Gandhi wanted to be relived and reinvented.
The nation state is often a litany of the same mechanical rituals, where the same clichés are repeated by politicians, year after year. Gandhi Jayanti is one such event. Gandhi is treated as a mnemonic to a past that has receded into the background. Our leaders, reciting their speeches, see Gandhi as a catechism than as a dissenting imagination or inventive ethics. Left and right join in tribute, convinced they have sanitised the man’s radical power. Worse, Gandhians and Gandhi ashrams have museumised the man, as vigilante custodians of his text than a pretext for any new Gandhian experiment. Our elite would be happier if Gandhi remained a commemorative stamp, or an excuse for a holiday than be a trigger for a new kind of politics. Luckily, however, Gandhi’s power lies in the fact that he can’t be packaged or out into pigeonholes. So he remains relevant despite his official canonisation.
There are many reasons for this, many not well known. One is that Gandhi has a tremendous sense of humour: he could even laugh at himself. He could joke about his mistakes. In today’s gloomy global world of politics, laughter is rare and often unrecognisable.
I remember once when Gandhi’s ashram got a Ford car from industrialist Jamnalal Bajaj. It ran for a few weeks and then broke down, and had to be pulled by a pair of oxen. Gandhi proudly showed off the contraption to his visitors, saying: “See my Oxford.” There was another time when Mussolini asked him to review his Fascist troops. They marched past, clicking their heels, but when the Duce asked him to say a few words, Gandhi only said: “You all look healthy to me.”
For Gandhi, laughter was a way to size up a situation to understand its contradictions. American civilisation, the British Empire and modern technology — all were targets of his acerbic humour. Many cite his response to an American journalist’s question, “What do you think of Western civilisation?”, to which he is said to have remarked, “It would be a good idea.” What few remember is a cartoon where Gandhi returns, and is asked: “What do you think of Indian civilisation?” to which he replies: “That too would be a good idea.”
Gandhi was a saint, a pilgrim, a believer and a baniya, a man determined to rescue India from the West. But for all his criticism of the West, he had good ties with Westerners, with disciples like Madeleine Slade and Charles Freer Andrews. One of today’s ironies is that Gandhi is more alive in the ideas of Václav Havel, Steve Biko, Desmond Tutu and Lanza del Vasto than in the work of his Indian disciples. The former invented and adapted Gandhi to their worlds, while ours were mechanical or recited Gandhi by rote, often revealing their prejudices than a Gandhian understanding of the situation.
During the meetings of the Constituent Assembly, when members were discussing Directive Principles, Gandhians insisted on imposing prohibition on the tribes while tribal leader Jaipal Singh bitterly resisted, claiming: “I cannot be a tribal without my drink.” What he was referring to was the rituals, festivals and the joy of comradeship that drink offers, something our arid Gandhians couldn’t appreciate. The sadness is many Gandhians turned his work into a dismal science or body catechism.
Sadly, Gandhi was unfairly labelled as a Luddite. He was a great inventor and experimentalist, and had the courage to experiment on himself, using his body as an imaginative test tube. For Gandhi, food, politics, body, hygiene and prayer were all experiments. His idea of the ethical and scientific experiment was one of the great philosophical contributions. In that sense Gandhi used his ashrams as places for experimentation with waste, with the idea of community, with training satyagrahis and to construct futures the world hadn’t dreamt of. It was only a futuristic Gandhi who could imaginatively choose Nehru as his successor, realising that Nehru brought an aesthetic to modernity that few other rationalists possessed.
The man’s apparent contradictions should give us leads into reworking his hypothesis. Here was a man who was obsessed with villages, yet lived in a series of cities. The Gandhian ideas of the city, with its experimental ashrams, his sense of urbanism captured through the body’s ambit, his obsession with walking as a style of ethnography and philosophy, creation of a variety of NGOs, his university for scavengers may actually give us a more creative idea of the city than today’s Smart City technocrats’ idiocy.
Another potent achievement was his constant ability to combine the ethical and political. This hybridity provided a tremendous impact. Politics alone could turn ideological or factional, ethics alone could be individualistic but a sense of community and openness that politics and ethics could create was catalytic. Satyagraha as a truth force became the vector for such an imagination. It is this world of the satyagrahi that needs reliving through new ideas.
Gandhi didn’t want to be museumised, he wanted to be relived and reinvented. If each citizen or village could think of a Gandhian project combining truth, justice and non-violence, India could go beyond the banality of words and words like sustainability and development. Gandhi was clear that truth had to be lived out, experimented. Truth wasn’t abstract, but embodied truth. Politics was in one sense an imaginative mediation between the ideas of the body and notions of body politic. This gave the citizen an empowering vision of society where governance was not the realm of experts. Gandhi understood well the need for every man to be a scientist and every village a science academy. For him, empowerment emerged from owning up to knowledge and ethics, thus providing a link between livelihood and democracy.
Gandhi’s ideas of swadeshi and swaraj were two great life-giving notions: the two concepts weren’t dichotomous but blended into each other so that the neighbourhood and cosmos were seen as oceanic circles. Swadeshi was local, the dialect, neighbourhood, but never parochial. Swaraj and swadeshi created a deeper sense of planetisation than globalisation, giving both a sense of scale and limits. Deep down, the poetics of these ideas still need to be worked out.
Our systems are parasitic about a past they simply can’t comprehend. What they fail to understand was that Gandhi, Tagore and Coomaraswamy were futuristic. They sought a trusteeship of the future as custodians of democracy. It’s this promise we should try to honour on Gandhi Jayanti as India formally ratifies the Paris pact on climate change.