This is a guest post by KJB. Part one is located here.
Yesterday I examined Gandhi’s motivations and character. Now I want to turn my attention to how he is viewed in the modern day and why. Rita asked
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.
Which is all fair enough, but as I said to her – Perhaps you ought to have enquired into why that is. I would be interested as to what exactly she’s trying to combat here, as the piece gave me no idea. Who believes in this straw-Gandhi that she has created? For whose benefit is her piece? My family and most Sikh people I know absolutely hate the man, for reasons ironically similar to Rita’s but with even less awareness of him than she, and most non-Indians are so ignorant of him that they barely register him as an influence on MLK and Mandela, let alone as an untouchable saintly figure. In fact, I’ve noticed non-Indian (usually American) people use their complete ignorance about him as a basis for making stupid and unfunny jokes, which is hardly worshipful. I hated the man before I read his writing, and now I respect him, but still recognise that he was massively problematic and yes, hypocritical. It’s really worthwhile reading the entire section on Gandhi, gender and sexuality in Javed’s book as it incorporates the most current feminist critique of Gandhi but doesn’t stereotype the man. Ironically, Rita does what she is despairing of: propagating the image of Gandhi as a ‘saint’, because instead of bringing him back down to human reckoning by recognising his complexities, she simply takes the ignorant devotee’s caricature and replaces ‘good’ with ‘bad’.
The reason that Gandhi has been sanitised and repackaged is precisely because he was an openly problematic individual: an idealist, a zealot, but one who was able to actually bring his vision to bear on people. Many Sikhs hate him partly because they feel like he didn’t do enough for them (!) and have gone so far as to relate he and Nehru both to a figure in Sikh history who betrayed one of the Gurus. Hindu fundamentalists (and many Hindus) had a great problem with his insistence on Hindu-Muslim unity and his attempt to improve the position of the lower castes. Why exactly Hindu fundamentalist Nathuram Godse murdered him, I don’t know, but there’s no doubt that his frankness about sexuality and his desire to hold the elite to account in their ascendancy to power were pretty big reasons for Hindu fundies to hate him. As already mentioned, his family and associates were embarrassed by his frankness – thus in keeping with the general tendency to lionise public figures after their death (intensified by ignorance and hero-worship in India, but common everywhere), it was in everyone’s interests to write the man off as a ‘saint’ after his death. Not, as Rita seems to think, so that he would be untouchable (oh the irony of that word!) but precisely so that he would be ignored – a myth to be invoked, rather than engaged with.
All of which might sound like a conspiracy theory, but it wasn’t that organised – it was just a case of everyone doing what was tidiest and most convenient for them. Nehru has received the same treatment (though more thanks to Hindu fundamentalists and an ignorant, hero-worshipping populace than family embarrassment). Earlier this year, in the wake of Rumbold’s PP piece, I was considering doing an essay on Hindu fundamentalism and knowing that it was a topic of interest to him, I asked JM about the expulsion of writer and MP Jaswant Singh from the Hindu-fundamentalist BJP party for having criticised Nehru over Partition. He explained to me that there was nothing surprising about the BJP attacking Nehru, since some of them (he cited Singh and L.K. Advani, I remember) had changed tactics and started to use Pakistan’s Islamic origins as an implicit justification for making India a Hindu-only state. Nehru’s secularism, of course, posing something of a large obstacle to the goal of constructing India as an ethno-religiously (is that the right term?) ‘pure’ state. Somewhat bearing out JM’s remarks is the fact that Jaswant Singh sailed right back into the BJP not long afterwards. With Nehru and Gandhi tidied away, Communism a global and local embarrassment, the only remaining nationalist claim to power from all the groups that Gandhi sought to unite in HS is that of the Hindu fundamentalists’.
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Filed in: History,India