Admiring a flawed Gandhi

Admiring a flawed Gandhi
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First Published: Wed, Sep 17 2008. 10 11 PM IST
Updated: Wed, Sep 17 2008. 10 11 PM IST
I am glad many Indians whose pride trumps their sense of humour don’t read advertisements for Danish newspapers. Otherwise they’d be out protesting an ad of the daily Morgenavisen Jyllands Posten. That newspaper became famous for publishing controversial cartoons of Mohammed in September 2005. Its recent campaign reminds us of what makes it unique.
The ad says: Life is easier, if you don’t speak up. The ads show the Dalai Lama admiring the Himalayas while preparing to ski down a slope; Nelson Mandela relaxing on a beach, carrying a surf board; and Mohandas Gandhi, smiling with a beer bottle in one hand, with the other, he is barbecuing sausages, empty beer bottles at his feet.
This is admirable chutzpah, for these ads are meant to make us think. They challenge the self-righteous among us — South Africans (and others who opposed apartheid), Tibetans (and their global supporters), and Indians (and Gandhi fans worldwide), telling them not to rush to judgement, but to reflect on the message. Far from ridiculing these exceptional men, the ads show how Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Gandhi could have led cushy, comfortable lives if they had not stood up for what they believed in.
The ads also challenge the world’s Muslims — and those who believe that one must treat Muslims, and Islam, as distinct from other faiths or cultures, needing special protection (because their reaction can turn violent). If Indians, Tibetans and South Africans don’t go berserk and demand apologies, bans, or attack Danish embassies, what lesson should the Muslims draw? That the others are cowards? Or that their visceral response is wrong?
We will learn soon, but I am not sanguine. The ads are already on the Internet — on Amit Varma’s blog, India Uncut, he has observed: “I suspect that if the Gandhi ad was seen in India, there would certainly be so-called Gandhians getting upset by such a portrayal and demanding an apology from Jyllands-Posten — thereby missing the point entirely.”
When Sir Richard Attenborough was filming Gandhi, some historians quibbled — rightly — over liberties taken with historical sequencing. But there were other protests against portraying Gandhi on screen, with one suggestion that Gandhi be shown as a shining light, or halo, instead. Sir Richard said his film wasn’t about Tinkerbell. I was a student then, and for our college magazine, with a classmate (now a distinguished banker), we interviewed noted Gandhian Usha Mehta at Mani Bhavan, Gandhi’s home on Laburnum Road in Bombay. She said: “We are not prepared to give our Gandhi to anyone.” To her credit, after the film was released, she praised it, agreeing it would introduce Gandhi to a new generation. She was right.
But there was a halo around him, something a Telecom Italia ad reaffirmed in the mid-1990s, showing people using different communication gadgets, listening transfixed as Gandhi spoke.
That was a legitimate concern about Sir Richard’s film: It made Gandhi into a saint, and in so doing, it made Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and Muhammad Ali Jinnah seem inadequate. Subhash Chandra Bose, who challenged Gandhian notions of non-violence, did not even feature.
Indian directors responded in a fascinating way. Jabbar Patel showed us what made Babasaheb Ambedkar unique, Ketan Mehta highlighted Patel by focusing on his South African years, Shyam Benegal showed us what made Gandhi mahatma, and he later turned to Bose’s life. More recently, Feroze Khan’s Gandhi, My Father explores Gandhi’s role within his family. In his play, Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy (It is me, Nathuram Godse speaking) Pradip Dalvi gave voice to Gandhi’s assassin. (For years, Godse’s defence statement in courts was not accessible in India, because it justified the assassination). When Ashok Row Kavi made critical remarks about Gandhi tangentially, the cable network had to end that popular show following widespread protests. I’m not suggesting that those comments were right, or that I approve Godse’s statement, or his foul deed.
But we understand our leaders more if we explore them in all dimensions. That is why Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography, Gandhi: The Man, His People and the Empire, matters. It shows Gandhi without the halo, and we learn why we admire him more without getting blindsighted by the floodlights. The Dalai Lama is imperfect, too: Pico Iyer’s thoughtful The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama shows us the limits of his activism. While Mandela has championed progressive causes before and after his presidency, when he ruled South Africa, he often acquiesced with others’ tyranny.
The flaws don’t diminish these men, they make them more interesting, revealing their complexities. Ignoring that and seeing them only as icons is our flaw. That turns men into idols — ironically, that’s the effect of Muslim protests against the cartoons.
The Jyllands-Posten ads make us think differently. That’s the point: remember Apple’s remarkable campaign, Think Different, from the 1990s, a take-off on IBM’s slogan, Think. One of the memorable posters in that campaign showed — Gandhi.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at
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First Published: Wed, Sep 17 2008. 10 11 PM IST