“My life is my message.”- Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
M. K. Gandhi, or as he was more popularly known, Mahatma Gandhi, was one of the most influential leaders of his time – a towering personality, not so much in appearance as in demeanour. Our literature on modern history is replete with episodes of the greatness of this man, even penning him down as the ‘Father of the Nation’. Gandhiji was the last born of Karamchand and Putlibai and was brought up in Porbandar, Gujarat. He was married to Kasturbai and fathered four sons- Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas. He pursued law in London and became a barrister, finally setting sail to South Africa to provide his legal services.
Non-Cooperation Movement, Quit India Movement, Dandi march, non-violence, swadeshi, satyagrah, harijans, the white loincloth, the round spectacles and the lathi are all those things that we’ve been conditioned to believe, the ‘Mahatma’ was associated with. As unsurprising as it may be, our textbooks were a medium to look back upon the work of this gentleman in monochromes alone, more often than not, that monochrome being white- a colour that stands for peace and purity. However, I do not recall coming across a single section in those books that may have addressed the question of the validity of Gandhiji’s ways, his decisions, the approach he took for India to regain her independence from the clutches of the British; or the rationale behind the principles he laid down for himself and others to follow without much argument. I have been wondering for quite some time now, as to how one person single-handedly manoeuvred the population of millions to accept him as the harbinger of all things good and pure, without severe rebellion or debate.
The thought transports me to one of the History lectures back in school, where the teacher had tried to address the above. One simple theory was how Gandhiji chose to strike a chord with the masses, utilising the basic elements of an Indian lifestyle. The white cotton dhoti that he chose to wrap himself in, was (and continues to be) the representation of the poor from rural India. Choosing to implant a sense of severance from the British control by undertaking the Dandi march and making salt from sea water standing alongside the hundreds of people who joined him on his way, he camouflaged a household ingredient as a weapon in the hands of those that had been only governed so far. He embraced the untouchables, named them ‘harijans’ (children of God), instilling in them a newfound sense of belongingness. Recognising the fact that goods that were being imported to India as a means of revenue generation for the colonisers, replacing the home grown and homemade produce, he introduced the swadeshi movement and motivated the citizens to boycott all foreign items; in turn securing the faith and support of the working class of the Indian society. He encouraged people to make their own cotton using the charkha, introducing the humble Indian to a flavour of never-seen-before independence. Ingenious as they were, these ideas also hint at how tactical a man Gandhiji was, steering the masses to believe that a messiah had arrived to gain for India her long due independence from the British regime, without actually intelligibly asserting the same.
It is however difficult for me to accept that this human skeleton was devoid of, if not a dark side, at least a twisted one. On basic digging up, I was presented with episodes from the life of the revered Gandhiji, that made me see him in a different light- a light that mirrored all the dark and the twisted in him instead of reflecting the whiteness in which he had skilfully enveloped himself.
It is not unknown how vehemently Gandhiji had opposed the practise of apartheid, especially during his time in South Africa. What caught less attention was the fact that he himself chose to claim that the Europeans sought to degrade Indians to the level of ‘raw Kaffirs’ (native Africans), Kaffir being the operative derogatory term used for the said people. He claimed that hunting was all these people knew and they found contentment in “indolence and nakedness”, striking a stark contrast from the “better class Indians”. He reportedly even appealed to the authorities to end the indignity caused to Indians by using the same entrance to post offices as the blacks and recounted it as a victory when three separate doors- one each for the Asiatics, Europeans and Natives were introduced. It is hard to imagine how this does not negate his stand against racism itself.
Despite advocating on behalf of the untouchables, he never fought for a classless society. Instead, he believed in the system of the four varnas where the foundation of Hinduism lies, and pleaded to the conscience of the upper class Hindus to provide the shudras with a rightful place in the society. Having said so, he indirectly recognised the superiority of other classes over the untouchables who were subject to the mercy and patronage of the other classes. He was in constant disagreement with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar who was a staunch supporter of equal rights and opportunities for the oppressed classes, who he had named ‘Dalits’. There are several examples of social figures who worked way more than Gandhiji did to uplift a whole section of the society that had been written off. His contribution in this direction in contrast to his popularity and stature seems bleak.
In one of his interviews for a biography, Gandhiji had suggested that the native Jews should have willingly surrendered their lives to the call of Hitler, well aware of the atrocities the innocent Jews were subjected to. He believed that such an act would have been no less than heroism and would have made the sacrifice of their lives more “significant”. This seems like he intended to stretch the idea of non-violence to an unreasonable extent. Asking a whole population that had been targeted since years, to embrace death without putting up a fight against the injustice meted out to them under the garb of selfless sacrifice, sounds like an idea more cowardly than courageous.
It would not be incorrect to say that he was able to achieve what he did politically because he was aware of the temperament of the colonisers he was at loggerheads with. With a fair idea of how the democratic system of the British government functioned having studied in London, he was able to effectively channelize the support he had garnered amongst the masses who had dared to stand against the British under his own guidance, which in turn led him to create history in the way he did. It would be interesting to imagine how far his tactics would have worked if he were to face a different opponent, perhaps the likes of Adolf Hitler.
Speaking of twisted aspects of human existence, the most scandalous and stirring piece of literature pertaining to Gandhiji has been about his obsession with his notion of so-called celibacy. According to several writings, he had maintained sexual relations with women other than his wife. He had even allegedly made Manuben, his grandniece and Abha, the wife of his grand nephew, lie naked in his bed with him, sometimes both of them together, in order for him to practice resistance towards carnal temptation and self control. Not only did he follow these principles himself, he even urged others to take up the same path, something that was beyond the comprehension of the educated masses, especially the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru. Berserk and disturbing as it may sound, he even prohibited doctors from using penicillin on Kasturbai when she was severely haemorrhaging, owing to the fact that the same was foreign medication. He had argued that if God willed so, she will be able to pull through even without it. Kasturbai breathed her last after several months of suffering.
His relation with his children was as bad as it could be. He apparently disowned his son Harilal for he had wished to become a barrister and have a life of his own. Gandhiji disapproved of his son’s volition as he had desired for him to follow his ideologies and not his profession. He later even banished Harilal having branded him as a rapist and a drunkard. They were also involved in grave contestation in matters pertaining to education. Stigmatising his father’s ideology as delusional, Harilal expressed his dissent toward his father’s decision of not letting his children have access to a good standard of education because of his political convictions.
Gandhiji even endorsed a concept of “unlearning” by which he insinuated that India could be rescued from the clutches of the British Empire if she gave up services that the British had set up, like the railways, hospitals, post offices among other essential organs of the regime. These services are considered to be a boon that flowed from years of servitude to the British, one of the very few things that worked for the Indian society in a set up that was established only to deprive it of its own wealth and prosperity. Eliminating these from the fabric of Indian politics would have served no purpose at all.
Having stated the above, it would not be right to discredit Gandhiji for all that he did to bring back independence to India. The question I ask is, whether it is advisable to place a man on a pedestal without correctly analysing his actions and choices? Must we not look beyond the facade created by one before we choose to eulogise him as ‘Mahatma’? Would it be too absurd to wonder if this is the kind of thinking that has given rise to the culture of God-men in the country who have managed to hypnotise even the educated? Gandhiji had said that his life is his message. May be the undertone to that message is the fact that perhaps, a little thinking wouldn’t be such a bad idea before we jumped to conclusions.