Saturday, July 9, 2011

Dissecting the Gandhi Myth

Earlier this month, on India's most hallowed ground, the mausoleum of Mahatma Gandhi, television crews and photographers captured the portly figure of Sushma Swaraj, India's opposition leader, doing a jig with another notable from her Bharatiya Janata Party.

The BJP had gone to the site to protest against the heavy-handedness of the Delhi administration, which had bounced out a popular yoga guru fasting against government corruption. In protest, the BJP held a day-long sympathy fast on the site where the Mahatma's ashes are kept.

Stung by a Congress leader's barb that she was a mere nachaniya or dancing girl, and possibly embarrassed by her own lapse of judgment, Swaraj lamely explained that she felt provoked to dance every time she heard patriotic music.

Yet, the twin images - a Hindu nationalist party descended lineally from the chauvinists who assassinated the Mahatma taking their protest to his memorial and of one of its key leaders dancing on his grave - somehow seemed to fit the Mahatma's quixotic and quirky legacy.

Six decades after his death at the hands of a Hindu man enraged by his support to Muslim causes, Gandhi tugs at India in ambiguous ways. The Father of the Nation is still its conscience keeper even as his children can sometimes be wayward on the directions he set for them.

The capital of Gujarat, the state where the Mahatma was born, is called Gandhinagar. But in 2002, the city saw the worst anti-Muslim violence in recent memory. How would the Mahatma, who preached non-violence, have reacted if he had heard today's public hero Anna Hazare, widely described as a Gandhian, say he feels like shooting corrupt people.

Yet, the unevenness with which India treats its Gandhian legacy is perhaps a part of the life of the Mahatma enigma himself, a constantly evolving saga over its 78 years ending with the assassination he had himself anticipated. It was an end that, in retrospect, seemed choreographed to its last breath with the Mahatma departing with God's name on his lips.

All leaders attempt to shape their own life's narrative as they see it, and Gandhi succeeded in his for the most part. While he had his critics over the years, in recent times no author has come close to dissecting the Gandhi myth as has Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of The New York Times.

Lelyveld's carefully rehearsed book, Great Soul - Mahatma Gandhi And His Struggle With India, was released two months ago. It has drawn attention for the wrong reason - less than 10 paragraphs on Gandhi's intimate ties with the German architect Hermann Kallenbach, with correspondence that could suggest a homoerotic undercurrent.

Its true worth, however, is in its clear-eyed view of Gandhi. Lelyveld sets out to discover Gandhi in all his “quirkiness, elusiveness, and genius for reinvention, his occasional cruelty and deep humanity.”

For the most part, he succeeds.

Lelyveld notes traces of condescension in Gandhi's early attitudes towards black South Africans and its quick correction. He marvels at the sensitive reading of the Muslim mind as well as political opportunism that saw Gandhi, in the aftermath of World War I, proclaim the Ottoman Emperor's claim to be the caliph and protector of Muslim holy places to be a pressing aim of the Indian freedom struggle itself.

Gandhi slept naked with teenage girls to test his own chastity, an “experiment with truth” conducted without apparent regard for those who served him in utter surrender. And when his personal assistant, upset by the swirling rumors about the Mahatma's personal life, left after a lengthy protest, Gandhi wrote back to him patiently, even inviting him to publish the correspondence.

Incredibly, notes Lelyveld, against all the obstacles of illiteracy and lack of modern communications, this soul could reach out to India's 700,000 villages, winning broad acceptance as the authentic exemplar of renewal and unity. More than any Indian before him or later, he convinced India it was a nation. And always he demanded from them action in the form of life changes.

Gandhi left the Congress Party in 1934 and never formally rejoined it. By the end of his life, he had probably realized that India had outgrown him and there was little chance the new nation could be run on Gandhian lines, with its stress on non-violence and voluntary poverty.

“It is just possible,” the perpetual pilgrim wrote to independent India's first Home Minister Vallabhai Patel, called Iron Man for lashing together the disparate states that make the Indian Union, “that in administering the affairs of the millions you can see what I cannot. Perhaps I too would act and speak as you do if I were in your place.”

Today, the Mahatma stares out of bank notes. Indians have largely buried his ideals of simple living. On a trip to Mumbai a few weeks ago, I spent an hour in Mani Bhawan, the Mahatma's home from 1917 to 1934 and from where he launched some of his most famous political movements. At a stone's throw was the newly opened 27-storey mansion of the tycoon Mukesh Ambani, reportedly built at an expense of US$2 billion.

In New Delhi, every time I visit the Delhi Gymkhana Club, I marvel at the throngs of visitors from across India who come daily to 1, Akbar Road, where Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984. The spot where the Mahatma was killed, less than 2km away, draws fewer than half that number.

Yet Mahatma Gandhi's voice is heard, and particularly when injustice is perceived. And his benign memory continues to serve India.

That is why Swaraj of the BJP took her protest there this month. It is also why, in the age of globalization, Indians still design microfinance schemes designed to lift small artisans and farmers and why the Congress Party, overlooking fiscal caution, determinedly pushes for food subsidies and job guarantees for the poor. India is probably the world's biggest arms importer today, but it is Gandhi's legacy that helps the country do this without having its motives questioned by the world.

Jakarta Globe

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