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On Gandhi-bashing: the Western writer's latest fad

'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?

We care because we are blinkered nationalists who don't like foreigners raising "honest questions" about our guy. Marwan Naamani/AFP Photo

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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Then again, we are not the intended audience for this latest round of intellectual posturing. India, her history, people and politics, are instead convenient props in a bravura performance aimed at Western readers, who have indeed romanticised the Mahatma. In the Western imagination, Gandhi occupies a hallowed space in the pop culture pantheon of saints, right alongside Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, and most recently, Aung San Suu Kyi. And much of this vitriol is aimed at knocking him off that particular pedestal while earning personal brownie points for doing so.

We, Indians, are entirely besides the point. This is about their 'revered' Mahatma, not our more familiar Bapuji.

A couple of months ago, I was watching Hey Ram on TV, accompanied by a steady stream of commentary from my 79-year old mother. At the very end, she went silent, tears streaming down her cheeks. I comforted her, bemused by her anguish, more so because she's never been a devout Gandhian.

"He was a good man but so stubborn! And always fighting with someone or the other," she'd say, detailing the petty politicking in our now air-brushed freedom struggle. When the gay fracas made headlines, she shrugged, "He was always a bit like that. And that stupid business with his nieces. Lying all naked with them. Chee! What was the need for that!" But there was never any doubting her genuine affection and respect for the man. He was, after all, Gandhi.

With each passing generation, Gandhi has receded further into the scenery, less man more omnipresent icon, gracing our currency notes, walls of government offices, city parks. Yet despite the political establishment's best efforts to canonise him, time has not turned him into a saint or demi-god. Overeager law ministers and the Gujarat government aside, the average Indian barely raised an eyebrow at the allegations in Lelyveld's book.

This lack of reaction is perplexing to foreign observers. If they're so worked up about this, why are we so blasé? "There is no wailing on the streets at the slur on a national icon," admits The Daily Telegraph's resident editor Dean Nelson, but soon adds:

So why the upset over some honest questions of a man whose philosophy is so irrelevant to modern, materialist India? I think it has little to do with the questions Lelyveld raises of India’s Great Soul and more to do with the fact that the most probing questions have been asked by a foreigner.

Okay, so we don't care about these "most probing questions" because we are shallow, money-grubbing modernists who don't give a hoot about Gandhi. Then again, we do care because we are blinkered nationalists who don't like foreigners raising "honest questions" about our guy. Because, really, we're contradictory, logic-twisting jerks like that.

Or how about this more likely scenario: We already know Gandhi went through series of personal transformations over a lifetime; was a little nutty when it comes to sex; held extreme notions about modernity; and his political choices were at times debatable. Over the past 60-odd years, we have defended, criticised, redeemed, and condemned him, over and again, only to reaffirm our collective judgement: for all his many flaws, he was indeed a great man.

And nothing a Hitchens, Roberts, Lelyveld -- or even a respected Indian historian like Ramachandra Guha -- could tell us is likely to change our mind.