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Perspective: A Man for All Seasons

By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni Email By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni
February 2023
Perspective: A Man for All Seasons

Despite rising anti-Gandhi sentiments from several quarters, the idea of Gandhi cannot be squashed. Quite the opposite—his philosophy has become even more relevant and urgent in our divisive times.

Seventy-five years ago, Gandhi fell at the hands of an assassin who used violence to down this apostle of nonviolence. Sadly, in recent years, a disturbing projection of Gandhi has emerged as an anti-Gandhi streak has been on the rise both in India and abroad.

Staunch Indian nationalists who have always felt insecure with Gandhi’s broadminded acceptance of people of all faiths, castes, classes, denominations, and ethnicities have been unraveling Gandhi’s religious eclecticism, even as critics and historians agree that it has been a steady feature of the Indian ethos. India’s emergence as an independent nation is predicated upon its constitutional commitment to functioning as a secular democracy. The Hindu right has sought to undercut Gandhi's vision of a pluralistic India that is strengthened by diversity and secularism.

The opposition to Gandhian thought has also come from Western educated modernists appalled by his insistence on an austere and simple lifestyle. Many of them, infatuated with colonial royalty and Western materialism, dismiss his philosophy and lifestyle as archaic.

Gandhi’s homespun cottage industry approach to economic development, his belief in people power rather than state power, and his non-militant approach to foreign policy and to peaceful conflict resolution at home are key elements of Gandhian thought that have contributed to skepticism about him, even making him an ideological pariah to some.

There are other “irksome” facets that contribute to the skeptics’ disenchantment with Gandhi. His self-confessed experiments requiring young women to lie in bed with him to test his ability to withstand temptation were most unusual, and possibly the most unacceptable of his practices. While undertaken in good faith, as part of his quest for Brahmacharya (celibacy), those experiments were always suspect, first to his close circle of followers and eventually to the readers at large of his candid autobiography. Those confessions are now convenient fodder for cynics eager to cancel Gandhi as a sexual pervert.

Not only within India, but abroad too, Gandhi’s sheen has taken a hit. In the scenario of growing Black protest and wokeness in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, Gandhi too has been roped in as a target along with Confederate heroes and American founding fathers. In particular, the younger Blacks, along with an iconoclastic Generation Z, condemn him as a racist based on his disparaging views of African Blacks expressed during his stay in South Africa.

These attempts from diverse quarters to cancel Gandhi, righteous or misguided, will not sustain in a world increasingly in need of Mahatmas. Greatness has a tendency to outlast calumny.

The Gandhian approach may seem quaint or ill-suited to meet the challenges of a developing nation competing with industrially and technologically advanced ones; yet, neither his legacy nor his philosophy are easy to dismiss. If anything, his message of nonviolence, restrained and balanced growth, simplicity of lifestyle and disciplined consumption of goods and services, respect for the planet and for the animal world, and affection for all people—friends and foes alike—has acquired greater relevance and urgency.

Nobody denies his initial racist articulations. Gandhi himself had acknowledged them in his autobiography. Those attitudes, unfortunately, were ingrained in him as a byproduct of his upbringing in India with its own burdensome heritage of ‘varna,’ caste, and color segmentation. Later, when he went abroad to study and live in London, it didn’t help that he was exposed to the White-dominated educational and societal culture of colonial Britain. British habits, dress code, even their non-vegetarian diet, and the English language had impressed him deeply at an earlier stage in his life.

With critical self-study and introspection, however, Gandhi was able to put those narrow biases behind him. As his biographer Ramachandra Guha points out, Gandhi “outgrew his racism quite decisively, and for most of his life as a public figure, he was an anti-racist, talking for an end to discrimination of all kinds.”

On the importance of racial and communal amity and world peace, an intellectually emancipated Gandhi never failed to stand up, speaking always against racist practices. Equally, his commitment to truth remained unflinching.

But even the saintliest fail to cover all their flanks. Not surprisingly, Jews felt deeply offended at his stoic stance on the unmatched savagery and pain of the holocaust. Critics even accused him of playing up to Hitler. Gandhi met rage with humility. He remained unprovoked. He had pledged to love all equally regardless of what they said or felt about him.

In one of his most compelling speeches—included in anthologies of the world’s best speeches and powerfully captured in the British film, Gandhi—his quiet strength and fearlessness as much as his mercy towards his “enemy” captors are on full display.

Charged with sedition for publishing three provocative articles, he was asked by a British magistrate if he had anything to say in his defense. Gandhi began by asserting that non-violence was his first and last article of faith. Aware that his articles had led to frenzied protestors taking to violence, he felt deeply sorry and therefore was “here to submit not to a light [penalty] but to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.”

“I do not ask for mercy,” he continued. In his simple poised way, he threw a gauntlet at the Judge saying, “The only course open to you, Mr. Judge, is either to resign your post or inflict on me the severest penalty if you believe that the system and law you are assisting to administer are good for the people.” A moment later, he added with stoic candor and possibly a touch of humor, “I do not expect that kind of conversion.”

The judge more than rose to the occasion. “Mr. Gandhi,” he began solemnly, “you have made my task easy in one way by pleading guilty to the charge. Nevertheless, what remains, namely: the determination of a just sentence, is perhaps as difficult a proposition as a judge in this country could have to face. The law is no respecter of persons. Nevertheless, it will be impossible to ignore the fact that you are in a different category from any person I have ever tried or am likely to have to try. It would be impossible to ignore the fact that, in the eyes of millions of your countrymen, you are a great patriot and a great leader. Even those who differ from you in politics look upon you as a man of high ideals and of noble and of even saintly life.”

“But” the judge concluded, “it is my duty to judge you as a man subject to the law, who has by his own admission broken the law and committed what to an ordinary man must appear to be grave offences against the State.”

“There are probably few people in India,” the judge continued, “who do not sincerely regret that you should have made it impossible for any Government to leave you at liberty. But it is so. I am trying to balance what is due to you against what appears to me to be necessary in the interests of the public…”

Using as precedent the sentence given to Tilak 12 years ago for a similar “offence,” the judge then awarded a total of six years of simple imprisonment which he felt was his duty to pass upon Gandhi. “And I should like to say in doing so,” the judge gracefully added, “that, if the course of events in India should make it possible for the Government to reduce the period and release you, no one will be better pleased than I.”

The trial ended with Gandhi thanking the justice for his fair handling of the case and the sentence.

That is the stuff of which a persona as big as Gandhi was made and one that was able to embrace and move other humans, even adversaries.

Neera Kuckreja Sohoni holds a master’s degree in history and a PhD in economics. Her articles have been published in leading newspapers in the U.S. and India.

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