by Philip Ferguson
Today is Gandhi Day, a day of celebration of the life, achievements and philosophy of the saintly leader and ‘spiritual father’ of the independent Indian state. It’s always a bit difficult to attack saintly figures but, only too often, such folks have feet of clay and are surrounded by myths that serve very ordinary, and frequently tawdry, political aims. Princess Diana and Mother Theresa are good recent examples. Gandhi is another example.
From the publicity around Gandhi it would be easy to assume that he is massively popular in India and is seen as the greatest Indian. However, in a nationwide poll by History TV and the Indian CNN, someone who is hardly known in the west, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, one of the leaders of the Dalits (Untouchables) and a critic of Gandhi’s stance on untouchability, was this year voted the greatest Indian ever (see here). Ambedkar is also more searched on google than Gandhi.
One of the great myths perpetrated by Gandhi propagandists is that Indian independence came as a result of peaceful protest led by the ‘Mahatma’. The reality is rather different. On the one hand, as long as it wanted to hold India and maintained repression, including violent repression, Britain was able to contain and see off Gandhi’s movement. On the other hand, after World War 2, Britain was simply incapable of holding onto India. It was indebted and ravaged as a result of the war. As long as British capital could continue to exploit the regions ruled by Britain, the British state would evacuate its administrations and grant independence.
In India, British rule was threatened by mass radical struggles, most of which had nothing to do with Gandhi. If Britain tried to hold on, these mass struggles would radicalise further, threatening capitalism itself. What were these forms of struggle?
Under the influence of Russian Revolution a layer of advanced Indian nationalists was drawn to Marxism and a communist party established. The CP and other revolutionary organisations and militant trade unions became increasingly important in the late 1920s and there were a series of peasant uprisings. With the outbreak of WW2, came a new wave of peasant uprisings and strikes and a big growth of armed independence forces, something that has been largely erased from the established portraits of Indian independence.
The Indian National Congress had been partly marginalised by the growth of revolutionary forces and their inability to deal with the kind of murderous repression the British had unleashed in the Amritsar Massacre of 1919. Gandhi had launched the salt satyagraha of the early 1930s partly to try to regain influence for the INC. In WW2, seeking to regain the initiative in the face of much more radical mass activity, the INC issued its ‘Quit India’ call in 1942.
However, it was the continuation of the mass struggles that finished off British rule. At the end of the war there was a massive strike wave, in which 1700 people were killed by the colonial police force. There was a mass mutiny by Indian sailors. Resistance to British rule grew in the Indian armed forces. Radical peasant and trade union organisations expanded in size and influence, and armed actions became more widespread. In Bengal women played a noticeable role in armed groups.
Another myth is that Gandhi was a great pacifist and principled advocate of Indian independence. In fact, he supported British imperialism in World War I and encouraged Indians to fight for Britain. He even tried to join up twice himself. Gandhi claimed that the British Empire had a “spiritual foundation”. While supporting armed imperialism he opposed the Chauri Chaura revolt of 1921 and called for a halt to the National Non-Cooperation Movement. Gandhi also advocated Home Rule rather than independence. His views at the time were out of sync with many other independence leaders. For instance, his position on WWI was strongly opposed by the radical Ghadar Party. By this time, most of the advanced Indian intellectuals had been hostile to British rule since the 1880s, noting how it held back (and even threw back) the economic and social development of the sub-continent. Even as late as the end of the 1920s, however, Gandhi continued to reject Indian independence in favour of Home Rule. Other Congress leaders began expressing frustration with his illusions in the British and his reluctance to move the struggle forward.
Another myth is that he was a simple man, a man of the people and someone who eschewed personal power. But, even after WWI, his view was that the Indian masses must be well-behaved enough to impress the British (and himself) that they deserved independence. In the meantime, in fact for all time, he would make all the decisions about tactics and strategy. Other Congress leaders frequently expressed disagreement with his autocratic behaviour. Claiming to be repso9nding to a higher calling, as autocrats frequently do, Gandhi simply ignored Congress decisions he didn’t agree with and did whatever he wanted to do. He preferred working with elite cliques than the organisation as a whole and he used fasting as a manipulative tool to control the Congress movement. They would have to fall in behind his fasts and what he wanted and abandon what they had decided to be their priorities.
While he liked to tell the Indian masses how to behave, he was less censorious towards the Indian capitalist class. He was, for instance, close to the Birlas, a very rich capitalist family who donated money to Gandhi’s little clique and advised him on economic policy.
Another myth is that Gandhi was a great champion of the Dalits and sought to abolish Untouchability. But Ambedkar criticised Gandhi for moving too slowly on the issue. Moreover, Gandhi’s attitude to the Dalits, in line with his generally elitist views, was paternalistic. He would eventually free them – they were not to free themselves. Gandhi even went on hunger strike against the Dalits being granted seats in the Indian parliament, although he supported separate seats for other minorities. The contradiction was that Gandhi upheld the Hindu social structure. He wanted to improve it through, gradually, removing barriers to Dalit legal equality, but he did not wish to challenge the social structure itself.
Moreover, he continually argued for obligations on the part of the oppressed – and did so without ever assuming the same duties on the part of the British. In his world view, the rights of the oppressed were far less important than their observance of his particular set of morals. It’s perhaps no surprise that Gandhi was the son of the chief administrator of a princely state and even noted, “we are known to belong to a band of robbers”. He never shed a feudal-like view in which the masses had no inherent rights, only obligations.
Gandhi is also seen as highly spiritual. Well, that may be true. But what consequences did this have for India? His views of religion and spirituality and the kind of post-independent India he wanted tended to fit into the exoticisation of India and ignored the sub-continent’s long association with science and rationalism. God, apparently, was his own special friend too. He personalised this relationship, often claiming “God has warned me. . .” in order to get people to do what he wanted. In addition, religious texts were used to appeal to pacifist idealism, often with tragic results, rather than as means to mobilise the masses. (Other leaders sometimes used religious texts, but as means to organise resistance rather than passivity.)
He also idealised peasant/village existence, rather than modernisation and emancipation. An India of a million backward little villages was hardly the road to a land of freedom and plenty.
Part of his ‘spiritual/religious’ aura involved preaching abstinence. This helped solidify moral puritanism. It also had a seedy-creepy side. For instance, late in life, Gandhi began taking very young women and girls to his bed – he claimed this was to tempt and test his “platonic resolve”!
Later this week, we’ll look more into Gandhi’s pacifism and satyagraha philosophy and its ineffectiveness in challenging oppression, using examples from India, Martin Luther King and the wider civil rights movement in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the civil rights movement in the north of Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In the future, we’ll also be looking at the development of the Indian state and challenging some myths about “the world’s largest democracy”.
Further reading: How successful was/is Gandhian satyagraha?