Oscar Wilde said, “Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer.” Attempts have always been made to consign Gandhi to the dustbin of history. While everybody likes the idea of nonviolence, few believe it can be an effective policy in statecraft today. I read that the department of education in Odisha published a booklet reportedly stating that “Gandhi died because of an accidental sequence of events.” Apparently in a school in Gujarat 15-year-old children were asked how “Gandhi committed suicide” as part of an exam.
Every so often someone comes along purporting to unmask the “real” Gandhi, the Gandhi that “no one knows,” the Gandhi who was patriarchal, bourgeois, casteist, a sexual puritan, contemptuous of Africans, an enemy of progress and development, even a “friend of Hitler’. (Gandhi authored two short letters to Hitler, urging him to renounce violence, neither of which the war-time British censors permitted to reach the intended recipient.) Yet Gandhi refuses to disappear. He is everywhere, a spectral presence who is likely to haunt even more.
Few of Gandhi’s ideals survive today in India, and thus we cannot but declare him a failure. But he tried, he believed, and he lived by what he preached (by and large). This makes him a success, for, as the Gita says, you should do your duty without seeking a reward. Indian movie directors keep alive the ghost of Gandhi. (I know of Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi films.) When some unethical act takes place - politicians planning a riot, prisoner beaten by policemen, officials accepting bribes etc., there will be a photo of Gandhi hanging on the wall behind.
In The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi, Makarand Paranjape writes that killing the Father “is not the same as eliminating his influence or presence”. However much India’s elites and middle classes have attempted to relegate Gandhi to the margins, engaging in campaigns of slander, obfuscation, and trivialization, Gandhi continues to surface in the most unexpected ways. He is the (sometimes hidden) face of most of India’s most significant ecological movements, from the Chipko agitation to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, just as he is the face of intellectual dissent, little insurrections, and social upheaval.
When the Polish workers rose against their authoritarian regime in the late 1980s, they talked of Lech Walesa as their Gandhi, a curious description of the Vodka-guzzling trade-union leader. When Benito Aquino of Philippines was assassinated, the same chant was raised by the crowd, `Benito, our Gandhi'. Protesting crowds often hold posters of Gandhi and Che Guevara together, two leaders whose world-views were diametrically opposite to each other. The crowd would not even know who these people are. As Ashis Nandy writes in an article Gandhi after Gandhi, 'For above all, this Gandhi is a symbol of those struggling against injustice, while trying to retain their humanity even when faced with unqualified inhumanity.'
'My father, do not rest. Do not allow us to rest', said Sarojini Naidu in her broadcast on All India Radio on February 1, 1948, after Gandhi's assassination. "I am not going to keep quiet even after I die”, Gandhi had once declared. The character of Gandhi in the Hindi film Lage Raho Munnabhai says, ‘I was shot down many years ago but my ideas will not die by three bullets, my thoughts will create a chemical imbalance in some mind or the other. Either you put me inside a frame and hang me up on your wall or think over my thoughts.’ After the assassination of Martin Luther King, a cartoon appeared in an American newspaper where Gandhi says to King in heaven:
Gandhi strived to live a life in politics which promoted moral values that transcended self-interest and political arrogance. He had come to the conclusion that democracy, like any other aspect of social and political life, would not function in the framework of a meaningless civilization with no sense of ethics and spirituality. His view was that a satyagrahi should wrestle with ’the coil of the snake’ of politics without being bitten by the lust for power. In Gandhi's Theory of Society and Our Times, A. K. Saran says:
. . . if Gandhi was not just a colonial leader who happened to achieve some kind of world fame, but, on the contrary, is a universal figure with relentless and steadfast concern with the destiny of man, then the central question raised by Gandhi, his thought, life and work, is the question of its relevance to our times and this is nothing else or no less than this: Has the voice of sanity any chance at all against the dark, demonic powers of our times?
Gandhi’s critical attitude toward modern civilization is an effort in asking the right questions at the right time about the whole inherited ideas on thought and action. He recognized that the advance of modernity coincides with the banishment of the small man to the sidelines. His ideas are a challenge both to Marxism and laissez-faire economics, which both count on pure economic forces for harmony or justice to prevail. All subtle ideas can be trivialized by portrayal in uncompromising and absolute terms. Don’t underestimate the power of steady misrepresentation.
Gandhi's challenging and fundamental questions discomfit many which makes him inspirational as well as annoying to different sections. The latter group is much larger especially in India and it is even more so because his ideas demand more attention, not less, since his death. He set a bar for ethical action in politics which is unlikely to be ever met in the future and certainly is well beyond the comprehension of the present breed of Indian politicians. They have managed to create a society in which someone like Gandhi would be at a huge disadvantage. That is the tragedy of our times.
While information and knowledge lies ahead of us and is made more easily accessible by technology, all wisdom seems to be already behind us. As Antonio Gramsci succinctly puts it, “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born -- now is the time of monsters.” Gandhi’s message of religious tolerance and non-violence is much more relevant today amidst the religious turmoil and political divisiveness around the world. The quality of his thought has sometimes been lost because of the other images Gandhi has - a shrewd politician and a deeply spiritual figure.
A group of scholars, thinkers and writers gathered at the Sabarmati Ashram to once again reflect on Gandhi's death as absence and memory. Speaking of Gandhi’s Death brings together these reflections. In it, Ashis Nandy is quoted as saying:
Today, there is an all-round attempt to make Gandhi respectable. I see a lot of young faces in front of me. I hope you will avoid the temptation of seeing Gandhi as someone respectable, as somebody that your parents would like you to be like.
I would rather want you to see Gandhi as disreputable, unpredictable, at the margins of sanity, and at the margins of everyday life; someone who dares to ask you to look even at your everyday life and your public life, and ask, is it possible for us to envision, to re-visualize or imagine a different kind of public or private life? Is it possible to live everyday life and yet look beyond its everydayness, and is it possible to contaminate your everyday life or the life of the people around you with that vision?”
PS: One of the best tennis quotes of all time was made by Vitas Gerulaitis. He lost 16 matches in a row to Bjorn Borg. He finally won his 17th match and growled at the press conference held later, 'Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.' After reading 37 posts in a row about Gandhi (I had planned over 50 posts!), I can imagine at least one of the two of you still reading these posts, muttering darkly, 'Nobody makes me read 38 posts in a row about Gandhi.' Have no fear. I have decided to end this series with this post.
PPS: Some have generously observed over the years that I am intellectually reasonably competent. After reading about my admiration for Gandhi, you may be convinced that such observations are grossly exaggerated. Daniel Kahneman has some words for you In Thinking, Fast and Slow that will make you exclaim, 'I told you so.'
If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do. My Princeton colleague Danny Oppenheimer refuted a myth prevalent among collage undergraduates about the vocabulary that professors find most impressive. In an article titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” he showed that couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.