Sunday, October 02, 2005
Seeing as it is (or was, depending on your time zone) October 2nd, I figured I might as well put a post about Gandhi.
On the whole, I've always admired Gandhi. I recognise how pivotal a role he played in the struggle for India's independence, and I have nothing but respect for his courage, his integrity, his clarity of purpose. His legacy as a revolutionary is unquestionable; as the leader of a political movement of the kind of subtlety and scope that the Indian freedom struggle required he has few equals. The fact that one man could wield such power, command such authority, and all on the strength of nothing but ideas, inspiration and personality is truly awe inspiring. As a case-study of inspirational leadership, as well as an examination of the power of spin, Gandhi is essential to political and sociological theory, as well as to History.
My problems, then are not with Gandhi so much as with the Mahatma. It is the myth, not the man, that I object to. In some sense, of course, Gandhi's status as a quasi-god was inevitable, all political movements need their symbols to survive on. But the line between considered appreciation and unquestioning reverence is a thin one, and in becoming the Mahatma (or being made one) Gandhi stepped over that line.
The most pernicious fallout of the Mahatmisation of Gandhi was the belief in his omniscience. Let's face it - Gandhi had no economic or social ideology worth speaking of. In many ways, he was a narrow-minded, petulant and puerile man, whose vision for the new India, such as it was, was bankrupt, incoherent and backward looking. That anyone would even try to lay the foundation of an economic and geo-political superpower on a foundation of Gandhian principle seems, in retrospect, ludicrous.
The problem was not simply that Gandhi's Mahatma status got his more bizarre ideas taken seriously, it's also that it made it impossible to engage in a healthy debate about them (although, of course, this wasn't necessarily Gandhi's fault). This, I think, was the reason that Gandhi had to be assassinated - a human being you can question and debate with, a Mahatma you can only kill. It is in this sense that Godse's act is primarily a religious one - it is the repudiation of a wilful and increasingly irrelevant God by a tortured, existential conscience (and how could the consciousness of a newborn nation not be prey to existential doubt) - an act not so much of bad faith as of no faith at all, of the denial of faith entirely. Gandhi had to be killed because he could not be sidelined.
(The parallel I've always found interesting is between Gandhi and Caesar. Very different men, of course, but there is a sense in which Brutus' quandary is also India's - the narrative forces that demand the destruction of our greatest generals are the same)
It is unfortunate, therefore, that the legend of the Mahatma has survived much beyond the legacy of the man. Ironically, it is the very idealisation of Gandhi that has made him irrelevant. Because we refuse to consider Gandhi's role in its proper historical, social and political context, because we choose instead to believe in an image of Gandhi as the Mahatma, a figure so pious and impeccable as to rival the avatars of God himself, and insist on feeding this sugar-coated Mahatma to all our schoolchildren, we are left with a 'Father of the Nation' whose ideas are far too impractical too live by and serve as little more than polite platitudes. Pragmatism was never Gandhi's strong suit anyway, a large part of the reason he succeeded the way he did was the mix of compassion and uncompromising idealism he brought to the table (this, by the way, is one of the key reasons I feel he should have retired after 1947 - idealism is critical in revolution, but dangerous in politics). But the last fifty years have ensured that every possible virtue has somehow been heaped on Gandhi's head, so that the way of the Mahatma is now the path to ascetism. Hardly a credible value system for one billion people to follow. If it were possible to constructively and critically discuss Gandhi in a modern context, some more reasonable version of his ideology (or parts of it) may well be found, but the brooding presence of the Mahatma ensures that to even begin to question or criticise Gandhi is to commit a kind of sacrilege (as many people will doubtless believe this post to be), so that intelligent debate is strangled at birth.
The person this deification does the greatest disservice to is Gandhi himself. If there is one thing that Gandhi can teach us, it is that one ordinary human being can, with patience and integrity and a little bit of luck, make a difference to the world he / she lives in. To label him a Mahatma is to plead special circumstance, to deny him his humanity, to create an easy way out for everyone else. When the definitive history of the twentieth century is finally written, Gandhi will have pride of place as an important revolutionary and national leader. That is the real Gandhi. The Mahatma is just a fairy tale told to a childish people to make them behave. It is time we outgrew him once and for all.
 I am aware that some people might consider this post offensive or arrogant (let me make that opinion worse by saying that I am by no means an expert on the subject of Gandhi - I am sure there is much about him I don't know). While that reaction itself is, in a sense, the subject of this post, let me say that it is not my intention to offend anyone. I am simply stating my (admittedly uninformed and probably irrelevant) opinion on the matter.