Gandhi was assassinated today in 1948. Independent India, free from British rule, was not even a year old when a violent dissenter against Gandhi, whose ideas and views had considerable currency in popular discourse, took to arms, opened fire at an evening religious prayer meeting presided by Gandhi and killed the loved political messiah of millions of Indians. It is saddening and ironic that someone introduced the linguistics and design of non-violence to active protests on ground and in practice was violently stripped of his beliefs through the way he had to embrace an unfortunate death.
Gandhi exemplified the appeal of non-violence, not just at home – in India, but globally. The strikingly contrasting image of a political saint, scantily clad in hand spun khadi, amidst a table of lavishly dressed men and women in positions of visible authority, actively negotiating his idea of India and of her independence at the very same table, is one that has permanently captured the nuanced and overarching power of Gandhi and his philosophy for the world to read, interpret, follow and dissect. The power of Gandhi doesn’t necessarily flow from where he stood on the political scene. Gandhi defined the caucus of power from what he represented during India’s struggle from British colonial rule and later what he came to represent vis-à-vis ideas of India’s freedom.
The undisputed and ubiquitous power, scale and depth of Gandhian thoughts, therefore, has been appropriated and propagated by politicians and political thought streams across ideological divides. In free India’s political journey, the term ‘Gandhian’ has had its share of etymological journey. From being used as an ideological milestone in politics for a good time in independent postcolonial India, the term ‘Gandhian’ has gradually been reduced to being used as an adjective and moral stamp in order to compensate for political excesses.
New political ideas and policy initiatives have been purified at the altar of reflective images associated with Gandhi’s life, his couture and lifestyle habits ever since India became independent from British rule in order for this newness to be accepted at large; the naming of various controversial welfare schemes in the name of Gandhi, launched at the end of any electoral cycle for its populist appeal being a case in point. But since the last decade, there has been a new phenomenon in the journey of appropriation of ‘Gandhi’ and ‘Gandhian’. Protests against parliamentary legislation and dissent against a certain brand of politics have been marked with the nomenclature of Gandhi.
Before we expand on the politics of nomenclature, let us look at the politics of protests in this country, in the wake of recent events. There has been a replacement of political thoughts and strategies by a dominant alternate line of ideological persuasion in 2014. Not only numerically, but politically, the Indian political ground has shifted to being more argumentative and more competitive. It has become more accommodative to newness and transformation, sometimes at the expense of being caught in bitter narrative wars. This bitterness has often translated on ground as strategically timed, electorally tuned and ephemeral protest cycles.
These protests announce themselves with a moral end in their public communication and end up in communal incidents of violence and riots – the protests against The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act in 2018, Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 2019 and the current protests against three legislation on farm since 2020 being cases in point. Gandhi alongside other freedom fighters and poets are invoked at the drop of a hat to justify a whipped-up political frenzy in these protests. It is important that political ‘Gandhi’ and his politics is rescued from this protest politicking.
Gandhi operated in colonial India. His protest was against an oppressive colonial regime that conveniently corporatized strategic, geopolitical areas in India, especially international border regions for the benefit of East India Company first and the larger British business community later. Therefore, when he donned khadi and gave up imported lifestyle products, it was a statement to go back to relying on rural Indian haats and becoming self-reliant than falling prey to urban markets flooded with colonial goods. When he adopted the strategy of non-violent movements, it was to assert a superior and contrasting political power against the physically oppressive British regime and a careful tactic to speak to the oppressor from a place of worthier moral authority as someone more than an equal. Above all, Gandhi was free from the whirlwind of electoral politics. Neither he was interested in contesting elections, nor he was committed to any aspiration for public office positions.
The protestors in the aforesaid circumstances are far from being motivated by Gandhian identities. Firstly, these protests are not against any foreign, colonial regimes but against a democratically elected government that is a part of a five-year exchange program if the public so deems fit. Secondly, all faces of these protests are mired in fraught electoral battles looking for public support that could possibly be translated into votes. None of these much-touted organic movements have remained relevant after an electoral cycle gets over. Gandhian movements argued for specific demands with a specific end in mind. These temporal spurts of protests by politicians, in contrast, work with fuzzy ideas of anti-establishment agenda with zero clarity on larger public policy aspirations. Most importantly, unlike the man who was killed for his politics despite his fidelity to non-violence all through his political life, these protesters have killed and/or mutilated members of their own democratic state on their demands not being met.
My humble appeal to those writing or articulating political obituaries for the Father of our Nation is – let Gandhi be. Play your politics but please don’t drag him in the muck of myopic electoral battles. That is not just a disservice to the man but also to the tall international legacy he has left behind for the world to follow.