On 73rd Independence Day, examining Mahatma Gandhi's legacy and why his position as 'Father of the Nation' is secure

Why has history been so kind to Gandhi, a man whose very public life and thousands of letters, editorials, essays and utterances expose him to easy mockery, particularly by a new India whose political elite has always regarded him with contempt? How is it that, through all the hate and resentment unleashed by India’s current political climate, the man who stands on the opposite pole continues to smile down at us in fatherly benevolence?

Sujit Saraf August 17, 2019 09:39:34 IST
On 73rd Independence Day, examining Mahatma Gandhi's legacy and why his position as 'Father of the Nation' is secure
  • History has been harsh on Gandhi’s chief political heir, Nehru. Yet Gandhi’s position as Father of the Nation is secure.

  • Gandhi’s style of politics came as a revelation to Indians, who had never seen a real politician

  • Within a few years of his arrival in India in 1915, Gandhi was the most prominent Indian politician, and everyone of consequence had fallen in line behind him or been sidelined

My town in Bihar did not get television reception until the 1980s. When it did, my aunt stole a march on my parents by installing an Oscar colour TV 0151 proud to have leapfrogged over black and white technology — and we clustered around it every evening. We lapped it all up, from the Doordarshan tune in mournful Pilu to national news in chaste Hindi, not flinching at Krishi Darshan on the way. We took our stern medicine — farmers were making steady progress at crop yields, the electrification of villages was proceeding apace, the space programme had launched a new satellite, Rajiv Gandhi had hosted an international meeting of the Non-Aligned movement — along with lollipops like Chitrahar; the weekly Bollywood film; Hum Log and Buniyaad. And we took our public service announcements — meant to stiffen our spines for the serious task of nation building — about national unity and communal harmony, the need to develop a scientific temper, the warnings against the twin scourges of superstition and public corruption, which brings me to the PSA that never left my mind. A hand draws a profile — bald head, glasses, moustache — instantly recognisable as Gandhi. A voice says: the greatness of this man was in his simplicity.

History has been kind to Gandhi, not his heirs

History has been harsh on MK Gandhi’s chief political heir. Even before the Jan Sangh and later, the BJP, began their assault on his legacy, Jawaharlal Nehru had suffered a re-appraisal as a sentimentalist who sacrificed India’s geo-political interests to foggy idealism, allowed Kashmir to fester and committed us to the losing side in the Cold War, while presiding over a nation crawling at the “Hindu rate of growth”, condemning generations to poverty, disease, over-crowding, and a declining voice in world affairs. Every article of Nehruvian policy — Panchsheel, Non Alignment, the infatuation with the USSR and China — is now a matter of public ridicule — as is, after 5 August 2019, Article 370. Additionally, the sins of his daughter and subsequent generations are laid at his door because, however indirectly, he inflicted them on the nation.

Yet Gandhi’s position as Father of the Nation is secure. While it is fashionable in some circles to deride him, and to be seen deriding him, educated Indians continue to delight in Churchill’s description of him as a “seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a Fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace”; staid Indian historians continue to feel lumps in their throats when reading Judge Broomfield’s words in a 1922 courtroom, that it was “impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to have to try…”; scholars continue to produce stories, anecdotes and essays that, even when critical, serve to reassure us that the man we call father was worthy of that reverence; filmmakers continue to show him, in slow-motion footage dripping with importance, putting on his spectacles or slipping his feet inside wooden sandals, and then there is the film that won eight Academy awards and the permeation in world consciousness that cannot now be undone. At college in California, my western friends would refer to Indians as Gandhis, partly in jest, partly in acknowledgment of the truth that the generic Indian is “a Gandhi”.

Why has history been so kind to Gandhi, a man whose very public life and thousands of letters, editorials, essays and utterances expose him to easy mockery, particularly by a new India whose political elite has always regarded him with contempt? How is it that, through all the hate and resentment unleashed by India’s current political climate, the man who stands on the opposite pole continues to smile down at us in fatherly benevolence?

On 73rd Independence Day examining Mahatma Gandhis legacy and why his position as Father of the Nation is secure

Schoolgirls scatter flower petals on a statue of Mahatma Gandhi during an all-religion prayer meeting to pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his death anniversary, at Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. REUTERS

Gandhi was taken very seriously in his time

Everyone who met him — General Jan Smuts in the Transvaal; a succession of English Viceroys; educated Indians like Jinnah, Sarojini Naidu, Annie Besant; and later in life, Nehru and Patel — regarded him, in moments of exasperation, as a man whose convictions bordered on fanaticism, who had no grasp of detail and who took incomprehensible positions on the issues of the day while elevating causes they considered at best quixotic. His non-violent campaigns invariably were unwinnable — such as his legal representation of a Tamil bonded labourer, his campaign against compulsory fingerprinting of Indians — and were rarely won, and his political campaigns were waged in an environment of extreme hostility by the Colonial government in Natal or the Boers in the Transvaal.

Given the adverse circumstances, the small concessions he extracted, and the compromises he managed to strike — such as the agreement with Smuts that Indians would undergo “voluntary fingerprinting” — could be construed as victories and, because he received no material reward for his efforts and his own life was a demonstrable application of his theories, he could be seen as both authentic and heroic.

What, however, explains his ascent in India, with its vibrant Congress Party, dozens of powerful interests opposed to it, and the cross currents of ambition, greed and prejudice in a vast, poor, under-educated country of 300 million? Within a few years of his arrival in 1915, Gandhi was the most prominent Indian politician, and everyone of consequence had fallen in line behind him or been sidelined. The debate between “extremists” and “moderates” in the Congress Party had been swept away to be replaced by Gandhism, which was neither or both, or whatever Gandhi said it was, and he had committed the Congress Party, almost single-handedly, to his anachronistic campaign to restore the Caliphate in Turkey, marshalling the support of bewildered Hindus, reluctant Muslims, cowed intellectuals, and millions who barely knew where Turkey was, what the word ‘Khilafat’ meant, and why Indians should be agitating for it.

His rise was both swift and uncomplicated and, although aided by the untimely deaths of mentors such as Gokhale and potential rivals such as Tilak, it seemed inevitable, both in the moment and in hindsight. Even those older and more prominent, such as the poet Tagore, whose discomfort with Gandhi’s pop spiritualism — in a moment of abandon many years later, the Mahatma was to blame an earthquake on Hinduism’s proscription of the “untouchables” — and horror of narrow nationalism would have made him a natural antagonist, expressed broad admiration for him. Anglicised stalwarts like Motilal Nehru changed their lifestyles to suit the great man’s spartan tastes. Madeleine Slade, born to English luxury, gave up a life of hunting and piano to become Mira, peeling oranges for him, pouring out his goat milk, and travelling through dusty Indian villages in uncomfortable trains. By 1920, at the age of 51, he was already being called Bapu and Mahatma by men in their 70s. It helped, of course, that he looked much older than his years. Decades of hard living and diet faddism — subsistence on fruits, nuts and uncooked vegetables, and the abjuration, at one point in life or another, of salt, pulses, and various other “offending” foods — along with an eccentric belief in hydropathy, which he calls “water and mud experiments” in his autobiography, had damaged his physique. He was losing his teeth, was often brought down by diarrhoea and dysentery, and had high blood pressure. Photos from the Salt March, undertaken when he was 60, show a much older man whose appearance befits the honorific of Bapu.

Yet, these cannot fully explain how a slight man who made odd pronouncements in poor Hindi came to be called Bapu in a large country. For that, we must look at the roots of his power, the Indian people.

Gandhi’s style of politics came as a revelation to Indians, who had never seen a real politician. They were aware of the existence of patriots — landed, upper-caste, usually wealthy, educated in the West, dressed in western clothes or Indian finery, often aristocratic or royal — who represented them to the English, discussing weighty issues they did not understand. When a very Indian-looking man who spoke poor Hindi, dressed like a coolie, answered every question, went everywhere, and could be seen and heard and touched, showed up in their villages, they were astonished and gratified, and perhaps moved. He was no visionary. He spoke haltingly, and he spoke of everyday matters — the cleanliness of latrines, harmony between Hindus and Muslims, the scourge of machinery, the pleasures of spinning yarn, and the power of ahimsa, all of which he wrapped into his conception of “truth”, which he then connected to the aspiration for Swaraj, which at the time meant, even in its most aggressive form, a dignified sort of self-governance under British suzerainty. He looked the part, he felt like the real thing and, most importantly, he was there. He had travelled thousands of kilometers in dirty trains to get to corners of the country that no educated Indian had heard of. His sincerity could not be doubted even if his words could — look at him! Nearly a beggar. Could anyone claim he did not mean what he said? Had he not given away a lucrative career to come here? Had he not gone to jail in South Africa and endured beatings by the police? Was it not obvious that he came in pursuit of Swaraj and not self-promotion? And had he not come all the way to say what he did?

Although Gandhi certainly did not plan this, he had constructed the perfect persona to charm the Hindu — abstinence, abnegation, modesty, sincerity, vegetarianism, and an aura of holiness. That he was married may have been inconvenient — a man with children is selfish because he collects material goods to pass on to his children, which is also why Modi’s lack of a family is an invaluable asset — but Gandhi’s neglect of his family was so obvious as to place him on the same pedestal as a bachelor, who cannot possibly be accused of aggrandisement because he has no one to aggrandise for.

On 73rd Independence Day examining Mahatma Gandhis legacy and why his position as Father of the Nation is secure

A mural depicting Mahatma Gandhi during Independence Day celebrations inside a school in Delhi. REUTERS

It is impossible to argue that Gandhi spent any time in constructing that persona. If we go by his autobiography, written when he was in his early 50s, he was fully formed at 22 with a complete set of ideas, principles and theories. What we would call transgressions in other children were, in his retrospective look, experiments with truth. He sinned a few times as a child — the experiences were educational, we are told — bypassed adolescence, and his minor slip-ups as a youth in London were quickly atoned for before he righted his ship. All that remained to be done, at 22, was for these theories to be tested through “experiments” for the rest of his life — those experiments knew no boundaries between the private and the public, and seemed to largely confirm his theories, necessitating no significant change in outlook. Whatever be the accuracy of these recollections — he was being delicate, partly because many of the people he wrote of were still living and working with him, and he was a prominent public figure whose career still lay ahead of him — it is clear that he was not aiming to construct any kind of an image. He was the image, and that image held immense appeal for Indians, particularly Hindus, who found in him complete identification. When they sometimes disagreed with him, they did so with guilt — he was perhaps right, but they were not saintly enough to match his exacting standards — and this redoubled their veneration for him. For a man who never fought an election, Gandhi’s awesome power drew from the most democratic of wells: the people of India.

It helped that he was indefatigable, that he travelled endlessly to present himself and his theories to the people, again and again, bringing to them what might be called a political campaign — the first they had seen. It helped also that he was astonishingly courageous, walking blithely toward police batons and the abuse of detractors and charging right through awkward situations, as when he shocked Annie Besant at a function in Benares, by criticising the opulent lifestyles of her guests — maharajas, aristocrats, and the viceroy of India — right in front of them. One might say, almost, that he was beyond embarrassment: he offered unsolicited advice, interfered in others’ private affairs — as he would have them interfere in his — and was ignorant of the concept of privacy, because for him the personal and the public were one and the same. Indeed, Gandhi was the analog to the Instagram star, the Twitter king, the social media sensation who quickly amassed a large following because he happened to strike the right note with the right people, and did so without restraint.

This standing with the “common man”, more than anything else, was why potential rivals and reluctant acolytes went along, tolerated his oddities, rolled their eyes but remained silent at his absurd pronouncements and personal beliefs. In his biography, Gandhi describes the great Kumbh Mela, which he visited in his first year of “silent travel” in India in 1915. He was not yet a mass leader, so was able to travel in relative obscurity, suffer the inconveniences of Indian trains, and be confronted by aggressive pandits in temples. He was horrified to see the waters in the Kumbh Mela full of human waste, and the casual cruelty shown to animals. His faith shaken, he resorted to sophistry — that which millions held to be true could not be wrong, he wrote a decade later — even as he held his nose in disgust. He may as well have been explaining his own ascent: the man whom millions would soon revere could not be wrong.

To foreign journalists, his utterances and manner could be exasperating and opaque even as his intelligence and sincerity served to disarm. Accustomed to a western-educated Indian elite that had learned to employ the conversational mitigations of the British, Gandhi’s directness, boldness and his very oddity — who speaks of latrines in formal interviews? Is it possible that a world leader told Margaret Sanger that women should “resist their husbands” instead of using birth control, or that the Czechs should offer satyagraha to Hitler, or that Britons should hand over their island to Herr Hitler to preserve their souls? — made it difficult for them to evaluate him in any sensible way. Here was a man speaking his mind, to the extent of revealing his ignorance of world affairs, and with each absurd statement he reinforced in their minds the idea that they did not know India, and this man did. While the numbers of those who considered him a hypocrite or a humbug were not small, they were dwarfed by those cowed by his ignorance into a belief of his wisdom.

The temptation to find rationales behind his awkward pronouncements and quixotic campaigns was strong, and the intellectuals of the day seized it. His support for the restoration of the Caliphate in Turkey could be cast as a campaign for Hindu-Muslim unity. His campaign for spinning was in reality a campaign for dignity, discipline and self-reliance, with the yarn serving merely as a prop. His insistence on eating raw food was an attempt to liberate the woman from the toil of the kitchen. While Gandhi himself used these arguments in his more defensive moods, it was others who expanded on these ideas and gave them wider respectability so that, decades later, we grew up with the vague sense that behind every one of Gandhi’s outrageous campaigns was a broader goal we could not see with our limited vision.

A man revered by millions and taken seriously by western journalists did not have to work hard to gain the respect of India’s political classes. If a French Nobel laureate had written a whole book saying he was “the man who became one with the universal being”, surely there was something about the man that we could not see, even as we were certain we could not see it? No Indian had received as much attention from the West, and no Indian quite enjoyed the standing he did with the “Indian masses”.

Once these two facts became obvious, it became easy for lawyers, teachers, and aristocrats to find refuge in the Mahatma, disavow western dress and manners with loud proclamations, and spin the requisite amount of yarn every day, as mandated by Gandhi, on rickety spinning wheels — eventually, most of them simply paid others to spin their share of yarn and submit it in their name. The tension between what they saw and what they thought they saw sometimes broke through — while publicly hailing Gandhi as the great “lawbreaker” after the Salt March, no doubt in complete sincerity, Sarojini Naidu was writing snide letters bemoaning the lack of hygiene in his surroundings. Some, like Annie Besant, made their distaste plain, while others, like Jinnah, drifted away and eventually became rivals.

The vast majority, however, paid homage in a mixture of sincere belief, fervent devotion, and political expediency.

Why has history been kind to Gandhi?

Events weighed heavily on independent India’s first leaders. Their decades of struggle had been lived under Gandhi’s leadership. Many had come into public life to serve him, and had transformed their lives and lifestyles by drawing inspiration from him. They had loved him, worshipped him, sat at his feet, seen his awesome power on the world and the West. In recent years, they had begun to think of him as a senile father who could not be wished away or cast out, so they had begun to humor and “manage” him.

On 73rd Independence Day examining Mahatma Gandhis legacy and why his position as Father of the Nation is secure

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seen with a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. REUTERS

They were aware of the burgeoning of competing ideas — Muslim and Hindu nationalist movements, along with Communism — that were not cowed by his power, but their own faith was largely intact, if a little shaken, and they hoped that his increasingly inconvenient demands, such as his insistence that India pay to Pakistan its share of the wartime debt owed by Britain to undivided India, would remain somehow manageable, and that his public pronouncements, such as his belief that the violence in Noakhali was a direct result of the failure of his sexual abstinence, would be buried under the weight of world adulation.

His murder removed him from the scene, suddenly and unexpectedly. Now, they had no reason to revise his legacy — political, intellectual or emotional. As the years passed, it became increasingly difficult, and increasingly inconvenient, to make any attempt at evaluation or understanding. In any case it made no sense for the state, with all of its actors claiming to be his political heirs, to exhume a memory that was safely interred. Everything he said or wrote had been collected, immortalised and fossilised and, importantly, rationalised, so that letters like “if I were a Czech” and books like Hind Swaraj that were ignorant rants against western civilisation could live in plain view with moving (and, as it turns out, prescient) speeches about harmony, sanitation and mutual respect, along with Judge Broomfield’s tribute to the great man. Thus it was that an intelligent, curious and indefatigable man who never stopped thinking or speaking or commenting publicly, and often ignorantly, on everything — masturbation, sanitation, diet, Hitler, the Great War, Zulus, Boers, race, caste, religion, abstinence, western civilisation, the Bhagavad Gita, machines, birth control, science, wet dreams, the clothing of women, the Bible, the killing of rabid dogs, religious conversions — was silenced, and so rendered relevant for all history.

The elevation has been uneven, because his children turned quickly from his legacy after his death. They threw into the dustbin all his ideas and prescriptions — his idealisation of the Indian village, his horror of machinery — because the India Nehru planned to build was mechanised, controlled by a benevolent government striving to bring to its citizens the fruits of modern science, while belittling the deep animosities of class, caste and religion that Gandhi had seen clearly. In the last few decades, even Gandhi’s Harijans have come to see his patronage as condescending, discarded that name and elevated to sainthood the only political rival he ever had (and successfully vanquished) in the Congress Party. Yet, as his ideas leech away from public policy and become enshrined in museums, his fatherhood becomes increasingly secure. Now, with the Congress Party in decline, one might have expected a re-evaluation of the most consequential Indian of our age. While it is safe to assume there are no skeletons in the closet — he lived openly for all to see — the mass of public evidence is large enough that one can poke holes, find fault, and lob small bombs that dent the walls, even if it is impossible to bring down the monument.

Interestingly, that will not happen.

Had the levers of revisionism been infinitely long, the BJP would of course have liked to elevate Vallabhbhai Patel, whose ambitions were frustrated partly because Gandhi put his hand on the scale in Nehru’s favour in the Congress Party elections of 1946. With Patel, the BJP leadership shares language and community — he was Gujarati, after all — and his muscular nationalism, right-of-center politics and earthy outlook fits their own far better than Nehru’s lefty and lofty internationalism. While they have ensured that Patel’s stone face stares at the Sardar Sarovar Dam from a height of 597 feet, they understand that 50 years of Nehru-Gandhi hegemony have served to reduce Patel to a “regional leader”, which is the diminutive tag we have learned to attach to politicians not from the Hindi heartland. So, knowing that it is easier to co-opt history than revise it, and knowing that, in the case of Gandhi, the man and the image have become one with the Indian nation, the leaders of the BJP have decided to accept their patrimony, however much they hated the father when he lived. Regional pride is intact — Gandhi was Gujarati too. The few errant strands in the coiffure can be easily tucked away from view, as in the quick slap on the wrist received by Sadhvi Pragya for daring to laud Godse.

As 2 October approaches and we gear up to celebrate Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary — the term “sesquicentennial” is curiously well-known, perhaps because the Times of India popularised it when celebrating its own arrival at that milestone — the BJP leadership will be front and center, raising new statues and commissioning new encomiums to the greatest Indian of modern times. Their ideological forbears murdered him with three efficient bullets, but he is still their father and they are happy to be his children. For the rest of us — allowing for a few who do not feel violated when he is mocked — a lifetime of adulation has ensured that a scratch on Gandhi’s edifice is a slap in our faces, so we will continue to get emotional at Judge Broomfield’s words and continue to take satisfaction in the tributes, small and large, that the world will pay him. He is, after all, as easy to venerate as he is to mock. That television PSA had it right — the greatness of the man was in his simplicity.

Sujit Saraf is a novelist and playwright who is working on a stage musical based on Gandhi’s life. His most recent novel, Harilal & Sons, won the Crossword Book Award and was nominated for the DSC Prize

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