This is a guest post by KJB.
There was an interesting post on PP recently by Rita Banerji, entitled How Gandhian Are Obama’s Politics?
First of all, it would seem to be a fairly obvious yet fundamental rule that when working with a major public/historical figure, caution is necessary. The bigger the figure, the greater the caution that must be used, since that person will be relevant not just to the local history of their nation, but globally. When the person is, furthermore, dead and unable to defend themselves or clarify meanings, you have to try even harder to watch your step.
This is the problem with Rita’s approach to Gandhi. She has taken personal bugbears of hers – child sexual abuse, the dismal position of Indian women, the tendency towards mindless, cultish elevation of individuals in Indian society – and decided that these things are Gandhi’s fault, because they should be.
It’s a real shame, because Rita’s aims are utterly noble, and some of the points made in the piece and in comments, were very astute, the following points need debunking. Rita argued that
To sum up Gandhi’s ideologies, they included the rejection of all of the following: war and weaponry, capitalism, large-scale industries, and science and technology.
Well… the most fundamental core of Gandhi’s philosophy is non-violence. While this characterisation isn’t incorrect, it’s not particularly accurate either, since it doesn’t even mention the most important bit of his crackpot bundle of beliefs. Not unlike Rita herself in this article, Gandhi starts with a particular point (non-violence) and everything branches off of and returns to, that central point. He actually goes so far as to describe it as ‘the religion of Ahinsa’ in his seminal political work, Hind Swaraj (M.K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj and other writings, ed. by Anthony J. Parel, Centenary edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 53), and in a short text which makes a point of addressing its many issues briefly, devotes two consecutive chapters to it: ‘Brute force’ and ‘Passive resistance’. Rita then argued that:
Funds for Gandhi’s campaigns came from India’s largest and wealthiest businesses, like the Birlas. He vehemently opposed science and technology, as “evil” and said mass transportation, like the railways spread diseases and encouraged communal violence by bringing diverse communities in contact. Still, he regularly used the railways for getting around. He advised the illiterate masses to reject modern medicine. Who knows how many followed his suggested home-remedy of wrapping small-pox patients in wet blankets! But during Gandhi’s famous fasts there was always a medical doctor in attendance making announcements on his declining blood-pressure.
Yes – he never denied the element of contradiction, or hypocrisy if you prefer, between his preaching and practising. Yet he didn’t actually pressure anyone, other than those who agreed to follow him (and his family), to act as he did. He understood to some extent that he was a zealous idealist and strove to be pragmatic in his organisation of political action so as to actually get shit done. The man was neither stupid, nor the kind of schemer that this section portrays him as. His vision of his movement was inclusive: ‘even a man weak in body is capable of offering this resistance. One man can offer it just as well as millions. Both men and women can indulge in it [...] Control over the mind is alone necessary’ (HS, p. 92). Part of the reason Gandhi has continued to fascinate historians and researchers so much is precisely because of his unique blend of canny pragmatism and zealous idealism. One could mostly summarise him by saying that while his beliefs were undoubtedly flawed, his implementation of them was near-flawless. Rita herself remarks at comment #30:
And more than his non-violence principle I think it was his “Boycott British goods” tactic that was actually more effective
Without realising that the creativity behind such a tactic stems directly from his commitment to non-violence.
It’s worth noting also that Rita’s ‘indictment’ of Gandhi’s contradictions in this paragraph (and her indictment of him in the whole piece) is not substantiated in any way – she plugs her book, but makes no reference to his own writings or any proper historical writings or reference made to dates – this is important because opinions change over time. Gandhi softened his stance on certain things, such as machinery, so simply writing him off as a hypocrite cuts no ice.
It’s true that he was still very crackpot on many things, and parts of HS made my blood boil with rage (the parts on doctors, lawyers, etc.) but he did not directly force those beliefs on people, apart from perhaps the people around him (I’m uncertain of this, although I do know that he forced his ideas about sexuality onto those who were close to him).
Historical context is crucial to comprehending what Gandhi was trying to do, and who informed his thinking on this matter. While his comments against doctors, lawyers etc. are incendiary and (I feel) deeply ignorant, they are also more than they seem. An element of crude socialism informs HS (and perhaps Gandhi’s political thought overall) and the attack on lawyers, doctors etc. must be understood in this context as part of a wider criticism of the emergent Indian middle-class who Gandhi felt were exploiting and benefiting from the suffering of the masses.
Rita then goes on to effectively make a fact-claim about Gandhi’s motivations:
My personal issue with this is that when I look at India’s political landscape from a historical perspective, I see Gandhi as the pre-cursor to the wily, opportunistic, politicians who infest Indian politics today. Their modus operandi is the same. They each have a public persona that is pious and professes to fight for the oppressed (whether it’s on basis of caste or religion or economics), which gets them a devoted voter-following that keeps them in power, no matter how corrupt they are.
This really stuck in my craw, and was a large factor in writing this post. I don’t absolutely know what Gandhi’s motivations were, but proper historians and researchers have generally agreed that the most likely theory is that he meant what he said. No-one can know for certain that Gandhi was pure or whatever, but Rita claims here, quite unequivocally, that he is a forebear of today’s career politicians and I think that frankly she should provide evidence for this. I believe she thought that citing the above examples of his contradictions was proof – it’s not.
Given that (if I remember correctly, and I may not have done) he rejected the opportunity to be the leader of Congress and to be a part of mainstream politics despite requests from Congress and the public to do so, I don’t see how that fits with the characterisation of him here as a publicity-hungry schemer. More importantly, I am quite certain that the title ‘Mahatma’ (great soul) was conferred on him – not of his own creation or choosing – and that he preferred the term ‘Bapu’ (father), which is what he uses in his letters.
And yet, coming back to President Obama and his mentor, there is one respect in which he surpasses Gandhi! His approach to politics, as of yet, has been refreshingly direct, transparent and earnest. He hasn’t demonstrated another Gandhian trait – one that his predecessors (Clinton and Bush) certainly have – and that is outright denial and defensiveness when confronted on ambiguous issues, and a refusal to be accountable for their own judgements.
The comments about Gandhi’s apparent ‘defensiveness’ show serious historical ignorance, especially given the following correct observations of his obsession with sexuality. Gandhi was very open about his beliefs and practices (sexual and otherwise), refusing to portray himself as saintly in keeping with his strong belief in humility, honesty and social equality. It was rather his associates who hushed things up and sought to push the safe, non-threatening ‘Mahatma’ image. The tone of his whole autobiography is a testament to this, but I particularly recommend reading the chapter My Double Shame alongside Javed Majeed’s brilliant discussion of it in Autobiography, Travel and Postnational Identity for an understanding of how Gandhi uses frankness and openness to subvert the concept of shame.
I will return to this point, but on to the comments. Rita wrote:
Gandhi [...] persistently called the British “evil.” That was his language — “where they live the Gods don’t live” etc. It was the language that the — ritually religious mobs still speak.
This is incorrect, as the following quotes from HS demonstrate:
I can never subscribe to the, statement that all Englishmen are bad. Many Englishmen desire Home Rule for India. That the English people are somewhat more selfish than others is true, but that does not prove that every Englishman is bad. We who seek justice will have to do justice to others. Sir William [Wedderburn] does not wish ill to India, -that should be enough for us. As we proceed, you will see that, if we act justly India will be sooner free. You will see, too, that if we shun every Englishman as an enemy, Home Rule will be delayed. But if we are just to them, we shall receive their support in our progress towards the goal. (HS, p. 17)
By patriotism I mean the welfare of the whole people, and if I could secure it at the hands of the English, I should bow down my head to them. If any Englishman dedicated his life to securing the freedom of India, resisting tyranny and serving the land, I should welcome that Englishman as an Indian. (HS, p. 75).
I bear no enmity towards the English but I do towards their civilization. (HS, p. 117).*
Gee, somehow that doesn’t sound like ‘black/white, holier than thou, unexamined, non-intellectual — language’, Rita. When I called out some of the errors in the piece, I was told:
What is this need in India to worship people? Why can’t we in India learn to examine people like people — like normal flesh and bones human beings??
Rita also bemoaned the treatment of Gandhi as a ‘saint,’ saying
I thought — how come these things are never discussed when we are given this pre-processed, recycled hash on Gandhi in our school text books.
This is a question I will attempt to resolve in the second part of this piece tomorrow.
The full unedited version is here.
|Post to del.icio.us|
Filed in: History,India