We are often told, maybe quite rightly, that individuals are secondary to the flow of history. By that logic, the dismemberment of the British Empire that began with India’s independence in 1947 was perhaps inevitable after World War I physically decimated the British ruling classes and World War II left the country near-bankrupt. Stretching the argument, India should be honouring Germany’s last Kaiser, Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo for facilitating our tryst with destiny.
Mercifully, there is a conflict between cold reductionism and common sense. This could be a reason why, two Saturdays ago, a beautifully sculpted statue of Mahatma Gandhi was unveiled in London’s Parliament Square. In that prized location, Gandhi will be sharing space with Sir Winston Churchill, the leader who saved Britain from Hitler but who failed to save the empire for Britain.
The irony of Gandhi and Churchill being celebrated in the same public space without even a hint of squeamishness has not gone unnoticed. Nor have Indians failed to note the innate generosity of a society that has chosen to embrace an opponent who, Churchill hoped, would die of selfinflicted starvation and save war-torn Britain a lot of bother. If, as many of the present generation of Britons seem to believe, the empire was built on perfidy, greed, oppression and the generous spilling of ‘native’ blood, the Gandhi statue is akin to what an Israeli notable said about the Holocaust memorial in Berlin: a “memorial to immortalize…shame.”
Of course, the comparison of the British Raj with Hitler’s gas chambers is misplaced. Collaboration, not annihilation, constituted a principle of British expansion and, till 1921 at least, Gandhi was a prime example of this process. Indeed, the suggestion that satyagraha succeeded principally because the opponent had internalized a moral structure built around the notion of fair play is worth considering. The anti-apartheid struggle led by Nelson Mandela in South Africa began as passive resistance but progressed into armed struggle precisely because the white regime refused to yield to sustained moral pressure. The course of India’s freedom struggle is, therefore, as much a commentary on Oriental saintliness as it is about imperial flexibility.
Gandhi’s success lay in forcing the imperial power to make an honourable exit out of India, minus the bitterness that accompanied decolonization in many other parts of the world. He was less successful in securing an equally smooth internal settlement involving all Indians. But that failure was not because of Gandhi, but despite him — and for which he ultimately paid for with his own life. Consequently, 68 years after India moved out of the orbit of empire, there is the bizarre situation of Gandhi being honoured in India and Britain but not throughout the lands that constituted British India. And even within the nation that has conferred on him the elevated but inappropriate title ‘father of the nation’ — the assumption being that Indian nationhood doesn’t predate him — his legacy is being more critically assessed, and not merely by a loony fringe.
There is a second paradox that the ceremony in London has driven home. To an India that revers his saintliness, the centrality of Gandhi the politician who brought the masses into politics is juxtaposed with the acute embarrassment over Gandhi the relentless critic of modernity. For Gandhi, political swaraj was only a facet of the larger battle for a moral order that would restore the innocence and purity of the traditional village and repudiate the distortions of science and technology. This utopian quest didn’t have too many takers, either within India or in the wider world.
The universal Gandhi that is now a feature of London’s landscape is an exercise in 21st century repackaging. First, it obfuscates his historical context by putting him in close proximity to Churchill, the man who personified the other side. Secondly, it is Gandhi’s association with non-violent conflict resolution that is posited as the guiding principle of politics in the age of jihadi extremism.
There is a Gandhi Mark-2 in the making. As his universal appeal acquires pre-eminence, the legacy of Gandhi the Indian political agitator will steadily lose focus. This isn’t a sinister Western conspiracy. A remoulded Gandhi is entirely in harmony with India’s growing belief in its globalized destiny.