By Ashis Nandy
There are four Gandhis alive today. Each with his own eccentricities, conveniences and place in the psyche of the society. But which one of these is real, if any?
There are four Gandhis who have survived Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s death. Fifty years after Gandhi’s assassination, it may be useful to establish their identities.
Two qualifications at the beginning. First, I am no Gandhian. But Gandhism, as I understand it, is greater than Gandhi was. Gandhi himself admitted so, when he credited his ideas to ancient wisdom, and he is not diminished by that admission.
Actually, he comes off as more human and, for that matter, more self-reflexive. Gandhi could not live up to his principles partly because he was a practical politician, and the job of politics is to dilute ideological and moral purism. T
To use my favourite commendation, borrowed from the obituary written on him by Arnold Toynbee, Gandhi was one prophet who was willing to live in the slum of politics. He could not afford to be a perfect Gandhian. It is a tribute when one calls him an imperfect Gandhian.
Second, I should clarify for the sake of the incurably scholarly that the Gandhis I discuss are all Weberian ideal types. They are tools of analysis and at places-this Max Weber did not bargain for-caricatures. That means they are unreal but not untrue.
Now, the surviving Gandhis. All of them are well known. I am merely bringing to awareness tacit knowledge. It is, however, my responsibility as a psychologist to warn that tacit knowledge is often the most disturbing and the most painful to own up.
The first Gandhi is the Gandhi of the Indian State and Indian nationalism. I find this Gandhi difficult to gulp and so would have, I believe, Gandhi himself. But many people find only this Gandhi tolerable and live happily with him.
The biography and political career of this official Gandhi began early. After Independence, the political presence of the Father of the Nation, his memory and his writings were proving problematic to the functionaries of the young Indian state.
Not merely the strong anarchist strand in his ideology, but even his peculiar denial of clear-cut divisions between the private and the public, the religious and the secular, and the past and the present, were proving to be a real headache.
Nathuram Godse, a self-avowed rationalist and modernist, in his last statement in the court, explicitly claimed he had committed a patricide to save the nascent Indian State from an anti-modern, political neophyte and a lunatic.
After independence, Gandhi’s own associates would have liked to bury Gandhi six feet under the ground, while keeping his image intact as an icon of the Indian nation-state.
Since then, Indian statists of both the right and the left have never acknowledged their enormous debt to Godse for imposing on the Father of the Nation a premature martyrdom that straightaway gave him a saintly status and effectively finished him off as a live political presence.
Their brainchildren still hold it against Gandhi that he has occasionally refused to oblige them and has defied the saintliness imposed on him.
The second Gandhi is the Gandhi of the Gandhians. He is at the moment suffering from an acute case of anaemia. The Gandhians’ Gandhi is occasionally quite loveable and has a grandfatherly, benign presence in the Indian public lore.
But he is often a crushing bore, apart from being a Victorian puritan mistakenly born in India. This Gandhi does not touch politics.
In fact, he cannot touch politics, lest the subsidy and grants to the various ashrams named after him, to hand-spun khadi, and to the ritual seminars on Gandhism dry up.
He does occasionally, in this incarnation, convene meetings to condemn the growing criminalization of politics, uneven development or corruption in the country.
In these seminars everybody sheds bountiful tears about the state of affairs without naming any names. The Gandhi of Gandhians travels all over the world to preach Gandhism or lecture on Gandhian thought. He, however, speaks much less frequently to the Indians.
Rightly so, because in India his audience is pathetically small. And even they come because they expect to be seen. The average age of such Gandhians is at the moment about to touch hundred. The Gandhians feel that this is because Indian people have failed Gandhi.
Those less respectful towards such Gandhians feel that it is actually the Gandhians who have failed both the Indian people and Gandhi.
The third Gandhi is the Gandhi of the ragamuffins, eccentrics and the unpredictable. This Gandhi is more hostile to Coca-Cola than to Scotch whisky and considers the local versions of Coca-Cola more dangerous than imported ones.
This is because his objection to highly mechanized fast foods is structural and, therefore, he considers it more dangerous if, on nationalist grounds, long-lasting, deep-rooted Indian structures are created to produce superfluous items of mass consumption within the Indian economy.
This Gandhi-vintage Hind Swaraj-is also bit of a nag and a spoilt-sport. He loves to be a maverick and an oddity in our public life. It is this Gandhi who has guided the notorious agitation of Medha Patkar against the Narmada dam, Claude Alvares against Operation Flood, and Vandana Shiva against the Green Revolution.
And it is this Gandhi who lived in the writer-dancer-thinker Shivaram Karanth, who took on the deceit, stupidity and necrophilia of India’s nuclear establishment. This Gandhi has other subversive affiliations, too.
He prefers the company of known critics of his worldview like V. M. Tarkunde and even Pakistanis like Asma Jehangir to those who claim to bear his name and have had the run of Indian politics for more than two decades.
The average age of those who keep the company of this Gandhi is low. Both this Gandhi and his young friends are a nuisance to the Indian State, its officially defined security interests and scientific establishment.
The fourth Gandhi is usually not read. He is only heard, often second- or third-hand. While a few like Martin Luther King Jr carefully assess and use his work, the rest do not even know what he wrote. Nor do they care to. This Gandhi is primarily a mythic Gandhi.
Unlike in real life, he conforms fully to his own tenets-at least according to his admirers in the environmental, antinuclear and feminist movements.
When the Polish workers rose against their authoritarian regime in the late 1980s, they talked of Lech Walesa as their Gandhi, a description the Vodka-guzzling, tough speaking, trade union leader must have found difficult to swallow.
But the Polish labourers were not interested in the historical similarities or dissimilarities between the two; they were making a different statement. This Gandhi is a symbol of those struggling against injustice, and trying to retain their humanity even when faced with unqualified inhumanity.
That is why, when Benito Aquino of Philippines was assassinated, the demonstrators on the streets of Manila shouted ‘Benito, our Gandhi’. And if this seems only a coincidence, the Burmese students who rose against their military regime some years ago also invoked Gandhi in the same way.
Only their leader this time was Aung San Suu Kyi, who had not read Gandhi when she began to be thoughtlessly accused of being an uncompromising Gandhian.
The fourth Gandhi walks the mean streets of the world threatening the status quo and pompous bullies in every area of life. The tyrants undervalue him, because he has no arms to back him up and the revolutionaries make fun of him because he talks of nonviolence.
But both usually pay heavily for this under-estimation. The revolutionaries-nowadays a motley crowd of middle-aged, cynical academics, enjoying sinecures in the universities-can take solace from the fact that they can hold ponderous seminars on the ‘historical’ limits of Gandhism that should have ensured its death decades ago.
But, by the time the seminar ends as a resounding success, this Gandhi has moved on to other slums of the world to lead new formations against his erstwhile proteges.
I have given you four Gandhis so that you can make your choice. But then, you do not have to choose any of the four. Perhaps that will be the wisest course. For Gandhi can be dangerous.
It is much better for you to hang his portrait in your office or home, show your respect to this new addition to the Indian pantheon, and then take your children to a picnic on the public holiday that his birthday has become.
A political psychologist and social theorist, Ashis Nandy is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. Printed with permission from The Little Magazine.
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