Uday Balakrishnan For today’s young, a wizened old man with large ears in a seemingly ridiculous dress seems hardly the earth-shaker he is made out to be, only for them to take another look and find MK Gandhi’s ways agreeable to their own . Affirmative action, supporting the underdog, religious accommodation — Gandhi stood for all these and more. The world’s Greens could well have stated their case almost entirely in Gandhi’s words.

Seventy years after his assassination, Gandhi continues to be a living presence in much of India and the world. Even as, with time, reputations of some of the greats of the twentieth century such as Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong lie in tatters, condemned as mass murderers surpassing even Hitler, the image of the Mahatma endures as an eternal noble soul.

Mixed appeal

Following his lead, people across the sub-continent got rid of their foreign mill-made clothes, wore khadi and ran off to join the freedom movement, leaving their harassed households to cope as best they could. “Are you Gandhi?” was asked of anyone advancing nationalist arguments: it was a pejorative reserved by sceptics to describe anyone taking up a seemingly quixotic cause.

Gandhi was revered by millions as a great saint. The ‘spareness’ of his dress, his message of tolerance and accommodation, the audacity and courage with which he challenged unfairness, and his willingness to pay the price for such defiance, appealed to ordinary people across India, to a point where a ‘darshan’ of the Mahatma was tantamount to seeing God. However, the admiration for Gandhi was tempered then as now.

People of his time were perplexed by his sexual experiments and many found it bizarre. His co-opting his teenaged niece in his ‘experiments’ was objected to by many of Gandhi’s followers. It was not the way Indians behaved, even in his time. Sadly, this — along with his somewhat condescending attitude to women and their place in society — tarnished Gandhi’s reputation as one who was otherwise committed to their emancipation and right to dignity.

The big fight

Mainstream historians would have us believe that Gandhi’s greatest fight was the one he waged to free India from British rule. In fact, it came only next to his extraordinary struggle to unify a disparate caste-divided faith like Hinduism and give its members the confidence to accept Muslims as integral and equal members of a shared social order. Gandhi also realised how fragile and fragmentable Hinduism was. In this context the Poona Pact of 1932 that BR Ambedkar unhappily arrived at with Gandhi on behalf of the ‘untouchables’ of India, was, on hindsight, no defeat at all — not for Gandhi and still less for Ambedkar.

The pact kept the Hindus together, stymieing British efforts to fragment it during a crucial phase of India’s freedom struggle. Post-Independence, it also paved the way for a series of reforms within Hinduism. Mohammed Ali Jinnah, on hearing of his assassination, observed that Gandhi was “one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community”.

Lately, Gandhi has come in for criticism as a racist, not too long back by the likes of Arundhati Roy, and more recently by black academics campaigning to have his statue removed from Ghana University. Wholly focused on the lot of Indians in South Africa, Gandhi did indeed ignore the devastating impact of white racism on native Africans all through his time there. He objected to being equated with the blacks, and famously even protested at having to share jail-space with one of them.

What his critics, however, ignore, is the fact that Gandhi changed and later counted many blacks as his friends, amongst them the famous American scientist, George Washington Carver. Howard Thurmun, the respected American theologian and civil rights leader, along with other black activists, sought out Gandhi and engaged him in his ashram in 1935. Long before Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela, both admirers of Gandhi, arrived on the scene, he presciently asserted: “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”

For all his faults, there is no doubt that Gandhi was one of history’s greatest personalities. Making non-violent agitation the weapon of choice to take on the British was a master stroke against a people who valued and nurtured their freedom but refused to extend it to their Indian subjects. The non-violent liberation struggle Gandhi led, emerged from his early realisation of the terrible and lasting consequences a violent fight for freedom would have on a country so speedily combustible as India. Later it also proved to be an effective antidote to the immensely popular Subhas Chandra Bose’s militant ways.

No Indian knew India better than Gandhi did, and none of his contemporaries saw so much of it, in such depth and in all its complexities of religion, caste and acute mass deprivation. He was also the most networked Indian of his time with friends, acolytes and supporters, men as well as women, coming from diverse backgrounds — across continents.

Widely respecteds

Even as he fought them, Gandhi earned the regard of his European adversaries like no other Indian ever did, from Jan Smuts in South Africa to successive viceroys of India. The English respected him more than they did any other Indian leader, Nehru included, and feared his mass appeal. It was Gandhi who transformed the Congress Party into a formidable, voluntary, mass-based, political organisation.

In the seventieth anniversary of his assassination, we’d do well to move away from text-book hagiographies and dare to see Gandhi, warts and all. Such an exercise will only further enhance, not diminish, the Mahatma’s reputation as one of the most sensible, humane and farsighted leaders in history.

The writer is visiting faculty at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, IISc, Bengaluru