Today the world celebrates Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birthday. As we remember the life and legacy of this truly remarkable man, it is necessary to sift through and make sense of the varied and often contradictory ways in which he is remembered. There are three notable camps vying for control over the Mathama’s narrative. One camp is populated by his detractors who consider his legacy as that which emasculated and partitioned India, the country of his birth. They honour and celebrate his assassin, Nathuram Godse, instead. The other camp consists of those who wish to trend as ‘progressives’ and who critique Gandhi for his bourgeois politics and ‘regressive’ ideas (especially on caste, gender and religion). They may have found some tolerance for him in recent times. There are still others in camp three, who believe in the goodness of his ideas and moral convictions and do not take kindly to any scrutiny or critique.
Beyond these camps, are those of us, who wish to acknowledge that he was a complex man, like all heroes, and his originality lies in making himself vulnerable through processes of frequent self-reflection. His life was an open book and an important lesson because he truly practiced what he preached. In this post, I relay some of the lesser-known details of Gandhi’s life and legacy in order to emphasise not only the importance of remembering him but the necessity of questioning the ways in which his memory is (mis)appropriated.
A lesser-known detail of Gandhi’s life is his transformation from South Africa based lawyer-activist to the anti-colonial strategist who crafted India’s resistance to British rule. Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, and his political mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale advised him to keep silent for a year on political matters. This was fuelled by the belief that Gandhi was out of touch with his native land and would be something of a misfit in Indian politics. The Indian National Congress, those days, was more of a debating society of elite Indians who assembled once a year to discuss, debate and adopt high-sounding resolutions on political freedom, Swaraj and national unity. These elite gatherings did not care for the slumbering millions or their aspirations. Ordinary Indians had no association with the privileged leaders of the Congress and, thus, were irrelevant to formal decision making. Gandhi changed this. As the originator of Satyagraha, he was fully aware of the necessity to enlist the support of ordinary people in general and peasants' in particular in order to initiate a national movement against colonial rule in India.
Gandhi launched the first public movement against British rule on April 15, 1917. Over the course of the next 179 days which he spent in Champaran, Bihar, he experimented with the most potent political weapon against the colonial rulers: the non-violent civil disobedience, or Satyagraha. European planters in Champaran had forced the farmers to cultivate indigo on portions of their land. German synthetic dyes had replaced indigo towards the end of the nineteenth century, and the European planters demanded high rents and illegal dues from the farmers. A resistance movement had began taking shape in Champaran (during 1907-1908), long before Gandhi arrived there. However, the local British administration brutally crushed this movement, and local farmers had given up any hope of having their grievances redressed.
Gandhi insisted that he would not commit to anything unless he had seen the situation by himself. He travelled on foot to hear the farmers’ stories and documented them meticulously. With the help of lawyers he got detailed, signed testimonials from 13,000 villagers about the illegal taxes levied against them. Getting so many oppressed farmers to speak openly against the British Raj was itself a revolutionary task those days. In this way, he arrived at a detailed understanding of their grievance and the causes underlying them. It was not his great oratory skills and public performances, but his comforting presence among the suffering that won him support and following throughout his life.
It is important to note that Gandhi’s work in Champaran was notable not only because he, and the lawyers he led, spoke with so many people but because he insisted that they do all the daily chores themselves. He led a group of prominent lawyers who worked tirelessly like scribes, translators, messengers to compile the testimonials of the villagers. This was a stark departure from the lavish and comfortable lifestyles that lawyers enjoyed at the time. Gandhi not only insisted that they do their own work and perform physical labour; he also insisted that they give up traditional caste and class hierarchies while serving in Champaran. It is in his conversations with the farmers and observations of poverty and oppression in Champaran that Gandhi realised that to become the voice of the farmers, it also meant ‘becoming’ them in the process, living a simple life and shunning privileges. This idea of connecting with the people and practising one’s ideas and beliefs in real life is no longer attractive or valid. There was a time when people would proudly declare they were Gandhians who believed in a simple spartan lifestyle and in activist community-building; there were Gandhian academics too. It would be hard to find them now.
Today we mark the 150th birthday of this extraordinary man who tried his best to walk the talk and to live a principled life in which he struggled enormously with his flaws and failings. He was not great because he sought greatness and was perfect in his ways or beliefs, but because he realised all his human follies and 'experimented with truth’. Most importantly, here was someone complex who could look beyond the priorities of his own immediate needs and think about the greater good, compassion, and dignity for all. Someone who was deeply religious, a believing and practicing Hindu who believed that a true 'Vaishnav Jan' is one who understands the suffering of others, works for greater good without letting pride enter their mind, who embraces everyone without prejudice or malice. Gandhi engaged with 'difference' all the time; he was never frightened or put off by it. He always spoke to people and reasoned with those who disagreed with him and opposed him; he also spoke only what and when was needed, and preferred silence over speech many times. His views were contradictory, even problematic but he kept working on himself and his actions to evolve and change. The LEFT and the RIGHT both have an inherent dislike for him, and yet they appropriate him selectively to suit their political agendas. Everyone needs Gandhi, but Gandhi needs to be rescued from this continued selective appropriation. He needs to be restored both to scholarly reverence and empathetic scrutiny.
Meanwhile, Happy Birthday to the grand old man of ingenious ideas, effective actions, and moral convictions.