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The two Gandhis – Myths and realities

“…the dead have a way of becoming saints in the eyes of their survivors…”
Rachel Vincent, My Soul to Take

The 1982 film starts with Gandhi’s assassination. The old leader, weak and mild, greets his admirers to pray with him. A frowned and rough-looking fanatic approaches him and, after bowing, shoots him three times among a crowd of panicked people running for their lives. The viewer cannot but feel empathy for the victim since, not having watched his life’s work yet and seeing his egregious, cold and needless murder, is incapable of perceiving any other image of Gandhi other than that of not only the victim but of the hero as well. It’s apparent that the director has chosen to place his character on a pedestal, which entails beautifying aspects of a complex and controversial life. In another scene early in the film, the hero is shown in confusion and incapable of materializing his goals, with his wife replying “you are only a man”. But the film continues showing him to supposedly accomplish these plans, so the viewer is left with the impression that perhaps he was not “only a man”, but something more. Gandhi’s personality cult was born while he was still alive, amplified after his assassination and perpetuated by Attenborough’s Oscar bait film and its introduction in the modern pop culture. So let’s see if Gandhi’s idol corresponds to the historical figure.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) and Ben Kingsley in the 1982 movie (photo 1 and 2)
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) and Ben Kingsley in the 1982 movie (photo 1 and 2)

For someone to say that Gandhi drove the British out of India betrays a simplified reading of history. The British, after the end of the Second World War, were forced to forget any hope of maintaining their Empire, and retracted from every part of the world they had been occupying. They could no longer justify their colonial adventures after the defeat of the great enemy, the imperialistic national socialism of Germany. The Empire was essentially bankrupt due to the war and lacked army capabilities as well as an ideological basis for continuing to exist in its current state. Already after the end of the Great War it could be foreseen that the days of the British Empire were numbered. The question was not if but when the time would come. Gandhi had sided with the idea of independence for India from the moment this had become obvious and managed to inspire his compatriots to resist their foreign oppressors. But he had not identified an enemy in the face of the British per se, but on the modernism that accompanied their presence in his homeland. He claimed that the new nation would have to condemn industry and technology and reinvent itself on the rhythms of the life in a village and the loom (which he himself worked on symbolically for two hours every day until his death).

“India’s salvation consists in unlearning what she has learnt during the past fifty years. The railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors, and such like have all to go, and the so-called upper classes have to learn consciously, religiously and deliberately the simple peasant life, knowing it to be a life-giving true happiness.” (from his book Hind Swaraj, 1909)

Nehru (the first Prime Minister of independent India, central figure of the independence movement and a source of retort to Gandhi) considered this to be utterly wrong and impossible. He thought these ideas illustrated his love and admiration for poverty, misery and the ascetic life. In the end, it was Nehru who would negotiate the terms of independence.

This is something like what the future of India should look like according to Gandhi (photo)
This is something like what the future of India should look like according to Gandhi (photo)

Gandhi seemed to understand neither political philosophy nor what exactly words like ‘fascism’, ‘capitalism’ and ‘Marxism’ meant. Concerning the dilemma capitalism/communism, on which he was asked, he suggested an alternative between the two economic systems. A rich person, he thought, could maintain his wealth and own a factory, but he should be aware of the social responsibility that his position entails and work side by side with the workers he employs. This way of thinking, which he develops with abstractions and moralizations, reminds one more of a high school student essay rather than the words of an illuminated wise leader. He did identify certain systemic problems in democracy, as others had, like the fact that it is vulnerable to pressures from the ruling class, which would not hesitate to use violence to protect its interests, but he would nullify his attempts to contribute in surpassing such problems by equating all forms of government and saying that all democracy does is give a choice to the electorate; a choice he thought to be merely a cover for the reality of the class power oppression.

According to George Orwell, Gandhi’s teachings cannot reconcile with the western leftist ideology, with the idea that man is the measure of things and the idea that mankind should look to better the human condition in this world, which is the only one we have. They could only be meaningful if there is a god and if the material world around us is simply an illusion we must escape from.

Gandhi could not see any oppressing struggle outside the power relationship between the British and the Indians. In an article he wrote in 1940 –where he addresses the entire British people-, after condemning all hostilities and wars as “bad in essence”, he encourages the British to abandon their weapons and allow the fascists to:

“take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”

These are the words of a man who took the duality of body and soul seriously. This is the miserable choice Gandhi had to offer to the defendants of their country and the defenders of the free world; not in case they lost the battle, not as a decent way to accept defeat, but with the hope of seducing them into a religious ideology he believed in, and lived by, for 50 years. The absence of irony in his description of the Nazis of Germany and the fascists of Italy with the word “gentlemen” is truly chilling.

“This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing. If you persist, it will result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man. If you will call it off today he will follow suit.” Gandhi’s letter to British viceroy Linlithgow in 1940. (photo)
“This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing. If you persist, it will result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man. If you will call it off today he will follow suit.” Gandhi’s letter to British viceroy Linlithgow in 1940. (photo)

Besides, it was not pacifism that pressured the British to disengage from their colony. In 1941,Gandhi saw Hirohito’s army reaching the Indian borders and probably thought it might be a good idea to make the phrase “Quit India” into a motto, opening the way for the Congress, not him, to start the Quit India movement. This was good timing as the British at the time were isolated and confined within their country by the German attackers, and would find great difficulty to intervene militarily in India, with their Japanese enemies so close. Perhaps this method was not as pacifistic as it was made out to be, since Gandhi seemed to be willing to let the Japanese do his fighting, or threatening, for him.

Concerning the quaint ideology of pacifism, when in 1938 he was asked what the German Jews should have done to avoid or stop the newly formed fascistic regime, he replied that they should perform “collective suicides”, in order to make Hitler’s violent practices known to the world and the German civilians. After the war, when the whole world had been made witness to the size of the slaughter of the Holocaust, Gandhi justified himself by saying that if the Jews had surrendered to their enemies (and since they eventually died anyway) they would at least make their deaths mean something. If nothing else, Gandhi was honest. Because, as Orwell says, “If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way”.

“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent” George Orwell (photo)
“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent”
George Orwell (photo)


Gandhi, of course, is not the “father of pacifism”. He got the idea from the religion of Jainism, whose most pious believers walk with their heads turned towards the ground so that they might not even step on an ant, and they don’t wash their clothes so that they won’t cause the death of microorganisms they perhaps host. His religious adherences, however, did not only affect his politics but also his view of human nature. He thought children were born moral and were later corrupted by society. In the Phoenix Farm commune, where he spent some time, he would have children play all together, boys and girls, under his adult supervision. He once learnt that a boy and a girl had had sex and, after the girl’s hair was cut to make her “sexless”, he imposed a fast on himself to discourage such behavior. The couple kept repeating their behavior and Gandhi increased the duration of his sufferance. “Moral blackmail” was the phrase he himself used to describe the use of fasting as a means of influence. (That would probably work only on those who actually loved him. But perhaps he thought all the world did.)

He believed that in marriage the spouses should only have sex for reproductive reasons and then live like siblings, and denied that women felt any pleasure during the act of sex. For years, and while he was living in a monastery, forbade his followers to sleep with their wives, of which he demanded nonetheless to sleep naked next to him on his bed so that he could test his strength in abstinence. He did the same later as well, towards the end of his life, with his grandnieces Abha, 17 years old, and Manu, 18 years old. Who would be forgiven today for this kind of behavior?

In various occasions Gandhi would begin his assertions with the phrase “god warned me that…” or “god told me that…”. For ordinary people this way of speaking would be met with some suspicion (it’s enough to remember George Bush), and whoever pretends he has a direct line to any god can easily be recognized as demented; but only a few reserve such criticism for Gandhi.

Gandhi blamed the 1934 catastrophic earthquake in Bihar on the hard stance of Hindus against the ‘untouchables’. Even his followers accused him of connecting natural phenomena with social matters, prolonging prejudices and superstitions. (photo)
Gandhi blamed the 1934 catastrophic earthquake in Bihar on the hard stance of Hindus against the ‘untouchables’. Even his followers accused him of connecting natural phenomena with social matters, prolonging prejudices and superstitions. (photo)

There are also many contradictions and misunderstandings concerning his stance on the caste social stratification system. Gandhi did not want the abolishment of this system, as many people insist he did, but only to improve (according to him) the condition of the “untouchables”, who took the vilest professions like cleaning cesspools or handling corpses.

“But I believe in Varnashrama [caste system] which is the law of life. I believe that some people are born to teach and some to defend and some to engage in trade and agriculture and some to do manual labor, so much so that these occupations become hereditary. The law of Varna [color and/or caste] is nothing but the law of conservation of energy. Why should my son not be a scavenger if I am one?” (Teachings of Mahatma Gandhi)

“A Shudra can’t be called a Brahmin even if he possesses all the qualities of a Brahmin by inheritance. He should never claim his right other than the Varna in which he was born. This is an evidence of his being humble.” (Young India, 24-11-1927)

“The caste system is a natural order of society. I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.” (Babasaheb Ambedkar, Writings and Speeches, 1921)

Untouchables” (or Dalits or Scheduled Caste or Harijan) were those outside (essentially below) the caste system, and were treated as being of a lower rank than any other caste. When, in 1932, the New Constitution proposed the untouchables to have a right to vote their own representative in local governments (like other castes did), Gandhi started a fast to the death to avert this; as it would mean to recognize anew their existence as a different category of people while he wanted the Indian society to be more inclusive of them. This rather incomprehensible view was condemned by all sides: his followers, the government and the untouchables themselves, who Gandhi called “Children of God”. He claimed to speak for them when the majority among them and Ambedkar, their leader, were opposed to his position and supported their right to vote –and considered the term “Children of God” to be paternalistic and demeaning. But Gandhi had acquired great influence due to his successful “Salt March”, and the Congress had invested in his image as a leader and a messianic figure, and so he blackmailed (as Ambedkar said) for a compromise. So, the Indians would not vote for one representative per caste, but one in total. As should be obvious, in effect this meant the upper castes, with greater wealth, power and influence, had more chances to elect someone who would serve their interests and not those of the lower castes.

“Medically there may be two opinions as to the value of this diet, but morally I have no doubt that all self-denial is good for the soul.” (Domestic Satyagraha) (photo)
“Medically there may be two opinions as to the value of this diet, but morally I have no doubt that all self-denial is good for the soul.” (Domestic Satyagraha) (photo)


An important success Gandhi is considered to have achieved was the practice of civil disobedience. He asked Indian lawyers, police officers and teachers to quit their job and farmers to not pay taxes to the British. He made such an impression with this campaign that his compatriots would not hesitate to get imprisoned, for breaking the law for a good cause. Even without being arrested they would climb the walls of prisons and ask to be put in prison. But some overzealous sympathizers caused a serious incident during a protest in Chauri Chaura in 1922, where they killed 22 Indian police officers shouting “Victory for Mahatma Gandhi”, who was justifiably appalled by the atrocity made in his name. But, instead of condemning the isolated incident, he canceled his campaign throughout the entire country. He admitted at the time this was a politically unwise move, but a religiously correct one; that violence is a sin before god and that India was not ready to self-govern. The moment he did this he lost much support and admiration from the people and the Indian political leadership of the country.

But this was not the first time he sabotaged himself. In 1918 he had started a similar campaign (the ‘Kehda peasant struggle’) where he again promoted the denial of farmers to pay insufferable taxes and actually succeeded in reaching a compromise with the authorities, so that the taxes would be paid only by the rich farmers, while the poor ones were completely absolved. However, one month after this accomplishment, and while the British demanded another recruitment of Indian soldiers to fight on their side, Gandhi sided with the British and said that the Indians, as loyal subjects of the Empire, had to obey and help them; while Indian politicians supported that the British should not be accommodated unless they made some promises to guarantee the country’s independence after the war.

And even before this, when he was in South Africa and made statements such as that the British Indians of the region “admit the British race should be the dominant race in South Africa”, Gandhi became a volunteer in the Boer War and recruited 1,100 more Indians (which he considered to be “fellow colonists” like the British) to fight on the side of the Empire against the indigenous black people. And in 1906, when the British declared a war against the Zulus, he encouraged the British to recruit more Indians, as they did. About the indigenous (“raw Kaffir”) he said: “[the Kaffir’s] sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness” and that “A Kaffir is to be taxed because he does not work enough: an Indian is to be taxed because he works too much”.

In order to stop the hostilities among Muslims and Hindus, Gandhi went on a fast, “the worst form of coercion”, as he described it. (photo)
In order to stop the hostilities among Muslims and Hindus, Gandhi went on a fast, “the worst form of coercion”, as he described it. (photo)

One of Gandhi’s core objectives was the reconcilement of all Indians, irrespective of religion and particularly between Muslims and Hindus. The rivalry between the two, however, was intensified more and more as the day of independence neared. The Muslims looked suspiciously at the increase of influence the Hindus were acquiring and worried about their own place in the new state. In order to take them on his side, Gandhi supported, in 1920, the recognition of Turkey’s Sultan as the “Caliph of Islam”, which was indeed a claim of some Indian Muslims. This “Khilafat Movement” that he endorsed was deemed imperialistic, promoted by fundamentalist Muslims and based on a pan-Islamic idea. This attitude was rather unseemly (apart from being opposite to his apparent struggle against imperialism), since the Turks themselves had already denounced the Sultan of Istanbul and were supporting Kemal Ataturk in his place as their leader in the new era of their country, who was based in Ankara. In 1924, the caliphate was unmade and the Turks declared their new democratic state. Thus, Gandhi lost any support he had managed to gather within the Khilafat Movement and among the rest of the moderate Muslims (whose numbers were growing) by choosing to ignore them when he chose the sultan over Kemal.

So, Gandhi not only failed to reconcile the two religious groups, but seems that with his presence and the role he played in the political affairs managed to alienate even more the Muslims, who now saw the neoteric Turkey (the ex caliphate) to gain ground in the international scene with the reformer Kemal. India, after its independence, would need the western know-how and the benefits of industrialization if it wanted to live up to the challenge of standing on its own in a world that became smaller and smaller. But in the place of a reformer the Indians (Muslims and the others) saw a ragged self-proclaimed Messiah who refuted modernism. In the face of Gandhi the Muslims did not see anything familiar but, to the contrary, they recognized something contradictory to their own islamocentric viewpoint.

The tensions grew, and in 1946 conflicts broke out in Calcutta with many fatalities, and spread to all of India. A sorrowful and disappointed Gandhi once again started a fast to the death, calling his fellow citizens to stop the atrocities. Some historians say he failed to decrease in the least the violence in either camp, with the incidents being described, not unjustly, as a civil war. One year later, British and Indians, including Muslim leaders, decided to compromise and create two states: Pakistan for the Muslims and India for the Hindus and the rest. The immigration wave brought forth even more conflicts and deaths, and Gandhi deemed his efforts for reconcilement and for the achievement of an independent India (as he wanted it) to be a failure.

Vultures feeding on the victims of the 1946 religious conflict (photo)
Vultures feeding on the victims of the 1946 religious conflict (photo)

Below is an excerpt from an interview of one of Gandhi’s admirers (Patel), taken from the beautifying book on Gandhi by Ved Mehta:

“Despite the fact that he sided with, helped his compatriots, the seedy from the British slavery, at the end of his life he felt he had failed in everything he aimed at – and, in a sense, he had failed. He failed in reconciling the Hindus with the Muslims, in his struggle to improve the life of the lesser castes, in his effort to establish a true economic and social democracy. But what he had managed was to greatly advance in the Knowledge of God. In approaching God, if you will.”

Naturally, all this is ignored by the director who, in his mushy and scenic shots, suggests (if not statedly claims) that Gandhi was the “David” who took on an entire empire on his own, the defender of equality among all men, the inventor of pacifism and a humble man with infinite wisdom whose every word all Indians are hanging (or should be hanging) on. He might very well illustrate the magnitude of his failure and the plethora of the times he was wrong. As he could also show how absolute he was in his thinking concerning human relationships and private behaviors, and also how much willing he was to lead people to self-sacrifice in the name of his own ideas about the meaning of notions such as dignity, humility and metaphysical redemption. Perhaps the director’s legacy is salvaged by the fact that the image of Gandhi he presents has become a source of inspiration throughout the world in the fight against violence and the defense of human rights, even if it is a fraudulent one.

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