I am in the process of reading the Makers of Modern India by Ramchandra Guha and thus was tempted to put down my thoughts. They are more than likely things already thought of and well-articulated by many, but nevertheless, they are mine, in the sense that I have not read these anywhere and have not heard them from someone, I came to these realizations while interacting with the world and nation on a daily basis. It is going forward my endeavor to be more regular in writing and will try and update at least once a month if not more.
One of the thoughts going around in my head is the calculated shrewdness of Gandhi. While I acknowledge Gandhi’s role in bringing together a country that was otherwise torn across too many lines and contexts, unifying a people who were never meant to be unified, I have to confess, I am not a follower; believer or sympathiser of Gandhi. Blame it on my generation or the fact that I haven’t seen a war (Kargil happened in my time, but I was really too young and self-absorbed to understand what was happening) or that I am simply ill-informed, but fact remains, I believe Gandhi had tremendous power in his hands and he failed the nation at some basic level. However, this entry is not about that, it is not about why he was wrong, many have spent countless hours and pages recounting the reasons that I do not get into it here.
Despite all my discomfort with his doctrine and ethos, I have to give him credit on two accounts or rather one simple one, he perhaps, among the many great scholars; intellects; philosophers and leaders, is the only one who truly understood the task at hand when it came to achieving India’s freedom from British Rule. His shrewdness, for me showcases itself spectacularly in two places, him recognizing the need for breaking the barriers of social hierarchy and opening up the nationalist movement (for the want of a better word) to every strata of society and his take on non-violence as the way forward. Gandhi entered the freedom struggle, considerably late, in the early 1900s. By then many had come and attempted in their own capacity and perspective, to wrestle some amount of freedom from the British for the ‘motherland’. In keeping with this, Gandhi had the fortune of retrospective analysis, he already had examples laid out before him of what others had tried and what the end result was. Prior to Gandhi, the nationalist leaders (Rammohan Roy, Bal Gandhadar Tilak, Syed Ahmad Khan etc.) were individuals focused on certain aspects or certain territories/provinces. While respected, their influence was limited to particular groups and provinces. The most prominent groups among these were the ‘elites’ the upper castes, classes and educated groups within the country. India till date remains a country with a high proportion of population which is illiterate and dependent upon manual labor for their livelihoods, this was even more so the case in the 1900’s and before. Thus, these individuals, before Gandhi, though having the right outlook, lacked the perception of the magnitude of effort required. Perhaps it may even be said that these individuals never truly aimed to over-throw the British rule, but merely sought concessions and permits within an existing system (of course, it may be argued, that this was also Gandhi’s stand in the initial years of the Swaraj movement) or that they didn’t then have access to the Indian National Congress and its reach. The perception they lacked was that no battle/struggle for Swaraj or independence could be won without the support of the masses. Till then, whatever concessions had been achieved from the British were more towards these elite groups, and in my opinion aimed at appeasement rather than actual empowerment.
Gandhi saw the folly in this, he realized, through retrospection that the only way to be successful against a power so robust and ingrained in our society as the British was to have sheer numbers on your side. He realized the downfall of infighting based on caste, creed or religion and aimed to remove it from our societal narrative. He then systematically moved to nullify these barriers so that we may present a united front to the British. Call me an idealist, but I would rather he had professed that there was no difference between Hindus and Muslims and other religions, that it was not about respecting each other but rather understanding that different cultural practices did not make us different. Every religion within itself has varied forms of worship and do’s and don’ts, that does not mean that the religion gets split into different pieces, but rather each individual piece is acknowledged as being a unique part of a larger whole. I would greatly appreciate it if someone could share any work/speech of Gandhi to the contrary. The same was the case with women. Gandhi was not a feminist, in the sense, that he did not believe men and women to be equal. There are those who have interpreted Gandhi’s work as him not being in favour of women entering the economic sphere of society. Regardless, Gandhi did understand that by keeping women away, he was keeping almost half of the gentry away from the movement. he thus advocated for the role of women in the freedom struggle and in my opinion, advocated against practices such as Purdah which were a hindrance to women’s participation.
His second victory of perception was the emphasis on non-violence. I strongly believe it was the gift of hindsight that allowed him to take this stand. behind him were the numerous struggles and resistances, all armed, all failed, whether that be the regional localized struggles, or even the revolt of 1857. He had also had the good fortune of having traveled to South Africa and the West and had thus been truly exposed to the ‘might of the British empire’. In one of his speeches, on the matter of Hindu-Muslim unity, he stated that there is no victory in violence, that by resorting to violence Hindus and Muslims will not achieve what they wish, but rather only through the sacrifice of self, or non-violence. What struck me was that in the whole speech (four-five pages long) not once did he say that even if victory is achieved by violence, it will be ill-earned and will not serve its purpose. He simply stated that victory was not possible. This I am of the opinion was reflective of his stand of India’s position against the British, it was not that freedom and victory was not desirable through a violent struggle, but rather it was not possible. Britain of the time, before the world wars, was one the mightiest empires across the globe, and controlled all of the legitimate arms trade in the subcontinent. To mount an armed resistance against this magnitude of power successfully would have been neigh impossible. Thus, the other option was to take the route that had worked in the past, of cooperation but turned on its head, ‘non-cooperation’.
In conclusion, I do not believe that Gandhi was an enlightened soul or Mahatma, but rather a shrewd lawyer, who was an incredibly good strategist and orator, for this I will give him his due. I am in the process of reading more of his works, and perhaps there may come a time when I change my opinion of him. However, till then would welcome a healthy dialogue of anyone who wishes to present their view; for or against my own.