It would be so easy to cancel Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Most of us learn about him in snatches—stories from school about his getting thrown off a train in South Africa; his journey around India before beginning his political work; his initial campaigns and his fasts; his sedition trial; his disagreement with B.R. Ambedkar’s politics, and most notoriously, his experiments and tests of celibacy. We are unforgiving these days in the standards we uphold (for others) and with his abundant and transparent writing about every topic under the sun, Gandhi seems to set himself up for trenchant critique and dismissal.
The library of work about him now rivals the library he himself generated, and in our minds, overlaying the deification of the Father of the Nation are a hundred criticisms and a thousand questions. We might say he wrote so much of which we have read so little that anyone, from any standpoint, for any purpose, seems to be able to find a suitable Gandhi quotation—and we do not know enough to contest either the attribution or the opinion itself.
So much of what he did and thought seems wrong by today’s yardsticks of what is right. And yet, I wonder why I find it hard to discard and dismiss Gandhi altogether. In this piece, I make bold, despite my ignorance, to speculate.
A life in progress
There was much about Gandhi’s personal life that we could criticise. He took his wife for granted and initially foisted his politics on her. He insisted that his family follow his lead in all matters, and placed the community ahead of them. His stormy relationship with his estranged first-born is well-known. His experiments and decisions around his sexual life seem to have been unilateral. Those involved with any of his experiments rarely seem to have been given a choice. His ashrams were not democratic communities. And yet, we know all this largely because he wrote about these matters, honestly, and fully cognizant that while personal, they were part of his political journey. Being self-aware and being honest was integral to the possibility of change.
Whether it was diet, spinning or the cleaning of toilets, Gandhi found the political in the personal. Campaigns in the public sphere were accompanied by changes in the private. The accounts we read of life on Tolstoy Farm in South Africa are examples of such changes—shared labour, community living, in proximity to the wild. Sometimes these measures were adopted willingly by others, sometimes reluctantly. The bottom line was, whether it worked perfectly or not, public, political stances had to be accompanied by changes in one’s life too.
Gandhi opened his life up to the world as a work in progress, something we have little patience for these days. Without dissembling, without euphemisms, without excuses and without thought as to how it would affect his image, he allowed the world to watch him evolve. The mantle of saintly perfection we have imposed was never his concern. In his writing, we see his foibles and fusses. We cringe and we criticise. In our image-conscious age, it is hard to understand how someone purposely laid bare the messiness and murkiness of his own life. We are expected to arrive perfectly formed; we have no time to observe a gradual evolution of ideas. Slowness, errors and stumbling on a learning curve are no longer options. Human frailty and inconsistency are not allowed.
Gandhi’s ideas about social change were both revolutionary and deeply conservative. In our black-white, in-out, good-evil age, such contradictions are hard to process. He upheld the dignity of labour as well as the caste system—which, by assigning a hierarchy of values to work, and by extension to humans traditionally engaged with that work, robbed it of dignity. He renamed untouchables Harijans in what was meant to be an embracing gesture but, in fact, left the core issues of exclusion and discrimination untouched. He extolled women as pure, gentle and non-violent, and supported their nationalist activism, yet in considering some attributes female (nurture) and some male (assertiveness), he could not go beyond patriarchal stereotypes. Not women, not Dalits—no one whose cause he espoused appears to have had a say in defining that cause or the desired kind of support.
This interior-exterior continuum is also part of Gandhi’s most famous political idea—satyagraha. Satyagraha had to be preceded by an inner journey and individuals had to be ready—in the sense of preparedness—to offer satyagraha. Gandhi listed the attributes to be cultivated and demonstrated by a satyagrahi on several occasions. These included forbearance, patience, a lack of resentment and anger, all of which take a great deal of spiritual or psychological work. They also include lifestyle habits—being a teetotaller, being chaste, not swearing or cursing, and wearing Khadi. In order to be a satyagrahi, one had to work towards these personal transformations.
This is particularly compelling in an age when allegations of sexual harassment—the #MeToo movement—have shaken the reputations of countless stalwarts of the public sphere. Their professional accomplishments and even their personal heroism or other attributes that made them celebrities, may all seem hollow. Even though, for many reasons, most allegations have gone nowhere, we know—although it is no longer fashionable to say it—that without inner integrity, everything rings false.
When Gandhi set out standards for the satyagrahi, he intended them to be standards for public life. Several of our elected representatives today are facing corruption charges and criminal charges on account of rape, murder and other assault. The most simple criteria for exclusion are right here and yet they are not imposed—either through law, or voluntarily, by political parties.
Then again, take the habit of hate speech by those in the public sphere, which is not just a matter of civility in public discourse but also about prejudice against fellow humans. This has become an integral part of the performances of belief and belonging that constitute our politics today.
A matter of trust
Beyond faith and community, politicians’ greatest contempt is reserved for those who are not men—women and sexual and gender minorities. Every election season, we are treated to misogynistic utterances which mostly go unpunished. These obscene public displays of prejudice recall another forgotten Indian virtue—control over one’s senses, also part of Gandhi’s ethos. To control one’s senses—to control passion and anger, hunger and avarice, speech and action and thought—is at the core of this ideal. And it is completely absent from public life in present-day India.
The participation of women in politics and their inclusion, especially in peace processes, is central to both my academic and activist work. I find persuasive Gandhian scholar Usha Thakkar’s point that the creed of non-violence espoused by Gandhi allowed hundreds of thousands of women to enter the nationalist movement. Of course. What is the biggest deterrent to women entering public life today? Violence. The fear of violence in public spaces. Not wanting to be subject to the kind of gendered hate speech we mentioned earlier. The vicious trolling on social platforms. Death threats to women human rights defenders.
In 2021, when women step out into the public sphere and speak out, they are punished with stigma, rumour-mongering, threats and violence. In the case of women who are active in politics or social movements, their families are also threatened. Nothing silences women faster than violence or the threat of violence. In today’s militarised climate—where verbal violence is easily backed by guns and arson—it takes exceptionally courageous women to enter political life, even in its broadest sense. Gandhi understood this. Yes, he essentialised women as being gentle and non-violent, but he also astutely identified the one condition of public life that would draw them out of their homes.
It is also worth noting that the actions that were advocated were often simple—from making salt to spinning to giving up the use of certain products. For women, traditionally confined to familial roles, these feasible, accessible actions gave them a sense of agency and possibility. Their citizenship was real and their participation mattered. Each woman in a prabhat-pheri mattered. Choosing Khadi over silk mattered. Spinning every day mattered. In 2021, we are counting the number of years the Women’s Reservation Bill has languished. In 2021, we are not even asking why the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav (an initiative by the Union ministry of culture to celebrate 75 years of India’s independence) does not apply to women’s political freedom—not to mention freedom from violence. In 2021, women’s workforce participation still looks dismal.
Gandhi may well be castigated today for all the sensitivities he did not possess—whether towards other genders or caste. But once we have checked our privilege and learnt all the right words, there is a simple Gandhian idea that is worth remembering: trusteeship. Gandhi was talking about the wealthy and how they must act as trustees for the welfare of the community. He was addressing the captains of industry but I think he could have been talking to us. Privilege is relative; there is always someone more privileged than I am and someone less privileged. Everything I have, every good fortune in my life, every gift I am given, every advantage I take for granted, I am given in trust. It is up to me to pay it forward in bushels.
This smattering of ideas that I associate with Gandhi stay with me through the things I do—write, teach and run a small NGO that works towards peace and gender equality. That one must be worthy to serve—one must work on oneself before fixing the world. That non-violence matters. That small actions make a big difference. That one must give back in the measure that one receives. The value of a life lies not solely in what you can emulate but also in learning what not to replicate. The honesty of Gandhi’s writing allows us to do both, as we like. In this age of summary cancellations, my red pen still pauses before crossing out this name.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist, author, peace educator and founder of Prajnya, a non-profit that works in the area of gender equality.