After 150 years, the people of India are still groping in the dark to pinpoint the exact legacy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi thanks to reams of propaganda that has managed to obfuscate several important truths that would provide us a clear picture about the man.
Any honest attempt at this exercise will be rewarding if it proceeds to examine the said legacy based on Mohandas Gandhi the committed freedom fighter, the shrewd mass leader, the crafty politician, and the vacuous, Christian moralist. This exercise necessarily involves studying Gandhi’s life-work: his writing, speeches and deeds. After all, Gandhi himself famously declared, “my life is my message.”
Manufacturing the Mahatma Myth
One of the most enduring myths that has lasted for nearly a century is that of the appellation, “Mahatma” applied to Gandhi. But for this myth, it is doubtful whether a single dynasty would be able to rule over such a vast nation and the world’s most ancient, non-Abrahamic civilisation as India uninterruptedly for almost forty years. And another fifteen-odd years in spurts.
The fact that entire careers were ruined during that period and then some, for daring to critically scrutinise this myth is in itself proof that like all myths, this one too, stood on shaky foundations and required opacity and obfuscation to keep it in perpetual circulation.
Mohandas Gandhi was definitely a patriot, a tireless freedom fighter and a leader who for the first time, successfully used a unique political technique to mobilise the masses of India, and did lead the freedom struggle from the front. The fact that he joined the freedom movement relatively late in life and persevered till the very end, also speaks of his commitment.
However, what is also indisputable is the fact that it wasn’t Gandhi alone that gave India her freedom. This plot point is both the foundation and the crux of the Mahatma Myth, arguably the most successful and early PR exercises in recent history.
In many ways, Mohandas Gandhi himself seeded this myth.
Addressing a meeting in Bengal in early 1920, Gandhi thundered , “so long as you choose to keep me as your leader…you must accept my conditions, you must accept dictatorship and the discipline of martial law” to a stunned audience of nationalists and freedom fighters hailing from Bengal and Punjab, the original homes of the freedom struggle. Bipin Chandra Pal wrote an angry letter to Motilal Nehru correctly cautioning that
“Blind reverence for Gandhiji’s leadership would kill people’s freedom of thought and would paralyse by the deadweight of unreasoning reverence their individual conscience.”
More than ten years later, the iconic journalist, editor, litterateur, philosopher and Gandhi’s junior contemporary, D.V. Gundappa, wrote the following in a deeply insightful essay:
Before Gandhi’s advent, there was an open atmosphere in public discourse….debates, discussions and arguments on various subjects…went on unhindered. Every point of debate had two, three, even four differing perspectives. The public…had accepted this as healthy, and welcomed and examined such differing perspectives without any bias. Thus Gokhale travelled on a specific path. Tilak on another. Lajpat Rai on yet another. Surendranath Banerjee on still another. People would welcome all of them and ponder over the relative merits…of each. This was not limited merely to political matters but extended to economics, social reform and so on. [These] leaders…contemplated on such matters independently and voiced them openly…it was an age of discussing…disagreements in a climate of free exchange.
After Gandhiji took the stage, this culture of free and open disagreement and debates vanished. It was said that the political stand of the entire country should be one, and that Gandhiji’s frontal leadership should be unhindered. It was said that if Gandhiji spoke, the nation spoke. The reasoning offered was as follows: unless the nation adopted this unquestioning mentality, we would not get freedom from the British.
Therefore, from then onwards, no public meeting would begin without the chant of “Gandhiji ki jai!” People were prohibited from taking his name without the mandatory honorific of “Mahatma.” Gandhiji’s thought was the nation’s thought.
Bipin Chandra Pal’s letter to Motilal Nehru had no real impact because shortly thereafter, Lokmanya Tilak died and with it, Mohandas Gandhi’s rise to political superstardom was unstoppable. The slick lawyer Motilal Nehru bided his time and quickly changed tack with the blowing wind: in 1923, his son, Jawaharlal Nehru was elected chairman of the Allahabad Municipality and he himself, the leader of Opposition to the Central Legislative Assembly. The backseat manoeuvring was done by Mohandas Gandhi, a recorded fact that is carefully omitted in popular narrative. Observing this phenomenon, a foreign journalist remarked that “Indian nationalism now had its Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
But it was with the Dandi March that Gandhi truly consolidated his position as the Saint of the Masses. With sainthood also came his unchallenged suzerainty of not just the Congress party but the freedom movement itself. A non-Congress (synonymous with non-Gandhian) freedom fighter had little prestige or voice in this grand monopoly.
The Monopolistic Mahatma
Mohandas Gandhi’s self-righteous disdain for disagreement arising from his unshakeable belief in the infallibility of his own sainthood revealed itself most abysmally in 1945 when the Subash Bose-led INA launched its initially successful offensive against the British Indian Army, which was welcomed with great patriotic fervour by Indians. The Congress attitude both to Bose and the INA was lukewarm to put it mildly. It took great care not to publicise the heroism and sacrifice and victories of the INA. After all, Bose and the INA had actually fought for India’s freedom while the Congress leaders had merely gone to jail…In mid-September of 1945, the AICC resolved that
‘it would be a tragedy if these [INA] officers were punished for the offence of having laboured, however mistakenly for the freedom of India.
The road to Gandhi’s absolute and unquestionable consolidation of leadership was strewn with his own innovation: the much-lauded Satyagraha and the Ahimsa methods of protesting against the British colonial rule.
This was a true stroke of original genius.
With it, Mohandas Gandhi severed the past of the Indian National Congress, which till then, had been largely a party led by powerful regional freedom fighters, and was in every sense a healthy melting pot of scholars, cultural doyens, artists, businesspeople…in general, there was space for everybody to have their voice heard and respected. As we noted in DVG’s treatise, the culture of open dissent and disagreement underscored by a genuine commitment for India’s freedom was smothered at the altar of a bizarre sainthood, an inexplicable “inner voice,” and a curious “spiritual power” in politics whose sole custodian was Mohandas Gandhi. You could only become a blind follower of Gandhi even if your sense of ethics, integrity, morality, and other laudable qualities were superior to that of the original himself. In nature and tenor, the politics and leadership of Gandhi resembled that of Prophet Mohammed.
What became of the Indian National Congress thereafter is best narrated by R C Majumdar, one of the greatest historians of the world and a freedom fighter himself of rare distinction.
Gandhi combined in himself the dual role of a saint and an active politician…unfortunately, Gandhi’s followers did not make this distinction and gave unto the political leader what was really due to a saint. This confusion pervading all ranks of Congressmen from the highest to the lowest has…distorted public view of Indian politics since 1920 that it has now…become…impossible to make a rational historical survey of the course of events…This is best illustrated by the unquestioning obedience to Gandhi…shown by even very highly eminent persons [who]…belonged to two categories. The first comprised those who willingly surrendered their conscience and judgement to the safekeeping of the political Guru…the second consisted of those who fell a victim to the magic charm of Gandhi even though they fumed at…his irrational dogmas…
The inevitable effect of such sentiments was that great political leaders of the Congress…[regarded] Gandhi as a superman, who was infallible and acted by instinct, not logic or reason, and therefore should not be judged by ordinary standards which we apply to other leaders.
Thus, in this new atmosphere of political sainthood, no more Lokmanya Tilaks, Lala Lajpat Rais or Bipin Chandra Pals would be born; or those that still existed were not tolerated. Subhas Bose learned of this bitter reality by personal experience. Gandhi’s determined and petty backroom manipulation to expel Bose as the democratically-elected president of the INC left him with such disgust towards this saint that he quit India itself. Here is how Michael Edwardes characterises this spiteful tactics of the saint:
“For any aspiring rebel, the treatment of Subhas Bose was a lesson in practicalities,” a brutal reminder of the authoritarian, Gandhian truth : “do not fight the Mahatma.”
Essential to Mohandas Gandhi’s Mahatmahood were his homespun tactics of frequent demonstrations, marches, and flooding the jails, all without any apparent purpose—or at any rate, short-term, short-lived objectives with no clear, overarching goal and timeline in sight. There is a definite case to be made for the sheer purposeless nature of Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian freedom struggle.
Apart from the Dandi March, not one best-laid plan or agitation of the Mohandas Gandhi succeeded for the same reason: there was no precise definition of purpose or outcome. And the British had clearly seen through Gandhi’s tactics very early. And so, they devised perhaps the most effective counter: at every turn, they began to merely humour him but in their outward stance, pretended to take him seriously. Gandhi was a nuisance value to be contained. But when this nuisance tested their patience by August 1933, they decided to call his bluff when he announced a 21-day fast from the Yeravada prison heeding a call of his “Inner Voice.” They simply released him unconditionally, something he didn’t expect. With this move, Gandhi’s pretext for going to prison and announcing his fast had failed: in other words, the civil disobedience movement, which is painted as one of his greatest victories against the British. We turn to Michael Edwardes again.
No one was more shocked [by this] than Gandhi. Prison was an almost essential backdrop for his personal drama…the drama now became a farce…the trivialisation of the technique was now complete and even Gandhi was aware of it.
The Freedom Struggle of a Christian Moralist
From a cultural and historical perspective Gandhi’s aforementioned clean break from the Congress Party’s past is tied to a very fundamental factor: his twin misunderstanding of the precise nature of imperial Britain’s global colonialism as well as the roots of Indian philosophy, spirituality and culture. Both his predecessors and his contemporaries like Balgangadhar Tilak, Bipan Chandra Pal, Sri Aurobindo, et al correctly understood that British colonialism was an unqualified evil at its core and had to be dismantled root and branch. Even a White American like Will Durant who visited India at the height of British colonial exploitation grasped the reality of the diabolism that underpinned this rule: that Englishmen were in India for temporary purposes, for the continuing opportunity that it provided them for round-the-clock loot and exploitation, and once the opportunity dried up, they would pack up and leave. None of the Englishmen who were in India ever intended to make it their home. Like Will Durant and Michael Edwardes, in later years, William F Buckley Jr and Christopher Hitchens working independently, arrived at the same conclusions. Writes Edwardes:
Only British-ruled Hindu India could have produced such a figure as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi…one effect of his western education was…the conviction that the British were a moral people believing in justice. If they could be persuaded to recognise the unrighteousness of their rule in India, they would willingly abdicate power.
This characteristic Gandhian naiveté is actually inexplicable especially when in his pre-Mahatma days, Mohandas Gandhi had experienced the same British colonial horrors during his stay in South Africa where the arch-racist and White supremacist monster Cecil Rhodes was openly applauding the “virtues” of the British despotism that was “so successfully practiced in India.” These were eminences who formed the backbone of and supplied the justification for their racist and colonial plunder across the earth.
On his part, Sri Aurobindo Ghosh had the benefit of a wholly English education and was also a committed Hindu. He had stayed in England and had lived the lifestyle of Englishmen for a brief period and had a penetrating intellect to see through their true nature. Not so Gandhi who was too guilt-stricken to enjoy even the proverbial normal pleasures of life. In fact, in many ways, guilt was the Aadhara Shruti (or base note) of Gandhi’s personal and public life. In a reply to a disciple, Sri Aurobindo writes that
Gandhi is a European – truly, a Russian Christian in an Indian body… When the Europeans say that he is more Christian than many Christians…they are perfectly right. All his preaching is derived from Christianity, and though the garb is Indian the essential spirit is Christian… He is largely influenced by Tolstoy, the Bible…in his teachings; at any rate more than by the Indian scriptures – the Upanishads or the Gita…
Many educated Indians consider him a spiritual man…because the Europeans call him spiritual. But what he preaches is not Indian spirituality but something derived from Russian Christianity, non-violence, suffering, etc.
In his expositions on the Bhagavad Gita and Hindu Dharma, it is clear that Mohandas Gandhi was aware of the fundamental Hindu concept of “eternity/eternal” (loosely speaking, “Sanatana,”) but to him the notion of time itself was of no consequence. This is best reflected in his understanding of the conception of Dharma. In the Hindu conception, eternity operates in the realm of Rta (the Cosmic Order), which in human life requires the proper application of Dharma. Dharma is the verb form of Rta. This lack of conceptual clarity is what led Mohandas Gandhi to chase, all his life, one of his pet causes: Hindu-Muslim unity at all costs, and the said naïveté about the reality of the British colonial rule.
History shows us that he miserably failed in both.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi would live to lament the fate of the same Indian National Congress that he had steered and monopolised by the force his saintly spiritual power.
By the mid-1940s, when it became evident that freedom was near in sight, the same Congressmen who had fawned over him and had been subservient all along, simply abandoned him. Here is the indubitable R C Majumdar describing the situation, in an eyewitness-like fashion.
….[prominent Congressmen] under Gandhi’s leadership…made no secret of the fact that they adopted Non-violent Non-cooperation as a political expedient but not like, Gandhi, as a creed…Gandhi himself admitted…late in life…that none of his followers believed in Satyagraha as a creed…and admitted, “even 14 years of trial have failed to yield the anticipated result.”
[Gandhi] placed the cult of non-violence above everything else—even above the independence of India…to him the Congress was a humanitarian association…for the moral and spiritual regeneration of the world…but his followers looked upon the Congress as a purely political body…
The tragedy of Gandhi’s life was that [the] members of his inner council, who followed him for more than twenty years with unquestioned obedience, took the fatal steps leading to the partition of India without his knowledge, not to speak of his consent.
In fact, the tragic fate of R C Majumdar’s scholarly career after India attained independence in itself is eminent testimony to the spectacular failure and the logical conclusion of Gandhi’s misunderstood espousal of Satya (Truth), Ahimsa (Non-violence) and Satyagraha (passive resistance of injustice). This towering scholar, respected across the world, was all but banished from the academia by Gandhi’s pet disciple, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister. Majumdar’s crime: daring to write an objective and unbiased history of the Indian freedom struggle of which he was both a participant and a contributor.
But how else would it turn out? Mohandas Gandhi had after all, shown the way by equating the Congress party with his own personality, and defined Indian nationalism by holding up “his own life and commitment as the only example to be followed.” His disciple, Nehru, merely followed in the Mahatma’s path.
In the final assessment, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi continues to evoke our admiration for his justifiably numerous traits and accomplishments but singlehandedly getting India her freedom is definitely not one of them.