How Mahatma Gandhi can still show the way

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanOct 04, 2019 | 11:43

How Mahatma Gandhi can still show the way

Rituals can create up a world or force enforce a logic of closure. The so-called past offers seedlings for a more creative future. The 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi has to be read from such a perspective. The figure of Gandhi as an icon reminds one of someone protean, flexible, fluid, a continuous invitation to a disciplined subversion, where the past is reread into the present.


A look at Gandhi is enough to tempt one into a graphic novel, a cartoon book or a surrealistic painting. He is full of surprises as what look like clichés ambush the reader with the unexpected. It therefore takes a very official kind of piety to banalise the man and his world. Sadly, that is what happened. India used the 150th anniversary of Gandhi to put him into mothballs.

Reading the Mahatma

There are generally four approaches to studying Gandhi. The first is obsessed with information about Gandhi, can tell you what he did in which year. Here Gandhi is reduced to a quiz in a Munnabhai movie. The second sidelines information but plays up the anecdote. The essays are full of little nuggets about Gandhi but the stories do not add up to a discourse articulating the theory of the man. The anecdotal Gandhi is a favourite of neo-liberal India. Gandhi becomes an affectionate uncle one can retail stories about.

The anecdotal Gandhi is a favourite of neo-liberal India. (Photo: Reuters)

The third approach, often non-residential reads Gandhi as an activist with second grade theory. Gandhi is reduced to an appendix of Western theory, someone whose ideas were derivative of a Ruskin Bond, a Leo Tolstoy or a Henry David Thoreau. There is a fourth approach which reads Gandhi not just as a man who challenged the imperial world but the ideas of the Enlightenment west. One witnesses a man who was politically potent and theoretically subversive. One senses this understanding in the writings of Ramchandra Gandhi, Anuradha Shah and JPS Uberoi.


For this small and acutely insightful group of scholars, Gandhi was a theorist, a man who saw himself as a scientist and raised the ethical to the level of the experimental. For Gandhi, the ethical as political needed a different status. He echoed Tolstoy’s question of “why cannot the Sermon on the Mount have the theoretical status of a Pythagorean theorem”.

His experiments

Once Gandhi is read as a scientist who used his body as an eternal test tube, the idea of satyagraha acquires a different kind of vitality. One experiments on oneself, one’s life and lifestyles to change the world. Defined, thus, Gandhi is no longer a Luddite but a man whose insights into technology had depth, humour and irony.

One is reminded of a story about Jamnalal Bajaj. The industrialist had gifted Gandhi a Ford car, which ran merely for a few weeks and then stopped. Gandhi has it tethered to two oxen and when visitors came, he would proudly point out to his ‘OX-FORD’. One has to remember Gandhi had an acute sense of the dynamic of technology. Journalist William Shirer notes that the loudspeaker was introduced into India for the first time in a Gandhi rally. One has to remember that the Gandhian charkha was no traditional tool but reinvented and redesigned by the Polish engineer and mystic, Maurice Frydman. Historians of technology often talk of Gandhi’s visit to Manchester after the Swadeshi boycott. Walking through the mills that had been shut down, Gandhi commented, “No wonder the Japanese are beating you.”


Scientist CV Sheshadari used to claim that Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj was the first great science policy document we produced and that it needed to be compared to Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto or Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread. Sheshadari felt that rewriting Hind Swaraj every decade was one way Indian science could recharge its ethical and scientific self. Otherwise as Sheshadari warned, we will have a Bangalore with the technical start-ups, without a single ethical thought.

An experimental imagination was crucial to Gandhi. I remember people love to recite his answer to a journalist who asked him, “What do you think of western civilisation?” He replied, “It would be good idea.”

The satyagrahi stands as a unique force today. (Photo: Reuters)

Years later, Malayali writer and cartoonist OV Vijayan creates a similar take. Gandhi returns decades later with a walking stick. He is asked, “What do you think about Indian civilisation” and he replies, “that too would be a good idea”. His irony and creativity had shades of genius.

The satyagrahi stands as a unique force today. There was a time when at the height of the Vietnam war were the guerrilla rivalled the legendary iconicity of Gandhi. The guerrilla’s use of the bicycle, his ability to live on less and innovate showed the American soldier to be a high calorie consumerist hero. Yet in recent decades, the satyagrahi has retained his magic and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the ethical power of the Truth Commission in South Africa testify to this imagination.

Present-day ideas

Today, Indians need a Gandhian imagination. One needs its dissenting power. We need the satyagrahi to challenge the AFSPA in the Northeast, a Gandhian survey to create a framework of caring to replace the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam. The Congress for a while revived the idea of groups like Badshah Khan’s Khuda Khitmatgar. One needs the passion of these groups to counter violence in India today. Sadly, while Gandhi invites an array of inventiveness, India has reduced him to cliché.

One exception might be Medha Patkar fighting against the displacement of the Narmada Dam. Today we need the ethical inventiveness of Gandhi to reinvent democracy. In reinventing Gandhi, we invent a new democratic imagination for India, a dream of non-violent livelihood and an ethic of peace.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: October 04, 2019 | 11:43
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