Two qualifications at the beginning. First, I am no Gandhian. My opinion should not count. But Gandhism as I understand it is greater than Gandhi was. He more or less admitted so himself when he gave the entire credit for his ideas to ancient wisdom, and he is certainly not diminished by that admission. Actually, he comes off as more human. Gandhi could not live up to his principles partly because he was a practical politician, and the job of politics is to dilute ideological and moral purism. He could not afford to be a perfect Gandhian.
Second, the Gandhis I discuss are all Weberian ideal types. They are tools of analysis and, in places, caricatures. This means they are unreal but not untrue. In this respect I have been influenced by literary theorist DR Nagaraj who loved to claim, following William Blake, that stylized exaggeration could be a pathway to wisdom.
Now to the surviving Gandhis. The first is the Gandhi of the Indian State and Indian nationalism. I find this Gandhi difficult to gulp – and so, I believe, would have Gandhi himself. Many people find only this official Gandhi tolerable and live happily with him.
His biography and political career began early. After Independence, the political presence of the Father of the Nation, his memory and his writings were proving problematic to the functionaries of the young Indian State. Intellectuals had already begun to specialize in hovering, like so many flies, over the State’s patronage structure. Not merely the strong anarchist strand in Gandhi’s ideology, but also his peculiar denial of clear-cut divisions between the private and the public, the religious and the secular, the past and the present, were proving a real headache.
These intellectuals were as disturbed by him as his assassin was. Nathuram Godse, a self-avowed rationalist and modernist, in his last statement to the court that sentenced him to death, claimed he had committed patricide to save the nascent Indian State from an anti-modern political neophyte and lunatic. After Independence, Gandhi’s own associates would also have liked to bury him six feet under, while keeping his image intact as an icon of the Indian State. Not because they disliked him, but because he looked like such an anachronism in the post-World War Two atmosphere of centralized states, social engineering and ‘realist’ international politics.
Since then, Indian statists of both the right and the left have never acknowledged their enormous debt to Nathuram Godse for imposing on the Father of the Nation a premature martyrdom that straightway gave him his saintly status and finished him off as a live political presence. Their brainchildren still hold it against this Gandhi that he has occasionally refused to oblige them and defied the saintliness imposed on him.
This is the Gandhi – we, the residents of the imperial city of Delhi, are once in a while told – who is about to be ensconced on the pedestal vacated by King George V at India Gate. It will probably be his final coronation as the patron saint of India’s creaky First Republic. With the declining status of the Indian State and with various Westernized versions of Indian nationalism sprouting like so many mushrooms around us under the guise of cultural self-affirmation, this Gandhi is presently not in the best of health.
The second Gandhi is that of the Gandhians. He is at the moment suffering from an acute case of anaemia. The Gandhians’ Gandhi is occasionally quite loveable and has a grandfatherly, benign presence in Indian public lore. But he is often a crushing bore. He drinks nimbupani (lime water) – unlike the first Gandhi, who drinks Indian-made Campa-Cola rather than Coca-Cola – and wears home-made khadi. He does not touch politics, lest the subsidies and grants from the Government to the various ashrams named after him dry up. He does occasionally convene meetings to condemn the growing criminalization of politics, or corruption. In these seminars everybody sheds bountiful tears over the state of affairs in India, without naming any names or mentioning any party. Everyone is happy after the event; even the corrupt politicians lustily join in the applause.
This Gandhi travels all over the world to preach Gandhism and lecture on Gandhian thought. He speaks to the public in India much less frequently. Rightly so, because in India his audience is usually pathetically small and looks sleepy and inattentive when the sermons start. They come because they expect to be seen and it would not look good if they were absent. The average age of such Gandhians is about to reach one hundred, and that of the listeners is not much less. They feel that this is because the Indian people have failed Gandhi. Others feel that the Gandhians have failed both the Indian people and Gandhi.
The third Gandhi is the Gandhi of the ragamuffins, the eccentrics and the unpredictable. He is more hostile to Coca-Cola than to Scotch whiskey and considers the local versions of Coca-Cola more dangerous than imported ones. This is because his objection to fast foods is structural. Therefore he considers it dangerous if, on nationalist grounds, deep-rooted Indian structures are created to produce superfluous items of mass consumption. Not given to bogus nationalism, he would rather import Coca-Cola for those Indians who cannot live without it than underwrite Campa-Cola.
This Gandhi is also a bit of a nag and a spoilsport. He loves to be a maverick and an oddity. It is this Gandhi that Vandana Shiva had in mind – whether she knew it or not – when she filed a suit in an American court against the patenting of derivatives of neem. He it was who guided the notorious agitation of Medha Patkar against the Narmada dams.
He has other obvious affiliations, too. He prefers the company of the critics of his worldview to the company of those who claim to bear his name and have had the run of Indian politics for more than two decades. The average age of the companions of this Gandhi is low – and would have been lower but for the presence of the young-at-heart. They are a real nuisance to the Indian State, to the country’s officially defined security interests and to its scientific establishment. They are a menace to the common sense that passes as sanity.
I have a personal stake in this Gandhi and his terribly irresponsible young friends. Many of the things I have done in my life these youngsters are now doing better. Even after my death, what I am saying and doing will be said and done more aggressively, confidently, elegantly and with greater political finesse by them. This thrills me, for in this way I should be able to haunt those enemies who survive me.
The fourth Gandhi is usually not read. He is only heard, often second- or third-hand. While a few, like Martin Luther King, critically assess his work, the rest do not even know what he wrote. Nor do they care to. This Gandhi is primarily mythic. Unlike in real life, he conforms fully to his own tenets. For the ‘realities’ of his life are derived from the principles of Gandhism as they have spread throughout the world, as a new legend or epic.
When the Polish workers rose against their authoritarian regime in the late 1980s they talked of Lech Walesa as ‘our Gandhi’ – a description the vodka-guzzling, tough-talking trade-union leader must have found hard to swallow. But the Polish labourers were not interested in the historical, verifiable similarities between the two. They were saying something about what they themselves wanted and about how Gandhi, with his weapon of militant non-violence, had become a symbol of defiance against hollow tyrants. For this Gandhi is a symbol of those struggling against injustice while trying to retain their humanity, even when faced with unqualified inhumanity. That is why, when Benito Aquino was assassinated in the Philippines, the demonstrators on the streets of Manila shouted ‘Benito, our Gandhi!’ The Burmese students who rose against their military regime invoked him in the same way. Their leader at the time was Aung San Suu Kyi, who had not read Gandhi when she began to be accused of being an uncompromising Gandhian.
The fourth Gandhi walks the mean streets of the world threatening the status quo and pompous, glib bullies everywhere. The tyrants underestimate him because he has no armaments to back him up. The professional revolutionaries make fun of him because he talks of non-violence. Both usually pay heavily for their underestimation. The former take solace from the fact that successful revolutions against them usually eat up their own children. The latter – nowadays a motley crowd of middle-aged, armchaired, cynical academics, past their prime and enjoying sinecures in the universities – take solace from seminars on the ‘historical limits’ of Gandhism that should have ensured its death decades ago.
I have given you four Gandhis so that you can make your choice. But you do not have to choose any of them. Perhaps that would be the wisest course. Gandhi can be dangerous. In India it is much better for you to hang his portrait in your office or home, show your respect to this new addition to the Indian pantheon – and then take your children to a picnic on the public holiday that his birthday has become.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7