Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

Opinion | Criticisms of Gandhi are often petty and miss the basic point

He wasn’t perfect but strove to be better while adhering firmly to truth and non-violence as beliefs

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them," Malvolio says in William Shakespeare’s 1602 play, Twelfth Night. To argue that someone is born great requires believing in astrology or unproven fantasies such as reincarnation. A rare few among us achieve greatness through our deeds. Many do have greatness thrust upon them. To cite the bard again, this time from Macbeth, they are walking shadows that strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then they are heard no more.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary the world celebrated on 2 October, clearly belonged to the second category. He did not show miraculous abilities as a child. As he became more known through his acts, his followers did not need to invent legends to show how his greatness was foretold. He was imperfect, but he kept striving towards becoming better.

It is a mark of his permanence that even as India has a few parliamentarians of the governing party who make statements which suggest little fondness of Gandhi, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders can only speak in glowing platitudes when they talk about him when they are abroad—to unveil Gandhi statues, as the late Arun Jaitley did in London at Parliament Square in 2015, or invoke him in speeches before world leaders, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi did last week in New York. Modi is often photographed spinning the charkha; a ministry of his publishes a calendar with such photographs; and he takes the train in South Africa, recreating Gandhi’s journey when he was thrown out of a first-class compartment for being an Indian and not Caucasian, which strengthened Gandhi’s resolve to fight injustice. Yet, there is also Pragya Singh Thakur, who as a BJP parliamentary candidate called Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, a hero. Modi said he would never forgive her for what she said, but she does have a seat in Parliament.

None of that matters. What’s instructive is that whenever the Prime Minister or his ministers go overseas and they have to speak of India’s greatness, they borrow the Gandhian halo.

This is not to suggest that Gandhi was flawless. Critics abound. In South Africa, academics Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, in their book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer Of Empire, have questioned Gandhi’s role in upholding the British empire and fighting only for the rights of Indians, and not of others, there. His statue in Johannesburg was once smeared with white paint (symbolically implying that Gandhi was an apologist of the country’s Whites). South African cities have debated whether or not to have more commemorations. A university in Ghana has removed a Gandhi statue because of his allegedly “racist" views on ethnic Africans. Was he racist?

He was a man of his time. His views on the status of women, the hierarchy of castes, as also his disapproval of inter-caste marriages and failures as a father show him to be a man somewhat difficult to live with, and one who someone might even dislike. Was he casteist?

Then there is criticism that Gandhi was hopelessly unrealistic. He writes to Adolf Hitler, hoping to turn him away from violence; urging German Jews to embrace German nationality and not demand separateness, encouraging them to find power within their soul, and to face tyranny with courage, and shame the tyrant. Was that naiveté?

These aren’t new or fresh discoveries. Gandhi wrote down everything he felt. In his autobiography, The Story Of My Experiments With Truth, he is transparent about his innermost feelings, and also full of doubt and self-criticism. The nearly 100 volumes that make up his collected works have enough material to join any dots you wish, to ridicule and label him in unflattering ways.

These criticisms are often petty and miss the basic point—that Gandhi never claimed to be perfect. His critics are stuck, like fossils, clinging to the bits of evidence they think they’ve unearthed (but which were always there) as they reveal known facts as new findings, to knock him down from the pedestal.

However, he never sought to be on any pedestal and he changed his mind often. Just as Gandhi in 1947 thought differently from the Gandhi who returned home from South Africa in 1915, Gandhi today would have been appalled by some of his own words and actions during his life and would have atoned for it by seeking forgiveness. What he remained steadfast to was his belief in truth, love and non-violence, as the means with which to assert dignity and challenge authority.

It is easy to attempt to obliterate his name and tarnish his legacy. Those who understood his life know that it wouldn’t matter. It is safe to criticise Gandhi precisely because his followers don’t burn buses or close down cities if someone denigrates Gandhi—in a book, by removing his statue, or by firing bullets at a cardboard cutout of Gandhi. That’s what George Orwell meant when he wrote: “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent… but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!"

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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