Who’s afraid of Mahatma Gandhi?

By Atreyee Sen

A year ago I met a friend at a national-level policy-making institute in Delhi. He had been awarded a large grant for improving the condition of rural schools in Bihar. While travelling through the countryside inspecting educational infrastructures, he uncovered a curious phenomenon. State-sponsored artists had painted the walls of village pre-schools with stunning portraits of Indian political stalwarts, but in most of these crèche-cum-nurseries, the children, the carers or the local Hindu nationalist organisations had covered the portrait of Gandhi with thick newspapers and strong tapes. While guiding me through photographs of Gandhi’s covered face, he asked: ‘Why do people want to hide the Father of the Nation?’ While pondering over this question, I went to see a controversial play, Gandhi vs Mahatma, which focused on Gandhi’s family life. It represented Gandhi as a harsh father to his eldest son while he fully extended his paternalistic affection to his followers. While travelling through Gujarat, Gandhi’s home state, I met a group of widows who made home-spun cotton by using the spinning wheel, the latter being Gandhi’s symbol for individual and national self-reliance. However, the nature of cloth production changed in the state and the middle classes were no longer interested in wearing rough cotton. The proliferation of western brands, cloth mills and ancillary industries economically marginalised these women and prevented them from playing roles as nation-makers. More recently, I stumbled upon a ‘Gandhi edition’ of Amar Chitra Katha (Immoral Stories through Images), a comic book series, where the editor clearly stated that he was inept at representing a man who was not a martial hero. The artists found it particularly hard to sketch Gandhi’s assassination as ‘the man did not die in the battlefield while fighting for his kingdom’. Obama glorified Gandhi in his 2010 speech to the Indian parliament while investing millions of dollars in the production of bat-wing stealth bombers which can ‘take out civilians without being detected’. From presidents to production managers to pre-school children, does the world need to forget Gandhi?

I am not uncritical of Gandhi, and I have learnt enough about him to view him as a shrewd man and a ruthless politician. My lecture on Gandhi (from an anthropological perspective) adequately brought forth his foibles, and the wide gaps between his philosophy and his practice (especially his politics of celibacy and masculinity, and the incapacity of poor peasants to act as ‘perfect’ recipients of a complex religio-political vision). But he was also a man in the pursuit of personal and political truth and integrity which, he believed, stemmed from the roots of benevolent Hinduism. He brought forth the possibilities of peace, and developed a critique of unfettered capitalism, consumerism and modernity. For me, Gandhi was also a successful reformer. He believed in women’s education, in the rehabilitation of widows (even though he did not recognise the contribution of prostitutes to the national movement), in the abolition of untouchability, in religious pluralism, in the care of the poor, in the social integration of leprosy patients; and he found creative, rebellious ways of translating his thoughts into practice. That, in my opinion, was the crux of his life-long philosophical exercise. For humans not just to be actors and agents within the realm of religion and politics, but to lead exemplary lives so that others may follow. And in this way, an expanding network of compassionate social and economic relations could create a global humanity. Would it be hard to erase the legacy of Gandhi because he makes the world feel guilty about being individualistic, consumerist, bounded, intolerant, lustful and violent? Even a portrait of him reminds us of other options, it warns us, yet we turn a blind eye.

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About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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