How ‘Mahatma’ betrays Gandhi

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Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

IN A summarily scathing scan, an early template for modern practitioners of the negative literary review, György Lukács appraised Rabindranath Tagore as a libellous pamphleteer in intellectual service to the British police. The thrust of the Hungarian Marxist philosopher’s objection was that the ‘universal’ quality ascribed to Tagore, his ‘eternal truths’ have nothing to say “to the people of that age in their sufferings and their strivings.” He damns Tagore’s work as a feeble crony nationalism, that seeks to equip colonies for self-rule by ardently imitating the English. And in the self-serving cupidity of a self-avowed patriot, Sandip from The Home and the World, he sees a contemptible caricature of Gandhi.

The Impossible Indian
Faisal Devji
Harvard University Press
213 pp; Rs 1,462

Lukács’ underpinning notion is that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was specifically not the purveyor of universal truths in the vein of Tagore, far too active to be classed as pacifist. Almost a century and a quarter after his birth, the Gandhi we inherit, through versions of hagiographies as history, is all about the essence of mankind, the bigger life lessons — tethered in an era of upheaval but true for all time. He is not a mouthpiece but an embodiment of a venerated idea, that by surrendering you can conquer. He is life as message, he is the change he wished to see, he foresaw that the world was sufficient for man’s need but not his greed, and service before self to him wasn’t an emblazoned motto but a mode of life.

The mere mention of his name is an invocation of a higher order of spirituality on any political action. In immediate memory it’s yoked to the Arab Spring. Yemenese Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkol Karman in her visit to New Delhi did the obliging incantation, saying it was he “who inspired the peaceful struggle world over and it became Gandhi brand name, Gandhi copyright”. This in no way detracts from Karman’s accomplishment that her English is clunky. And if the usage is unfortunate, it is also accurate. Gandhi suffers from the fallout of an overexposed brand, weakened by the jingle appeal of once potent slogans — ahimsa and satyagraha.

The compendium of scholarship that follows in Gandhi’s hallowed steps has had a deeper tread, even as common conceptions of him grow flimsier, more lightweight, collapsible into epigrammatic quips that nonetheless headline what pass for popular up risings, like the post-26/11 ‘Be the Change’ campaign. New books, academic Faisal Devji’s The Impossible Indian, historian Roderick Matthews’ Jinnah Vs Gandhi and law professor Charles DiSalvo’s The Man Before the Mahatma, are outlier manifestations of an annually renewed public interest in Gandhi, each historically rigorous and topical. I heard the more typical representation of the once-yearly remembrance: on this Gandhi Jayanti we should see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil, and listen instead to the good music on Radio 92.7 FM.

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