Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for January 2017

Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi (1869-1948) continues to stir up controversy, nearly seventy years after his death.

Last week, Amazon India’s decision to depict Gandhi on flip-flops sold on their website provoked a storm of outrage on Indian social media. Amazon was told to respect “Indians’ feelings” and the ambassador in the US was asked to demand an apology from the company.

Then in October last year a statue of Gandhi on the campus of the University of Ghana in Accra was removed by the authorities, following a protest by several academics and students. They reminded Ghanians of Gandhi’s demeaning attitudes towards black Africans. The statue had been unveiled by Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India, in June as a symbol of friendship between the two countries.

In an online petition, professors at the university cited a series of Gandhi’s own writings during his time in South Africa (1893-1914) to illustrate his racist sentiments. One of Gandhi’s writings cited in the petition reads: “Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

In South Africa, too, Gandhian universality has been called into question. Last year, an online campaign using the #GandhiMustFall hashtag was launched; while a statue of his in Johannesburg was vandalised during a rally attended by protesters holding placards reading “Racist Gandhi Must Fall”.

In India, meanwhile, what of his legacy? His iconic status has long been demolished by serious historians even as successive Indian governments and the Hindu middle-classes adulate him as the Father of the Nation.

Gandhi had a visceral revulsion towards all aspects of Western civilization and defended this with arguments verging on the absurd. The principal evils of the West were railways, hospitals and law courts. Every principle in his “back-to-nature” philosophy by which he hoped to shape India was not only impractical, it was denied in his own life. If not for the railways he would never have reached the Indian masses. He always insisted on traveling Third Class, but reserved an entire carriage to himself. “It takes a great deal of money to keep Bapu living in poverty”, wryly observed Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, one of his political companions. He had believed in and practised indigenous medicine, but when dangerously ill always called in the practitioners of Western science which he held in such contempt.

Western observers know him as a man who renamed the downtrodden dalits (those outside the Hindu caste-system) harijans (“children of God”). But the dalits themselves disliked him for upholding the caste-system and using his blackmailing technique of fasting-unto-death to oppose their right to choose their own political representatives (Poona Pact 1932).

Gandhi’s sons grew up to bitterly resent the way he had denied them a formal education. As Arthur Koestler noted in a perceptive essay written in 1969 on the centenary of his birth, Gandhi’s hostility to intellectuals with an English education who “enslaved India” did not prevent him from adopting as his political successor young Jawaharlal Nehru, a product of Harrow and Cambridge. “If Western civilization was poison for India, Gandhi had installed the chief poisoner as his heir.”

Gandhi had a shockingly shallow understanding of the depths of evil in human affairs. It was only in the aftermath of the bloody partition of India and Pakistan that he confessed privately to friends and foreign journalists that his non-violent methods were not a universal panacea. During the Second World War he had advocated that the British should not resist Hitler but allow him to overrun their country. He had been lavish in his advice to Frenchmen, Poles, Czechs and others to submit to injustices more horrendous than those committed by Muslims in Pakistan. In the most irresponsible advice of all, he called European Jews to commit “collective suicide” so as to “awaken the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence”.

As George Orwell observed in 1949, Gandhi had no understanding of totalitarianism and saw every political situation in terms of his own struggle against the British Raj. Orwell wrote: “The important point here is not so much that the British treated him forbearingly as that he was always able to command publicity…It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.”

Post-independence India, thankfully, repudiated Gandhi’s scorn for science and technology. However, while combining Gandhi hagiography with the (anti-Gandhian) pursuit of nuclear weapons, disproportionate spending on military arsenals, contempt for dalits and other dark-skinned peoples, and almost daily anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistani rhetoric, the Hindu middle-classes show themselves to be faithful exponents of the Gandhian Legacy: viz. double-thinking.


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