Date: 30 Jan 2008



The myth of Mahatma Gandhi


Tuesday, 29 January , 2008, 23:31


Arvind Lavakare may be 71, but the fire in his belly burns stronger than in many people half his age. The economics post-graduate worked with the Reserve Bank of India and several private and public sector companies before retiring in 1997. His first love, however, remains sports. An accredited cricket umpire in Mumbai, he has reported and commented on cricket matches for newspapers, Doordarshan and AIR. Lavakare has also been regularly writing on politics since 1997, and published a monograph, The Truth About Article 370, in 2005. 


Sixty years ago, today, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi of the Indian National Congress was shot dead. The ensuing flood of tributes hailed the dead man as a martyr, as an apostle of peace, as a version of Jesus Christ, as the deliverer of India's Independence, as the Father of the nation and much else besides such eulogies. 


Soon thereafter, the Gandhi icon gradually lost its earlier sheen. Free India was confronted with scores of problems, and had little time to worship icons. Gandhi's name became a mere label to be affixed to schemes and roads alike. Newspapers stopped carrying Gandhi's 3-column photograph on the front page of their January 30 edition some years ago. Stopped earlier was the 11 am siren on that day, when the whole nation was expected to stand still and observe two minutes of silence in his memory. January 30 as well as October 2, Gandhi's date of birth, became just two more Bank holidays. 


Simultaneously, as the information world expanded, disturbing facts about the icon came to light. But all of them were kept bottled up, because of the Indian belief that we should not talk ill about the dead. 


But over the past three years, the country's Congress-led UPA government spearheaded by Sonia Gandhi sought to consciously revive the Gandhi icon. 


In March 2005, the female and Italian version of Gandhi and some of her government's cabinet ministers participated in the re-enactment of the original Gandhi's Dandi Salt March of 1930 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the mass passive resistance, called satyagraha, against the tax on salt levied in India under the British Salt Act, 1882. 


In 2006, the Sonia Gandhi-nominated Prime Minister was in Durban as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the original Gandhi's first satyagraha in South Africa to protest against the identity card that the non-Europeans were asked to carry in that country. And last year, when October 2 was declared by the United Nations as World Peace Day, the UPA ensured that it was Sonia Gandhi who addressed the UN on the occasion. 


Whether the three events were ploys to fuse the original Gandhi image with the Italian one is immaterial. What is relevant is that hard-nosed realists have been looking at historical accounts and are ready to prove that the icon is a myth. 


Space constraint prevents a comprehensive case on this issue. It requires a whole book to do that, and a friend has sent me the first manuscript of such a book that could well explode on the public this year. Meanwhile, let us look at the icon's two satyagrahas celebrated by the UPA government. 


Gandhi's satyagraha which began in September 1906 — against Transvaal Asiatic Ordinance requiring all Asiatic, Arab and Turkish people to always carry an identity pass for being eligible to stay in South Africa — lasted seven years, a highlight being the mass burning of such passes in protest. 


After the deportation of many Indians and thousands of others facing imprisonment and injury, the passes were withdrawn — but only temporarily. What followed was worse: laws were passed to restrict the non-Europeans into designated areas in every city. Racial segregation had begun legally in South Africa. By any yardstick, Gandhi's satyagraha was a disaster. 


Now consider his Dandi March. Walking 241 miles with hundreds joining him on the way, Gandhi broke the salt law on April 6, 1930 at the beach in Dandi in Gujarat. Within a few weeks about a hundred thousand men and women were in jail as salt depots were raided and crowds clashed with police. But the Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell, refused to abolish the salt law and it was left to Nehru's Interim Government to do so in October 1946. Thus, the Dandi March too was a failure. Yet its re-enactment by the UPA resulted in the issue of a series of commemorative five-rupee stamps by our postal department on April 5, 2005. 


Did the icon's series of satyagrahas deliver freedom to India? 


Without going into the outstanding anti-British role of the Indian National Army raised by the self-exiled Subhash Chandra Bose, the post-war trial by the British of three of INA's senior officers, its dramatic mutinous effects on the Indian Army sepoys and ratings of Royal Indian Navy, read what the famous historian, R C Muzumdar, wrote: 

"The campaigns of Gandhi… came to an ignoble end about fourteen years before India achieved Independence… the revelations made by the INA trial, and the reaction it produced in India, made it quite plain to the British, already exhausted by the war, that they could no longer depend upon the loyalty of the sepoys for maintaining their authority in India. This had probably the greatest influence upon their final decision to quit India." (Three Phases of India's Struggle for Freedom, Bombay, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan). 

Consider, next, the icon's attitude to religion and his avowed creed of non-violence. 


First, it is strange that while Gandhi confessed to worshipping the teachings of the Bhagvad Gita, he never realised that the sacred text preached war even against one's kith and kin when circumstances warranted it. How then could he himself preach and advocate ahimsa, non-violence, to his Hindu followers and to the Indian nation? How could he when the British Empire was crushing his own people every which way? 


Today's "pseudo-secularists" have hailed Gandhi as a "secular" person. If "secular" means keeping religion away from politics, the icon certainly did not do that. He associated himself with the Khilafat Movement (1921), which was a political movement of Indian Muslims led by two brothers, Mohamed Ali and Shaukat Ali, for the restoration of the Caliphate abolished in Turkey after the First World War. The agitation was essentially religious, and Gandhi believed that by supporting it he would cement Hindu-Muslim unity. Gandhi's own statement in Young India of October 20, 1921 said: 

"I claim that with us both the Khilafat is the central fact — with Maulana Muhammad Ali because it is his religion, with me because, in laying down my life for the Khilafat, I ensure the safety of the cow, that is my religion, from the Mussalman knife." 

Ironically, Jinnah, who later in the forties advocated a separate Muslim nation, had earlier warned Gandhi not to encourage the fanaticism of Muslim religious leaders and their followers. 


If "secular" means "equal respect to all religions", then Gandhi was not that kind of "secular" person too. In April 1932, when the British Government's "Communal Award" provided for separate electorates and reservation of seats for Muslims and the Depressed Classes, Gandhi announced that if the Award was not changed as to the Depressed Classes (who were Hindus) he would fast unto death. If that was not pro-Muslim bias, what else is? 


Considering that he never ever fasted for a Hindu cause, never condemned Muslims for their violence in the Moplah revolution following the Khilafat or the mass killing of Hindus by the Muslims in the Direct Action undertaken in Muslim-ruled Bengal Province in 1946, Gandhi could well be dubbed the "father of minority appeasement" in India. Is that secularism? 


Lastly, there's that non-violence business. Relying on secret documents of the British Government released in 1967, the legendary constitutional authority, H M Seervai, concluded, "Gandhi used non-violence as a political weapon, and was prepared to support, or connive at, violence to secure political goals." (Constitutional Law of India, Supplement to Third Edition, 1988, Pg 143 of Introduction). Seervai cites the following in support of his statement: 

In the middle of 1918, Gandhi supported the War Conference main resolution of recruiting Indians to fight on the side of Britain and her allies if it ensured the acceptance of Congress-Muslim League scheme for Home Rule. 


When Britain announced in 1939 that India was at war, Gandhi refused to support the Second World War on the ground that he would not support violence even to secure the independence of India. 


In July 1944, when the tide of victory was flowing towards the Allies, Gandhi stated in an interview to News Chronicle, London, that the Viceroy could remain in charge of military operations and India could be used as a base for such military operations provided that a National Government was immediately formed. 


In an interview with Lord Wavell on August 27, 1946, Gandhi told him that "If India wants a bloodbath, she shall have it." 

Was the icon then really "an apostle of peace"? Was he also all else that he was said to be? 


Or is the icon a myth?