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.
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