Sincere, blunt and fair as it is, the classic essay is deficient for not trying to see the Mahatma as Indians do
Forget sainthood. Mahatma Gandhi has been put through the whole gamut of deification. From lurid calendar and poster art to austere and sublime works by great artists, every genre has painted a halo around him. There are images of him blessing the nation. He is depicted in the dashavatar of Lord Vishnu as the ninth avatar, a place otherwise given to Lord Buddha. There is even a calendar art pieta of a tearful Mother India, a tricolour flaring about her, supporting the assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, blood flowing from his chest, in her arms and lap. He has similarly been appropriated by claimants of every political hue. Given such force-fitting of incidents from his life into the archplot of the hero-god’s journey, is it at all possible to make a sober assessment of Gandhi?
It is difficult to answer the question, even 70 years after his death and at the threshold of his 150th anniversary year. Equally difficult would be to assess his relevance in the second decade of the 21st century, an era in which the information deluge proclaims the irrelevance of truth and global terror that of nonviolence. But one might revisit George Orwell’s essay, Reflections on Gandhi, to make a beginning. The author confesses his aesthetic distaste for many of the things that defined Gandhi. He also believes strongly that nonviolence would be impracticable against authoritarian regimes or those that like the Nazis threatened to take the world by force. But for all that, Orwell judges Gandhi favourably: critical though he is, asking questions that should be asked of anyone being assessed as a human and not a god, he nevertheless praises Gandhi for his personal courage, lack of hatred, steadfast adherence to nonviolence, and the “clean smell he has managed to leave behind”.
The most important questions Orwell thinks should be asked about Gandhi’s life are a) to what extent he was driven by vanity, by being in love with the idea of himself as a hermit shaking empires with spiritual power, and b) to what extent he diluted his ideals by entering politics, which by its very nature requires chicanery. Otherwise, the essay criticises his methods for their inapplicability in a world that has become increasingly materialistic and depends on might even to preserve universally accepted ideals such as freedom and the equality of all humankind.
That criticism holds true even today. Even in India, where there is no end of swearing by Gandhi. Nonviolent protest fails to hold up against regimes that do not respect dissent and feel no qualms about unleasing violence, whether it is against oppressed sections which assert their equality or against marginalised groups in forests that resist corporate takeover of their land and the resources on and beneath it.
Equally open to criticism are the religious and spiritual foundations on which he built his entire life and methods of political action. Many of his habits and practices – even his attitude to sex and his attempts to regulate it with bizzare experiments – stemmed from his religious beliefs. In later years, they were papered over by those who wanted to project Gandhi as a saint, but to his credit, he himself was transparent about them in his diaries and extensive writings. As much perhaps as he was transparent about the minutest aspects of his life, such as bowel movements. Orwell says the psychological roots of non-attachment lie in the desire to escape the hard work and responsibility of living and loving: it’s an either/or choice between God and humankind. And Orwell seems to align himself to ideals that work by focussing on humankind and the world as it is (rather than as it should be) and working to improve things.
Orwell goes so far as to also suggest that Gandhi was tolerated by the British rulers because he was useful to them. However intense a protest, however much strife broke out, there he would be, insisting on peace and the use of soul force. He would win people over with his words, shame them with his fasts and stubborn refusals to budge till the violence abated and the British could claim to have maintained law and order – and the status quo of dominion over India.
The trouble with assessing Gandhi is that he was an extraordinarily complex personality. The standard of sainthood used to measure him is to blame. Equally the utter adulation and worship of him by his followers and most leaders of the Indian freedom struggle. They overlooked all his faults, his eccentricities, his stubbornness. No criticism of him was brooked once he came to be seen as the Mahatma.
Against this background, Orwell’s essay, published after the Mahatma died, may have shocked Indians. It has long been decried as an attempt to undercut the greatness of an Indian idol by trashing the deeply religious, spiritual, and ethical framework by which Gandhi worked and insisted that freedom should be won. Assess him in the context in which he worked, in a nation where religion, with all its faults, holds primacy in the public imagination – that is the plea critics of the essay mostly take. They also take apart Orwell’s hypothetical questions about the effectiveness of the Gandhian method in regimes of uglier dispositions. But, after all, Gandhi was not fighting those kinds of regimes, they say. They do not dare to visualise what methods Gandhi might have come up with against a Nazi or a communist authoritarian regime.
In fact, that isn’t even necessary. We need to see Gandhi as a product of circumstances more than a sui generis, omnipotent phenomenon. Orwell’s essay failed to do that, as have many readings of him. It took the Western, boxy approach to looking at the world, whereas Gandhi should be seen through the katha or the narrative mode of seeing that is so peculiarly Indian. Embellishments and exaggerations are part of the experience of telling and hearing stories, and this is an accepted part of the perceptual mode in India, as novelist Raja Rao demonstrated in The Great Indian Way. Gandhi and the Gandhian method worked in India because they were born here and evolved here.
What Orwell gets absolutely right – with his own flavour of satya – is that as a politician, Gandhi proved to be far more cleaner than those of any other persuasion the world over. And he was free of hypocricy, malice, and suspiciousness. Such openness and lightness of being, whether seen as signs of saintliness or not, are nearly impossible to achieve for most of us. Orwell gives Gandhi his due there. As to those two big questions about Gandhi that Orwell started out with – how much the Mahatma was driven by vanity and how much he compromised by entering politics – the jury will forever be out.
(The column appears in October 15, 2018 edition)