Running away from Gandhi

Mahatama Gandhi’s posthumous adulation is in sharp contrast to the treatment that he received during his lifetime and even for many decades after his death. The Rashtriya Swayemsewak Sangh (RSS) criticized him for his perceived closeness to the Muslims, Muslims saw him as one who popularized Hindu symbolism in Indian politics, progressive Muslims opposed his support for the Khilafat movement and the communists opposed his advocacy of class collaboration. Even his closest followers like Pandit Nehru did not share his vision best laid out in Hind Swaraj[pdf].

Indeed, Gandhi’s politics was contradictory and invited criticism from many sides. His ‘non- violence’ has found support internationally- Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King and more recently Obama‘s reiteration of the Mahatma’s message as being pertinent for our times. There seems to be a fatigue on part of his Indian critics, though. A section of Left nationalists like Bipan Chandra 1, Prof. PC Joshi2 and the communist ideologue Mohit Sen have come to admire Gandhi’s political vision, mainstream communists, particularly the CPI(M), ignore him. The RSS and other Hindutva outfits, except for an occasional outburst, too ignore him. Though this is in sharp contrast to earlier times. Golwalkar, for example, had commented thus on Gandhi (without naming him, though)3 :

Those who declare ‘No swaraj without Hindu- Muslim unity’ have thus perpetrated the greatest treason to our society. They have committed the most heinous sin of killing the life- spirit of a great and ancient people. To preach impotency to a society which gave rise to Shivaji who, in the words of the historian Jadunath Sarkar, ‘proved to the whole world that the Hindu has drunk the elixir of immortality’ and to break the self- confident and proud spirit of such a great and virile society has no parallel in the history of the world for sheer magnitude of its betrayal.

While politically Gandhi may be ignored today, he has found newer adherents among the intelligentsia in the form of what is sometimes called the ‘neo- Gandhian school‘, particularly Ashish Nandy, Bhiku Parikh and TN Madan. The only ideological and political current of thought that is heavily critical of Gandhi is the Dalit stream deriving it’s inspiration from Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.

It is indeed pertinent to remember what Dr. Ambedkar had to say about Gandhi and Gandhism. The first of his accusations was that Gandhi was an advocate of class collaboration. In his essay ‘Gandhism’, he wrote:

Mr Gandhi does not wish to hurt the propertied class. He is even opposed to a campaign against them. He has no passion for economic equality… His solution for the economic conflict between the owners and workers, between the rich and the poor, between the landlords and tenants, between the employers and the employees is very simple. The owners need not deprive themselves of property…4

There was nothing new in this criticism even when it was written. The communists were already saying this and Dr Ambedkar acknowledged the same.

It is the other point that the latter raised that was original, and makes Dr Ambedkar standout as a far better Marxist than all the Indian communist ideologues put together. This was in relation to Gandhi’s extremely reactionary approach towards caste. Once this perspective was adopted, all Ambedkar had to do was quote Gandhi in full and his historically regressive stance became evident. The communists missed this altogether partly because of their class based analysis but much more because they were dominated and controlled by the Brahmins and upper castes.

Ambedkar quotes from Gandhi’s Gujarati journal Nava Jiwan (1922):

1. I believe that if Hindu Society has been able to stand it is because it is founded on the caste system.

2. The seeds of Swaraj are to be found in the caste system. Different castes are like different sections of military division. Each division is working for the good of the whole.

3. A community which can create the caste system must be said to possess unique power of organization.

4. Caste has a ready made means for spreading primary education. Every caste can take responsibility for the education of the children of the caste…

5. I believe that interdining and intermarriage are not necessary for promoting national unity. That dining together creates friendship is contrary to experience…

6. … The caste system cannot be said to be bad because it does not allow interdining or intermarriage between different castes.

7. Caste is another name for control. Caste puts a limit on enjoyment…

8. To destroy the caste system and adopt the Western European social system means that Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation which is the soul of the caste system. Hereditary principle is an eternal principle. To change it is to create disorder

The grounds for supporting the caste system was obviously to maintain social stability. Indeed Gandhi himself had said so in his writing ‘ Caste versus Class’5.

Ambedkar’s scathing criticism of ‘Gandhism’ is summarized well below:

What hope can Gandhism offer to the untouchables? To the untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors. The sanctity and infallibility of the Vedas, Smritis and Shastras, the iron law of caste, the heartless law of Karma, and the senseless law of status birth are to the untouchables veritable instruments of torture which Hinduism has forged against the untouchables. These very instruments which have mutilated, blasted and blighted the life of untouchables are to be found intact and untarnished in the bosom of Gandhism. How can the untouchables say that Gandhism is a heaven and not a chamber of horrors as Hinduism has been? The only reaction and a very natural reaction of untouchables would be to run away from Gandhi.

Elsewhere Ambedkar traced the roots of Gandhi’s conservatism6:

As a Mahatma, he may be trying to spiritualize politics. Whether he has succeeded or not politics has surely commercialized him. A politician must know that society cannot bear the whole truth and that he must not speak the whole truth; if he is speaking the whole truth then it is bad for his politics. The reason why the Mahatma is always supporting caste and varna is because he is afraid that if he opposed them he will lose his place in politics. Whatever maybe the source of this confusion the Mahatma must be told that he is deceiving himself and also deceiving the people by preaching caste under the name of varna.

While there is no gainsaying the fact that Gandhi was an astute politician and a great anti- imperialist leader, he lacked the stamina for a social revolution. Indeed, he did his best to maintain ‘social stability’ and hence was in essence a reactionary.

For an overwhelming number of people who constitute the poor and the working classes in the country, there are grounds to feel no need for his ideals in the 21st century and are justified, as Dr. Ambedkar indicated, in trying to ‘run away from Gandhi’.

1. India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra et al.
2. Essay on Gandhi by PC Joshi published in National and Left Movements in India
3. page 150,151, A Bunch of Thoughts by MS Golwalkar (1966 edition)
4. Page 157, Essential Writings of Dr. Ambedkar by Valerian Rodrigues, OUP, 2002
5. Page 313, op cit (“Reply to the Mahatma”)
6. Page 316, op cit (“Reply to the Mahatma”)


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

18 thoughts on “Running away from Gandhi”

  1. An excellent analysis of Gandhi’s dubious social and political legacy. The only redeeming thing I myself find in Gandhi is his anarchism though he di not practice it himself!

  2. dear Bhupinder
    I don’t disagree with your writing but I think this is an analytical method of understanding gandhi. If we try to reconstruct History through fiction and start a literary or cinematic critique, I think this will add to much better understanding of Gandhi. He is both a subversive and status-quoist person; he is both a liberal and socialist thinker; he is both pro-harijan and anti-harijan and he is an extreme of vulnerability and rigidity. I don’t deny the importance of your effort but somehow Gandhi is now a part of Galaxy drawn from our past; he is not the galaxy. To develop his critique, we need the revolution of method and not the strength of the method.

    1. @sunil: The method and objective of historical and political is fundamentally different from that of fiction. as it is Gandhi has been highly romanticized particularly in popular media.

      I am not too sure what you mean by a ‘revolution in method’ and hence not sure how that method would change our understanding and evaluation of Gandhi.

      1. Dear Bhupinder,
        The kind of criticism you and Ishwar are indulging is indicative of the optimality that we are touching in Gandhian criticism. I agree with your method and conclusions without any major difference but when i say about revolution in method, it indicates the need of looking at the past in a much holistic and larger perspective. My precise motive is that 20th century India is as big, complicated and diverse as Mahabharata is; we should not make it into a monologous discourse like that of Ramayana. Either this century has too many heroes or no heroes at all; engaging Gandhi with Ambedkar is good but it does not transcend the limitation of method.

        1. @Sunil: You may have a point but I am personally wary of falling back on mythological texts like the Mahabharta for interpreting any contemporary phenomenon. Reading Rajmohan Gandhi’s Revenge and Reconciliation was, incidentally and perhaps tangentially, a bad experience.

          1. Oh no-no, not at all,
            dear Bhupinder, I simply mentioned both the mythological texts in terms of their narrative structure. I am talking of the method not the details of the text. Of course, I was also not impressed with Rajmohan Gandhi’s attempt. Mahabharathian method is much more ecological and dense than the monologous tracks of analysis we have got accustomed too. I would also suggest you to read my essay-series “Thinking Ecologically than thinking of ecology” on my website. I don’t want to be misunderstood here because the attempt you have made vis-a-vis Gandhi and Ambedkar is a substantive effort and there should be no point in under-valuing that enterprise.

  3. Whatever you think of Che, he is a symbol. Many who have the t-shirt can’t even pronounce his name. He means rebellion and justice.

    Ghandi is worse. He played a reactionary role in partition.

    The US civil rights movement, moved to the Black Power phase, and rejected Ghandi. I believe if King lived, he’d of publicly rejected Ghandi. He was moving in that direction.

    I’d like your comment on the post at my blog on India.

  4. 1. it is nice to see another chandigarhi Sunil here.

    2.You have reproduced Quotes taken from Navjeevan (1922) by Ambedkar. Whether did Gandhi’s views remain unchanged or modified after 1922? He supported interdining after 1930 and appealed caste Hindu girls to marry dalits in 1946. Obviously, these changes came only because of challenges put forward by Ambedkar. Hence, you are quite right in inferring that Gandhi was seeing the caste question mainly from the lens of dominating castes, however the changes occurred in his stance may be interesting for situating him in a historical context.
    We should know that by 1947 and after constituent assembly debate How much Gandhi was able to travel towards the position of Ambedkar and what are the differences remained.
    Whereas the question of Nehru comes, we should remember that He not only liked to be addressed as pundit Nehru but also wrote his name in this way many times. However, Nehru’s erudite understanding of so-called scientific temperament and his modernist outlook and demeanor were sufficient to ward him off the charge of casteism. I found leftists unnecessarily lenient towards Nehru.

    I generally agree with your assessment of Gandhi on caste issue.
    But as you rightly said at the beginning of your piece that ‘Indeed, Gandhi’s politics was contradictory…’, we should have more nuanced position in the overall assessment of Gandhi.

    I again agree that ‘he lacked the stamina for a social revolution.’ But did he do ‘his best to maintain ’social stability’’? Can you say that India’s social stability might had broken with the absesnce of Gandhi in anti-colonial struggle.

    There is no doubt that Ambedkar’s position was far better than Gandhi on caste question, but What was the attitude of modernist Nehru and egalitarian Marxists on this question?

    We must serach deeper structural reasons for why India’s social stability could not be broken instead of relying our explanation merely on the perspective and thought of individuals.

    Was Gandhi in essence a reactionary? Was Nehru in essence a Bourgeoisie? Was leftists in india essence agents of upper-casteism?

    In northern India, Lohia is known for his anti-upper castes tirades( with his all limitations). Lohia and Jaiprakash Narain were impressed more with Gandhi than Nehru and were more anti-uppercast. Shall we try to address this peculiarity.

    The dialectics of history of idea is much more complicated. If there were right hegelian, there were also left-hegelian. Can Hegel essentially be torn apart in two unconnected halves?

    1. Hello Ishwar bhai
      It is refreshing to hear from you after such a long time. When you used to call me “Swamiji”, I usually succumbed to this naughty criticism and could never answer back But I am happy that you could see through my weaknesses. I still miss Hostel no. 5 , neeraj, vinay, amit, shamsher and you. Where are you these days?

    2. @Ishwar: Towards the end of the essay on ‘Gandhism’ that I have referred to, Dr Ambedkar takes note of the changes in Gandhi’s ideas regarding caste. However, he notes that Gandhi has not changed his position fundamentally and continues to stand by the varna system.
      I think both Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle are being subjected to uncritical adulation. After all, much of the colonial world was freed of direct imperial rule between the decades of 1940- 1950. Not to say that there was a lot of innovation in many of Gandhi’s techniques (noted by Gramsci) and his radicalization over the years, but it was too little and always too late.

  5. @sunil: I still remember days of hostel five and discussion around canteen and student Centre. Neeraj is in Batala teaching philosophy in one college. I met Vinay last in Hyderabad two years back, where he was with a accountancy company. …have no contact with Amit, but heard that he is married with an American girl and he is also in US now. Both met in MclodGunj in vipassana related activities. Shamsher Dapali is also in abroad. I was in delhi and Bhopal alternatively after leaving chandigarh and doing jouirnalism.

    @Bhupi: I still feel that ‘ no need for his ideals in the 21st century’ is a harsh statement. You already said that Gandhi’s positions were contradictory in nature. ‘The ideals’ of gandhi is a wider category and goes beyond his varna ideology. So is with his philosophy and praxiological engagements.
    You may argue that in politics we should be straightforward and there is no need of complex positions. But you are much aware of the fact that not only Marxist movements but all activist projects suffered because of “dood kaa dood aur paani kaa paani” aproach. I wholeheartedly support Ambedkar’s project and quite agree with you that Marx needs Ambedkar and also with the assertion that Ambedkar’s postion helps us more in studying mode of discrimination in india that many brahminic Marxists.
    And I also agree that Ambedkar got little attention than Gandhi because of ‘ruling casteism’ of upper castes in india after independence. Surely we should not go for uncritical adulation of anyone (including marx) but are we dismissing Gandhi altogether as a resourse for thinking and action.
    Yes we may differentiate between romanticization of someone( Gandhi, Marx, Ambedkar) and someone as an open text still available to us for interpreting, reinterpreting, agreeing, disagreeing

  6. @Ishwar: I think we are in sync here. I have mentioned about the contradictory positions of Gandhi. The line that you have quoted from the last para is preceded by a qualifier: there are grounds to feel that there is no no need for his ideals in the 21st century.

    @Sunil: I have read the posts at your blog and will continue to look forward to more on the subject.

  7. Author is under some compulsion to justify Gandhi. Using similar methodology we can also justify Stalin for deporting various ethnic groups for the sake of keeping an empire form falling apart. We should denounce the cult of Gandhi and the ‘slave morality’ of Ahimsa which keeps us in perpetual slavery.

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