Grappling with Gandhi

Gandhi’s son Harilal was a tor mented soul addicted to a most ungandhian lifestyle, to put in decent terms. The father of the nation was no great parent in his son’s scheme of things. If that be the decree of the biological offspring, how does the country judge its father, to whose political genes and genius, much of its character is attributed? For, in the world’s eye India is still the land of Gandhi. But even God, in the Indian religious perspective, is less a matter of blind belief and more a subject of understanding. The foremost mortal idol of modern India, therefore, merits a thorough study.

Indeed, sixty years after his assassination, Gandhi, as a person, politician and a phenomenon confounds and confuses countless critics and connoisseurs alike. No one individual in history has been written about and dissected as much as Gandhi has been. Historians, political analysts, biographers, psychologists et al have produced endless reams on him and topping this tome are Gandhi’s own writings. Really, to cull out the true Gandhi from amidst the maze of millions of words is no mean task. So, who was he or rather, what was he? A mahatma or a maverick? An impractical prude or a prophet non-pareil? A secularist or a communalist? Honest or hypocritic? All-knowing or just plain adamant? Apparently, Gandhi was many things to many.

To the colonising Brits, he posed a conundrum.They were often at a loss on how to deal with him. Gandhi took London by storm when he landed there and stalked it replete in loin cloth and a bamboo stick. And in India, he was even more difficult. They had to strain to take this half-clad, toothless wonder seriously, yet were stumped by his rather para-normal protests and unconventional conduct.Their baton had no impact on his unbending will and jail was nothing compared to the back-breaking austerity that Gandhi imposed on himself. And negotiating with him was a greater ordeal. To quote from Freedom at Midnight: ‘…the puzzlement of the British was understandable. He was a strange blend of great moral principles and quirky obsessions. He was quite capable of interrupting their serious political discussions with a discourse on the benefits of sexual continence or a daily salt and water enema’. For the white man he was a burden in many ways!

To the Congress Party Gandhi constituted an unbreachable ring: On the ascendency since Tilak’s death in 1920, Gandhi’s word and even silence was party policy for almost three decades. Any dissent lasted only till his next fast and those who did not fall in line with him soon fell out, Netaji being a notable example. Gandhi’s sulks, which passed under the nomenclature ‘satyagraha’, met with more success inside the Congress than with the British or the Muslim League. Whenever Gandhi was on a protest fast, Churchill would eagerly enquire if he was still alive! And Jinnah barely stirred. But the Congress always succumbed to Gandhi’s whims, many times to the detriment of the struggle for freedom itself. Gandhi clocked over 2300 days in Jail and was the personification of sacrifice: His was no office of profit, rather he gave his all to his country. His love and understanding of his impoverished people were unalloyed, his patriotism beyond dispute. He was the original patent holder of the ‘Inner Voice’ that the ‘pretender-Gandhis’ of today parrot so flippantly. Indeed, from Mahatma to Maino, the Congress has travelled quite a distance.

Gandhi remains a painful dilemma to the Sangh Parivar to this day: they cannot disown him totally as he was a devout Gita-wielding Hindu who always had Ram on his lips, condemned cow-slaughter and riled against religious conversions. But nor can they embrace him wholeheartedly owing to his secular fads and penchant for same-side goals! For them, Gandhi, dead or alive, is tricky territory. The fact that Nathuram Godse was a Hindu activist and the arraignment of many Hindu Mahasabha leaders like Savarkar in Gandhi’s assassination and the post-haste ban on RSS by Nehru, had all, despite Savarkar’s subsequent exoneration and the lifting of the ban, convinced the Sangh that indifference to Gandhi is the safest policy.

To the Muslim League, Ali brothers and Jinnah, Gandhi was a godsend. What they could not achieve by their means, they had it bestowed on them through Gandhi’s grace. The Mahatma’s obsession with the mirage of Hindu-Muslim unity and his wishful attempts to be seen as the leader of all Indians made him surrender and succumb to their every whim. From supporting the Khilafat to turning a blind eye to the Moplah Massacre to inviting the Afghan Amir to invade India to acquiescing to all communal demands, Gandhi ensured that Jinnah & Co were emboldened enough to demand Pakistan, when push finally came to shove in 1947. And forget Hindu-Muslim unity, Gandhi could not extract even an endearing word from his beneficiaries. Tragically, this one-sided infatuation of Gandhi turned fatal for him. G killed G because the former believed that the latter was the author of appeasement politics that was proving hugely suicidal to the Hindus. Incidentally, is not appeasement the only Gandhian principle that is surviving today?

To many co-freedom fighters, Gandhi’s obsession with ahimsa was a big irritant. For them non-aggression is true non-violence; might may not be right but it certainly is a potent deterrent. But in Gandhi’s scheme of things strength is weakness and self-defence is a vice. Just tune in to him: ‘the tiger will become a follower of the creed of non-violence after the cows allowed themselves to be killed and swallowed in such large numbers that the tiger ultimately got tired of killing them’ What a morbid metaphor and how violent can non-violence itself be! And Gandhi dubbing heroes like Shivaji, Rana Pratap, Baghat Singh etc as misguided patriots did not add any glory to ahimsa either. One needs to ponder if the Gandhian version of non-violence has benumbed the nation and rendered it a soft-State and if the cocktail of appeasement and ahimsa is what is keeping Afzal Guru alive.

To the multitudes of the land that he traversed barefoot, Gandhi was a super soul, ever to be eulogised, but never to be emulated. And to the countless children, he offered an endearing caricature, capable of being captured in a few curved lines and some dots. And yes, he gave them a holiday too! To me, he affords a great professional opportunity, an eternal subject, immortal, inexhaustible and as unfathomable today as he was during his life time! Harilal’s father will for ever keep the nation guessing.

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Jawahar T R