Thursday, October 3, 2013

गान्धी : रामचन्द्र गुहा

In the West, they place bunches of flowers in front of tombstones of their dear departed, no more for them to smell than followers of some eastern customs expect their ancestors to come out of the grave to feast on the food they offer.

Are books on Gandhi like these tokens of remembrance and affection, acknowledgement of an indefinite, but defining bond with the past? Most certainly not, asserts Ramchandra Guha, who has been working on Gandhi since the late nineties, not on a specific grant or research fellowship but on his own, taking advantage of invitations to teach a course or deliver a lecture to stay on, visit archives, interview people and do the myriad other things that historians do to assemble their material.

Unlike other national leaders like Churchill or Roosevelt, interest in whom fades with distance in time and space from their immediate context, interest in Gandhi has tended to grow after his death.

A Brazilian band, Guha was surprised to learn, was called Gandhi, and a photo studio in Berkeley, California, punned on an activity Gandhi was famous for, to advertise Only Gandhi knows more than us about fast. The first of Guha’s two-part volume on Gandhi has just come out, Gandhi before India, which deals with his formative years in South Africa.

Guha stresses the importance of this period. This is a time when Gandhi had friends, not acolytes and followers, who could influence his thinking — Hindu, Jain, Jew and Christian friends, who are relatively unknown even to Gandhians.

Guha sums up Gandhi’s relevance thus: Gandhi continues to inspire resistance to unjust authority in non-violent forms, in many parts of the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela have, of course, helped amplify the reach of his vision. But it was vital that Gandhi identified the links of legitimacy and authority a strategy of passive resistance could corrode in a regime that survives on legitimacy rather than on use of pure brute force.
Gandhi’s caution that the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not to meet everyone’s greed, resonates with fresh meaning as environmental sustainability gains ever increasing salience. Guha started off as a historian, studying the environment.
Gandhi’s stress on dialogue and respect for his opponent’s point of view remains as relevant today as it was in the past. Guha uses the example of the recent debate on allowing foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail to illustrate his point. Narendra Modi could have raised any number of valid objections to oppose FDI in retail, but he chose, instead, to ask how many Italian businessmen stood to gain from the move. The original political hero from Gujarat would never display such bad faith.
Gandhi’s stress on inter-faith harmony is as relevant today as it was in his time.
And, finally, Gandhi’s stress on non-violence. Mainstream India, says Guha, has behaved very badly with Kashmiris and tribal communities around the land, leading to violent protest. Gandhi also would have resisted but shunned the violence. The African National Congress did abandon non-violence after the Sharpville massacre but never attacked civilians, targeting only combatants. Jihadis and Maoists who glorify the spilling of blood could advance their cause by tempering their quest for justice with the spirit of non-violent agitation.
What about Dalits? Didn’t Gandhi support the system of four varnas? This, says Guha, is both unfortunate and unjust. Gandhi has written so much that he is easy game for cherry-picking. Gandhi opposed untouchability and defended the varna system in 1919, soon after his arrival in India, but his views evolved. Towards the end, the only marriage he would solemnise in his ashram was one between a Dalit and a non-Dalit. This evolution from opposing untouchability to advocating temple entry, inter-caste dining and finally inter-caste marriage is hardly defence of the caste system.
But, Guha readily concedes, the Dalits need an Ambedkar as well. It is not enough to have a high-caste reformer, they need reform from below as well.

How about Gandhi’s views on women? S Gopalakrishnan, a Malayalam columnist, once compared Gandhi’s view on physicality with those of the Great Gama, unbeaten wrestler, and drew a similarity between their stress on celibacy as a source of strength and purity of purpose.

Guha does not agree that Gandhi bought into the vision of woman as temptress, leading noble men astray. He had many women friends whom he genuinely respected. And even more tellingly, he encouraged women to enter active public life. It would be difficult to see such a man as a misogynist.
Mohandas evolved in South Africa into the Gandhi who became the Mahatma in India. The photographs in the book capture that evolution as Gandhi’s clothes change over the years from a western suit to austere, white robes.
The book’s 679 pages might make for a bulkier tribute than flowers or noodles, but give you the opportunity to savour the essence of what moved Einstein to hyperbole: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

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