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Use and Abuse of Gandhi

by Salil Misra, 18 February 2009

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The Economic Times

Appropriating Gandhi

Perhaps no leader of modern India has been misunderstood as much as Gandhi. The irony is that this misunderstanding is shared by Gandhians and
Gandhi-bashers alike. They are both jointly united in creating distortions about Gandhi. There is however a reason for this. Gandhi was not a theoretician. He did not consciously construct a blue print, either of his theory or of an ideal social order. He often said that his life was his message. This implied that Gandhi’s ideas, and ideals, were not codified at one place in the form of a doctrine, but were diffused in the form of his activities. People had to extrapolate his ideas and ideology from an assemblage of his actions.

Gandhi was no Marx and he did not leave behind an explicitly worked out theory codified in a manifesto. There is certainly no Gandhian manifesto that we can use today to identify his theory and vision. What Gandhi did leave behind was many decades of political and social activities. Gandhi himself said that anyone wishing to follow him, after he was dead and gone, should simply look at what Gandhi did and how he did it, rather than look for any well-codified doctrine.

This has created a lot of confusion in independent India regarding who the real Gandhi was. It has become easy for any person or political party to claim to be a Gandhian and do anything in the name of Gandhi. In particular the two major political parties — Congress and BJP — have simply followed their own agenda and claimed respectability for their agenda by putting the stamp of Gandhi on it. It is nothing short of tragedy that some of the most un-Gandhian things have been done by these parties in the name of Gandhi, and by invoking Gandhi. Self-declared Gandhians, who have treated every word of Gandhi as sacrosanct; and self-declared opponents of Gandhi, who have indulged in plain Gandhi bashing, have all got together in creating completely fictionalised versions of Gandhi. If anyone were to try and understand Gandhi on the basis of these constructions of Gandhi in contemporary India, he would end up with a very distorted view of Gandhi. It is therefore necessary to understand Gandhi, on some of the key issues of contemporary politics, precisely as he would have liked to be understood.

Much is made of his position on religion and politics. That he defended religion’s entry into politics, mixed politics with religion, and corrupted politics by introducing obscurantism in it, is part of the general mist of ideas that surround Gandhi. In reality Gandhi made a crucial distinction between what he called Religion
which he understood as a moral code of a social order, and specific religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity etc). He called Religion the tree and religions as different branches of the same tree. In 1946 he advised his followers; “There are many religions but Religion is only one. You should follow that one Religion.” Whereas he supported politics being based on Religion, i.e., a moral order, he was against denominational religions entering politics. In an interview to Louis Fischer given in 1942, he said: “religion is a personal matter which should have no place in politics.” In 1947, he again repeated: “religion is a personal affair of each individual. It must not be mixed up with politics or national affairs.”

With such a an important distinction between Religion as a moral order and different religions as sets of belief systems and rituals, Gandhi
declared in 1947 that the Indian “State was bound to be wholly secular.” In 1942 he asserted most unambiguously: “Free India will be no Hindu Raj, it will be an Indian Raj based not on the majority of any religious sect or community but on the representatives of the whole people without distinction of religion.” As a deeply religious Hindu, Gandhi respected the cow as a sacred symbol of Hinduism. But he was totally opposed to the activities of the Cow Protection Societies. He actually called them Cow Killing Societies (Go Bhakshini Sabhas instead of Go Rakshini Sabhas) because in his view, their intransigent and intolerant activities were creating hostile reactions and leading to more cows being killed!

Gandhi has often been called a dictator who imposed his position on his Congress colleagues and blackmailed others by threatening to go on fast if his views were not followed. In reality Gandhi was a great democrat who never went out of his way to impose his priorities on others. To take a few examples, he was a great believer in spinning and spun regularly. Twice, in 1922 and in 1934, he tried to introduce regular spinning as a mandatory activity for Congress office holders. He also wanted it to be included in Congress constitution. But sensing a lack of enthusiasm among other Congress leaders for making spinning mandatory, he refrained from insisting on it. His reservations on modern capitalist economy and on large-scale industrialisation were known to all. Yet he never tried to impose it on the Congress organisation. In fact the famous Congress resolution passed at Karachi in 1931, advocating centralised planning and large-scale industrialisation, was predictably drafted by Jawaharlal Nehru. But it was Gandhi who moved that resolution, primarily in order to create consensus around it. Gandhi never insisted on his economic ideas to be at the centre of Congress programme. Also, in spite of his reservations on parliamentary democracy he supported the Congress organisation forming ministries and entering government in 1937.

It is unfortunate that Gandhi’s positions on religion, secularism, democracy, modern economy and politics have been misunderstood by both his supporters and opponents in independent India. Much of the misunderstanding stems from the fact that people have sought to understand Gandhi on the basis of isolated statements, torn from their context. The ambiguities created thus have been utilised by politicians and others to their own awn advantage and taste. To understand Gandhi properly, it is necessary to link his statements to the context in which he made them, and to focus on the underlying unity of his thoughts and action.

Great injustice has been done to Gandhi, by Gandhians, who deified him and made him into some kind of a cult figure; by his opponents who simply dismissed him as obscurantist, outdated and irrelevant; and by those who have used him as a stamp to justify and legitimised their own agenda. Gandhi needs to be rescued from all three. That would do justice to him.

(The author is professor of history, Indira Gandhi National Open University, New Delhi)