February 18, 2020
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Gandhi, the Commodity

His deification wasn't as dramatic as the uses his name was put to

Gandhi, the Commodity
Gandhi's Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi
By Stanley Wolpert
OUP Pages: 291; Rs. $27.50

FOR India’s midnight children—those born in a freshly partitioned and free Hindustan—Gandhi and Nehru represented the two facets of adolescent, post-colonial pride. The tension between the Mahatma’s anarchic vision of a self-sufficient village India and the armature of a sovereign state that a hard-hatted Nehru was fabricating feverishly at Tarapore and Khadakvasla, Sindri and Bhakra Nangal, was not always clear to us. For us primary-schoolers of the ’50s, it was the ‘Sabarmati sant’ who in the words of the famous Jagriti film song had ‘miraculously given us freedom sans shield-and-sword’.

We knew that the young Gandhi had refused to cheat at school, even when his teacher had nudged-and-winked so as to present the visiting inspector with a class of word-perfect spellers. We could almost hear the goat which kid Mohandas had consumed with a friend bleating normatively inside young Gandhi. We awaited with solemn, juvenile eagerness the two-minute break from all scholarly activity at 11 am on Martyr’s Day—January 30—when Gandhi was gunned down at the eponymously rechristened Tees Janvari Marg in Lutyens’ Delhi. As Stanley Wolpert’s empathetic and meticulous biography makes clear, the assassin’s bullet found its mark that day in 1948 just after five in the evening: “Mahatma Gandhi’s passionate heart poured its crimson blood out onto his white shawl. His gentle body collapsed and stopped breathing at 5.17 pm.”

But national commemoration of the Father of the Nation rightly required that we remembered the Great Man outside the restrictive space of families huddled over an evening cup of tea. So even if mildly anachronistic, individual Indians stood up in non-familial groups, wherever they were—at offices, schools, colleges, factories at 11 am—in silent tribute to Mahatma Gandhi. In our youthful, febrile imagination we debated inconclusively whether trains screeched to a regulation two-minute halt an hour before noon. We were unaware of the travails and triumphs of India’s most famous third-class passenger, who since his first such rail journey from the Calcutta Congress to Rajkot in 1901 was to hitch his career as a nationalist to this novel and plebeian carriage.

But those days, to bend the language a bit, is past now. No such commemoration seems to take place in schools these days. “What is Martyr’s Day?” is a general knowledge question 11-year-olds have to get right in a school test; they don’t live those two Gandhian minutes every year any longer. One wonders whether the average aspiring karorpati on the Star TV show would get it right first shot, without phoning a friend or going 50-50!

Gandhi’s Passion: The Life and Legacy of Mahatma, though written for the world at large, is timely for us living in the India of today. Wolpert’s attempt is to demonstrate through a close reading of Gandhi’s own voluminous writings the unique combination of yogic tapas and Christian passion—“the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross”—that the Mahatma embodied in his body-polity. The notion of sacrifice is of course central to all mass nationalist leaders, for if nationalism is the successful inculcation of a unifying sentiment in a diverse populace, the difference between the leaders and the mass can be made bridgeable by the practice of tyag, and not tapas alone.

Wolpert takes us through the trials and tribulations of Gandhi’s life with a surefootedness that is often lacking in other scholarly exercises. His story of the life of this supreme votary of non-violence repeatedly reminds us of the tremendous physical violence that Gandhi had to endure in his political career. In South Africa an enraged Pathan who thought Gandhi had sold out to General Smuts nearly broke his ribs; in 1934 when he had taken on the cause of untouchability, bombs were hurled at what his high caste assailants in Poona thought was the car carrying Gandhi, and in the run-up to the Partition, which he could oppose only ineffectively, he was repeatedly attacked and verbally abused in Calcutta and Delhi.

There is of course a fair amount here on Gandhi’s obsession with bodily functions and his demonstrative brahmacharya, but equally important for this study of Gandhi’s passion is an account of sheer bodily pain that Gandhi endured and inflicted upon himself. Were Gandhi not such a masterful, modern mass leader, one would be tempted to give the nod to the lazy generalisation that much like the yogis and sufis of yore, Gandhi practised austerities in order to induce states outside the realm of normal experience. But whatever the exact locus of his small “inner voice”, to which Wolpert draws repeated attention, Mahatma Gandhi was a nationalist, and given the modernity of that category could never have been a ‘living god’ to the millions of his peasant followers.

This point needs some emphasis, for when Wolpert writes of the “illiterate millions, who (in 1921) fought to bow and touch his bare feet or his naked legs, and worshipped the Mahatma as their living god, walking all day and night for a glimpse of his bald head”, he overdramatises. And for two reasons. First, Mahatma Gandhi was never deified in the proper sense of that term. Popular adoration of Gandhi, the mad quest for his darshan produced for sure a category of active peasant followers who acted upon their own understanding of his message, often in starkly un-Gandhian ways. It never created a sect of Gandhipanthis, as happened with a Kabir or other medieval saints. And that was because Gandhi was a nationalist leader, and nationalism leads to citizenship—howsoever circumscribed for some—in a nation-state, not to a membership in a sampradaya or a silsilah.

The obverse of this nationalist ‘deification’ of Gandhi was the commodification of his name and of his image. Gandhi was incensed by a packet of cigarettes bearing his impress that were being marketed by an Indian manufacturer in Gorakhpur in eastern UP and in distant Assam. He perhaps did not notice that one Dev Das & Co. of Benares had made a Mahatma Gandhi rubber-stamp in mid-1921 at the height of the non-cooperation movement, pricing it at a high Rs 3.50. Advertised as “ideal for patriots, and for panchayats, courts and for sewa samitis”, it was often purchased by a District Congress Committee, which alone could afford it, to convert an ordinary register into a Nationalist Register. The Register of Volunteers, Gorakhpur Congress Committee of early 1922, which included the names of some of the peasant nationalists who were to turn violent at Chauri Chaura on February 4, had been rubber-stamped by such a ‘Mahatma Gandhi’.

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