As I celebrate Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s birth anniversary, I realize that at this crucial juncture of India’s politico-cultural history, even the radical left has begun to refer to him. Don’t forget that left-Ambedkarite Umair Khalid’s much talked about speech at Shaheen Bagh, it has been argued by many, was ‘Gandhian’ in spirit. This is something worth examining. Is it a sincere engagement? Does it indicate a rigorous process of inner churning on the part of the left? Or is it yet another form of appropriation because Gandhi, some of them might have felt, could make them somewhat acceptable in an otherwise hostile milieu, and give them the vocabulary to combat the triumphant Hindutva and associated totalitarian nationalism through somewhat soft, civilizational and culturally embedded idioms?
I ask this disturbing question because generally I do not find much excitement about Gandhi in the circle I interact with as a university professor—say, the liberal/left intelligentsia. I have seen them referring to Marx and Gramsci, or Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. Under normal circumstances, seldom do they talk about Gandhi. Instead, it would not be entirely wrong to say that some of them have often given their consent to what can be regarded as the Gandhi-bashing industry. While militant Ambedkarites are not tired of castigating Gandhi as a Hindu svarna leader, liberal/left modernists (the children of Rajni Palm Dutt and M.N.Roy) have often laughed at his ‘anti-modern’ utopian fantasies. And those who love Mao, Che and Fanon are not convinced of the potency of Gandhi’s nonviolence. Well, as university intellectuals, some of them (inspired by postmodern/postcolonial sensibilities) might have written academic papers on Gandhi, and debated with the likes of Ashis Nandy and Akeel Bilgrami. However, it is not so easy to see an authentic and sincere engagement with Gandhi: the life he led or the questions he raised about modern civilization.
I believe that by mere instrumental strategy or academic cleverness the liberal/left intelligentsia would not be able to learn something deep from Gandhi, experiment with it in contemporary times, and resist the unholy alliance of neoliberal global capitalism and religious nationalism manifesting itself in rising authoritarianism. It is in this context that I stress on two points. First, we have to see beyond the imageries of both ‘official’ (a Mahatama, a statue, a distant icon) as well as ‘condemned’ (patriarchal/casteist/puritan/medieval) Gandhi. Instead, his spirit can be found in his humane vulnerability—his experiments and failures, his confessions and realizations, or his constant inner churning and evolution. He didn’t hesitate to articulate his life-long experiment with body, desire and sexuality for his sadhana; and contemporary feminists might have solid reasons to critique it. Likewise, his early orientation to the varnashram system evoked strong reaction; and those who are inclined to the Phule-Periyar-Ambedkar tradition continue to remain uneasy with him.
Yet, what is fascinating about Gandhi is that despite these contradictions, there was something magical about him. He failed; yet, he rose up. He looked at his own weakness; and sought to elevate himself to a higher stage. In other words, he felt the importance of constant working on his own self. And he evolved. He continually questioned the ‘purity’ vs. ‘pollution’ dichotomy—a pathology of the caste-ridden hierarchical social order through his own life-practice. Eventually, his critique of the caste system became sharper; he could now openly plead for the inter-caste marriage, and invite Dr. B.R. ambedkar to write in the magazine he used to edit… Yes, despite his much debated notion of ‘trusteeship’, it was he who could become a true subaltern in the sense of mobilizing women, peasants, workers, students and ordinary masses in the movements he initiated.
In the turbulent days of 1946 he could make his finest experiment with nonviolence at Noakhali, assert the significance of religious pluralism (unlike what Savarkar and Jinnah believed) and activate our collective conscience. His spiritual sadhana—far from being an act of escape from the phenomenal reality— was deeply related to the realm of everyday social practice. Unlike many modernists guided by the Eurocentric notion of Enlightenment, he could build a rhythmic bridge between the political and the spiritual. The importance he attached to self-awakening and everyday practice, I would argue, was his finest contribution. He was not perfect; but there was honesty in his failures and contradictions, and in his urge to improve and evolve till the moment when a Hindu fanatic killed him.
Second, like Thoreau, Gandhi could see the discontents of a modern civilization based on greed and desire. The gospel of unlimited techno-economic progress, the Baconian urge to dominate and manipulate nature, and the utilitarian notion of the individual intoxicated with material pleasure, it would not be wrong to say, were inseparable from the discourse of modernity. Gandhi critiqued this ‘satanic civilization’, or its ‘brute force’. His plea for austerity—or a mode of living that knows how to distinguish true needs from the market-induced artificial ones—was not to glorify poverty and suffering. Instead, it aimed at ecologically sensitive and spiritually enriched communitarian socialism—yes, different in spirit from what the Marxists would have regarded as ‘scientific socialism’. The celebration of ‘soul force’, or his inherent skepticism towards a gigantic and over-centralized state as a machine gave a distinctive meaning to his notion of ‘swaraj’.
The rationalists might smell romanticism or spiritual anarchy in this utopia. Yet, at a time when gigantic bureaucracies and global capitalism are using techno-science, reducing us into mere consumers, and creating a ‘risk society’ filled with the possibility of war, terrorism and climate change, it would not be a bad idea to engage with Gandhi and evolve a new praxis of emancipation.
Yes, we know that militant nationalists or religious fundamentalists have killed the spirit of Gandhi. But then, are the leftists really sincere and willing to walk with him, learn and unlearn, and rethink the meanings of modernity, religiosity and revolution? Or is it that their love affair with Gandhi is merely temporal— just a stage performance?
The writer is a Professor of Sociology at JNU. (Views expressed are personal.)