Martyr who despised elevation to an 'ism'

Gandhi in his Time and Ours
July 23, 2004

Outside India, it is almost impossible to find anyone who is critical of Mahatma Gandhi. But in the country of his birth, though he is still described as the father of the nation, the Gandhian movement and the notion of ahimsa (non-violence) have been relegated to the fringes of Indian politics. Modern India has nuclear weapons, and two years ago, Gandhi's home state of Gujarat witnessed some of the worst Hindu-Muslim violence the country has seen since independence. Less-heralded contemporaries of Gandhi, such as Veer Savarkar and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, are the heroes of India's recent Hindu nationalist rulers. Last year, a portrait of Savarkar, one of whose followers killed Gandhi, was unveiled in Parliament opposite that of the Mahatma.

Gandhi was one of his own sternest critics. His autobiography is full of painful personal moments; how he he had woken up his wife to make love and was caught in "the shackles of lust" as a servant knocked on the door to announce the death of his father in an adjoining room. He never forgave himself for that. He also describes how he once dragged his wife out of their home when she refused to empty the chamber pot of a low-caste Christian. Gandhi owned up to his contradictions, admiringly quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". In 1940, he declared, "I love to hear the words, 'Down with Gandhism'. An 'ism' deserves to be destroyed... If any sect is established in my name after my death my soul would cry out in anguish." This statement proved problematical for many of his followers and admirers.

David Hardiman, a critical admirer of Gandhi, tries to skirt the problem by introducing the notion of dialogue and "dialogic". He describes his book as an examination of "a figure whose life and work represented a dialogue between the many complex strands of thought of his day, both Indian and extra-Indian, as well as his legacy in India and the world since his death". His first chapter is called "The Gandhian dialogic", the third, "Dialogic resistance". Hardiman goes on to use the notion of dialogue as a way of dealing with many inconsistencies in Gandhi's life and writing, suggesting that his continuous search for common ground allowed "a compromise and a going forward".

In the key areas of ahimsa and of satyagraha (civil disobedience), Hardiman places Gandhi in a historical and philosophical continuum stretching from Henry David Thoreau and Tolstoy to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

He points to the overthrow of dictatorships in Iran, the Philippines, Romania and Yugoslavia as examples of successful mass protest by unarmed civilians; examples of the Gandhian tradition in action. But he also recognises that there are few successful politicians who would agree with Gandhi that violence is never justified. Mandela, an admirer of Gandhi, felt that in apartheid South Africa, he was right to support violence.

King, who in the 1950s toured places in India associated with Gandhi, was far more confrontational than his hero. After his visit, King swore to set aside a day each week for fasting and meditation. That vow was soon forgotten.

Gandhi's ascetic way of life is taken less seriously these days, though Hardiman looks at it in some detail. Gandhi called for chastity within marriage, and he himself forswore sexual intercourse in 1906. His wife's view of this is not recorded. In his seventies, he slept next to teenage girls to test his vow of chastity. In matters of health and diet, he comes across as something of a faddist. His autobiography has a chapter on trying to give up milk and includes several cures for constipation.

Hardiman sees Gandhi as an Arcadian, hating modern cities. His ideal was a small-scale agricultural community, where self-reliance, discipline and cooperation could all be practised. In a persuasive chapter, Hardiman portrays Gandhi as a forerunner of E. F. Schumacher and Ivan Illich in his interest in small-scale agro-industries and what we now call intermediate technology.

There are some odd omissions (the Dalai Lama) and surprising inclusions as legatees of Gandhi (Malcolm X and Steve Biko). These last two supported violence and opposed including non-blacks in their movements. Gandhi would have been uncomfortable with both positions. But Hardiman makes the important point that Gandhi, like Biko and Malcolm X, stood for "self-assertion and the pride-in-self of the oppressed". They were also, like King, assassinated - martyrs in the eyes of their followers.

Efforts to theorise Gandhism usually falter when they fail to recognise that he was probably the consummate politician of his day. His saintliness and some of his faddist eccentricities have detracted from his reputation as a political leader of incredible resourcefulness, charisma, personal charm and determination. He upturned the moral, civilising arguments that buttressed the British Empire. Famously, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he said that he thought "it would be a good idea". He sowed seeds of doubt in many Western minds at a time when Western superiority was taken for granted. That on its own is an impressive legacy.

Sam Miller is a BBC journalist based in Delhi.

Gandhi in his Time and Ours: The Global Legacy of his Ideas

Author - David Hardiman
Publisher - Hurst
Pages - 338
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
ISBN - 1 85065 712 2 and 711 4

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