Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Questioning the Mahatma (book review)

Mahatma Gandhi was a heartless and manipulative tyrant without the redeeming feature of political merit. On the contrary, his vision for India was confused, he twisted the meaning of straightforward terms like Swarajya (independence) to suit his own eccentric fancies, he never overcame his basic loyalty to the British Empire, and he didn't have the courage of his conviction when it was needed to avert the Partition of India. While playing the part of a Hindu sage in sufficient measure to keep the Hindu masses with him, he never championed and frequently harmed Hindu interests. Finally, his sexual experiments with young women were not a private matter but had an impact on his politics. Thus says a new study of Gandhi's political record by Hindu scholar Mrs. Radha Rajan.

The latest American book on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul, has drawn a lot of attention. This was mainly because of its allegations about yet more eccentric sexual aspects of his Mahatmahood on top of those already known. In particular, Lelyveld overinterprets Gandhi’s correspondence with German-Jewish architect Hermann Kallenbach as evidence of a homosexual relationship. Bapu’s fans intoned the same mantra as the burners of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses: “Freedom of expression doesn’t mean the right to insult revered figures.” Well, if it doesn’t mean that, it doesn’t mean much.

In particular, Lelyveld has all the more right to disclose what he found in the Mahatma’s bedroom because the latter was quite an exhibitionist himself, detailing every straying thought and nocturnal emission in his sermons and editorials. But do these tickling insinuations carry any weight? Other, more troubling aspects of Gandhi’s résumé are far more deserving of closer scrutiny. Some unpleasant instances of his impact on India and Hinduism have been discussed thoroughly in a new book, Eclipse of the Hindu Nation: Gandhi and His Freedom Struggle (New Age Publ., Kolkata), by Mrs. Radha Rajan, editor of the Chennai-based nationalist website, .

Radha Rajan was already the author, with Krishen Kak, of NGOs, Activists and Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry (2006), a scholarly X-ray of the NGO scene, exposing this holier-than-thou cover for both corruption and anti-India machinations. The present book likewise takes a very close look at a subject mostly presented only in the broad strokes of hagiography. In particular, she dissects the Hindu and anti-Hindu content of Gandhi’s policies. Both were present, the author acknowledges his complexity, but there was a lot less Hindu in him than mostly assumed.

Rama had Vasishtha, Chandragupta had Chanakya, Shivaji had Ramdas, but Gandhi never solicited the guidance of any Hindu rajguru. By contrast, every step of the way in his long formative years, he read Christian authors and welcomed the advice of Christian clergymen. This way, he imbibed many monotheistic prejudices against heathen Hinduism, to the point that in 1946 he insisted for the new temple on the BHU campus not to contain an “idol”. (p.466)

Gandhi took his Hindu constituents for granted but never showed any concern for specific Hindu interests. The story that he staked his life to quell the massacres of Hindus in Noakhali in 1947, turns out to be untrue: his trip to East Bengal took place under security cover and well after the worst violence had subsided. There and wherever Hindus were getting butchered en masse in 1947-48, he advised them to get killed willingly rather than fight back or flee. It is breathtaking how often his writings and speeches contain expressions like: “I don’t care if many die.” And it was the first time in Hindu history that anyone qualified going down without a fight against a murderous aggressor as “brave”.

All his fasts unto death proved to be empty play when he refused to use this weapon to avert the Partition, in spite of promises given. It was the only time when he ran a real risk of being faced with an opponent willing to let him die rather than give in. Radha Rajan documents how unpopular he had become by then, not only among fellow politicians who were exasperated at his irrationality, but also among the masses suffering the effects of his confused policies. Had Gandhi not been murdered, his star would have continued to fall and he would have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Gandhi made a caricature of Hinduism by presenting his own whimsical and eccentric conduct as quintessentially Hindu, such as the rejection of technological progress, maintaining sexual abstinence even within marriage, and most consequentially, extreme non-violence under all circumstances. This concept owed more to Jesus’ “turning the other cheek” than to Hindu-Buddhist ahimsa. He managed to read his own version of non-violence into the Bhagavad Gita, which in fact centres on Krishna’s rebuking Arjuna’s plea for Gandhian passivity. He never invoked any of India’s warrior heroes and denounced the freedom fighters who opted for armed struggle, under the quiet applause of the British rulers whose lives became a lot more comfortable with such a toothless opponent.

The author acknowledges Gandhiji’s sterling contribution to the weakening of caste prejudice among the upper castes. His patronizing attitude towards the Harijans will remain controversial, but the change of heart he effected among the rest of Hindu society vis-à-vis the Scheduled Castes was revolutionary. However, once educated SC people started coming up and speaking for themselves, his response was heartless and insulting. Thus, a letter is reproduced in which the Mahatma with chilling pedantry belittles an admiring Constituent Assembly candidate from the scavengers’ caste for his “bookish English” and because: “The writer is a discontented graduate. (…) I fear he does no scavenging himself” and thus “he sets a bad example” to other scavengers. In conclusion, he advises the educated scavenger to stay out of politics.(p.480) Few readers will have expected the sheer nastiness of this saint’s temper tantrums.

Likewise, his supposed saintliness is incompatible with his well-documented mistreatment of his sons and especially of his faithful wife, whom he repeatedly subjected to public humiliation. Here too, Gandhi’s sexual antics receive some attention. The whole idea of an old man seeking to strengthen his brahmacharya (chastity) by sleeping with naked young women, is bad enough. Perhaps we had to wait for a lady author to give these victims a proper hearing. Radha Rajan documents the fear with which these women received Gandhi’s call to keep him company, as well as their attempts to avoid or escape this special treatment and the misgivings of their families. She praises the self-control of Gandhi’s confidants who, though horrified, kept the lid on this information out of concern for its likely demoralizing effect on the Congress movement. The Mahatma himself wasn’t equally discreet, he revealed the names of the women he had used in his chastity experiments, unmindful of what it would do to their social standing.

When Sardar Patel expressed his stern disapproval of these experiments, Gandhi reacted with a list of cheap allegations, which Patel promptly and convincingly refuted. Lowly insinuations turn out to be a frequent presence in the Mahatma’s correspondence. As the author observes: “Reputed historians and other eminent academicians have not undertaken so far any honest study of Gandhi’s character. Just as little is known of his perverse experiments with women, as little is known of his vicious anger and lacerating speech that he routinely spewed at people who opposed him or rejected him.” While careful not to offend the powerful among his occasional critics, like his sponsor G.D. Birla, “he treated those whom he considered inferior to him in status with contempt and in wounding language”. (p.389)

Unlike in Lelyveld’s account, the references to Gandhi’s sexual gimmicks here have political relevance. More importantly, Gandhi’s discomfort with Patel’s disapproval was a major reason for his overruling the Congress workers’ preference for Patel and foisting his flatterer Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister on India instead. Thus, argues Radha Rajan, he handed India’s destiny over to an emergent coalition of anti-Hindu forces. To replace Nehru as party leader, he had his yes-man J.B. Kripalani selected, not coincidentally the one among those in the know who had explicitly okayed the chastity experiments. The Mahatma’s private vices spilled over into his public choices with grave political consequences.

(book review published in The Sunday Pioneer, 15 May 2011)

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