By S Anand
October 2 is not a bad occasion to rethink the Mahatma.
In the Indian subcontinent, history is about myth-making and our selfproclaimed secular historians jostle with the right-wing in this business. Myths are made anew every day: about the beef-consuming bearded neighbour who could possibly be a bombmaker or a mullah with an agenda.
Alynching of a Muslim as we saw in Dadri earlier this week — or of five cow-killing Dalits in Jhajjar in 2003 that happened around Dussehra — is like the beheading of Ravana, which people of jati who now fashionably call themselves ‘Hindu’ happily celebrate as Ram Lila.
It’s a religion that makes you believe that violence, murder, rape and attempts at genocide are the means by which their beloved gods, and often goddesses, like to settle score and dispense dharma. And they are always with us.
This is Ram Rajya, the nightmare that Gandhi so eloquently dreamt of. One modern myth, built and sustained during what in political jabber is called the nationalist anti-colonial period, is that of Gandhi as a Mahatma: asaleable icon spreading hope and happiness across the globe. Just like Coca-Cola. Just like the face of a beaming Nelson Mandela who did take a long walk to freedom, but soon after took a quick jump towards re-enslaving his people to white capitalism. Well, Mandela merely walked in the footsteps of Gandhi who in his keenness to ingratiate himself with the Empire — his Indo-Aryan brethren — heaped scorn and undisguised contempt on the blacks.
In the scholarly, peer-reviewed book, The South Africa Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire, historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed use less adjectives in 344 pages than I do in my 800 words here. This is because given the stranglehold of Gandhi lovers among privileged intellectuals the world over, serious scholars have to be careful. Desai and Vahed let the facts and their context do the talking. They shine the light on self-evident truths. In 1895, two years after landing in South Africa, young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi saw two entrances to the post office in Durban: one for Natives, one for Whites. He soon petitioned to let non-indentured Indians use the same entrance as Whites. Denied, he sought and won a third entrance. Age didn’t dim such casual racism.
In 1908, at 39, he wrote, “We were marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs. There, our garments were stamped with the letter ‘N’, which meant that we were being classed with the Natives. We were all prepared for hardships, but not quite for this experience.”
Gandhi dreaded the Indian indentured labourers too. He told the Whites, “Some of them were vagabonds in India. Many also belong to the lowest class.… Indians have no wish to see ignorant Indians who can’t possibly be expected to understand the value of a vote being placed on the Voters’ List.” Why is it that we remember an obsessive documenter, whose personal and political archive is available to us in 98 volumes, so selectively? This is a question a phalanx of intellectuals — you could fill a book with their names —never ask.
Gandhi is a bigger brand than Mandela. People invest faith in Gandhi without ever reading the kind of unacceptable stuff he said about blacks and Dalits, or being aware of his collusion with imperialists.
When we question Gandhi, we have to deal with the silence and manoeuvres of fans ranging from Anand Patwardhan to Atul Dodiya, Norman Finkelstein to Julian Assange, never mind the dull academicians who resolutely refuse to see the truth behind him. After all, we are dealing with someone who marketed himself so well. At the age of 40, a prescient Gandhi commissioned a biography of himself:
MK Gandhi: An Indian Patriot in South Africa, by Reverend Joseph Doke, a minister of the Johannesburg Baptist Church. The next year, 1910, his friend Henry S L Polak wrote Mohandas Gandhi: A Sketch of His Life and Work. Gandhi sent these packaged versions of his greatness to such men as Leo Tolstoy and Romain Rolland, his “self-chosen advertiser” in Europe.
Narendra Modi loves to quote Gandhi, his shining example of a pravasi Bharatiya, for good reason. After all, the Mahatma said, “The central fact of Hinduism is cow protection. Cow protection to me is one of the most wonderful phenomena in human evolution.”
When B R Ambedkar declared he would not die a Hindu in 1935, Gandhi responded, “If I had power and could legislate, the first thing I would ban is conversions.” The inevitable question: but was he not killed by right-wingers? As if martyrdom justifies everything else. We must revisit Gandhi because truth is important. Satyameva Jayate.
The writer is publisher, Navayana.