We honour Gandhi only with tokenism, but his cult status keeps growing
It has become quite easy to celebrate Gandhi Jayanti. Order nationwide newspaper advertisements, sport a white cap for a photo op or two, then go home and enjoy the holiday. When ritual replaces duty, life becomes simple. It becomes simpler still when celebrating Rajiv Gandhi is more rewarding than remembering the real Gandhi. Notice the way advertisements increase in size, number and effusiveness when the dynastic hero’s birthday falls due.
The contrast is natural. Rajiv Gandhi is alive because praising him is an investment that yields dividends. The Mahatma is dead, and singing hallelujas to him will not fetch even a panchayat membership. One symbolises today’s kind of politics and privileges. The other stands for yesterday’s kind of values. One stands for taking, the other for giving. Godse only killed Gandhi the man. The rest of us killed Gandhi the idea. In the India of coal blocks and 2G spectrums, one will have to be either foolish or incompetent to follow Gandhi’s idea of frugality and service.
But in the wider world, Gandhi lives. At the time of Independence, Gandhi was a defeated man, seeing his country divided and his people killing one another in the name of religion. Dejected, he kept away from Delhi’s celebratory limelight and spent his days fighting communalism and leading group prayers. By contrast, Jawaharlal Nehru ascended the pinnacles of power and glory, his glamorous figure winning international prestige for himself and for India.
How ephemeral that glamour turned out to be. Even before the China war reduced him to a pitiable figure, Nehru’s wisdom had come under a cloud. The main reason was his succumbing to the advice of Mountbatten and his wife on Kashmir even though it was clear that they were promoting Britain’s interests and not India’s. Then came Indira’s dynastic concept and the Emergency, two blows to the very root of Nehru’s legacy of democracy.
Bookshelves today tell an instructive story. Nehru is hardly a subject of study for modern scholars and historians. His own books are of the classic kind because of their scholarship and the elegance of language. But he does not inspire writers, film-makers and the like the way Gandhi does. Stuff coming out on Gandhi is amazing.
There are serious research studies like Jinnah vs. Gandhi, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence and Gandhi’s Religion. There are serious yet unconventional studies, like Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul. There are compendiums, from Gandhi Without tears to Epigrams from Gandhiji and from The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi to The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi.
There are many movies, from Gandhi and The Making of the Mahatma to Hey Ram and Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara. Munnabhai contributed a new word—Gandhigiri. The Mahatma also figures in pop culture garbs—as a tap dancer in Cartoon Network, a stand-up comedian in a TV series, as an element in a video game. There was a poster competition in Cairo: Gandhi in Tahrir Square. This Gandhi Jayanti day, vandals put a garland of glass bottles on a Gandhi statue in Simla. That too was a kind of recognition.
Gandhi’s appeal has become universal. By influencing the thought and actions of people like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, he influenced the course of world history. Ultimately, it was the originality and daring of Gandhi’s mind that made him a world force. Just think of the concept of non-violence, or the technique of civil disobedience. We take these for granted today, but Gandhi invented them out of nothing. It took time for the world to grasp the significance of what he had done. Once it sank it, the world stood stunned at the vastness of his imagination.
Gandhi of course had numerous weaknesses. Perhaps the most paradoxical one was that he was an unkind father who once wrote: “Men may be good, not necessarily their children.” But the negative side of his personality has simply added spice to his cult status. Our sarkar will never succeed in containing him in annual advertisements.