The Ma­hatma re­mains a liv­ing fig­ure for his crit­ics as gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion dis­cov­ers yet another of his ‘fail­ings’


If Gandhi lives to­day it is be­cause of his en­e­mies, who seem un­able to let go of his mem­ory. The Ma­hatma’s fol­low­ers have turned him into a saint whose teach­ings can safely be ig­nored—as the words of a su­pe­rior be­ing to be ad­mired from afar. Given the rit­u­al­is­tic re­spect of­fered to him in In­dia and re­ceived with pub­lic in­dif­fer­ence, it is puz­zling why Gandhi re­mains such a liv­ing fig­ure for his crit­ics. Per­haps they are the only ones who still feel be­trayed by his loss of saint­hood. This be­trayal is re­newed in ev­ery gen­er­a­tion, as schol­ars and ac­tivists dis­cover yet another of the Ma­hatma’s fail­ings.

In the wake of sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism, the Ma­hatma, dur­ing the 1980s, was ex­co­ri­ated for his views about women. The crit­i­cism was based on anec­dotes about Gandhi’s treat­ment of his wife Kas­tur­bai and his ex­per­i­ments with celibacy that en­tailed sleep­ing naked with young women. But these women’s voices are strangely si­lenced. Manubehn, who par­tic­i­pated in Gandhi’s ex­per­i­ments, has left a diary that no critic has thought to read. While he was some­times harsh to his in­ti­mates, it was also from Gandhi’s cir­cle that many women en­tered pub­lic life—Ana­suya Sarab­hai, Mridula Sarab­hai, Am­rit Kaur, Saro­jini Naidu and Sushila Nay­yar.

In the 1990s, when the Man­dal Com­mis­sion re­vived caste strug­gle in In­dia, Gandhi’s caste prej­u­dice came into fo­cus. But this did lit­tle more than re­cover B.R. Ambed­kar’s polemics against him. Here, too, crit­ics dwelt on anec­dotes about the Poona Pact, when Gandhi fasted to deny sep­a­rate elec­torates to lower castes, and his un­con­cern with any real ameliorati­on of their plight. Yet, the Poona Pact was not only a caste is­sue, but emerged from the Mi­nori­ties Pact be­tween Mus­lims, Dal­its and oth­ers that de­nied the ex­is­tence of a na­tion in In­dia.

The Ma­hatma’s crit­ics may agree with Mo­ham­mad Ali Jin­nah and Ambed­kar about the ab­sence of a na­tion in In­dia, but re­sist recog­nis­ing why Gandhi sup­ported caste. As an an­ar­chist, the Ma­hatma was sus­pi­cious of the state and its ef­fort to re­make so­ci­ety in a ful­fil­ment of colo­nial­ism. He re­alised that castes, vil­lages and re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties were cru­cial if swaraj, or self-rule, was to be pro­duced out­side the state, which could not be al­lowed to dic­tate a na­tional iden­tity to In­di­ans. For this, it was nec­es­sary to re­form rather than re­ject such in­sti­tu­tions, mak­ing Gandhi a con­ser­va­tive rather than a rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

Ambed­kar started dis­agree­ing with the Ma


hatma by ar­gu­ing for the state’s ab­so­lute power to trans­form so­ci­ety, which is what al­lowed him to join hands with Jawa­har­lal Nehru. But he soon re­alised the ex­cesses and lim­i­ta­tions of such power, re­sign­ing from the cab­i­net to con­cen­trate on pro­mot­ing so­cial change in re­li­gious terms, a move rem­i­nis­cent of Gandhi’s ca­reer. In­deed, Ambed­kar never for­sook the Ma­hatma’s arch-con­cept of satya­graha, de­spite his clear and abid­ing ha­tred of the man who had called his bluff in forc­ing him to back down dur­ing the Poona Pact.

If Gandhi’s fem­i­nist foes si­lence women’s voices, his caste en­e­mies erase the role of Mus­lims to make for a purely Hindu de­bate—many of Ambed­kar’s ar­gu­ments about na­tion­al­ity and rep­re­sen­ta­tion be­ing ver­sions of Jin­nah’s. His views about ‘back­ward’ adi­va­sis and ‘fa­nat­i­cal’ Mus­lims, whom he wanted to deny sep­a­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion, would also merit more cen­sure were Ambed­kar treated in the same way as Gandhi. Ambed­kar thought his at­tempt to se­cure rep­re­sen­ta­tion for Dal­its was un­der­cut by the Mus­lim League’s de­sire to come to an agree­ment with the Congress at their ex­pense, as also by the colo­nial state’s pro­mo­tion of adi­vasi rep­re­sen­ta­tion to frag­ment In­dian pol­i­tics.

Dur­ing his own life­time, Gandhi’s en­e­mies mounted ar­gu­ments that were po­lit­i­cal rather than per­sonal. They saw the Ma­hatma as anti-Mus­lim or an­tiHindu in ways that re­pu­di­ated anec­do­tal ev­i­dence for more com­plex nar­ra­tives. Even his as­sas­sin ac­knowl­edged Gandhi’s sin­cer­ity and at­trib­uted his sup­posed be­trayal of Hin­dus to the at­tempt at re­peat­ing his suc­cess in uni­fy­ing South Africa’s In­dian com­mu­nity—hav­ing mis­un­der­stood the dif­fer­ent con­di­tions at home. The com­mu­nist view of Gandhi as an agent of cap­i­tal­ism was com­plex and in­voked Marx’s the­o­ries about the de­vel­op­ment of class con­flict.

Colo­nial of­fi­cials were the ones who pi­o­neered the anec­do­tal and per­sonal style of crit­i­cism that has come to de­fine Gandhi’s en­e­mies. For they ac­cused the Ma­hatma not of any par­tic­u­lar crime, but of be­ing a con­sum­mate hyp­ocrite in all he said and did. This fo­cus on hypocrisy dis­counts an un­der­stand­ing of Gandhi’s words and deeds as a form of po­lit­i­cal thought to search for their mean­ing in frag­men­tary quo­ta­tions and con­spir­a­cies. It is a way of un­der­stand­ing his­tory char­ac­ter­is­tic of the far right, and sig­nals the left­ist critic’s col­lu­sion with them.

These var­ied and mu­tu­ally con­tra­dic­tory con­dem­na­tions tell us more about those who make them

than the man who is their sub­ject. Gandhi has be­come the ori­gin from which each gen­er­a­tion of In­di­ans can trace the con­se­quences of its so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­cerns. In this way, he re­mains the fa­ther of the na­tion. It is not sur­pris­ing, then, that with its world­wide re­vival, Gandhi is now be­ing ac­cused of racism, of which In­di­ans have now be­come agents rather than ob­jects.

Un­prece­dented about the con­dem­na­tions of Gandhi’s racism, how­ever, is that they are not lim­ited to In­dia but have be­come global, with stat­ues of the Ma­hatma at­tacked or re­moved in dif­fer­ent parts of Africa as a re­sult. Two charges are lev­elled against Gandhi. That he never spoke for the lib­erty of Africans or in­volved them in his move­ment. And that he saw Africans as in­fe­rior and sought to keep In­di­ans sep­a­rate from them. But un­less he was in­vited to do so, the Ma­hatma never spoke for any com­mu­nity of which he was not a mem­ber. For he con­ceived of non-vi­o­lence as an ex­em­plary rather than in­struc­tive prac­tice, one at­tract­ing em­u­la­tion to main­tain an an­ar­chis­tic so­cial plu­ral­ity.

Gandhi’s South Africa was a so­ci­ety whose racialised pop­u­la­tions were treated dif­fer­ently by law. As a lawyer de­fend­ing In­dian priv­i­leges, he was un­able to chal­lenge the le­gal sys­tem it­self. And the law en­sured he could only de­fend these priv­i­leges by mak­ing sure In­di­ans were not iden­ti­fied with Africans, though he might well have ap­proved of this sep­a­ra­tion. Yet, he also in­sisted on treat­ing wounded Zu­lus in the am­bu­lance corps he led dur­ing the Bam­batha Re­bel­lion, his po­lit­i­cal sym­pa­thies be­ing with them and not with Bri­tain.

When he was no longer a lawyer, Gandhi’s deroga­tory com­ments about Africans ceased. In his book Satya­graha in South Africa, he con­trasted Zu­lus favourably with In­di­ans on ev­ery count. Even­tu­ally, he would also see African-Amer­i­cans as the most hope­ful agents of non-vi­o­lence world­wide. But given their le­gal sta­tus, the Ma­hatma had to fight for his com­pa­tri­ots as In­di­ans. His de­mand was an in­ter­na­tional rather than South African one, and con­sisted of com­pelling In­dia to up­hold the sta­tus of her sub­jects in other parts of the Bri­tish Em­pire.

Call­ing the Ma­hatma’s first satya­graha a South African one, as he him­self did, is, there­fore, some­thing of a mis­nomer, as its trac­tion de­pended upon In­dia’s and, there­fore, Lon­don’s in­volve­ment. South Africa was only one site of this strug­gle, with Gandhi in­ter­ested in the sta­tus of In­di­ans all over the Bri­tish Em­pire, from Kenya to Mau­ri­tius, Guyana, Fiji and Trinidad. It be­came a global move­ment when he sought to and, in fact, suc­ceeded in abol­ish­ing in­den­ture, the In­dian suc­ces­sor to African slav­ery which sup­plied labour for much of the Em­pire.

Per­haps Gandhi was a racist af­ter all, but we get no sense of this from his en­e­mies, whose per­son­alised, and of­ten con­spir­a­to­rial, ar­gu­ments de­prive his thought of in­tegrity and ig­nore the many con­texts in which he op­er­ated. Even ac­cus­ing Hitler of racism is a mean­ing­less gen­er­al­ity, since we can only un­der­stand his vi­o­lence by tak­ing its in­tel­lec­tual jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and his­tor­i­cal con­text into con­sid­er­a­tion. In­stead of merely turn­ing the saint into a sin­ner, then, it is time for the Ma­hatma to be­come a prop­erly his­tor­i­cal fig­ure for his friends as much as en­e­mies. ■

Faisal Devji is a pro­fes­sor of In­dian his­tory at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford



Epic En­counter ‘The Bri­tish Lion shows his Teeth’, pro­duced in Haagesche Post, The Hague, Nether­lands, 1930


Lead­ing lights Gandhi with Manubehn (to his right) and Abha

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