Baba Ramdev is not Mohandas Gandhi. Ramdev’s technique of protest may confuse those who know as much about Gandhi as Munnabhai did at the start of the popular 2006 film, Lage Raho Munnabhai (Carry on, Munnabhai). Since Ramdev uses hunger strike to campaign against black money, and since he claims to be non-political, many of his fans and followers, and others disgusted with corruption, have painted a Gandhian halo around the baba: but this baba is no Gandhi.
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Gandhi did not ask women to form a line of defence to protect him; he did not flee, hiding his face, dressed as a woman, as the police closed in. Gandhi did not ask his followers to prepare an army of 11,000 (including women) to resist security forces with weapons—when satyagrahis turned violent, as in Chauri Chaura in 1922, Gandhi withdrew the nationwide satyagraha as an act of penance. Gandhi did not call for the death penalty against anyone.
Gandhi boycotted foreign goods not because they were made abroad, but because he wanted to undermine the unequal colonial relationship that sustained factories abroad, impoverishing a dependent India. Gandhi did not claim that homosexuality could be “cured”, or that he could cure it, because he did not think that being gay was like having a disease that needed treatment. Gandhi did not have a multimillion-dollar empire, nor did he accept an island in Scotland from his devotees. When wealthy supporters gave him land, he built an ashram and he lived there by the principles he preached.
Gandhi travelled everywhere third class on Indian railways; he did not fly in on a private jet. His fast was an act of penance, not a ploy for publicity. Gandhi fasted against an imperial, arrogant British power unwilling to listen—and he wanted to shame the rulers; he did not fast against an elected government. Gandhi wore white; Ramdev wears saffron.
The Ramlila ground is not Tahrir Square either. Such a comparison insults the hundreds of thousands of brave Egyptians who overthrew the authoritarian Mubarak regime peacefully. Nor is it Tiananmen Square. While the late night storming of the Ramlila ground occurred on the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, there were no tanks on Delhi’s streets, and no troops deployed to hunt down demonstrators, killing thousands, as had happened in China in 1989. And the Ramlila ground is not Jallianwala Bagh of Amritsar either, when brigadier-general Dyer’s troops fired on unarmed civilians, killing, officially, 379 people in 1919.
And no, nor was 4 June another Emergency. There was no press blackout, no suspension of the Constitution, the electricity supply to newspapers was not cut, broadcast not disrupted, the Constitution not suspended, and no opposition leader was arrested. Ramdev was removed from Delhi, but he was happily giving press conferences within hours—Jayaprakash Narayan, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and other detained opposition leaders had no such luxury.
Given the national appetite for melodrama, it is easy to exaggerate similarities and yearn for metaphors to explain what happened last weekend in Delhi. But these comparisons fall flat.
At the same time, the government’s handling has been terrible—obsequious to begin with, it was outrageous at the end. The state, never a great defender of civil liberties, used disproportionate force—tear gas and batons—to beat up Ramdev’s supporters, some of whom are injured severely. The force used against the crowd was not the only outrage. The government created false expectations when ministers went to the airport to receive Ramdev, as though he were a visiting foreign dignitary. But then India is used to its political leaders falling at the feet of gurus stalking the corridors of power—recall Dhirendra Brahmachari, Chandraswami, and Swami Sadachari. That rot began with Indira Gandhi.
Such gurus are extra-constitutional authorities, the phrase the Emergency made famous, and Ramdev wants to be one such—to manipulate the national agenda without participating in the electoral process, and to get there, he clothes his ideas in faux-spiritual terms. The people who surround him include the deeply illiberal and profoundly unpleasant. Many of his views are abhorrent; his economic policies are barely literate, and if his idea of revaluing the rupee against the dollar ever takes hold, it will make Myanmar look fiscally prudent. He has asked his followers to drink white milk and not dark cola-based drinks, to whiten their skin, implying that dark skin is a problem. Another word for that pigment of Ramdev’s imagination is racism.
And yet, Ramdev has the right to make a spectacle of himself. But respecting his right to speak does not mean others have an obligation to listen. And yet, by bowing to him, and then attacking him, the government has shown its ineptitude at multiple levels.
India deserves better: from the government, but also from the opposition. And that means Sushma Swaraj ought to know that just as Ramdev is not Gandhi, Raj Ghat is not a disco.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org