It is a public tendency in India to praise a politician or statesman with blind adulation and reverence – to almost worship him as a super hero or even God than to simply commend him or positively highlight his actions. Gandhi is one such. He was deified by millions of people in his own lifetime and continues to be even today as the father of the nation. His “saintliness” has been exported universally and Gandhi has become all things to all people: Obama loves him , Narendra Modi loves him and so does Rahul Gandhi. The poor love him, the rich love him and so does the anarchists. He is the “Mahatma” – Great soul – that India and Indians love to mythify into a larger than life image that can be borrowed, used, distorted and reinvented to fit many different purposes. But Gandhi was no God. He was humane with follies, blunders and contradictions inspite of his acheivments.
Have we ever really questioned who made him a Mahatma ? Indian school history books claim that the title of Mahatma was bestowed on Gandhi by Rabindranath Tagore while others claim that he was called Mahatma by the residents of Gurukul Kangadi, while the Govt. of Gujarat (his native state) claims it was an “unknown journalist” from Saurashtra – anyways the matter has now landed before the Gujarat High Court. It’s always a bit difficult to demistify saintly figures such as Gandhi but, only too often, such icons have feet of clay and are surrounded by myths that serve very ordinary, and frequently tawdry, political aims. A common myth is that he was a simple man, a man of the people and someone who eschewed personal power. He was determined to display the life of an ascetic, but, as the poet Sarojini Naidu joked, it cost the nation a fortune to keep Gandhi living in poverty. His entire philosophy privileged the village way over that of the city, yet he was always financially dependent on the support of industrial billionaires like Birla. His hunger strikes could stop riots and massacres, but he also once went on a hunger strike to force one of his capitalist patrons’ employees to break their strike against the harsh conditions of employment.Claiming to be responding to a higher calling, as self-righteous self-obsessed men frequently do, Gandhi preferred working with elite cliques than the organisation as a whole and his use of fasting as a manipulative tool to control the Congress movement was notorious. They would have to fall in behind his fasts and what he wanted and abandon what they had decided to be their priorities – something we would today call – emotional blackmail.
Speaking at Kerala University in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram in 2014 , Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize winning author, described the generally accepted image of Gandhi as a lie. On The Laura Flanders Show titled Debunking the Gandhi Myth she unveiled the casteist in the real Gandhi , toppled him from his pedestal while unravelling the intelligence and compassion of Ambedkar. Needless to say, it threw the nation into fits – she had just deconstructed the aura of the Mahatma . In plain words, she accused Gandhi of discrimination and called for institutions bearing his name to be renamed – for Gandhi´s popular image as a pro-Dalit champion was not a genuine one and his intentions shallow. Roy also recently wrote a new introduction to Ambedkar’s undelivered 1936 speech, The Annihilation of Caste, in which she even went so far as calling Gandhi – “the saint of the status quo”. Why so ? To start with – Ambedkar, the untouchable, was heir to an anti-caste intellectual tradition while Gandhi, a Vaishya, born into a Gujarati Bania family, was heir to a long tradition of privileged-caste Hindu reformers masquerading as emancipators of the untouchables . A bitter dispute had originated in the 1930s between the two giants, when Gandhi mounted a “fast-unto-death” (his usual manipulative strategy) in response to a British proposal, based on Ambedkar’s recommendations, to award the “depressed classes” (the Dalits) a separate electorate in the Indian parliament. Frantic negotiations under pressure of saving Gandhi’s life resulted in the Poona Pact which substituted an otherwise guaranteed number of seats in the parliament for the separate dalit electorate. Although the pact was eventually signed by Ambedkar, his followers, and many of Gandhi’s followers admitted that the complex provisions elaborated in the pact denied the Dalits any real access to power. Despite what Ambedkar said at the time to Gandhi and others, he later confessed he signed the pact under immense pressure and claimed that Gandhi´s deeds showed that he was actually against empowerment of the Dalits. Ambedkar suggested in a 1955 interview that Gandhi didn’t truly “deserve” the title of Mahatma. Gandhi´s whipped up Ram-Rahim recipe for communal harmony and inter-faith dialogue was similarly a farce meant primarily for public consumption and image building, with the Christians disapproving his stand on conversion; the Sikhs not accepting him as their friend; and the Hindus addressing him as “Mahmud Gandhi” – the charade had limited impact.
One of the greatest myths perpetrated by Gandhi-centric historians is that Indian independence came primarily as a result of peaceful protest led by the ‘Mahatma’ – a narrative that later suited politically for both the Congress led ruling dispensation in post-Independent India as well as the idea of India itself as a nation state. The reality however is rather different. Nation states we must realize are constructed around a core of seminal ideas and values – they need a national narrative to sustain themselves and serve as a basis for their collective identity that defines who they are and what they stand for – Gandhi the Mahatma gaining Independence through ahimsa, was our best bet. As for his role in Indian independence, it is significant but not primary. The Independence of India came about by the interplay of a mileu of factors . By the end of the Second World War, a number of factors had weakened Britain’s will and ability to sustain its Indian Empire including the ideological position of the Labour party. The cost of the war had reduced Britain’s military and economic power, while defeat at Singapore in 1942 had undermined its strategic position in the East. The war had also reversed the traditional economic relationship between the imperial power and its colony – the British government was now India’s debtor. By 1945 the British government’s aim was to leave India as peacefully as possible – the greater problem however was the conflict between Congress, who wanted a single Indian state, and the Muslim League, which sought a separate Pakistan. In India itself, apart from the Gandhi-factor, British rule was threatened by mass radical struggles, most of which had little to do with Gandhi. Under the influence of Russian Revolution a layer of advanced Indian nationalists had been drawn to Marxism and a communist party established. They and other revolutionary organisations and militant trade unions became increasingly important in the late 1920s – a series of peasant uprisings followed. With the subsequent outbreak of WW2, came further wave of peasant uprisings and strikes and a big growth of armed independence forces, something that has been largely erased from the established portraits of Indian independence. Gandhi had launched the salt satyagraha of the early 1930s and ‘Quit India’ call in 1942 partly to try to regain the relevance of INC in the face of such radical mass activity and in part to protest the British. A controversial new book (Bose: An Indian Samurai ) written by military historian General G D Bakshi seeks to over turn the traditional idea of how India won its freedom. General GD Bakshi has published conversations with Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister who oversaw India’s Independence. In these conversations the then British Prime Minister apparently said that the role played by Netaji’s army was paramount in India being granted independence, while the role played by the non-violent movement was dismissed as minimal.
Despite these, Mahatma or otherwise Gandhi´s role in the freedom struggle is not one that should be ignored or understated. He enjoyed a much wider and warmer kind of political support than his contemporaries such as Jinnah and his political aims were easily understood and generally shared by the Indian masses – most importantly, his methods were thought to be correct – Indian freedom was to be perceived to be won in an Indian way – under Gandhi .