and Goddesses are neither remote nor frightening. They are not entities outside everyday life but constitute a significant part of it. They are not only part of one’s transcendental life but also of one’s most comic and naughty moments. You pray to them but you can also disown them or joke about them.  They not only maintain lofty principles but also show some of our failings. Ever since the promotion of a masculine culture by the colonial rulers, Hindu reformers have tried to make Hinduism more like the Semitic religions. Educated, city-dwellers are more likely to harbor such sentiments. 

Whenever we see images of violence we notice that typically, only males are present among the perpetrators. It is not that women never indulge in violence: they can be aggressive and brutal, particularly to other women. But the culture that encourages such violence takes pride in its aggressive masculinity and it plays a key role in its recurrence, justification, and glorification. Women are constantly exhorted to be more like men to climb the ladder of success. The most successful women role models have typically masculine hawkish personality traits ; eg. Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton. Thatcher was once described as ‘the only man in her cabinet’. 

Such a conception of manhood assumes that aggression is natural and desirable in men. A ‘real’ man is eager to pick up a fight, must be muscular and unemotional. Crying is construed as a sign of weakness as it is to show empathy and understanding, gentleness and compassion. Part of what it means to be tough is to suppress empathy towards others, to be embarrassed by fear or any other vulnerability. To be counted as ‘real’ men, they must be ambitious and ruthless in trying to attain their goals regardless of consequences to others. They should approach their activities with a zero-sum, 'I win-you lose' kind of mindset. ‘Real’ men are supposed to take independent decisions that brook no questioning. 

All these must be contrasted to features that are perceived to be inherent in women: being irrational, bereft of self-restraint, crying easily, emotional, empathetic but lacking judgment and impartiality. Women are physically and mentally weak, and therefore must be dependent on and protected by their male superiors. It follows that when men display such traits, they become weak, soft, wimpish. Acting like a woman is a betrayal of manhood. Cold-blooded violence shows the opposite: that manliness is fully alive and kicking! In the world of violent masculinities, Gandhian virtues of patience, empathy, understanding etc.  are seen as unmanly attributes fit only for women and the weak.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7d

Godse thought he represented the Hindus. In his eyes, what he did was to avenge the humiliation of the Hindus. For Godse, Hindus were feminine, being constantly violated by outsiders. He saw Gandhi as the effeminate Father of the Nation who was unable to protect Mother India. Like Savarkar, Godse looked up to the European ideal of a centralized, uniform nation-state. Gandhi wanted decentered power and accommodation of differences. One of the main reasons that Godse gave for killing Gandhi was the latter’s refusal to conform to the principles of realpolitik. 

In his final speech, Godse said that Gandhian politics was dominated ‘by old superstitious beliefs such as the power of the soul, the inner voice, the fast, the prayer, and the purity of the mind.’ He also said, ‘Gandhiji's inner voice, his spiritual power and his doctrine of non-violence, of which so much is made of, all crumbled before Mr Jinnah's iron will and proved to be powerless.” Gandhi wanted to see his version of Hinduism as a generous ideal where there is no place for ill-will towards other communities. He interpreted the Bhagawad Gita in his own way, and saw it as an allegory for every person's constant fight against the evil inside him. 

Godse’s ideas were checkmated by Gandhi's popularity, and this frustration drove him to murder, for which he was convicted and hanged. If he had waited awhile, Godse would have probably seen Gandhi lose some of his popularity - as the near complete abandonment of Gandhi's ideals in modern India attests. In fact, all those who now use Gandhi as a stick to beat the Sangh parivar with have actually murdered him in spirit by their own venal corruption, hypocrisy and general abandonment of the idea of non-violence.

One of Godse’s main intensions in assassinating Gandhi was to remove his brakes on the Government of India so they could conduct statecraft on the basis of ruthless realpolitik. He was worried that Gandhians would prevail on the government to pardon him. He thought that the government’s mercilessness towards him was a good beginning for the kind of politics that he wanted to see from them. He thought that there was plenty of latent support in the country for his line of thinking and that posterity would vindicate him. 

The Government suppressed Godse’s speech fearing that it would evoke a lot of support for him, since it knew that there were a lot of people, especially in the educated middle class, who held views similar to those held by Godse. The latter thought that since state power was now in the hands of India, Gandhi was a back number who would be an obstacle for normal statecraft. Godse just reflected that unexpressed desire. 

When Godse made his final statement before the judge who heard his assassination case, the entire audience was with him emotionally. That is what GD Khosla, former Chief Justice of Punjab, who heard Godse’s appeal and sent him to the gallows, believed. In his book, The Murder of the Mahatma, Khosla notes that after Godse’s last statement to the court

“the audience was visibly and audibly moved. There was a deep silence when he ceased speaking. Many women were in tears and men were coughing and searching for their handkerchiefs. The silence was accentuated and made deeper by the sound of an occasional subdued sniff or a muffled cough. It seemed to me that I was taking part in some kind of melodrama or in a scene out of a Hollywood feature film. 

Once or twice I had interrupted Godse and pointed out the irrelevance of what he was saying, but my colleagues seemed inclined to hear him and the audience most certainly thought that Godse's performance was the only worthwhile part of the lengthy proceedings.”

In Khosla’s view, if the verdict had been left to the audience, Godse would have gone scot-free for his murder of Gandhi. “I have, however, no doubt that had the audience of that day been constituted into a jury and entrusted with the task of deciding Godse's appeal, they would have brought in a verdict of 'not guilty' by an overwhelming majority,” Khosla wrote.

There is a peculiar kind of heroism even in Godse. He knew he would be reviled and abused for what he did. To do something when you know you are only going to be hated for it also requires a weird kind of courage. It is easier to do something for which you will be applauded. Nehru had said that a madman had killed Gandhi. Godse was no madman. He saw more clearly than most people what he had done. In Ashis Nandy's essay, The Final Encounter: The politics of the Assassination of Gandhi (included in the essay collection Debating Gandhi), there is a quote by T. K. Mahadevan:

Godse was to Gandhi what Kamsa was to Krishna. Indivisible, even if incompatible. Arjuna never understood Krishna the way Kamsa did… Hate is infinitely more symbiotic than love. Love dulls one’s vision, hate sharpens it.

As a slight digression, there is  an interesting story (probably apocryphal) that Ashis Nandy tells about the depth of devotion to Ram of the politically vocal Rambhakths. During his only visit to an RSS shakha, Gandhi saw the portraits of some of the famous martial heroes of Hindutva like Shivaji and Rana Pratap on the walls. Being a devotee of Ram, Gandhi asked why no portrait of Ram had been put up as well. The  RSS leader who was accompanying him around said, ‘No, that we cannot do. Ram is too effeminate to serve our purpose.’

 


Friday, April 9, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7c

It is significant that Gandhi’s thoughts on gender politics was opposite to that of reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who sought to empower women by bringing them closer in capacities and opportunities to men. Gandhi sought to render men closer to women by exhorting them to adopt feminine characteristics like empathy and non-violence. It served to present the masculinities of British imperialist rule as crude, rapaciously materialist, violent, hypocritical, and profoundly lacking in self-control and discipline, in contrast to the spiritually stronger, scrupulously nonviolent, disciplined Indian resistance that Gandhi sought to forge. 

Gandhi knew that he faced a struggle to pass off the idea of nonviolence as the central core of Hinduism. After all, he himself said that he had borrowed his idea of nonviolence from the Sermon on the Mount. Before Gandhi, nobody had tried to give centrality to non-violence as a major Hindu or Indian virtue. Swami Vivekananda had sarcastically said that the British had, following the 'real' injunctions of the classical Indian texts, excelled in their this-worldly, hedonic, manly pursuits, while the Indians, foolishly following the 'true' injunctions of Christianity, had become their passive, life-denying, feminine subjects. Vivekananda had once said that the salvation of the Hindus lay in three Bs: beef, biceps and Bhagvadgita. Ashis Nandy writes in The Intimate Enemy

The current belief is that the Hindus are a peace-loving and nonviolent people, and this belief has been fortified by Gandhism. In reality few communities have been more warlike and fond of bloodshed. . . . About twenty-five words in an inscription of Asoka have succeeded in almost wholly suppressing the thousands in the rest of the epigraphy and the whole of Sanskrit literature which bear testimony to the incorrigible militarism of the Hindus. 

Their political history is made up of bloodstained pages. . . . Between this unnecessary proclamation of non-violence in the third century B.C. and its reassertion, largely futile, in the twentieth century by Mahatma Gandhi, there is not one word of non-violence in the theory and practice of statecraft by the Hindus.

  Gandhi’s own active feminization of himself is epitomized in the image of him at the spinning wheel, where both posture and activity are distinctly feminine. He also actively courted an image of motherliness through his intense, even obsessive involvement in nursing. On several occasions, he observed and then maintained that women were moral beings of a higher order than men and were exceptionally well-suited to such labor-intensive, painstaking, and sacrificial tasks. In Bapu – My Mother, Manubehn Gandhi (who was  a grandniece who he had brought up) says that he had constituted himself her 'Mother' and took interest in the minutest details of her life, even whether she thoroughly washed her hair every week. 

Responding to colonial criticisms, Gandhi reworked Hindu ascetic practices.  He argued that the practice of world renunciation in classical sannyasa is an escape into self-centeredness; renunciation is futile unless it manifests itself in selfless service and social reform: "In this age, only political sannyasis can fulfil and adorn the ideal of sannyasa, others will more than likely disgrace the sannyasi's saffron garb ... one who aspires to a truly religious life cannot fail to undertake public service as his mission, and we are today so much caught up in the political machine that service of the people is impossible without taking part in politics". 

When young, Gandhi had accepted dominant colonial attribution of Hindu cowardice to a vegetarian diet. So he began to eat meat, which he understands as a nationalist "duty." But the experiment did not last long. He came across Henry Salt's Plea for Vegetarianism and this changes his understanding of vegetarianism. He now came to consider vegetarianism as a moral virtue and became a vegetarian by choice. He also changed his earlier belief that meat-eating increased masculine strength: eating a sparse meal devoid of meat was a requirement, if one wanted to reside in his ashrams as a disciple. 

The nonviolent refusal to cooperate with injustice required that "feeble physiques" reflecting modern forms of indulgence to be replaced with bodies "as strong as steel" . He conceived his ashrams as centers to produce disciplined minds and bodies that can endure the hardships of satyagraha. Gandhi argued that aggression was the path to mastery of those without self-control, nonviolent resistance the path of those with self-control. (He became puritanical in his restrictions but it must be remembered that it was in the context of resisting the dominant narrative of the superiority of masculinity.) 

Gandhi's model of masculinity found expression in his economic thought also. He said: "I must confess that I do not draw a sharp distinction between economics and ethics. Economics that hurt the moral well-being of an individual or a nation are immoral, and therefore sinful. Thus the economics that permit one country to prey upon another are immoral. . . .” The Western world had been proud of science and technology and the industrial revolution. They used to criticize the Eastern world for its backwardness in this field. But Gandhi criticized the overdependence of men on machinery in the West. 

He believed that the people of the West had become slaves of machines and neglected use of their bodily strength. In Gandhi's model of masculinity, importance was given to manual labour and minimum use of machinery. He believed that it was manly to be self-reliant and independent. He thought that the modern methods of production and distribution had made people indulgent and deteriorated the moral qualities of the people. 

Gandhi, through his actions, suggested that resistance could be other than in the mode of masculinity and violence. His encouragement of women's participation in the political realm and attempts to feminize the anti-colonial struggle offered a resounding challenge to British colonial ideologies and institutional practices. He offered nonviolent resistance or satyagraha and reworked "feminine" practices, such as spinning, weaving, suffering hunger, and enduring assaults on the body, as the primary mode of political resistance. 

Gandhi wished to develop an Indian kind of nationalism which would be far more accommodative and more rooted in Indian traditions and cultures rather than being influenced by the West. He hoped that by inculcating feminine virtues in his followers he would develop a nationalism that would avoid the dangers of an aggressive tilt in nationalism  which removed from it of all its humanity and tolerant character, thereby generating jingoism. More than any other nationalist movement, the one Gandhi forged was largely devoid of hatred. 

What particularly incensed the Hindu right about Gandhi’s politics was what they perceived as his emasculation and even explicit feminization of “the Hindu community,” in relation to “the Muslim community,” which they saw as a betrayal of Hindus in general. They saw (and continue to see) politics like the colonial rulers did – as a rational, zero-sum game in which the losses on the opponent must be continually maximized. Nathuram Godse wanted Hinduism to attain the masculinity that the colonial rule represented. Gandhi wanted the opposite.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7b

The culture under colonialism symbolized the dominance of men and masculinity over women and femininity. The colonial rulers identified masculinity with rulership and identified femininity with submissiveness. Femininity-in-masculinity was now perceived as the least desirable, a pathology more dangerous than femininity itself. Many pre-Gandhian protest movements reflected this cultural change. The dominant culture of the colony had become the ultimate definition of manliness: aggression, achievement, control, competition and power.

In The  Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, Ashis  Nandy says that probably the person who most dramatically sought to redefine popular mythology to fit the changing values under colonialism was Michael Madhusudan Dutt (1824-73) whose Bengali epic Meghnadvadh Kavya was hailed, in his lifetime, as one of the greatest literary efforts of all time in Bengali. Meghnadvadh retells the Ramayana, turning the traditionally sacred figures of Rama and Lakshmana into weak-kneed, feminine villains and the demons Ravana and his son Meghnad into majestic, masculine, modern heroes. 

For Dutt, Meghnadvadh was a tragedy in which evil, represented by Rama finally triumphs. The culture of colonialism had influenced him so much that he endorsed the demonic masculinity embodied by the rakshasas. Nandy writes, ‘Indian culture rejected most forms of  competitive individual achievement, frequently underplayed sex-role differences, gave low status to high technology, granted equal status to myth and history, and rejected hedonism, including possessive individualism and consumerism. Madhusudan now freed Ravana from these traditional constraints to give him a new stature as a scientific, learned, modern Ksatriya king, fighting the non-secular politics and anti-technologism of a banished pastoral prince.’

By writing Meghnadvadh as a tragedy, Madhusudan Dutt was agreeing wholeheartedly with the hypermasculine self represented by Ravana that had previously been looked down upon in Indian culture. The image of a just king that Rama projected and had been worshipped for generations was now represented as a non-masculine, immature, effete godhead not worth emulating. It held that the softer side of human nature was irrelevant to the public sphere. It openly sanctified new forms of institutionalized violence. Ashis  Nandy writes in The  Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism

It interprets the encounter between Rama and Ravana as a political battle, with morality on the side of the demons. The epic ends with the venal gods defeating and killing the courageous, proud, achievement-oriented, competitive, efficient, technologically superior, 'sporting' demons symbolized by Meghnad. Simultaneously, Madhusudan's criterion for reversing the roles of Rama and Ravana, as expressed in their characters, was a direct response to the colonial situation. 

He admired Ravana for his masculine vigour, accomplished warriorhood, and his sense of realpolitik and history; he accepted Ravana's 'adult' and 'normal' commitments to secular, possessive this-worldliness and his consumer's lust for life. On the other hand, he despised 'Rama and his rabble' — the expression was his — because they were effeminate, ineffective pseudo-ascetics, who were austere not by choice but because they were weak.

The opposite side of this psychological tussle is the colonial power’s search for the ‘worthy’ opponent among the oppressed. Thus they came up with the concept of ‘martial races’. According to the concept, certain ethnic, religious, caste or social groups were regarded as possessing a more masculine character, as being loyal and therefore especially suited for military service. Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims, Hindu Jats, Dogras, Gurkhas, Garhwals, Pathans and Afridis were among the groups regarded as “martial”.  

Gandhi was fully aware of this psychological tussle between Indians and the British and his response was anything but a passive acceptance of the status quo. He formulated his own unique model of masculinity which found expression in his political, social and economic thought. Gandhi knew that it was difficult to compete British imperialist masculinity with physical power; so he gave emphasis on moral superiority. By presenting this new model of masculinity, Gandhi wanted to remove the inferiority complex from the minds of Indian men. 

He seemed to act with the belief that people fighting an oppressive system may internalize the norms of that system because they start believing that the opponent is not just economically but also culturally superior. He refused to grant cultural superiority to the British and resolutely defied the temptation to regain self-esteem by equaling the oppressor in violence. He refused to accept that it was the Indians who were inferior and had to copy the Europeans in order to become more advanced. In Gandhi in the 21st Century, Prof. Bhikhu Parekh describes the problem faced by the colonialists that Gandhi sensed:

Colonialism did promote their material interests, but only at the expense of their larger and infinitely more important moral and spiritual interests. For Gandhi material interests had only an instrumental significance, and were positively harmful when they hampered moral and spiritual development.

Gandhi challenged first the colonial culture's ordering of sexual identities which considered manliness as superior to womanliness, and womanliness as superior to femininity in man. The initial Indian response to this was to accept the ordering, look back at their tradition and decide that Ksatriyahood was true Indianness. Gandhi's solution was different. His post-1916 reformulation of courage as equally a feminine attribute with unique connotations of its own, led him to recommend the incorporation of femininity into the masculine. Ashis Nandy writes that he used two orderings, each of which could be invoked according to the needs of the situation:

  • The first ordering was that manliness and womanliness are equal, but the ability for a man to show feminine characteristics is superior to both i.e. the best  situation is when a man possesses the gentler side of human nature like love, kindness, forgiveness, empathy, etc. 
  • The second ordering was that  the essence of femininity is superior to that of masculinity, which in turn is better than cowardice. Cowardice, for him, was worse than the violence signified by masculinity.  A man cannot practice ahimsa and at the same time be a coward. Gandhi feels that possession of arms is due to lack of courage. In the face of violence and injustice, Gandhi considers violent resistance preferable to cowardly submission. There is hope that a violent man may someday be nonviolent, but there is no room for a coward to develop nonviolence.


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7a

Arundhati Roy says that Gandhi, '. . .(allegedly) feminised politics and created space for women to enter the political arena . . .'. Admittedly, there are contradictions in Gandhi’s writings and there are times when he gives the image of a typical patriarchal figure. For instance, Gandhi believed that women's education should differ from men's as their nature and function differ. He was of the opinion that women should first look after the home. He was against reservations for women but he also said ‘Seeing however that it has been the custom to decry women, the contrary custom should be to prefer women, merit being equal, to men even if the preference should result in men being entirely displaced by women.’ 

But it is undoubtedly true that far more women participated in the Indian freedom movement than in other revolutionary movements because, thanks to Gandhi, it was largely nonviolent. In violent revolutionary movements, very few women take part and the positions of power are held largely by men. Gandhi saw women as the best candidates for satyagraha since they exemplified nonviolent courage, as well as the energy and force that would drive both, the struggle for independence as well as the social change that he envisioned and sought. Madhu Kishwar writes in an article ‘Gandhi on Women’ about the perplexing contradictions in Gandhi’s writings:

He is one of those few leaders whose practice was far ahead of his theory and his stated ideas. . . he could keep on harping on women’s real sphere of activity being the home even while actively creating conditions which could help her break the shackles of domesticity. 

‘Feminising politics’ has a deeper, psychological meaning and in this dimension, Gandhi took the fight to the British. Masculinity /femininity has to do with particular traits and qualities rather than with biology. Masculinity is associated with qualities like being  virile, bold, brave,  gallant, hardy, macho, muscular, powerful. This gives us an idea of the physical and behavioral traits a society expects from men. 

Nature makes us male or female, it gives us our biological definition, but it is society which makes us masculine or feminine. Men who are gentle are derisively called feminine; on the other hand, women who are strong and in control are called manly or masculine. Ashis Nandy writes in The Final Encounter: The Politics of the Assassination of Gandhi (included in the essay collection Debating Gandhi):

Every political assassination is a joint communique. It is a statement which the assassin and his victim  jointly work on and co-author. Sometimes the collaboration takes time to mature, sometimes it is instantaneous and totally spontaneous. 

But no political assassination is ever a single-handed job. Even when the killer is mentally ill and acts alone, he in his illness represents larger historical and psychological forces  which connect him to his victim.

One of the major historical reasons that resulted in the assassination of Gandhi was the nature of his response to the colonial conception of masculinity. Colonialism cannot be identified with only economic gain and political power. There are two chronologically distinct periods in the history of colonialism in India. The first was relatively simple-minded in its focus on the physical conquest of territories, whereas the second was more insidious in its commitment to the conquest and occupation of minds, selves, cultures. 

If the first conquest and plunder mode of colonialism was more violent, it was also transparent in its self-interest, greed and rapacity. By contrast, the second was pioneered by rationalists, modernists and liberals who stressed the civilizing mission of colonialism. It was described by Kipling as ‘the White man’s burden’ – the White man had the task of bringing civilization to the uncivilized world. One of the ideologies that colonialism privileged was based on gender where hyper-masculinity is privileged over the feminine. 

Though few in number, the British were able to rule India for about 200 years, by overpowering the minds of Indians. For years, it was impressed upon them that the British and their institutions were far superior to that of Indians and could not be challenged. The British saw  Indian culture as infantile and immoral and the culture of the British public school products as austere, courageous, self-controlled, 'adult men'.  Colonialism creates a state of mind in the colonized in which they are constantly tempted to fight their rulers by imitating their tactics.

 The British argued that the civilizational ideal of renunciation had made the Indian elite passive to their sociopolitical condition. They claimed that a hot, humid climate, a vegetarian diet, early marriage, and the lack of a physical tradition had produced physically weak male bodies lacking in self-control. Since such physically and morally weak men could not be trusted to take on the reigns of the government, colonial rule was presented as necessary for India to emerge as a nation. 

British imperialism had assumed a morally superior image of itself. Indian nationalist leaders and literati were strongly influenced by such denigration of the weak Hindu male in colonial discourse. It prompted them to engage in varied attempts to reform their religion and themselves. They strived to build moral character and cultivate physical strength, so that they could prove their masculinity and claim their right to self-government. 


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 6b

Though Gandhi had plenty of criticisms of modern political institutions, he never advocated total segregation from them. He very much understood the perpetual need for political institutions. Politics of refusal does not mean refusal of politics. He felt that the modern state coercively extends state power into realms which were once regarded as private. So you are caught up in politics whether you like it or not. He said in 1920: 'If I seem to take part in politics, it is only because politics encircle us today like the coil of a snake from which one cannot get out, no matter how much one tries. I wish therefore to wrestle with the snake.' 

He thought that leading a quiet, contemplative life eschewing politics is a dangerous tactic in the modern era because it leaves the field open for unscrupulous characters to use it for their own benefit. He realized that the divorce of ethical principles in a materialistic society led to the widely held notions of realism and and self-interest. In such a situation, the power of the state was a standing inducement to social corruption. He felt that this could be tackled only by introducing the monastic ideal into politics. When he entered the coil of politics, he said that he realized that a political figure must discard all wealth and private possessions to remain untouched by immorality, untruth and political gain. 

Gandhi felt that both politics and religion are concerned with ‘the happiness of the toiling masses, a means to the realization of the highest realizable in life’ which is why he was against the prevail norm of separating religion and politics.  If people today talk about the segregation of politics from religion, it is the fault of both politicians and theologians. But he was firmly against state religion, even if a country had only one religion. He thought that a group which depended partly or wholly on state aid for the existence of religion does not have any religion worth the name. To understand Gandhi’s position, it is important to understand what he meant by ‘politics’ and ‘religion’. 

When he spoke very critically about politics, he was talking about power politics. He thought that it was a part of politics that received too much importance.  He did not place his faith in the necessity of being able to capture power at all costs. ‘To me political power is not an end but one of the means of enabling people to better their condition in every department of life.’ He felt that if politics was artificially separated from religious values, it would become a game played according to its own amoral rules that may be given a moral disguise. 

Gandhi stood for the substitution of Power politics by Goodness politics by insisting that the means are important for achieving the desired ends. The institutional factors that constrain the actions and beliefs of ordinary people are what concerned Gandhi. Since he was not interested in a political career as conventionally understood and since he did not consider politics as separate from other aspects of his life, he regarded his periods of withdrawal from politics as political acts. When he spent an year in his ashram in 1926 withdrawing from political activities, he said, 'The condition of the country certainly makes me unhappy, but sometimes even silence is a form of action. I am sure that my silence is. '

Gandhi felt that the only way to wrestle with the snake of politics is to introduce religion into politics. He used the word ‘religion' in a sense that had nothing to do with its usual sectarian connotations. 'By religion I do not mean formal religion or customary religion but that religion which underlies all religions.' He was more concerned with religious values, which he thought were common to all religions, rather than the received dogmas. Religion means a belief in ‘the ordered moral government of the universe’. He referred to 'the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one's very nature, which binds one indivisibly to the truth within and which ever purifies'. It is 'rock-bottom fundamental morality'.

Christians who admired Gandhi would ask whether it was not the presence of Christ that guided him. He replied : “If you mean the historical Jesus, then I feel no such presence. But if you mean a Spirit guiding me, nearer than hands and feet, nearer than the very breath of me, then I do feel such a Presence. . . You may call it Christ or Krishna that does not matter to me.” Gandhi uses the word 'religion' several times in different contexts in his seminal text Hind Swaraj. For eg., he says, 'It is contrary to our  manhood if we obey laws repugnant to our conscience. Such teaching is opposed to religion and means slavery.' 

This gives the impression that he was a reactionary figure who was mired in the past. This is due to a misunderstanding which Anthony Parel clears in Gandhi: Hind Swaraj and Other Writings.  In the original Gujarati text of Hind Swaraj, Gandhi uses the term ‘dharma’ which is usually translated into ‘religion’ in English. But ‘dharma’ has a much wider meaning than ‘religion’. Gandhi uses the word ‘dharma’ in two different senses throughout the text: ‘dharma’ as ethics and ‘dharma’ as sect. Most occurrences of the word ’religion’ in the English translation of Hind Swaraj should be read as ‘ethics’. Gandhi applies the moral approach and he also pleads for politics guided by morals. He writes: 

I have always derived my politics from ethics. It is because I swear by ethics that I find myself in politics. A person who is a lover of his country is bound to take a lively interest in politics.

In the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira is disconsolate at the end of a senseless war that results in enormous loss of life and is haunted by the wailing of widows and children. He contemplates giving up his kingship and become a hermit to find serenity in the forest. Krishna dissuades him, saying, ‘Yes, Yudhishthira, you can renounce the world and become a hermit and achieve peace, but what about the rest of the world? Will you abandon them? A hermit seeks meaning for himself but only a king can create a world that enables everyone to find meaning.  Choose kingship, Yudhishthira, not out of obligation but out of empathy for humanity.’ Yudhishthira agreed with Krishna. So did Gandhi.  In an article, Gandhi — the step-father of the nation, Ashish Nandy said:

After Gandhi died, he [Arnold Toynbee, a historian] said, “that henceforth humankind will ask its prophets, are you willing to live in the slum of politics?” It is that capacity to live in the slum of politics that identified Gandhi as a distinctive contributor to human civilization; one who expanded the horizons of human civilization. He did not live with only his values. He pushed them and worked on the basis of them in politics. 

PS: Hannah Arendt was greatly influenced by Martin Heidegger who is acknowledged as one of the sharpest brains of the 20th century. She was disillusioned when she later found that he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis. She recognized in Heidegger the philosopher’s characteristic disdain for public life and, in his support for the Nazis, the philosopher’s tendency to prefer the order of tyranny over the contingency of politics. Subsequently, she was preoccupied by the problem of how ‘such profundity in philosophy could co-exist with such stupidity or perversity in politics’.

She traced this problem to a specific incident in Western philosophy - the sentencing to death of Socrates. Plato was shocked by the public condemnation of his greatest teacher. He then began thinking of politics as a solitary act through which the thinker confronts himself with the meaning of complex problems away from the world of the simple opinion. But Politics was for Arendt originally meant to be the place where men can manifest their individuality through speeches and deeds which can affect the life of the community. The politician was no more than a citizen taking part in public debate and not a technician who can operate according to his abstract principles.

Arendt strongly opposes the understanding of politics as a problem-solving technique that aims at conforming the social reality to a predetermined standard which science should be able to dictate. This technocratic conception of politics has become quite commonly held. Political thought is representative. The more people’s standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking and the more valid my final conclusion, my opinion. 

Deeds and speeches cannot for Arendt be reduced to mere instrumental or strategic behavior: in that case, she says, they would be easily replaced by violence. She stressed that the characteristics of the political life are plurality, unpredictability of human action, the consensual nature of power, the use of persuasion in order to achieve consensus - the very features that  Plato, and by extension, many intelligent people, are uncomfortable with. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 6a

Arundhati Roy writes:

For centuries before Gandhi and for years after him, Hindu rishis and yogis have performed feats of renunciation far more arduous than Gandhi's. However, they have usually done it alone, on a snowy mountainside or in a cave set in a windblown cliff. Gandhi's genius was that he yoked his other-worldly search for moksha to a very worldly, political cause and performed both, like a fusion dance, for a live audience, in a live-in theater. 

It was precisely the idea that saints should retreat to caves that Gandhi wanted to challenge. The history of Hinduism is marked by the tension between the hermit tradition (which emphasized turning away from the world for enlightenment) and the householder tradition (which emphasized engagement with the world). Gandhi wanted to embody an enlightened householder. An unenlightened householder is one who views life either as a burden or as an indulgence. An enlightened householder is one who lives like a householder but thinks like a hermit; who is engaged in everything but is possessive of nothing.

Gandhi was venerated as a saint but he did not fit the conventional Hindu saint. In his project of trying to unite politics, ethics and spirituality, he went beyond all the great figures of modern India. His spiritual mentor, Raychandbhai, had warned him not to involve himself too deeply in the politics of Natal for the good of his soul. Many years later, Ramana Maharshi said that Gandhi was a good man who had sacrificed his spiritual development by taking too great burdens upon himself. Even Swami Vivekananda urged Indians to participate in social action, philanthropic activities, etc. but not politics. Horace Alexander, a British Quaker who worked with Gandhi, said that if Gandhi was a mystic, he was 'a very matter-of-fact mystic'. 

It was Gandhi who found a way of overcoming this fear of the political on the part of the spiritual and he found the inspiration for it in the Gita. In his opinion, there was no evidence in the Gita of any opposition between these two pursuits. Rather, it taught that in performing one's duties rightly - whatever they might be whether related to the family, society, nation or state - one could attain the goal of moksha. He was of the opinion that since man had a soul - the spark of the divine - in them, it was their natural obligation to love and respect one another. He rejected religious quietism or purely private piety and his religious vision compelled him to participate in a range of public activities. 

He didn’t believe in just talk about religion but kept reminding people that actions speak louder than words. Things had to be done rather than merely contemplated. He believed that true religion was not a matter of rules and regulations but a journey through life's realities and challenges during the course of which dharma must be worked out. He was never comfortable with the purely contemplative tradition but believed passionately that each man must find his God in encounter with his fellow men. In 1936, he told a Polish visitor, '. . . If I could persuade myself that I could find Him [God] in  a Himalayan cave, I would proceed there immediately.  But I know that I cannot find him apart from humanity.'

The exclusive cultivation of inwardness leads one to neglect the practical aspects of life which does not necessarily have a beneficial effect on society. He therefore does not advocate a retreat into the ‘cave of the heart’ like Indian holy men but the power of religion to move the heart must be used to bring people together when a course of action is being planned. He said that if religion is concerned with practical life, it is also concerned with politics. Religion, morality and ethics, for him, are closely interwoven. Similarly, politics was nothing but a major instrument of service to the people totally free from all games of power politics. Gandhi realized that he couldn't do even social work without politics. He told a group of missionaries in 1938:

I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind and that I could not do unless I took part in politics. The whole gamut of man’s activities today constitutes an indivisible whole . . . I do not know of any religion apart from activity. It provides a moral basis to all other activities without which life would be a maze of sound and fury signifying nothing. He said, '. . . religion that takes no count of political affairs and does not help to solve them, is no religion.'

Gandhi said that a truly spiritual person had to be engaged with society – he could not be indifferent to the social ills that he sees around him. If he is indeed an indifferent spectator of these ills and prefers to pursue his spiritual quest in isolation, then there is something wrong with his concept of spirituality. He felt that the most challenging moral problems for a religious person came from politics. As early as in 1926, Gandhi asserted that "'moksha' or self-realization was impossible today without service of and identification with the poorest." What Gandhi meant by service was not relief or charity, but radical restructuring of the present exploitative economic system. Raghavan Iyer writes in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi:

Gandhi thought that the saint and the revolutionary are not incompatible, although the former is more concerned with his inward integrity and the latter with his outward effectiveness. The saint must not be a self-deceiving escapist who refuses to act, while the revolutionary politician must not become a self-seeking opportunist who is ever-ready to sacrifice his declared principles.

The true saint must be effective in society, while the true revolutionary must be possessed of the deepest integrity; in the end, the two categories merge into each other. In this way Gandhi upheld what Archbishop Temple called 'the error of medieval monasticism', the belief that it is possible to live in a society that is altogether at variance with the prevalent moral standards. 

He recognized a key feature of modernity that had never been present earlier - the elevation of vices like greed and selfishness to the status of virtues resulting in the institutionalizing of irresponsibility. He argued that the modern version of material advancement is a regression rather than a higher stage of human evolution, because it displaces dharma (as ethics) from its primacy. He argued that all efforts to improve the human condition are bound to fail unless they put dharma, or a moral framework and a sense of higher purpose, above the pursuit of artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure). He considered modern civilization to be without a moral center with its emphasis on progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost.

Gandhi felt that Indian civilization needs a realignment of the aims life with an end to the predominance of the ascetic tradition. He felt that India needs to have modern type of political and economic institutions with Western values like human rights, gender equality, civil liberty etc. But he felt that those who rely only on this philosophy tend to believe that perusing spiritual transcendence is anti-modern and that the modern state can justify any end it pursues. His concern had been based on his perception that modernity over-emphasized the material comforts of life and under-emphasized the ethical dimension – it encouraged the pursuit of bodily needs without the framework of ethics i.e. it did not provide any 'inducement for morality'. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 5b

 Gandhi's reading of John Ruskin’s Unto this Last made him “determined to change my life”, influencing his concept of “soul-force” as a substitute for physical force. He learnt from it that “the good of the individual is contained in the good of all . . . the lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s. . . a life of labor, ie, the life of a tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.” After his return to India, he used his philosophy of work to undermine the caste hierarchy that undermined manual labor in various social practices. He tried to re-legitimize the manual and the unclean and delegitimize the Brahminic and the clean. Ashis Nandy writes in Bonfire of Creeds:

I remember anthropologist Surajit Sinha once saying that while Rabindranath Tagore wanted to turn all Indians into Brahmans, Gandhi sought to turn them into Shudras. This can be read as an indictment of Gandhi; it can be read as a homage. 

And every Indian social thinker and activist has to make his or her choice some time or the other; for to say glibly that one must in the long run abolish both the categories is to fight in the short run for the Brahminic world-view. Exactly as to work for the future removal of poverty without touching the super rich in the present is to collaborate with the latter. 

A year after his return he asked a group of students, ‘…I consider that a barber’s profession is just as good as the profession of medicine’.   At that time, a barber’s profession was meant for untouchables and the medical profession provided entry into the ranks of the Westernized elite so Gandhi’s statement would have been incredible for the students. He further stated that only when these ideas are clearly understood ‘and not until then, you may come into politics’. Indians, according to him had not developed its scientist-engineers like in the west because: 

We are apt to think lightly of the village crafts because we have divorced educational from manual training. Manual work has been regarded as something inferior, and owing to the wretched distortion of the varna, we came to regard spinners and weavers and carpenters and shoemakers as belonging to the inferior castes and the proletariat. 

We have had no Comptons and Hargreaves because of this vicious system of considering the crafts as something inferior divorced from the skilled. If they had been regarded as callings having an independent status of their own equal to the status that learning enjoyed, we should have had great inventors from among our craftsmen. 

Gandhi was anxious that those engaged in physical labor should not be looked down upon and their place should be considered equal to those engaged in intellectual pursuits. He thought that it is the wide gulf between manual and intellectual labor that is the cause of poverty and inequality in society. Gandhi said that the labor test would be far superior to that either of literacy or property for a person to take part in government. He held that voters could not become pawns in the hands of politicians by becoming self-reliant through this principle. He held that this would enable people to have the capacity to resist authority and prevent the formation of a small class of exploiting rulers and a large class of exploited subjects. 

It was not that Gandhi held intellectual labor in low esteem. He even says at one place that he would allow those with greater intellect to earn more. But he believed that all should perform manual labor, irrespective of their professions, so that the load of physical labor was not borne unfairly by some and a sense of identification was created with the hardships of others. Spinning and khadi must be seen in this context. While for the poor, it provided some additional income during the off-season, for others it was a form of sacrifice. 

But the pragmatic in Gandhi had been overwhelmed by the idealist in pursuit of an egalitarian, just society which is why there are contradictions in Gandhi’s argument. He asserts that professionals should not expect payment for their work, but at the same time, he was willing to allow those with greater intellect to earn more. 

The importance of using ones hands also informed his views on science. In a speech he delivered to a group of college students in Trivandrum in March 1925, Gandhi said that he appreciated the urge that led scientists to conduct basic research, to do ‘science for the sake of science’. But he worried that scientists and science students in India came overwhelmingly from the middle class (and upper castes), and hence knew only to use their minds and not their hands. His own view was that it would be ‘utterly impossible for a boy to understand the secrets of science or the pleasures and the delights that scientific pursuits can give, if that boy is not prepared to use his hands, to tuck up his sleeves and labor like an ordinary laborer in the streets’. For only if one’s ‘hands go hand in hand with your heads’, could one properly place science in the service of humanity. 

Without an understanding of practical needs as developed through such labor, scientific research was unlikely to benefit the masses. In Young India of September 1, 1921, Gandhi wrote, “Our children should not be so taught as to despise labor. It is a sad thing that our school boys look upon manual labor with disfavor, if not contempt.” With this view he exhorted the science students to work with their hands, as science was one of the few things that involved accuracy of thought and accuracy of handling. Gandhi's critique of education, both modern and traditional, was based on the place of manual and crafts work in its overall scheme. He was convinced that: 

The utterly false idea that intelligence can be developed only through book reading should give place to the truth that the quickest development of the mind can be achieved by artisan's work being learnt in a scientific manner. True development of the mind commences immediately the apprentice is taught at every step why a particular manipulation of the hand or a tool is required (Harijan, 9-I-37, 386).

The demands that he made were revolutionary and required profound changes in thinking about work, caste, religion and politics. Following his critique of traditions from the standpoint of a believer, he argues that the stagnation in matters of science was inevitable if the practice of untouchability persisted. He said, 'We look down upon those who do manual work. Had we assigned to craftsmen and artisans a place of dignity in society, like other countries we too would have produced many scientists and engineers 

Friday, January 29, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 5a

(I have changed the numbering system from this post. This series is very long and I thought that it would be easier for readers to follow if I switched from Roman numerals to Hindu-Arabic numerals with sub-sections. For example, this post and the next are numbered 5a and 5b respectively.  This means that these two posts are on the same issue viz. manual labor. If there are posts numbered from 12a . . .12f, it would mean that there are 6 posts on the same issue triggered by a comment by Arundhati Roy.) 

Arundhati Roy writes sarcastically about an article in the Harijan where Gandhi writes that 'the ideal Bhangi of my conception would be a Brahmin par excellence' and that a 'Bhangi constitutes the foundation of all services'. He then writes about the qualities that 'such an honored servant of society' should have. These include 'a thorough knowledge of the principles of sanitation', 'how a right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it', 'how to overcome and destroy the odor of excreta and the various disinfectants to render them innocuous', etc. 

It is common practice these days to take a quote that somebody made a long time ago, and invest it with huge significance. If somebody wants to condemn him politically, they quote this one line. It’s not that he didn’t say it, but you can't analyze somebody based on one sentence they said years ago. You have to look at their entire body of work. Gandhi's philosophy of manual labor was completely at variance with existing Indian assumptions about labor which was causing sharp caste divisions and the horror of the upper castes in performing manual labor. It was part of his indirect attack on the caste system without saying it in so many words. 

Gandhi is too nuanced for people who want black and white answers and leap too easily to simplistic conclusions. Manual labor is the labor that is essential for meeting basic needs and nobody was exempt from it. While the poor had to do it out of necessity, the rich had to do it out of choice. The Industrial Revolution changed the way labor was perceived. Now labor is seen only as an input to produce profit and power. Manual labor's status was downgraded and seen as fit only for backward, illiterate people. It was looked down upon in Indian culture and Gandhi spent his entire adult life fighting this prejudice. Dennis Dalton writes in Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action:

If any single idea demonstrates or stamps Gandhi's credentials as a social reformer, it must be his theory and practice of work. The idea pervades his whole reform preprogram, from abolition of untouchability to construction of village latrines and wells. His unique emphasis on public health and sanitation required social workers-cum-political volunteers to engage in labor that would routinely defy caste restrictions.

For Gandhi, manual labor is not a sign of weakness but our humanity yet he finds it continually degraded. 'In our country manual labor is regarded as a low occupation . . . We should spin, therefore, if only to guard against the pernicious tendency of regarding the toiler as being low in the social scale.' - (Young India, May 20, 1926). He was critical of the devaluation of manual labor in Buddhist monasteries. Although he had very high regard for the Buddha, he had some criticisms as well. He said that 'if I had the good fortune to be face to face with one like him [the Buddha], I should not hesitate to ask him why he did not teach the gospel of work, in preference to one of contemplation.' 

He said that he would do the same thing if he met Hindu saints such as Tukaram and Jnanadev. He wondered how much responsibility the Buddha had to bear for the rise of an anti-work ethic in Buddhist monasticism. He said, '. . . did he himself set up the organizations [of monasteries] or did his followers do so? Whoever did it, the monasteries which were established became . . . stagnant and by-and-by acquired a reputation as dens of sloth.' He alluded to the same state in Hindu monasteries also. Anthony Parel writes in Gandhi's Philosophy and the Quest for Harmony:.

. . he felt it necessary to criticize the imbalance between work and the spiritual life. The theory that begging was holy and that living off the labor of others legitimate, provided it was done by mendicants, also came for criticism. He made it clear that his criticism did not spring from any sectarian bias. They sprang from the insight that the work ethic was mandatory on all, mendicants as well as lay people. 

In his ashrams his insistence on everybody performing manual labor caused friction between various castes. In Sabarmati Ashram, manual labor was part of daily routine - inmates had to work for 3 1/2 hours in the field and 3 hrs. in the kitchen and dining hall. The first task entrusted to new entrants was the cleaning of latrines.  Gandhi's reasoning for this kind of initiation was that this would strip the person of any residual ego and make them humble enough to be able to recognize truth and be prepared to serve the weakest and the poorest. To a young man to whom he had assigned the job of cleaning latrines, he said:

I know that you have been educated abroad and so you feel that you must address the bigger issues plaguing India, like reducing poverty, speeding up development and eradicating illiteracy, but as long as you don’t have the humility to do the humblest of jobs you will not be able to recognize the real problems that beset our motherland. 

If you really want to make a difference you will have to first get rid of your ego, only then will you be able to understand that it is essential to recognize the importance of the seemingly insignificant, menial tasks and have the humility to perform them, if you learn to do them with dignity and honor, the bigger tasks will become easy.

He asserted that no work was superior or inferior; the work of a Brahmin, of expounding holy truths, was not one whit better than that of a sudra who removed night-soil. Madeline Slade was the daughter of an Admiral of the British Navy. She came under the thrall of Gandhi, renounced her affluence and came to India to live in his ashrams. Her transformation into Meerabehen, the name given to her by Gandhi, began by cleaning latrines and emptying chamber pots. He wrote in Harijan of September 8, 1946: 

I am a firm believer in the educative value of manual work. Useful manual labor, intelligently performed, is the means par excellence for developing the intellect. One may develop a sharp intellect otherwise, too. But, then, it will not be a balanced growth but an unbalanced, distorted abortion. It might easily make of one a rouge and rascal.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - IV

Gandhi was well-aware that caste was (and remains) a deeply-entrenched component of Indian society (observed not only by Hindus, but by Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians).  He himself had been outcasted by members of his bania sub-caste for going abroad to study and he showed no interest in rejoining it. He chose to focus on the most odious component of the caste system (untouchability) and call for its elimination.  Roy chooses to harshly critique Gandhi for this stance and dismiss him as a hypocrite.  Gandhi was a product of his time, place and culture.  His position calling for the eradication of untouchability was considered radical by most caste Hindus of his time. 

In September 1915, Gandhi accepted in his ashram in Ahmedabad an untouchable couple and their child. Even this limited challenge to the social order posed by the ashram caused such a crisis that the community nearly disintegrated. Various members threatened to leave or actually left including those closest to Gandhi – Kasturba and Maganlal. There was talk of social boycott by the residents of the city. Outside funds dried up.  Gandhi held his ground and refused to remove the untouchable family from the ashram. He was ready to close down the ashram and move to an untouchable settlement. The community was only saved by an ‘anonymous’ donation of 13,000 rupees by a local businessman. 

While the Congress wanted him to concentrate on gaining political independence and deemed Gandhi's tackling of other issues a distraction, Ambedkar said he was prepared to call the former his leader if he dropped all issues and concentrated only on the caste issue. It is easy to to take maximalist positions if you are focusing only on one issue but you have to be more cautious and diplomatic when pursuing multiple objectives. At one point, C.F. Andrews, his closest friend in adult life, advised him to concentrate only on the issue of untouchability even if it meant ignoring other issues. He replied:

I can't devote myself entirely to untouchability and say, "Neglect Hindu-Muslim unity or swaraj." All these things run into one another and are interdependent. You will find at one time in my life an emphasis on one thing, at another time on another.  But that is just like a pianist, now emphasizing one note and now (an)other.

It is important to concentrate on what Gandhi did rather than what he said. Most politicians are radical in what they say but conservative in what they do. But Gandhi was the opposite: he was conservative in what he said but radical in what he did. What he said was due to strategic reasons tailored not to antagonize the audience that he was addressing. So when he addressed an audience of orthodox Hindus, he would make noises in favor of the caste system. But in his actions on the ground, he had no hesitation in breaking rigid caste rules.

He said that the 'most effective, the quickest, and the most unobtrusive way to destroy caste' was for reformers to practice what they preached in their lives. 'Reviling the orthodox' was not the best way to go about getting rid of caste. The change had to be 'gradual and imperceptible'. He did not ask the colonial state to intervene because it was an alien institution. He instead wanted public opinion to create an anti-caste outlook. He would attack the caste system indirectly rather than confront it directly. He was of the opinion that people ‘cannot be made good by law’. He said in Young India on July 9, 1925, ‘The evolution of public opinion is at times a tardy process but it is the only effective one.’ One of his strategies was to start by attacking untouchability rather than take on the whole caste system. 

Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example. Gandhi tried to make Sabarmati Ashram a model of a caste-free society. The members of  the Ashram did not believe in varnashrama dharma and carried out their responsibilities out of a sense of duty without adhering to their prior caste affiliations. He wanted his ashrams to reflect the kind of society that he wanted the whole of caste-ridden India to have. They were laboratories of the future. Moreover, much to the chagrin of upper-caste Hindu society, Gandhi displayed absolutely no qualms in picking up a broom and sweeping toilets, work that in Hindu society was considered fit only for the “lowest of the low.”  

On April 24, 1947, Gandhi publicly said in Patna that for some time he had made it a rule to be present or give his blessings’ only for a wedding between a Dalit and a non-Dalit.  Gandhi utilized the Dandi Salt march to breach some things other than the salt laws as well. One of these was the caste divide in the villages en route. On his arrival in some villages he headed straight for the so-called ‘untouchable' quarters and drew water from the well there for his wash, making his village hosts, often from ‘higher' castes, to cross those ancient and hurtful divides. He was under no illusions about the enormity of the task he faced.  He said that it would be like 'Dame Partington with her mop, trying to push back the Atlantic Ocean'.

Gandhi led a campaign for dalit rights in the 1930s, undertaking a nine-month tour of some 12,500 miles in 1933, campaigning for the opening up of wells, temples and roads to dalits. For a short time this appeared to have a remarkable impact. But Gandhi also encountered much resistance from orthodox caste Hindus. They disrupted his meetings and in June 1933 a bomb was thrown at him in Pune. Gandhi's colleagues in the Indian National Congress questioned his action. Gandhi, they argued, was spending far too much of his energies on a 'religious issue to the detriment' of political activity.

Gandhi's soft approach towards the orthodox was due to his wanting to reform Hinduism from within rather than attack it from the outside. His aim was to bring about a gradual delegitimization of various pernicious social practices by upper caste Hindus. About his soft approach to the Brahman priests during the Vaikkom satyagraha, David Hardiman writes in Gandhi: In His Time and Ours, "In Vaikkom, the latter [the priests] had showed themselves up when their representative had pleaded before him pathetically, 'Mahatmaji, we beseech you to prevent Avarnas [untouchables] from depriving us of our old privileges'' The heart of the matter thus stood revealed - theology provided no more than a cover for social privilege."

All along, Gandhi grounded his struggle against injustice in love, tolerance, and forgiveness. Ambedkar, on the other hand, chose to take Hindu orthodoxy head on. In purely rational terms, it made sense, but given the pervasiveness of the caste system which cut across all strata of Indian society, not just caste Hindus, Gandhi's approach merits attention. While Ambedkar relied more heavily on formal politics and religious separation as a mechanism for change, Gandhi, without ignoring the political dimension, emphasized personal example and the change of heart of a broad mass of caste Hindus. He said, 'I believe that it is impossible to end hatred with hatred.' 

Yet caste-based oppression remains after all this time. Although Dalits now have political voice, caste Hindus dominate the institutions. Horrific acts of violence continue to be perpetrated against Dalits even though there are laws to deal with the same. This has made the sociologist Andre Beteille to suggest that both leaders failed. Gandhi failed because the change of heart did not go far enough or deep enough. Ambedkar failed because conversion to Buddhism or any other religion has rarely led to escape from the stigma of pollution. Both failures testify to the weight and pervasiveness of hierarchical values in Indian society.


Friday, January 15, 2021

An unexpected break

On Christmas day last year, my father-in-law, who had been unwell for 3-4 days, was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed as Covid positive. The next day my brother-in-law, Unni and Uma (who looks looks after me 24*7; she is younger than Sujit, has been with us for over 3 years, helps Jaya a lot and has become like a daughter for us now) went to the hospital since they were unwell. Uma tested Covid positive while Unni tested Covid negative but was admitted in 'suspected Covid ward' since he was showing certain symptoms. 

On the next day, my mother-in-law was showing a lot of weakness and couldn't move or eat anything so she was taken to the hospital by Sujit. (He had come a couple of days earlier and was staying with my mother because people were sick at home and we did not want him to catch an infection.) Although she was diagnosed as Covid negative, she was admitted in the 'suspected Covid ward' since she had certain symptoms. 

This meant that Jaya and me were the only ones at home. Sujit spoke to his branch manager who agreed to work out some way to take a long leave during his period of probation and asked him to stay on in Coimbatore. (All three of us had tested negative.) We hadn't expected his bank (Federal Bank) to be so accommodating and his stay proved very helpful. He continued to stay with my mother who made the meals and sent them to Jaya through him.

Thus passed a couple of tension-filled weeks. Jaya had always stayed with people around with whom she could talk so she found it tough to stay alone. (Conversing with me is not the same as conversing with a person who can talk.) Expectedly, my father-in-law, who is 84, had the toughest time. It was an emotional roller coaster ride for all of us till he was shifted from the ICU to the ward after 10 days. Another cause for worry was Unni who had a persistent cough for many days which made it difficult for him talk or sleep peacefully. 

My mother-in-law and Uma were discharged after a week and they were then quarantined in a hotel room. After another week, Uma tested negative so both were brought home. Uma was almost back to normal which made Jaya and me very happy. My mother-in-law is still weak. Moreover, about a month before Covid struck, she had had a fall which caused multiple  fractures in her right palm. The fractures have healed but the fingers have less flexibility now so she is more dependent on Jaya than before. 

My father-in-law and Unni were discharged on 12th. The former is on two liters of oxygen and is very tired. They have  been quarantined in another room for a week and I have not yet met them. This is being done mainly to ensure that I don't get any infection because that would greatly complicate matters. 

This domestic disruption caused by Covid again illustrated one of Gandhi’s concerns about modernity: the focus on the universal while ignoring the particular. (I see Gandhi everywhere these days.) When I came across Covid only in the news, it was all about disembodied statistics like positivity rates, recovery rates, etc. But when Covid came home, I became more aware of the tensions that people go through, the suffering, the long road to recovery, etc.

There seems to be a dangerous sense of complacency surrounding the vaccine. People seem to feel that once the vaccine is administered, it will be business as usual. Governments at the moment are still ostrich-like, thinking, lets just go back to the same old ways of printing money. Kickstart lending again to get capital flowing. People will be able to borrow again, people will be able to buy things again. It's all going to be fine. 

There doesn’t seem to be a realization that there will be new viruses causing worldwide pandemics due to widespread travel. Due to continuing habitat destruction, humans and wild animals will keep coming into contact causing more virus jumps across species. I heard the science writer Carl Zimmer say that he is reluctant to make any predictions but there is one prediction that he can make with a fair degree of certainty: there will always be some sort of flu caused by some sort of virus. 

PS: I will resume my regular posts about 'Arundhati Roy on Gandhi' from next week.