Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Gandhi and Hazare: Two peas in a pod?

Subsequent to Anna Hazare’s ‘endorsement’ of Narendra Modi, a number of persons, who formerly supported Hazare and his Gandhian method, found themselves angry and confused. They could not understand how Hazare, a Gandhian could make such an endorsement.

We should perhaps give thanks to Hazare for his entire intervention, right from his decision to fast unto death. It has allowed for a number of revelations about the peculiar nuances of the Indian political system. In particular it allows us a position from which we can evaluate Gandhi himself, and see him as a man, not as the god he has been converted into. Indeed, it is precisely because we have deified Gandhi, that we have ignored the problems that are a part of Gandhianism.

In his argument against Hazare’s fast, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argued that ‘The morality of fasting unto death for a political cause in a constitutional democracy has always been a tricky issue.’ He further argued that a fast to persuade the Government to adopt one’s own formula for institutional change was a rather perverse utilisation of this method and amounted to arm-twisting. Mehta however understates the problem. The morality of a fast to death has always been a tricky issue. Gandhi himself was aware of the problem, arguing that ‘A Satyagrahi should fast only as a last resort when all other avenues of redress have been explored and have failed.’ But Gandhi was not without his contradictions, and also used fasts to arm-twist people to meeting the goals he had set out for the ‘nation’.

Take for example Gandhi’s indefinite fast in the face of the Communal Award of 1932. The Communal Award was granted to ensure separate electorates and hence separate representation to the various minorities in the British Raj, including the Muslims, Sikhs, Anglo-Indians, and Dalits. Gandhi agreed with this award for most of these electorates but drew the line at a separate electorate for the Dalits. He would have none of it. Such a separation would threaten the unity of the ‘Hindu community’ he argued. Clearly, the Dalits, under the leadership of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, did not see themselves as Hindus and feared an eclipse of their interests by the ‘upper’ castes if not provided an electoral mechanism to safeguard these. When Ambedkar refused to give up on this assurance for Dalit interests, Gandhi began his indefinite fast. Sure enough, pressure mounted on Dr. Ambedkar, who realised that should Gandhi die as a result of the fast, Ambedkar and the Dalits would be held responsible for Gandhi’s death. Succumbing to the pressure, Ambedkar gave up his demand for separate electorates, agreeing to the provisions of the Poona Pact.

The use of the fast in this context was to effectively bully one’s way to success. It follows therefore, that when Hazare opted to fast unto death to get his way with the Jan Lokpal Bill, he was acting in Gandhi’s not so ethical foot-steps.

These same events that led to the Poona Pact, also point to the manner in which Gandhi, despite his much professed, and no doubt genuine, horror against ethnic violence, also worked to consolidate the construction of a homogenous Hindu community that would lead the Indian nation. Gandhi’s refusal to see Ambedkar’s rather valid point of a need for separate electorates was not surprising. Gandhi saw the end of the caste system not through the recognition and assertion of Dalit rights, but through the melting of ‘upper’ caste hearts against such atrocities. When Dalit activists today reject the Gandhian neologism ‘Harijans’ as condescending, they are rejecting Gandhi’s concept of a Hindu fold, where ‘upper’ castes were firmly seated at the top. Take for example as well, the terminology Gandhi used, such as ‘Ram Rajya’, a term deeply rooted in the Vaishnava tradition, to signify the political structure post-Independence. Gandhi was, we have to admit, rooted in an ‘upper’ caste Hindu vision of India.

As if this were not enough, we should also have a look at the manner in which a number of Gandhians, subsequent to the passing of the freedom struggle seem to have found their place within a distinctly saffron order of things. One does not have to look far. Within Goa itself, those who gained fame as Gandhians, were in fact bitterly opposed to the recognition of difference (in this case that of the additional recognition of the Roman script for Konkani) and insisted on the brahmanical script of Devanagari. Indian-ness to these Gandhians, was located in an ‘upper’ caste Hindu view of the subcontinent.

We should therefore once more not be surprised that Anna Hazare sat underneath an image of a ‘Bharath Matha’. Many groups in India have a problem with the depiction and deification of India as a Hindu goddess. Even more unfortunate was the fact that the depiction that Hazare sat underneath was to a remarkable extent the image of the RSS Bharath Matha. All that was missing was the Lion the RSS Matha leans against, and a replacement of the saffron flag with the Indian tricolour. If you were intimate with the RSS image however, you knew that the lady up there was the RSS Matha. Add to this the songs sung at the Hazare protest that were markedly Hindu and upper-caste, and anti-reservation in tone. . It is also no surprise that Hazare seemed able to make a distinction between Modi’s ‘governance’ and his ‘communalism’, for Gandhianism is infact strongly marked by the presence of ‘upper’ caste (largely Hindu) values and perspectives.

Hazare’s meet was marked also by the presence of Archbishop Vincent Concesso and Maulana Madani. This is not a mark of secularism, but a problematic entangling of faith and religion. Gandhi himself laid the foundations for this with the religious imagery he used, recognising people as members of religious groups with distinct religious interests. The Khilafat movement, which he used as a way to unite Muslims and Hindus against the British, is one pertinent example.

We should recognise then, that the Gandhian project, for all its contribution to the Indian freedom struggle, and global struggles (and these are many and substantial) is filled with contradictions. We need to recognise that Gandhi was actively deified by the national movement, a process that Gandhi played along with. This deification masks the fact that Gandhi contradicted his high moral codes, and periodically engaged in arm-twisting. After all, he was primarily a political leader. Secondly, his project, though not rabidly right-wing, was nevertheless imbued with shades of Hindu nationalism. When Anna Hazare then claims to be a Gandhian, we must recognise that the contradictions that we see in him are not contradictions that he personally brings, but part of the contradictions that were present even within Gandhi, often faithfully carried forward by contemporary Gandhians.

(A version first published in the Gomantak Times 27 April 2011)

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