Sunday, February 22, 2004

An alternative Gandhi
Rumina Sethi

Gandhi in His Time and Ours
by David Hardiman, Permanent Black, Delhi. Rs 650. Pages 338.

GANDHI in his Time and Ours is the first book in a new series called The Indian Century, which will bring out titles on modern Indian history. Gandhi has been examined variously by historians—as a champion of the peasantry and the working class seen in his initiatives in Champaran, Kheda and Ahmedabad; as a social reformer who sought to empower the Dalits and the women; as one who gave the Indian National Congress a direction through Non-Cooperation, Civil Disobedience and Quit India Movements.

Gandhi has also often been criticised by other groups for his "distractive" politics, by the high-caste Hindus for his obsession with the lower castes, by the Dalits for his condescending attitude towards them, by the Marxists and socialists who considered him to be a mere "leader of an emerging bourgeoisie", who, with his concentration on matters of morality, dissipated the important issues of national liberation.

David Hardiman, for long known as one of the Subaltern collective, describes how Gandhi was accused of being "an irresponsible trouble-maker by his colonial masters, a destroyer of social harmony by Indian traditionalists, a backward-looking crank by modernists and progressives, an authoritarian leader by those within the movement who resented his style of leadership, a Hindu chauvinist by many Muslims, and a defender of high-caste elitism by lower-caste activists." Hardiman, however, attempts to "reassess" Gandhi’s life and thought in terms of the events of the 1990s when the Hindus killed the Muslims in Gandhi’s home state of Gujarat.

Many critics like Partha Chatterjee believe that Gandhi’s contribution lay only in "manoeuvring" Indian history till it was overtaken by Nehru’s realpolitik. This is where Hardiman steps in to pick up the pieces and vindicate Gandhi. He offers us Gandhicomplexities—his dialogic methodology of being his own adversary, never inhibited from changing his viewpoint when discovered wrong, and believing in a rather "post-modern" view of multiple rationales as opposed to "a coercive form of rationality."

Hardiman’s book has two objectives: a representation of Gandhi and Gandhism, in his own times and in ours. On the one hand, he attempts a dialogic approach to the many spheres of Gandhian activity and, on the other, tries to resurrect Gandhi in the way in which he has survived in India and the rest of the world. His agenda is also somewhat personal: he wants to chase away the ghosts of his "own troubled dialogue" with Gandhi, one that began with "emotional commitment", led to disenchantment and eventually to a deeper understanding of Gandhi’s thought and philosophy.

Hardiman goes through the gamut of Gandhiana—his concepts of Swaraj, ahimsa, satyagraha, swadeshi and brahmacharya—which most Indians would be familiar with, but which need to be situated for the foreign reader. Gandhi’s treatment of history is scrutinised with much attention by the author. Gandhi had appreciated Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic and Lord Rosebery’s Life of Pitt, yet these were "no more than biographies of states."

Hardiman sums up Gandhi’s indifference to history neatly: "The great myths of the past, most notably the Mahabharata, were more honest in this, as these did not claim to be factual or scientific. Because facticity was such a dubious matter, Gandhi preferred to judge all narratives of the past not in terms of their historicity, but in terms of the spiritual truths to which these provided access." Although Gandhi never addressed this problem, it remains a conundrum for the critic and the historian.

In my view, Gandhi’s attraction for myth may be a way of escaping the strict parameters of "history" rather than a rejection of the historical method per se. Venturing into the mythical method may be seen as part of Gandhi’s spiritualisation, no doubt, but also simultaneously as a way of freeing the "fragmented" subject of history.

Gandhi’s valorisation of myth, to some extent, explains his suspicion of other "sophisticated" means of production, farming, communication and so on, which are dealt with in the course of the book. Hind Swaraj virtually prophesied an age of ecological disaster. Gandhian-inspired initiatives and protests were seen in the Bhoodan and Gramdan movements, the anti-liquor drive of women and the Chipko Andolan, and most recently, in the Narmada Bachao Andolan—all of which are regarded as "environmental". The NBA, in particular, has brought to the fore, albeit unintentionally, the Gandhian ideals of revitalising the vigorous ancient Indian village community elucidated at length in Hind Swaraj.

As a concession to "theory", Hardiman often employs concepts from Laclau and Mouffe, Foucault or Bakhtin, which seem ill-at-ease with the rest of his treatment of Gandhi. Take this for example: "In this emphasis on the need for maintaining an austere discipline at all times during the course of a struggle, Gandhi distanced himself firmly from the more carnivalesque elements of popular culture. In this, he was clearly not in tune with Mikhail Bakhtin."

Apart from these contrived and needless forays into theoretical diversions, Hardiman explores an archive of writing on Gandhi from his relation with women, Dalits, Adivasis, Muslim and Hindu nationalists in India to his global anti-racist influence in connection with apartheid in South Africa as well as with world leaders in the Gandhian mould—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Petra Kelly and Aung San Suu Kyi—but without any fresh insights of his own. Undoubtedly, Hardiman has read many books on Gandhi, but he scarcely makes an original contribution.