What made Gandhi the foremost leader of modern India?
Gandhi’s critique of colonialism was deeper than the rest, his method more alive to the hegemonic nature of the colonial state and his engagements with various social groups for forging national unity keener than those of other anti-colonial figures.
Mahatma Gandhi’s primacy as a national leader during the freedom struggle owed itself to a variety of factors. On his birth anniversary, it isn’t a bad idea to explore why Gandhi stood apart from all his contemporaries, even as in the popular, middle class, imagination he is sometimes reduced to someone who would show the other cheek when slapped on one.
Gandhi perhaps had the keenest sense of the nature of the colonial state in India and also a keen sense of what was required to weld the nation into a single unit as a counterweight to colonialism.
The anti-colonial movement – which began in the 1880s, apart from the Revolt of 1857 that nearly shook the Empire and some localised movements – generally took two forms, till Gandhi arrived on the scene.
There were constitutionalists who would claim to represent Indian interests vis-à-vis British Rule and use institutional means – like petitioning and joining legislatures – for this. And there were those who would use violent methods, like individual assassinations of British officials.
Both weren’t likely to succeed, as they failed to understand the hegemonic or semi-hegemonic nature of the colonial state. The state had, as Louis Althusser has said about the state in general, a repressive state apparatus – like police and army – and an ideological state apparatus. The latter involved colonial education that sought to project British Rule as beneficial to Indians and the representative institutions and systems put in place by the British.
Those who took part in colonial, institutional, politics as a means to voice Indian grievances ended up reaffirming the legitimacy of the colonial state. And those who resorted to violent means to overthrow the state could be shown as a danger to orderly daily existence that the colonial state had ushered in and crushed, employing the repressive arm of the state.
Gandhi’s prime contribution was to steer clear of both paths and devise a third, and more powerful, way. He gave a call to boycott all colonial institutions during his major movements but without recourse to violence. The idea was to paralyse the administration through civil disobedience. This made the Satyagrahi neither a collaborator with colonialism nor susceptible to be shown as a danger to society.
It was difficult to brutally crush such protest. For, the colonial state was hegemonic, in Gramscian terms, and tried to foster consent for its own perpetuation. Civil disobedience did exercise a moral force, thus building reserves of counter-hegemony, and was difficult to crush brutally.
Gandhi’s focus on Khadi, similarly, was aimed at hurting the economic logic of colonialism. Foreign cloth primarily meant the modern cotton textile industry in Britain, which was being served by cheaply bought raw cotton from India, which was to be processed into cotton cloth and shipped to India, to be distributed to the vast hinterland via the Railways.
This had found the cotton textile industry in Britain a vast market in India – leading to soaring profits. This was destroying Indian handicraft and Gandhi’s focus on Khadi was aimed at reversing this.
Another thing, too, set Gandhi apart. While most of the freedom fighters were seeking political and economic independence – thus not questioning the British claims of colonial modernity being culturally liberating – Gandhi countered colonialism in greater depth. He questioned modernity in a technological and civilisational sense, upholding reformed traditions. And he did not just speak and write: he also spent his life in Ashrams -- which had a symbolic appeal in itself – and wore the traditional Indian dhoti as an anti-colonial leader.
His critique of colonialism thus went beyond the political and economic to the civilisational realm. The symbolism worked for Gandhi and the freedom struggle. If the freedom struggle had graduated to urban agitation by the Extremist phase, Gandhian politics took villages by storm.
If the above strategies made Gandhi an ace anti-colonial leader, he also tried to stitch Indian society into a nation. Colonial scholarship had already said that India was fractured around the axes of religion and caste, claiming that the country could not be a nation.
Gandhi acted as the bridge around these fault lines. His calls for Hindu-Muslim unity did enjoy some success, but the existence of the Muslim League meant that the success could not result in lasting unity. He had been instrumental in bringing the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements together, something that was criticised from within the Congress when the Moplah riots broke out later.
The last year of his life – around the time of Partition – saw Gandhi stake everything for Hindu-Muslim unity and falling to the bullets fired by Nathuram Godse, who interpreted him to be a Muslim and Pakistan backer. Yet, this was after Gandhi had, in Mountbatten’s own admission, practically halted the deadly riots in Noakhali in Bengal, where he sat on a fast unto death all alone for peace. Ram Guha’s India After Gandhi cites Mountbatten as saying that what scores of mounted troops could not do in Punjab one unarmed man could achieve in Bengal.
Gandhi did act as a bridge on the question of caste and Untouchability too, trying to change the way in which upper castes looked at the Scheduled Castes. He led temple entry movements to ensure that the latter could enter temples, spent a lot of time in Scheduled Castes’ habitations, also focusing on sanitation work. While he philosophically accepted caste, he tried to argue – as much through his work as through his words – for a horizontal equality between different kinds of work, including sanitation work.
His efforts here too garnered criticism as paternalistic; as an attempt to usher in limited top-down reform to ensure that the SCs did not leave the Hindu fold. BR Ambedkar was deeply critical of Gandhi, particularly for ensuring that the British could not implement separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes, which Gandhi thought would break society as also Hinduism. His fast unto death had reversed separate electorates in 1932 and paved the way for political reservation instead.
Gandhi was criticised as a Hindu leader by Jinnah, as pro-Muslim by Godse and as inimical to Dalit interests by Ambedkar. Yet, significantly, Ambedkar chose to attack Gandhi more than conservative Hindu leaders. Godse, too, hated Gandhi perhaps more than he hated Jinnah, as the assassination of Gandhi shows, even though Godse made it a point to say that he touched Gandhi’s feet before killing him out of respect.
The reason why Gandhi was attacked so much was perhaps that identity politics on Hindu/Muslim and upper caste/Dalit lines thrives if there are no attempts to bridge the divide. In some ways, orthodox Hindus were the fodder for the Ambedkarite assertion, as they could be shown to represent an “authentic”, hierarchical Hinduism.
Similarly, bigoted Muslims were what sustained Hindutva politics, as they could be shown to be the “real” face of Islam. Similarly, the Muslim League would not think that fanatical Hindus would hurt its prospects. For, it is these Hindus who would stand in the eyes of Muslims as the justification for the League’s existence.
Gandhi made identity politics very difficult, because his deep engagements with Dalits and Muslims made Othering difficult. Without such othering, identity politics had no chance of succeeding.
This is perhaps the reason Gandhi was viciously attacked by all kinds of identity politics.
Gandhi also made purely ideological politics difficult. He could pull off being a mentor to the more conservative Patel and also the cosmopolitan socialist Nehru. In this sense, too, he was a bridge across the right and left; the fulcrum of the Congress, as it were. However, some in the left did find him to be “vacillating”, perhaps because they did not understand the nuances of his politics well enough.
And, yet, all the criticisms did not diminish Gandhi’s stature. For, his was a life that wasn’t about merely making ideological claims. He lived and practised his truths all his life, constantly questioning himself. This is what made him the Mahatma – a term Tagore first used for him – and not just another political leader.