Every book presumes a certain degree of knowledge and receptivity on the part of its audience: It is written with a certain kind of reader in mind. It is for this reason that I began Swiss anthropologist and foreign correspondent Bernard Imhasly’s Goodbye to Gandhi? with a slight scepticism, for, as a book translated from German, I thought it might cover ground that was unfamiliar for the German reader but all too familiar for the Indian one.
Imhasly’s question—whether Indians today are in a continuing dialogue with Gandhi’s thought or have forgotten him even while enshrining him, whether his theory of non-violence carries any weight in an age of the militarized Indian state and numerous armed revolutionary movements—is, after all, one that the Indian public and the media is constantly debating. But the diligence with which Imhasly explores the question, and the acuity with which he chooses his respondents—all actors of some significance on the Indian scene, and many of them hot with rage at Gandhi—make this a stimulating exploration of “the echo of Gandhi’s voice in modern India” for the Indian reader as much as the German one.
Imhasly also met film-maker Prakash Jha who, along with his brother, runs a voluntary organization in Bettiah, his hometown in Bihar.
In an essay published some years ago called Gandhi after Gandhi after Gandhi, the writer Ashis Nandy distinguished four kinds of Gandhis who have lingered on after the death of the historical Gandhi. Of this, the most feeble was actually the Gandhi of the self-declared Gandhians—a prim, sanitized Gandhi stuck in time, pronouncing against the excesses of politicians, multinational corporations and finally the entire citizenry, which has failed him en masse. Imhasly finds a Gandhi somewhat like this one on his visits to the centres from which Gandhi worked—Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Sevagram in Maharashtra—and which have now been turned into memorials in which the shell of Gandhi remains but not the spirit.
In the works of those who do not claim any direct connection to him, Imhasly finds a striking reflection of the Gandhian ideas of self-reliance and political engagement, though. In one of the best chapters of his book, he travels to the tiny village of Devdungri in Rajasthan to meet with activist Aruna Roy, the force behind the Right to Information Act that has revolutionized the relationship between citizens and government.
For Imhasly, Roy’s campaign to destroy the Indian state’s “culture of secrecy” and make its dealings transparent is manifestly in the tradition of satyagraha. The “truth-force” of subjects against empire has become the “right to information” of democratic citizens unhappy with the government. Roy ducks the comparison with Gandhi, but points to Gandhi’s willingness to enter the rough-and-tumble arena of politics as a lead. “Everything is political,” she remarks, “you cannot separate the private and the public.” Elsewhere, N. Narayana Murthy, head of Infosys, speaks of having taken inspiration from Gandhi’s call of “be the change you want to see” and his ability to change perceptions of an existing situation from negative to positive.
But two powerful sections of Indian opinion remain stridently opposed to Gandhi today, and Imhasly’s pursuit of these makes for one of the best sections of Goodbye to Gandhi? Curiously enough, he finds both camps at the same time in Nagpur, which is both a bastion for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a place of yearly pilgrimage for the Dalit Buddhists of Maharashtra.
For the RSS, obsessed with the absence of the martial spirit in the Hindu male, Gandhi is the man responsible for the break-up of India, and his espousal of non-violence a recipe for the further degradation of the country, especially its religious majority. For many Dalits, especially Dalit Buddhists, Gandhi’s campaign to integrate them into the Hindu mainstream was for reasons of expediency. Ambedkar’s rebellion speaks to them more powerfully than Gandhi’s perhaps condescending love. Indeed, for some of Imhasly’s respondents the idea of non-violence results in an obfuscation of core issues. “Is hunger not violence?” asks the Naxalite poet Gaddar. “Look at our gods, don’t they all carry weapons—Durga’s sickle, Rama’s sword, Vishnu’s disc, Shiva’s trishul?”
Imhasly is an unflagging traveller—he makes stops in places as far apart as Porbandar, Bettiah and Champaran, Hyderabad and Manipur—and not simply a recorder of opinions but himself a vigorous participant in the debate. His multifarious book reveals that the question mark of his title is only rhetorical: love him or hate him, there is no ignoring Gandhi’s voice now or perhaps ever.
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