Manoeuvring the Mahatma

The past decade has seen a unique exploration of Mahatma Gandhi’s life. If Sudhir Kakar wrote an imaginative novel on Mira and the Mahatma unravelling various aspects of Gandhi’s psychology, the Mahatma’s grandsons Rajmohan Gandhi and Gopalkrishna Gandhi explored his personality by writing a biography and compiling an anthology respectively to throw light on hitherto untouched aspects of his extraordinary life.

Then, there was an attempt to understand Gandhi in typical Bollywood style in Lage Raho Munna Bhai. The latest biography by celebrated journalist Joseph Lelyveld, titled Great Soul — Gandhi’s Struggle With India, belonged to a genre of research where the writer seemed determined to defuse the halo around Gandhi by picking up facts and working on insinuations and innuendos with skilled subtlety.

However, Sudheendra Kulkarni’s book on Gandhi, Music of the Spinning Wheel — Mahatma Gandhi’s Manifesto for the Internet Age, belongs to an altogether different genre. At first glance, it appears to be a political project masquerading as scholarly research. Given Sudheendra’s felicity with words and language, there is never a doubt on the readability of the book and its good prose.

Sudheendra had displayed this ability during his stint in the PMO, when he wrote a contemplative piece — Kumarkom Musings — for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Of course, the issue here is not writing or extensive quotations from various sources after painstaking research, but the thrust of the book.

For instance, Sudheendra begins by quoting Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, revered by the present lot of RSS-BJP leaders as the ideological fountainhead of the political wing of Sangh Parivar.

Even an elementary study of the history would bear out the fact that there is hardly anything common between Deendayal Upadhyaya and Mahatma Gandhi, except that both were vegetarian. Upadhayay’s Integral Humanism was not divorced of the exclusivist agenda of RSS, headed by M S Golwalkar. In fact, Upadhyaya was the by-product of that ideology that ran counter to Gandhi’s philosophy and vision about India.

One will certainly not find fault with Sudheendra’s efforts to dwell at length on Gandhi’s extensive writings on food, celibacy and his exchange of letters with various people, which left an imprint of his personality. But much of those writings are already in public domain and people are free to interpret and draw their own inferences.

Gandhi was always loath to the mysticism surrounding his personality. At the same time, his religious faith often bordered on obscurantism. He described a devastating earthquake in Bihar as a result of god’s punishment to society, provoking an angry exchange of letters from Rabindranath Tagore.

But there was never an iota of doubt about Gandhi’s scientific temperament. Sudheendra has rightly pointed out that Gandhi regarded not only the wheel but his own body as a machine to serve   mankind. But Sudheendra seems to have stretched the argument too far when he says that Gandhi would have loved the Internet. Perhaps the very thought that the Internet is an innovation of the Pentagon would run afoul with Gandhian thought. The sheer verbosity and the use of social media for divisive agenda do not amuse even the most modern pragmatists these days.

I regard the book as a political project as Sudheendra has tried assiduously to build a case for proximity between Gandhian thought and his own party — BJP, and by extension, the RSS. Through this book, he seems to be reconciling with his own dilemmas, which emerged out of his own political journey.

These dilemmas are understandable when a person of Sudheendra’s intellect seeks to negotiate his way out of the deep ideological and emotional conflicts in which he landed himself.Perhaps a Marxist-turned-Hindutvawadi espousing Gandhism is too complex to comprehend.

Despite the lucid prose and good anecdotes, the 701-page book becomes too heavy to read. Interestingly, its innovative idea of linking Mahatma Gandhi to the Internet is dealt in the concluding part of 140 pages. Ideally, Mahatma Gandhi and the Internet could have been the subject of an interesting write-up of not more than 2,000 words for a columnist like Sudheendra. It would have served a far greater purpose than a book on the subject. After all, Gandhi was averse to verbosity.

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