Mahatma Gandhi is no doubt one of the great leaders of our time who has left a lasting impact on world history. He was, however, a human being and therefore neither infallible nor perfect. Nor was he some God-like saint/prophet criticism of whom should be regarded as sacrilegious. Gandhi himself would have vehemently objected to being adorned with any such accolade.
And yet any expose of his foibles and further analysis of his counter-productive policies seem to get stymied. It is not that he just had a few failings as all human beings are prone to but the fact that, because of his enormous stature, in life and even more so in death, that some of these ‘failings’ did, and continue to, wreak havoc nationally and internationally on the course we follow in our struggle to build a better world.
On 8 April 1929, Bhagat Singh and his fellow comrades threw a bomb and some leaflets in the Lok Sabha, the Houses of Parliament in Delhi, India. It was an act of defiance against the British colonial invasion of his homeland and a call to the people of India to rise up in opposition. Deliberately, not a single person was injured leave alone killed. The revolutionaries did not resist arrest and used their incarceration to further inspire and mobilise the masses; in court Bhagat Singh stated ‘our purpose was to make the deaf hear and give the heedless a timely warning’. On 23rd March 1931, Bhagat Singh was hanged together with two fellow martyrs. In spite of repeated entreaties to the Mahatma to intervene and have the sentences reduced, Gandhi refused saying he ‘could not defend violence’. It will never be known how much these three brave martyrs could have contributed to India’s struggle for a peoples’ freedom.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is a widely revered nationalist across India, but the story of his revolutionary struggle for India’s freedom has until recently been largely ignored owing to Gandhi’s disapproval of his commitment to armed struggle. It was Gandhi’s enormous influence on the Congress leaders and the latters’ abject deference to him that compelled Bose to flee from India and wage his struggle from abroad. He was joined by many patriotic Indians who, like him, were convinced that only a militant resistance would threaten British colonialism. Though the Indian National Army (INA) which he established in Malaysia did not accomplish its objective, its presence and its popularity amongst the people of India thwarted the colonial government from, what would be the norm, executing the returning INA soldiers who were now labelled as ‘mutineers’. The government feared the repercussions from the population. The Mau Mau War of Liberation has a similar connotation in Kenya.
While in no way deflecting from the importance of Gandhi’s life and teachings to the world at large there are flaws in his thinking which need to be addressed and recognised. He was in his most active period politically when the 1917 October Revolution took place in the USSR and several Communist Parties were formed in India. He appears to have taken no interest in it whatsoever. Had he attended to the class issue the Indian masses would not be dying and committing suicide and killing each other in the name of religion, 73 years after gaining ‘independence’. His ‘charitable’ view of his colonial masters showed an ignorance of the rapacious nature of Imperialism.
It was a time when globally the woman question was being hotly debated but Gandhi lauded women as props and docile paragons of virtue and sanctioned their role as mothers and house-wives. His attitude to sex and his experiments around the subject are not only bizarre but show a complete obliviousness to the feelings of the women he used to test himself. His promotion of cottage industries and emphasis on self-reliance were inspirational but some attention to industrialisation would have brought much relief to rural India.
His piety, his ascetic mode of life, his peasant dress style and his many fasts and jail terms fires our imagination but we should not forget to thank the Birlas of the bourgeoisie who made much of this possible. His gruelling fasts were effective in halting communal riots but at times they were a boon to the British for they served to defuse the anger and militancy of the oppressed and colonised. On umpteen occasions, just when political protests were gaining momentum, Gandhi would put a stop to them to avoid any possible violence! Just one example is the Civil Disobedience Campaign which was launched in1930 and for which Gandhi was jailed. When he was released for health reasons on 8 May he suspended the campaign. Why? It did not meet his standard of peace and non-violence!
And yet neither he nor his fasting could stop the division of India and the monstrous blood-letting and savagery that Partition entailed. The hype over Hindu-Muslim relations was more posturing than a serious commitment to improving them. Both Jinnah and Sheikh Abdalla, among others, were firmly in support of a free and united India. It was the Hindu chauvinism of some Congress leaders like Sir Vallabhai Patel, no doubt aided and abetted by the British, that drove them into the arms of the Muslim League. There is no record of Gandhi even chiding the Congress leaders or of a refusal to accept any partitioning of India.
And yet wasn’t it the strike of the Bombay dockworkers, the mutiny by the naval officers, the popularity of the INA and the general unrest among the populace that were the last straw that broke the British back?! A decade or more later, Nelson Mandela abandoned his commitment to Gandhian non-violence and joined uMkhonte wa Siswe to confront the apartheid regime. Gandhi would not have approved even of the widespread on-going protests of the BLM. This is not a put-down of ‘non-violence’ but the recognition that the political use of violence and aggressive tactics may be more effective in a stage of the struggle. Gandhi seemed unable to make this transition; his non-violence has been appropriated by Western imperialism to delegitimize so many kinds of politics of resistance.
But most unforgiveable of all Gandhi’s transgressions is his failure to eliminate the caste system which bedevils Indian society today and makes an imprint as far away as Africa, the UK and North America, maybe even Australia. Of all Indian leaders present and past, Gandhi had the stature and the sway to expose the inhumanity, the injustice and the barbarity of a belief and practice that has condemned thousands of Indians down the ages to a life of grief, suffering and despair for no other reason than that of being born as an Untouchable, a Dalit or in a lower caste. But Gandhi chose religion over human rights and dignity.
Most probably Hinduism as a religion with its non-dogmatic structure, its pantheon of Gods and its deep roots in Indian culture would have survived the excision but trapped in his feudal culture; Gandhi suggested some token improvements such as gloves and better cleaning materials for the caste of sweepers, the achoots; and entry to the temples and communalising with the ‘Untouchables’ and changing the term to ‘Harijans’ (children of God). Gandhi’s unquestionable acceptance of the caste system as an enduring pillar of Hinduism and hence his falling-out with the much revered Dalit leader, Ambedkar, is a tragedy that has cost India dearly.
The Indian government has been consistent in its efforts to conceal the existence of the caste system and prevent any discussion of it, especially in international fora. But as the saying goes: ‘You cannot fool all the people all the time,’ and the veil is being lifted. For the Indian Government and the Hindutva crowd, caste has become the elephant in the room and all kinds of unsavoury and sinister machinations are afoot to bolster their denial of it.
Not only must India now come to terms with this egregious reality but it should humanise Gandhi. His life history, his commitment to truth, his own personal growth and development, his practice of non-violence, his ability to move the masses, his universality, his caring for womanhood, his emphasis on self-reliance, his appreciation of all religions, his amazing humility ….. all these attributes are as relevant and instructive today as they were then. If we are to try and emulate Gandhi and not just idolise him, then we must sift out his mistakes and learn from his achievements.