Gandhi is not dead yet

Despite certain desperate proclamations about the Mahatma’s 'outdated ideals' and 'fading relevance' in today’s heated political climate, there appears to be a renewed and vigorous re-engagement (if it can be called that) with Gandhian philosophies.
Last Updated 30 September 2023, 23:45 IST

If you believe some of the trolls who plod around X (formerly Twitter) and the memes that bob in the Internet flotsam, you would assume not only is Gandhi very dead but so are his thoughts and ideas. However, if more substantial evidence is to be believed, we are still thinking and writing about Gandhi. Despite certain desperate proclamations about the Mahatma’s “outdated ideals” and “fading relevance” in today’s heated political climate, there appears to be a renewed and vigorous re-engagement (if it can be called that) with Gandhian philosophies. More scholars than ever are finding that not only are his ideologies pertinent even today but they are also perhaps essential to combat growing global intolerance and deepening religious fissures, not to mention mindless consumerism. 

To write about Gandhi is, of course, to be confronted with a surfeit of sources. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi comprises a full 100 volumes. Virtually everything he wrote has found its way into this gigantic corpus. With such a profusion of primary sources readily at hand, to write on Gandhi is a temptation for the scholar, the journalist and people of all hues. In Gandhi’s own time and definitely since his passing, Gandhiana has become a genre unto itself and writings on Gandhi are a hugely dynamic category with books, academic essays, thought pieces, reminiscences and all sorts of other forms being produced at a steady clip. To pick and choose a few to illustrate the main thrust of this essay is reductive perhaps, but still a delightful and engaging exercise.

Gandhian thought in action

Bapu Kuti (1998) by Rajni Kothari, a book that I return to time and again, is a reaffirmation of Gandhian ideas in the mainstream. Subtitled ‘Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi’, the book explores the lives of twelve people/organisations who have attempted to apply Gandhian ideas to political and social transformation. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan in Devdoongri, Rajasthan, established by Aruna Roy, Shanker Singh, Lal Singh, Nikhil Dey and others is one of the book’s more stirring stories. Its strident activism for accountability in administration that eventually culminated in the Right to Information Act (2005) had its roots in the Gandhian emphasis on ‘truth’.

C V Seshadri (CVS), whose quest for an ‘Indian’ science sparked many related initiatives, is yet another illuminating tale in the book. CVS took to heart Gandhi’s questioning of Western ideas of ‘development’ and attempted to evolve an ‘Indian thinking’ in this realm. Amulya Reddy’s ASTRA (Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas) initiative in parts of Karnataka and Anil Sadgopal’s Kishore Bharati, which attempted to evolve an indigenous system of science teaching in schools in Hoshangabad, were other initiatives cast in the same mould. Bapu Kuti also introduces us to J C Kumarappa’s ideas of an ‘economy of permanence’ which was an early articulation of sustainable development as we know it today. Kumarappa’s work, both written and on the ground, should also be examined on its own as it is an exemplar of Gandhian thought in action.

Gandhi: In His Time And Ours (2003) by David Hardiman is an exploration of Gandhi’s politics, which the author characterises as ‘radical’ owing to its innate ability to consciously bridge the divide and not polarise. Hardiman seeks to bring to the fore Gandhi’s argument that human beings had much in common and that dialogue could resolve conflict and difference. He delves deep into Gandhi’s life and finds much to support his argument. But he does not lose sight of the fact that the Gandhian method was created for resistance and the work is tempered with this thought. 

Gandhi speaking to the moment

Ramin Jahanbegloo, an academic of Iranian origin, is a regular writer on Gandhi in both the popular and academic press. Reading his op-eds over the years, one is struck by how he is constantly able to mine Gandhi’s oeuvre to speak to the moment. In recent years, he has, among other things, written on ‘Gandhi, the dissident’, Gandhi’s ideas of the nation and Gandhi, the pragmatist. These are telling choices in these difficult times. Gandhi, the dissident, lived a life of constant self-examination and did not shy away from being a non-conformist. He casts this non-conformism in the light of his quest for the truth and his firm commitment to non-violence and dialogue. As for Gandhi’s ideas of the nation, Jahanbegloo emphasises his refusal to define India in religious, linguistic or ethnic terms. Then there is Gandhi, the pragmatist, who had evolved a line of thinking, but always remained open to dialogue and interested in exploring other ways of examination.

Krishna Kumar, the former director of the NCERT and perhaps the foremost contemporary thinker on education, has consistently asserted Gandhi’s relevance to educational thinking and action. His essay, ‘The Presentation of Conflict’ (part of his collection of essays, Learning From Conflict) goes over how the reluctance to discuss Gandhi’s assassination with schoolchildren in clear-headed terms was an opportunity missed in terms of providing historical perspective. Besides, a thoughtful presentation of the event could have also elicited discussion of the values that Gandhi stood for, which provided both the moral basis for the freedom struggle and determined the idea of independent India, at least initially. That non-violence, truth, compassion, communal harmony, the relevance of manual work and much else wasn’t discussed with schoolchildren is perhaps what has led to this path of hatred and pettiness that dominates the political discourse today.

‘Listening To Gandhi’ (part of his collection, What Is Worth Teaching) makes the case for a child-centred education with its emphasis on manual labour that Gandhi championed and asserts its relevance for modern-day India. Interestingly, Krishna Kumar makes two points that aren’t made very often. Even as he argues for Gandhian basic education, Kumar believes that regional and local variations are crucial since Gandhi himself was a critic of the uniformity that colonial education had imposed on India. This seems to be an oblique criticism of ‘Gandhians’ who often attempt to dominate the discourse on Gandhian education and force a single line of thinking as opposed to Gandhi himself who was fairly liberal in allowing individuals their right to free thinking.

Another extremely relevant point is Kumar’s plea for teacher autonomy. Transacting curriculum through textbooks, a colonial device at thought control, is a practice that continues in present-day India. Even as the leftists and rightists fight their ‘culture wars’, both sides attempting to regulate textbook content, they both seem to be in agreement that the teacher is a mere pawn and she is expected to merely transact the textbook that she herself has no role in creating. The irony quickly surfaces: what kind of child-centred education could we create (Gandhian or otherwise) when there is no teacher autonomy, and therefore, how can such a teacher create an environment of student autonomy?

Two other honorable mentions are Avijit Pathak and Rajeev Bhargava, both sterling commentators who have kept Gandhian ideas alive in the popular imagination. And for good reason. 

The Gandhi critique

Arundathi Roy’s book-length introduction to Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste entitled The Doctor and the Saint (2014) features both Gandhi and Ambedkar. Unlike many other works on Gandhi, this one is not a work of Gandhian adulation or rediscovery. It is in fact, a searing critique of Gandhi. It begins by noting that Ambedkar’s works, unlike Gandhi’s, are not easily available, which tells us something about whom the Indian state is happy to shine a light on and whom it prefers to keep in the shadows. That there are 100 volumes of Gandhian writing is the issue, Roy seems to suggest. As she puts it, ‘The trouble is that Gandhi said everything and its opposite’.

Roy then proceeds to trawl through the Gandhian journey beginning with his time in South Africa and the racism that he displayed there even as he fought for the civil rights of Indians in South Africa. As Roy points out, he did not stand up for indentured Indians, choosing to focus on the upper-crust Indians instead and did not include Africans in his ambit at all. This is something that the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement which began with taking down statues of Cecil Rhodes and eventually claimed statues of Gandhi too, has also sought to highlight.

Roy interrogates Gandhian views on caste, women, and his romantic notions of the Indian village and delves into his close association with the likes of G D Birla, which went hand-in-hand with his professed close association with the Indian masses, poking holes in virtually all of Gandhi’s positions on these matters. Parallelly, Roy charts Ambedkar’s journey to greatness focusing on all of his landmark achievements. It is a narrative technique that invites the reader to make of the essay what he will.

Gandhi in 2023

Two newly released books on Gandhi continue to mine his life, ideals and philosophies to examine present-day convictions, doubts as well as personal and political struggles.

* Becoming Gandhi (Perry Garfinkel): In this work, veteran journalist and author Perry Garfinkel describes his three-year quest to examine how Gandhi's ideals have held up in a world beset with troubling trends. Garfinkel takes to heart one of Gandhi’s most famous sayings ― “Be the change you want to see in the world” ― and attempts a personal transformation. Committing to practising the Mahatma’s six main principles ― truth, nonviolence, vegetarianism, simplicity, faith, and celibacy ― he seeks to better himself, facing successes and failures that at times lead to self-effacing humour.

* I Am An Ordinary Man (Ed: Gopalkrishna Gandhi): This is the follow-up to the much-acclaimed Restless As Mercury: My Life As A Young Man, which narrated Gandhi's life from the time of his childhood until 1914. It traces his journey from the time he returned to India ― in his own words and examines his political philosophy against the canvas of the freedom struggle. Especially poignant are the chapters on the last year of his life, which saw him courting death to quell religious and sectarian violence.

(The author is a publishing professional who writes on literature, language, and history.)

(Published 30 September 2023, 23:45 IST)

Follow us on