BJP president Amit Shah’s recent remark calling Gandhi a ‘chatur baniya’ has once again triggered a debate about Gandhi’s relevance in present times. The uncharitable and tasteless remark against Gandhi is nothing new. The Left scholars, who have a reputation for ‘high learning’, have never been enamoured of Gandhi and term him an ‘agent of bourgeoise’ in their studies. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy, who is a celebrated figure among Leftist scholars and human rights activists, has termed Gandhi a racist, as well as an agent of the British. Even former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju has been uncharitable in his remarks against Gandhi.
With the benefit of hindsight and distance of history, it is often easy to appraise any historical figure, and Gandhi is no exception, more so when he’s been put on a pedestal as a Mahatma. However, unlike several other historical figures who find themselves on a pedestal today, Gandhi was referred to as Mahatma during his lifetime only.
Why Gandhi Still Matters, a book by Rajmohan Gandhi, a historian and Gandhi’s grandson, was out before Shah’s remarks, but would surely gain traction in light of the fresh controversy. The book is an expanded form of a lecture Rajmohan delivered at the Michigan State University in the US last year. The subject is relevant and would continue to be so, as with growing distance of time, celebrated historical figures are scrutinised much more harshly. This is because of access to fresh material on a personality, which throws more light on a character and leads to wider interpretation. However, Gandhi’s life was very much an open book during his lifetime too, so it’s not sure just how much more analysis is required.
Rajmohan’s basic thesis to prove Gandhi’s relevance is that even in modern times, figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi have used Gandhian methods and sought inspiration from him, which is a sure enough sign of Gandhi’s relevance.
Rajmohan is quick to distinguish between two types of invocation—the one by the Indian government and politicians, where Gandhi is a religion, in the sense that his name and image are all over in offices, on currency, in government programmes, etc. This is ritualistic, but the notable figures mentioned in the book, and who have used Gandhian methods, are in a different category.
Whether one is a Gandhi acolyte or not, his relevance can’t be brushed aside. His original approach towards mass mobilisation in a country riddled with divisions of several kinds is certainly noteworthy. His methodology of timing of mass movements and withdrawing them at intervals to focus on social reforms is something that people still grapple to understand.
Two chapters would be of great interest to readers in this volume—one which deals with partition, and the other on Gandhi’s relations with BR Ambedkar. These two topics are of great interest to large multitudes even today. Regarding partition, Rajmohan concedes Gandhi’s inability to prevent it because, apart from Jinnah, even stalwart Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel were not on the same page with him.
The chapter on Ambedkar would be of greater interest because he is perhaps a historical personality who, in modern times, could challenge and dwarf Gandhi. Incidentally, all Left-leaning critics of Gandhi heap praises on Ambedkar. Gandhi coined the term ‘Harijan’, which is in disuse today, overtaken by the term ‘Dalit’. To quote Rajmohan: “Today almost everyone in India uses the term Dalit, which means downtrodden.
Until about the 1980s, for about half a century that is, Harijan was a widely-used term, but strong opposition by Ambedkar’s followers and a number of Dalit leaders pushed it almost completely out of circulation. Condescension and worse was read into Harijan, yet many, including some Dalits, continue to employ the word.”
Another very interesting nugget in this chapter—and which proves that Ambedkar was no match for Gandhi—is about the differences between the two over a separate electorate for Dalits. At the 1931 conference in London, Gandhi and Ambedkar clashed on the issue. If the Empire could provide separate electorates and reserved seats for Muslims, Sikhs and India’s Europeans, why not reserved Dalit seats and a separate Dalit electorate, ensuring that only Dalits voted for or against Dalit candidates, Ambedkar asked. Gandhi’s answer was: “Sikhs may remain as such in perpetuity, so may Muslims, so may Europeans. Will untouchables remain untouchables in perpetuity?”
Gandhi’s formula of providing Dalits reserved seats in proportion to their population, against Ambedkar’s separate electorate for them, has won the test of history. Today, every election in India is contested on the basis of reserved seats for Dalits in proportion to their population, without a separate electorate, and has proved more advantageous to them.
History, perhaps, is governed by peculiar laws. With the passage of time, a leader not popular during his/her time is treated leniently and even achieves greatness posthumously. For instance, Aurangzeb and Indira Gandhi. Some leaders popular and great during their lifetime lose their sheen with the passage of time. Gandhi is one of them.
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Such debates would continue, but great people would remain great, and Gandhi was one such great personality, notwithstanding what the likes of Shah, Roy, Katju, or the Leftists might have to say about him. If one has any doubt, Rajmohan Gandhi’s book might come in handy.