Why Gandhi Still Matters: An Appraisal Of The Mahatma’s Legacy
Aleph Book Company
Price: Rs 499
Close to 70 years after his death, Mahatama Gandhi continues to be invoked from both sides of the political spectrum—in tones of exaltations, and sometimes, vilifications. On the 100th anniversary of Champaran Satyagraha in April this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered his “Swachchata Abhiyan” as a tribute to Bapu, who wielded the broom to clean the mess that delegates, including the distinguished ones, left at the venues of political and social gatherings. Sanitation, after all, was one of his lifelong passions. President Pranab Mukherjee, in an address to the students of University of Papua New Guinea, said that Gandhi’s teachings still hold relevance in a world “vexed with intolerance and extremism”. While continual references to Gandhi remain important to the imagery of the political class, do his teachings hold relevance in the 21st-century world synonymous with polarisation and corruption? How well are his ideas of truth, non-violence, and Hind Swaraj accepted by a nation where dissent is being increasingly threatened, the vulnerable are being intimidated, and the environment is being silently choked to death with burgeoning industrialisation?
Why Gandhi Still Matters, a new book by Rajmohan Gandhi—Gandhi’s grandson and a noted public intellectual—tries giving answers to some of these by penning an appraisal of Gandhi’s legacy, albeit subtly, and without any straight references to the modern day events plaguing the nation.
The book extols Gandhi—by bringing out his commitment to democracy, secularism, pluralism and equality through the popular words of Albert Einstein, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and Jawahar Lal Nehru Nehru; yet mostly, it does so through his own writings and sayings. What the author however tries to establish predominantly is how Gandhi, revered a saint in India, was an infallible human who, though failed to provide solutions for all our contemporary and future problems, yet signaled a way out of the forest by offering his ideas of non-violence and truth. And this is what makes him relevant, if not relatable, even today.
As the author puts it: “It says something for a person when his relevance is measured by success or failure in leaving behind a perfect world. In India, Gandhi had been criticised not only for not overcoming all the challenges of his time, but also for not solving the problems of our age!” The imperfect Gandhi, just like any other human, had flaws—and that his failure to look after the wishes of his wife and children in the pursuit of the “greater good”, was something that continued to weigh them down, long after Gandhi was gone.
Divided into a total of nine chapters, the author explores some of Gandhi’s most controversial ideas, beliefs and passions, his contentious relationship with Ambedkar and Jinnah, and the key strategies in his fight for Independence. The author produces innumerable instances when Gandhi fought caste discrimination, even if it meant going against his wife and relatives, who objected to his decision of admitting an untouchable to his ashram. His proposal, that a Dalit man or woman be appointed as free India’s first President, was met with outrage and subsequently, the assasination of a young Dalit who was a part of Gandhi’s ashram. “It’s no good quoting verses from Manusmriti and other scriptures in defence..a number of verses in those scriptures are apocryphal, a number of them quite meaningless…” Bapu had justified the defenders of untouchability in 1917. A hundred years later, with caste conflicts and social exclusion still rooted in India’s cultural and social fabric, his words resonate.
Going forth, the author brings out a notable weakness in the Gandhi of South Africa, where he first went in 1893 to study law.
Despite his struggle for Dalit equality and justice, his simultaneous differences with Ambedkar on caste cleavages, and the writings by scholars who slandered his ideologies and policies for not being conducive enough to the welfare of Dalits, it is quite another thing, an unfair thing too, to think or allege that Gandhi did not do anything for the community’s upliftment.
Going forth, the author brings out a notable weakness in the Gandhi of South Africa, where he first went in 1893 to study law. It is the same Gandhi that the author admits was confined to the “Indian” cause and harboured “derogatory and stereotypical” views about Africans. The contending viewpoints on whether Gandhi was a racist or not are out in open and well-known. The author tries to simply assuage the warring sentiment by calling Gandhi’s “moral journey and political quest as one and the same, with latter flowing from the former”. In 1906, Gandhi supported the British authorities by organizing an Indian Ambulance Corps to suppress the Zulus of Natal protesting against their community killings over the refusal to pay a new British tax. But, his conscience, as the author puts it, was “somewhat eased by the fact that he and his corps nursed innocent Zulus who would otherwise have been uncared for”. That was the first time in South Africa when the “moral and the political” came together for Gandhi.
The author dedicates the last chapter to independently examining Gandhi’s writings, and it is here that he talks of Hind Swaraj, the only theoretical text that Gandhi ever wrote, and which offers a famed critique of Western civilization, mostly interpreted as “anti-modern” and “anti-technology”. However, the author makes it strongly clear that the message in the book was a challenge to the Empire, rather than to modernity. It was the Empire he comprehensively rejected—both in writings and practice, for he believed that critique of modernity could help capture India’s nationalist sentiment, unite Indians and put the Empire on the defensive.
“Gandhi certainly thought that restraint was wiser than indulgence, that speed was no great judge of efficiency, that industrialization often led to new diseases and pollution, but the manifesto was not a call to return to an earlier age. It was a call to a future freed of Empire,” the author writes.
That, however, is not to say that the text of Hind Swaraj doesn’t contain pertinent warnings against hurting the environment in the name of “development”. The best thing about Why Gandhi Still Matters is that it tells how critically important Gandhi’s interpretation of Hind Swaraj is in times like now. It’s as much about preserving our environment with a mindful pursuit of technology as it is about resisting the domination and violence by the 21st century “empires” that exist here, everywhere.