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Using And Abusing Gandhi
By Ramachandra Guha
Gandhi is for most Indians the ultimate touchstone of moral authority, playing a part in public discourse roughly equivalent to that of Thomas Jefferson in the United States or the Quran in Islamic countries. It is thus hardly surprising that he is quoted on every side of every major debate in India today. What is distinctive about the contemporary invocations of Gandhi, however, is that they are almost always attached to attacks on the West. The strategist hawk and the farmers’ leader are at one in this sense too, using Gandhi only to abuse the West.
Attacks on the West have, it appears, gathered force with every passing year of India’s independence. Forty-eight years after the British departed, the theme of Western domination never strays far from the pages of our newspapers. Right-wing Hindu conservatives who worry about the corrosion of our traditional culture by MTV and its ilk, left-wing nationalists who believe foreign capital will undermine development and increase poverty, mandarins in government who are concerned about the possibility of US political domination in a new unipolar world all believe that a foreign hand is at work, undermining the unity, self-reliance and integrity of India. The colour of this foreign hand is always white, although its precise nationality is sometimes hard to establish.
Indigenism is rampant in India today, as evidenced by the fashion codes of my own tribe, the intellectuals. There was a time when most were Marxists. Today, most of us are multiculturalists. The categories of culture and civilization have replaced the categories of class and capitalism as the prisms by which scholars and social scientists view the world. Where there is scholarship, there is polemic, and nowhere is this shift more clearly marked than in the changing vocabulary of abuse.
Thus, in the golden age of Marxism, a writer one disagreed with was dismissed as a lackey of capitalism or a running dog of imperialism. Now, in the brown epoch of multiculturalism, the offenders are accused of being Eurocentric or of exhibiting cultural arrogance. The class struggle between capitalists and workers has effortlessly been transformed into a ‘civilisational’ struggle between the West and the Rest.
There is, in this respect, a curious affinity between bitter ideological opponents—and not just in India. In the world of American academics, for instance, Harvard’s Samuel Huntington, shouting for the West, and Columbia’s Edward Said, screaming for the Rest, both seem to view civilizations as exclusive, oppositional, largely incapable of learning from each other.
Those who think in these broad civilisational terms easily place Gandhi east of Suez, in an ideological and physical sense. Thus, British Tories berate him for not recognizing the superiority of their culture, while Indian indigenists celebrate him for offering what they think is a civilisational alternative to Western domination. Tories and indigenists both fall back on what is perhaps the most famous of Gandhi stories. On a visit to London in 1931, for a conference on determining India’s political future, Gandhi was asked by a British journalist what he thought of Western civilization. “I think it would be a good idea,” he replied.
Beyond this witticism, it might be thought that there is good reason for the indigenists to hope that Gandhi would be on their side. For, in his politics, he worked tirelessly to free his country from foreign rule, in his economics he promoted Swadeshi, hand-spun khadi over Manchester mill-made cotton, and in his ethics he drew deep nourishment from the Vaishnava traditions of his native Gujarat. It is thus that Indian politicians and intellectuals, fraudulent or otherwise, when looking for an indigenous alternative to Western imperialism, run straight to Gandhi.
Was Gandhi, then, a quintessentially Indian, even Hindu, thinker? Karl Marx’s most famous disciple, V. I. Lenin, once remarked that his master’s thought was a synthesis of German philosophy, British political economy, and French historiography. I rather suspect that a similar inventory of influences would reveal Gandhi’s thought to be a distinctively Indian blend of Russian populism (via Leo Tolstoy), American radical democracy (through Henry David Thoreau), and English anti-industrialism (from John Ruskin).
This Hindu mahatma’s intellectual debts were most certainly Western in origin. What’s more, he said so himself—witness the guide to further reading appended at the end of his best-known work, Hind Swaraj (1909): six books by Tolstoy, two each of Thoreau’s and Ruskin’s, works by Plato, Mazzini, Edward Carpenter and others. The only Indians on the list are Dadabhai Naoroji and Romesh Chander Dutt, who wrote not on the glories of Hindu culture but about the economic effects of British rule in India.
Testimony to Gandhi’s cultural broad-mindedness, and his love of many things Western, might be found in his close friendships with Englishmen and South Africans, in his loving engagement with Christianity, or in his concern for the survival of England and English civilization in the darkest days of the Second World War. Some of this is well documented, but I now want to offer as clinching proof a little-known story that has, to my knowledge, never found its way into the Gandhi anthologies and Gandhi biographies.
The dramatis personae are an Indian, Yusuf Meherally, and an American, Bertram D. Wolfe. Both were well known in their day, but seem to have been forgotten in ours. Meherally, was a freedom fighter, founding-member of the Congress Socialist Party, and sometime Mayor of Bombay, and Wolfe, an early, brave and rigorous left - wing critic of Stalinism, the writer of Three Who Made a Revolution and other books.
In 1946, Yusuf Meherally was in the United States. He was dying of tuberculosis, and had come to rest from his labours in India. His past ten years had been spent mostly in prison, yet Bertram Wolfe, his host in New York, found his friend in an unusually mellow mood towards the British.
On earlier visits, Meherally had been full of righteous indignation about the evils of colonialism, but this time around, he was even willing to offer the British some praise. Wolfe was puzzled at this change, this 180-degree shift in tone and attitude. He asked for an explanation. They are leaving, answered Meherally. Any day now, we will be free. Gandhiji says that now that they are going, we must remember the best of British civilization the rule of law, their sense of fair play, and so on. Remember it, and keep it.
Half a century later, this advice seems as sensible as when it was first offered. I am no partisan of MTV and KFC, but I do know that the best of Western civilization is still on offer, and we are yet to grasp it. The most humane of their governments, say Finland and Norway, treat the poor and women more fairly. The best of their scientists, in Germany and the United States, turn their research to practical consequence for human betterment ours accumulate strings of research papers (many of dubious quality) and chairmanships of committees. Their industrialists donate their surplus money to foundations funding the arts, ours put it away in Swiss bank accounts.
Meanwhile, what is distressing is that those Indians who admire the West do so for the wrong reasons. Many of us prefer Madonna to Ravi Shankar, Danielle Steele to R. K. Narayan, T-shirts to kurtas, Kentucky Fried to tandoori. Professionals warm to the artifacts of a high - consumption lifestyle, the vacuum cleaners and the Peugeots, but ignore Western inventions that are relevant to a society such as ours. No one looks for where we can properly emulate the West that is, in crafting public institutions that capably, consistently, impersonally, serve the society they are part of.
They have law courts where the judges cannot be bought; universities where the teachers take classes and students are not perennially on strike; systems of transportation that are safe and reliable; hospitals where rich and poor alike are served with the same courtesy and promptness.
A large, mature democracy, an old, self-renewing culture this is what India is thought by some to be. Does it not then possess the confidence, the dignity, to take what it wants from the West, and quietly ignore the rest? That, precisely, is what Japan has done, what Singapore has put into practice. Back in the 1940s, Yusuf Meherally and Mahatma Gandhi knew when it was time to stop talking of ‘Western imperialism’ and start thinking of what India could borrow from this most powerful and dynamic of modern civilizations. We, who have never seen the inside of a British prison, do not.
[Ramachandra Guha is a historian and writer living in Bangalore. His books include 'The Unquiet Woods' and 'Spin and Other Turns'.]
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