May 20 2015
Most people in Britain have heard only one side of the remarkable story that is the Mahatma or Mohandas K Gandhi, now nearly 70 years after his assassination, very different views have emerged in India with some very critical…
By Chitra Mogul
HE REMAINS one of the most iconic political figures of all time and is revered almost the world over – but the Mahatma’s or Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s legacy in his homeland has come to be a matter of fierce debate today.
A special panel consisting of four very distinguished commentators and Gandhi’s own granddaughter, Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, came together to discuss ‘Mahatma Gandhi – the man and the Mahatma’ at the special Jaipur Literature Festival weekend in the Alchemy Festival at the Southbank Centre in London on Saturday (May 16). The Alchemy Festival concludes on Monday.
“This is someone whose principles we respect so much, we’re going to put it up there (on a pedestal) – but we’re not going to follow it,” said Lord Meghnad Desai, one of the distinguished panel speakers, setting the tone for the debate. A former professor Economics at the LSE and a prolific author, he is a well-known commentator on politics both in the UK and India.
Among the other issues the panel discussed was the desire in India to idolise Gandhi, the surprising new trend to glorify his assassin, Nathuram Godse; Gandhi’s years in London and their significance; whether or not India had taken on board Gandhi’s doctrine of nonviolence or whether it was considered an idealistic notion that had worked in its time but couldn’t be practised in today’s realpolitik.
They also spoke about the changing perceptions of Gandhi inside India – from reverential and almost holy to dismissive and irrelevant to modern India.
Among the panel alongside Desai and Tara, was Sam Miller, a former BBC Delhi bureau chief and an author who has written about Gandhi’s early years studying in London; Faisal Devji, a historian; and the debate was moderated by well-known Indian author and journalist Salil Tripathi.
In recent years, there has been a tendency among a small group of people in India to glorify the name of Nathuram Godse, the man who shot Gandhi dead in 1948.
Godse was a fanatical Hindu who believed Gandhi was undermining the principles of what should have been a Hindu nation and Godse despised non-violent ideals.
Some contemporary nationalists believe Gandhi’s ideas prolonged British rule, led to the break-up of India (and the ‘Hindu nation’) and left India impoverished both spiritually and materially.
“We know there is a fringe movement in India that looks up to Nathuram Godse,” said Tripathi.
To which Lord Desai retorted that if Godse had murdered anyone else, he would not have been a hero to anyone.
“India has a million gods and goddesses,” said the plain-speaking peer, “one more won’t make any difference!”
The panel speculated that today, Godse’s ideas were better understood and more widely known than Gandhi’s.
“Indians only know the Gandhi on the currency note,” declared Lord Desai.
He said that most countries have perennial debates about their national heroes and that in India there is a pervasive belief that “they were invaded by foreigners because they were weak and had they been more soldier like that would have helped”.
There was a feeling that had political figures such as Vallabhai Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose played a bigger part in the Independence movement the British would have left earlier.
Patel was part of the Congress Party and was a close ally of Gandhi, though he had differences about strategy and direction, he nevertheless stuck by non-violence as a principle. Bose on the other hand, abandoned non-violence, and created the Indian National Army, which was violently opposed to British rule and was seen as a terrorist group by the imperial authorities.
Tripathi wondered whether non-violence was something Gandhi had stumbled upon and was not really a coherent idea or guiding principle, and it was merely “a peculiar idea, an accident” and that while it had worked again the British, it didn’t seem wholly relevant today.
He said Gandhi’s example had inspired figures like Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and even Arundhati Roy, who is known as “Gandhi with guns” – but that seemed a contradictory notion.
Devji pointed out: “Though Gandhi was for non-violence, he was not a pacifist. He stated that Gandhi did recruit soldiers for World War I successfully and also approved of the first Indo-Pak war though only after a certain point when there was no choice. He said Gandhi had also pondered how to make nonviolence possible within a world of violence.
He added there was too much reverence around Gandhi and that this had possibly contributed to the backlash. It was better than the “cloying narrative that his admirers had built around him including popular historians like Ram Guha”.
He felt that hagiographic writing had done the greatest disservice to Gandhi.
“India’s greatest global export to the world after Buddha,” Devji quipped to prove his point.
There have been protests in the past in India over the slightest slur to Gandhi’s image.
Tripathi said that an Indian court had recently brought strictures against a Dalit poet who had written something critical of Gandhi.
Lord Desai said that Gandhi had been raised to a godly status that he might not have wanted for himself.
“India still is not a free country and any chance the government gets to repress freedom of speech, it does. We can’t be frank and fearless about our heroes and least of all Gandhi,” he added.
Miller agreed with him saying most portrayals of Gandhi are perfect in a way that Gandhi himself would not have recognised or wanted.
“I think that his autobiography is one of the great memoirs of the 20th century and it is full of his self-doubts and insecurities and trying things out…”
He said that many of Gandhi’s ideas took wing in London such as his ‘evangelical vegetarianism’ and knowledge of the “Bhagavad Gita” which were “seen through the prism of London.
“It was because of these international qualities that he can still speak to us today,” he stated.
He mentioned that as he passed the statues of Gandhi and Churchill in Parliament Square on his way to the venue what struck him as wonderful was the irony of these two antagonists in peaceful coexistence finally as they could never have been in real life.
In lighter vein, Lord Desai mentioned he had received many complaints about Gandhi’s statue being draped – though a suited and booted Gandhi would have created even more of an uproar.
“They would have said the bloody British think he is British!” declaimed Lord Desai with dramatic flair.
There is no mention in Gandhi’s writing of being treated in a racist manner in London but as soon as he returned to India and South Africa he faced discrimination from the British, Miller pointed out.
“He thought of London as Utopia and the rest of Empire as a terrible failure. He was nostalgic about London and his student years.”
Tara Gandhi explained how Gandhi first set eyes on the spinning wheel in the UK and decided to implement the idea in India to keep the unemployed busy and village handicrafts alive. She said his travels to London and South Africa had helped him to see India in a different way.
At the end in a Q&A with the audience, a participant said that Martin Luther King, the great US civil rights leader had gone to India in 1959 and had berated India’s first prime minister and close confidant of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru: “You should disarm yourself because that is a Gandhian legacy. If India did it, it would force more countries to demilitarise.”
But despite Nehru being a Gandhian on some matters, he steered his own course. It showed that on some matters, Gandhi was perhaps not as influential as we might have imagined.
Main picture: Salil Tripathi, Faisal Devji; Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee; Sam Miller; Lord Meghnad Desai
- The Alchemy Festival, a mix of different events encompassing dance, drama, debate and music, and comedy ends on Monday (May 25).
- For the full programme, please http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/festivals-series/alchemy