Understanding Gandhi and his Legacy

By Yasser Latif Hamdani

Almost every country in the world ascribes to the legend of some great figure or the other in the 20th century. It was after all the century of Jinnah, Ataturk, Lenin, Mao, the Kims, Lew Kuan Yew, Nehru-Gandhis, Bhuttos, Churchill, Ben Gureon, Dr. King, Arafat, Khomeni and Mandela etc all great and at times controversial historical figures of immense importance for their lands . The legend of two men, however, perseveres above all else: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as “Mahatma” or Great Soul, and Adolf Hitler. They are globally the embodiment of good and evil, the sum totals if you may, and have been immortalized both in history and in the pop culture as such. Gandhi especially, for this article deals with the myth of Gandhi alone, has been the subject of global veneration and acclaim throughout the world.

His legacy of “non-violent ” civil disobedience and “tolerance” has been marked internationally by both UNESCO and the UN and has inspired great figures of resistance from Mandela to Mugabe and his global heirs designated internationally include Cesar Chavez and Suu kyii. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, held up to be the greatest civil rights activist in the US, called himself a “pilgrim” to India because it was the land of Gandhi. The map of the world is littered with statues of this petite little man who “challenged the might of the world’s greatest empire” with nothing but “non-violence”. The world’s greatest corporate brands today sponsor Gandhi proudly and actors like Richard Gere and Sir Ben Kingsley take tours to war ravaged Palestine promoting Gandhi’s legacy as the right kind of freedom fighter. Even if we take the Oscar-winning film “Gandhi” out, films and TV programming in the west alone is full of references to Gandhi at the oddest moment. He cuts across ideology and transcends parties. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have paid public homage to his memory. His followers include left-wingers, right-wingers, secularists, socialists, communists, capitalists, Islamists, Christian fundamentalists, secular humanists, you name it- Gandhi’s got it. Indeed after the belief in God, the most enduring human belief today is the belief in Gandhi proving Einstein wrong when he said (at the time of Gandhi’s untimely demise) that people would scarcely believe that such a great man once walked on this earth. They believe – it is one of the most cherished beliefs globally- even if it is not even partially true.

Indeed logically Einstein should’ve been right. The truth is that such a man never actually roamed this planet. If I were to write a book, inspired by Richard Dawkins, it would be called “the Gandhi Delusion”. But there is no denying that the marketing team for the Gandhi franchise ought to serve as a model for all marketing departments of all major corporations for Brand Gandhi must stand as the most successful brand of all times. Gandhi was first and foremost a politician with more than a dash of Machiavelli and a touch of Chanakya. At the very least, he was not the self-less saint or a consistent apostle of non-violence in whom hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people have put complete and total faith in. Nor was he a champion of the downtrodden, the symbol of struggle and resistance or women’s rights people want to see in him. Gandhi was a racial purist and a misogynist who believed the world was divided into races and castes, some superior to others. His career in South Africa shows that he was striving not for Indian equality with the British but for Indian superiority over the native “savages” and “kaffirs”. He employed rhetoric which one would only get to read in Adolf Hiter’s Mein Kempf appealing to “Indo-Aryan” and “Indo-Germanic” superiority. To him caste was the natural organization of humanity, like an army. Despite making noise about the untouchables, Gandhi torpedoed any and all constructive plans for the untouchables. One only needs to review “What have Gandhi and the Congress done to untouchables” or “Gandhi and Gandhiism” , two damning pamphlets by Dr. B R Ambedkar, the leader of the Dalits and the author of Indian constitution, to see Gandhi’s role against untouchables.

Gandhi believed in a world where women were subservient and he viewed with suspicion the growing trend in the western world that had forced women to work instead of being “Queens of the household”. This prompted him to call the western civilization “Ravanna Raj” or rule of evil as opposed to “Ram Rajya” or the rule of god he wanted to establish in India. His politics had one end- to promote the interest of his own Hindu class. Even the British were amazed when in 1946, Gandhi persuaded Ambedkar to call off his Satyagraha against big business in Bombay for “disorder was not good for independence”. Yet it hadn’t stopped Gandhi from destroying the very fabric of composite Indian society by creating nothing but disorder through his so called non-violent movements. Gandhi was also the first Indian politician to effectively introduce religion into politics. He was also the first Indian leader to use of all things the global political Islam for political ends through the Khilafat Movement. He was warned against its use by none other than Jinnah – then a secular Indian Nationalist- who warned and rightly so that such a pseudo-religious approach to politics would call forth a flood which would destroy India. Gandhi did so because he wanted to undercut the secular leadership, including westernized and liberal Muslims like Jinnah, and make alliances with the religious Mullahs and Pandits. Thus perhaps inadvertently, Gandhi brought into politics the forerunners of the world’s Islamist movements. There is an unbroken continuity between the Deobandi school that Gandhi encouraged as “freedom fighters” and the terrorists that are wreaking havoc in South Asia.

But then again in many ways Gandhi was the preferred freedom fighter of the Empire. He managed to create enough chaos for the British to shelve the idea of full dominion status for India in the 1920s and at the same time had enough popular appeal to take the wind out of the sails of the real freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh etc. No wonder the Palestinians, Kashmiris, Kosovars and other peoples fighting for their right of self determination are advised to adopt Gandhian methods by their oppressors. Had the Jewish nationalists adopted Gandhian methods (and David Ben Gureon had a picture of Gandhi in his house I am told), they would still be fighting for the creation of Israel. Similarly, had the Afghans used Gandhian non-violence as their preferred method of resistance, Soviet Union would gotten to the warm waters long time ago. Indeed, we might even have been a unipolar world with red ruling the roost.

Perhaps the most insidious role of all that he played was in 1940s, which led to the partition of India. Many biographers have pointed out Gandhi’s willingness to work with Jinnah as examples of Gandhi’s attempt to avert partition of India. They point out that Gandhi went so far as to offer Jinnah premiership of all of India to emphasize his self sacrificing nature. He did suggest this to Mountbatten in 1947 but that would have worked if Jinnah was in it for his own personal power. Jinnah was fighting as a lawyer for the principle which his client, the Muslims of India and he had been willing to settle for much less than the partition of India which was clear from Jinnah’s acceptance of the Cabinet Mission Plan. Even though Gandhi had described the Cabinet Mission Plan as a plan which contained the seed for turning the land of sorrow to a land without sorrow in a prayer meeting, he did not, for he easily could, persuade his chief disciple Nehru to accept it wholeheartedly. When Nehru dropped his bombshell declaring that Congress would go into the constituent assembly unfettered by agreements with the League, Gandhi mildly “reprimanded” him but did not force him to retract his statement. Nehru’s bombshell was described as the single most tragic moment in the history of the subcontinent by none other than Indian nationalist author Rafiq Zakaria.

Jinnah’s complex relationship with Gandhi, both his old comrade and rival, shows us how partisan Gandhi had become by the 1940s. For some reason Jinnah continued to believe that despite all his faults Gandhi was sincere to the cause of Hindu Muslim unity. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Jinnah kept appealing to Gandhi to play a role above the Muslim League and the Hindu Congress and be a fair arbiter and Gandhi kept moving away, kept rebuffing him, kept encouraging his impetuous disciple Nehru. Gandhi was never serious about Hindu-Muslim unity. He craved his Mahatmafication and Nehru being the embodiment of power virtually ensured that Gandhi would remain Mahatmafied forever. How many people know that almost every single statue of Gandhi (and there are thousands if not tens of thousands) outside India has been bankrolled by the Government of India? The notable exception is the Gandhi statue in San Francisco. It had corporate sponsorship from Pepsi Co.

In this article I have deliberately refrained from touching the topic of Gandhi’s weird habits and his personal life because that seems to always distract from the debate. Gandhi must be criticized for the positions he took – positions that are indefensible from the liberal and progressive point of view. There is no doubt that Gandhi’s myth will remain as strong as other delusions humanity suffers from, but it is the responsibility of every whistle-blower to keep calling foul. A few centuries from now, a more perceptive and evolved generation of humanity will no doubt learn to call a spade a spade. They will no doubt look back and concur with Dr. Ambedkar and M N Roy who held Gandhi to be nothing more than a “blue blooded” and “medieval Hindu fascist”.

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