‘Tis the season for Gandhi-bashing. First came British historian Andrew Roberts who grabbed the spotlight in March for a Wall Street Journal op-ed which tarred him as “a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist — one who was often downright cruel to those around him.” Now it’s Christopher Hitchens who has penned a signature screed titled The Real Mahatma Gandhi: Questioning the moral heroism of India’s most revered figure, which rehashes a similar litany of charges: sexual perversion, anti-modernist quackery, political expedience, overweening ego et al.
Now, there’s something amusing about a Western writer using a book penned by a Western author – Great Soulby Joseph Lelyveld – to lay into a long-dead Indian leader in a Western publication aimed at a Western readership. But here’s the puzzling question for us Indians: why now and for whose benefit?
Roberts offers an explanation of sorts:
Gandhi’s saintly image, his martyrdom at the hands of a Hindu fanatic in 1948 and Martin Luther King Jr.’s adoption of him as a role model for the American civil-rights movement have largely protected him from critical scrutiny. The French man of letters Romain Rolland called Gandhi ‘a mortal demi-god’ in a 1924 hagiography, catching the tone of most writing about him. People used to take away the sand that had touched his feet as relics — one relation kept Gandhi’s fingernail clippings — and modern biographers seem to treat him with much the same reverence today.
In other words, Gandhi has been uncritically canonised in life and beyond until Lelyveld – with some timidity – and Roberts and Hitchens, with greater fortitude, came along to challenge his beatification. Hence the tone of moral self-congratulation that runs through both essays. Someone had to tilt — nay,butcher — this sacred cow; we’re the only ones brave enough to do it.
This righteous stance, however, loses a bit of steam when this selective narrative of uninterrupted hagiography is put to scrutiny, as does Pankaj Mishra in the New Yorker:
Hostile interpretations of Gandhi’s acts stalked him throughout his life. Muslims accused him of being the harbinger of Hindu ‘Raj’; Hindu nationalists accused him of being insufficiently dedicated to their cause. Left-wing Indians suspected that he was cunningly preempting class conflict on behalf of India’s big businessmen.
These same ‘interpretations’ have been reiterated by a changing cast of characters in the decades since his death. Both the man and his legacy have been oft excoriated by political activists – like the Ambedkarites cited by both Hitchens and Roberts – and Indian academics alike. As Hitchens himself admits, the very trajectory of modern Indian history, including the past 20 years of liberalisation, represent a wholescale rejection of his most cherished principles.
This willful blindness to the longstanding Indian debate is all the more striking given that both authors seem to be primarily exercised on our behalf. Hitchens writes:
Nonetheless, one might take a moment to imagine life in one of Gandhi’s often-vaunted ’700,000 villages of India,’ beating heart of the traditional society, if the spinning wheel had indeed remained the leading mode of production and the position of women had been brought into accord with his teachings.
Roberts is similarly appalled at his “absolute opposition to any birth control except sexual abstinence in a country that today has more people living on less than $1.25 a day than there were Indians in his lifetime..” All this accompanied by much indignation on the matter of Dalits, Muslims, and other minorities who have been patiently waiting – or so it would seem – for these great white hopes to condemn Gandhi on their behalf.
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