Reimagining Gandhi

Anniversaries are moments of conscience; they remind us of things we have forgotten. But, often, they are empty rituals which become a substitute for authenticity. But Mahatma Gandhi is not so easy to forget. He haunts us in a different way, not because he is a burden or a debt, but because his questions, his examples become a litmus test of every move we make or don’t make. In a deep and fundamental way, a man like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad is history, Jawaharlal Nehru is a legacy, but Gandhi is the future we forgot to elaborate.

Gandhi resists a memorial. A friend of mine once said, you can have a Nehru museum but you can only have a Gandhi ashram. An ashram is a place to experiment, a laboratory where we assemble the self every day. In fact, Gandhi asks us to reinvent him every day. He cannot be a catechism, an ideology. He is a perpetual thought experiment that has to be reworked every day. He constantly demands experiments, but he also insists that an experiment on oneself creates an infinity of possibilities out of an ascetic tool box.
All he offered was the body — the body as test tube was the site for experiments on the body politic. Everything was open-ended and a craft, whether it was walking, weaving, prayer or cooking. The bare body standing before the law was the only symbol of protest one needed, the body as the embodiment of ethics, of the truth of the satyagrahi.

The satyagrahi, in fact, is one of the greatest archetypes of the century. The guerilla was an ascetic warrior, a low-cost, low-calorie soldier who changed the rules of war to fight centralised armies. Vietnam was his greatest movement where a ragbag army on bicycles eventually out-thought both, the French and the American armies. But the guerilla as Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong never retained legitimacy for long. Eventually he turned into a terrorist, an expositor of meaningless violence.

In fact, of all the revolutionary figures, movements, it was the satyagrahi as the symbol of non-violence that survived the 20th century. All great figures from Lenin to Castro, Mao to Mandela are forgotten, but Gandhi remains perennially relevant. The satyagrahi showed there was a power to vulnerability as strength. The body standing up before power, talking truth to power challenges every tyrant and panopticon. Yet the truth of the satyagrahi is not an abstract truth but a lived one. Only Gandhi could say that truth determined both, livelihood and lifestyles.

The satyagrahi could never be stereotyped or frozen. He was perpetually fluid between two notions of scale and ethics called swadeshi and swaraj. Swadeshi encompasses locality, neighbourhood, dia-lects, but it was never parochial. It always spiralled out into infinite, creating a Gandhian idea of oceanic circles where both, a tear and dew drops, were planetary. Between swadeshi and swaraj a new geography of the imagination was created centrality, hierarchy, borders looked irrelevant. Both concepts were sliding epiphanies that could move from locality to the planet, sustaining an infinity of possibilities which sustained the political.

Gandhi was like a trickster. Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man read like finished documents while Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj has to be constantly rewritten. Its only claim to serious readership is an author or inventor who reworks the pamphlet. Hind Swaraj can be applied to peace, sustainability, the future of craft or the problem of iatrogeny, the doctor-induced illness. It is a perpetual invitation to citizenship as invention and resistance. Also, there is a humour to Gandhi one does not see in the ideologies. He could crack jokes about the empire and its pretensions as a costume ball of power.

Today the satyagrahi has four major challenges. He has to confront the iconography of terror with its pathological sense of justice. Second, his agenda has to include some sense of consumerism as terror, cannibalising the resources of the world. He has to create an ethics of sustainability which goes beyond the standard litanies of efficiency and the new lullaby called corporate social responsibility. Third, he has to fight the ravages of obsolescence which erases a whole chain of livelihoods, languages, life forms without any sense of their life-sustaining ability. The ethics of memory has to confront the ethics of innovation to create a new framework of value.

Four, the satyagrahi has to challenge the growing brutalisation of the nation state which is destroying its own margins. The ethics of hospitality have to combine with the ethics of everyday work and the ethics of non-violence to create a new vision of peace, not as security but as a new idea of the planet where nature is a part of the constitutional contract. All we have is the body capable of self-reliance prayer, work and a sense of community and with this we have to force a united world which goes beyond the pomposity of the nation state.

Sadly, the Gandhian imagination in India has been a poor one. His successors sought to museumise him and in many places we see the irony of Gandhi in mothballs. Preserving the Gandhian text embalms the life of the book. It does not open the book to life, and the book of life was where Gandhi claimed authorship.

We have to rethink democracy beyond its corrupt electoral and tyrannical majoritarian framework. We have to rethink technology beyond the current hagiography around IT and biotechnology and we have to rework the polity to include the diversity and equality of the oral, the textual and the digital. The Gandhian experiment never ceases and that is the Gandhian idea of citizenship — not a bundle of rights but a process of constant invention with the community as a commons of ideas.

Our movements, whether Chipko, Narmada Bachao or Sewa, embodied the Gandhian idea better than the official Gandhians who played coy during the 2002 riots and who have little to say about nuclear energy or India-Pakistan. The establishment of our time prefers an annotated Gandhi immaculate on the bookshelf, rather than an experimental Gandhi who shuffles the text, plays out new possibilities. But this sense of experiment that consumes prayer, work and caring is what we need.

A Gandhi for the future is a heuristic, a promissory note of possibilities not an embalmed claim to patents. Gandhi was a ganglion of connectivity and his relevance in this age of connectivity is not in doubt. The challenge is to avoid the official, the orthodox and dream new imaginaries. The playfulness and the challenge is there. Any child can begin the next experiment.


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