The danger of anniversary: Why I hope the 150th anniversary of Mahatma won't be marred by insane ritual

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanOct 14, 2018 | 15:36

The danger of anniversary: Why I hope the 150th anniversary of Mahatma won't be marred by insane ritual

Anniversaries India, ironically, become moments when we diminish a man by invoking his memory, rituals of taxidermy where we embalm what should have been living and inventive. It is what political psychologists have called Necrophilia, where the dead are celebrated but what us living is destroyed. One hopes the 150th anniversary of the Mahatma does not become such an insane ritual.


Ritual of clichés

The banalisation of Gandhi was a process across different stages. Every act of commemoration became a ritual of clichés. A few anecdotes were recited as politically correct. The state tried to appropriate him but found it difficult as Gandhi was more a creature of dissenting imaginations and eccentric domains. Gandhians too museumised him, content to treat his ashrams as temples of worship. Few Gandhians joined the great social moments of the time. The Charkha became a fetish as its political imagination was lost. No one asked about the fate of 15 million weavers in India. The government has been content to treat weaving as a sunset industry.

The banalisation of Gandhi was a process across different stages. (Photo: Indiatoday.in)

Sadly, we have not had storytellers who could have kept Gandhi alive in a different way. Grandparents were watching TV instead of telling children about the magic of Gandhi and the romance of Nationalism. In a way Gandhi for all his exuberance for print, belongs to orality, to the Katha. Orality one must realise is not repetitive. Each story narrated is a minor variant of the other. Gandhi as part of the oral commons is what survives.


I remember I once returned from a movie on Churchill and was a great man. My father laughed and said gently “he was not fit to touch Gandhi’s shoes”. One was a historical hyperbole, a crass imperialist, the other a moral genius. Churchill had a bully boy guts but Gandhi turned nonviolence into a different context of ethics. There is a danger of mere anecdote. Anecdote cannot be a bald story. It has to become a fable. It needs the potency of repetition. Sadly, as Gandhi became a set of textbook anecdotes in the classroom, where one recited his adventures of misspelling word Kettle or his encounters with vegetarianism, the power of the discourse and the ecology of ideas diminished. The domain of ideas, the philosophical experiments degenerated. From a search for truth they become a form of political correctness.

Gandhi as a thinker and the idea of the ashram as a laboratory for ethical ideas faded. The man, as idol was fetishised, but the exemplar and the paradigm disappeared. Gandhi became more bytes to be downloaded than an ethical project in process. A simplified Gandhi destroyed the simplicity of his genius. A bowdlerisation of Gandhi Kunji style created his genius.


Churchill had a bully boy guts but Gandhi turned nonviolence into a different context of ethics. (Photo: Indiatoday.in)

Biography becomes a costume ball of stores devaluing ideas, and discourse a collection of bytes more favourable for a quiz Munnabhai-style than for a critical understanding. To understand Gandhi, we still have to go back to Ericson, Nandy, Parekh, Patel, Bose, Pyaarelal. The sanitised Gandhi of today, digested tutorial college style is only the alternative to mothballing in a museum. Tourism replaced pilgrimage as we become souvenir collectors fetishising particular monuments and movements.

Repetitive jargon

The eccentric and the idiosyncratic dominant over the ethical and the experimental. The ashram as a centre for future thought disappears in the repetitive jargon of current Gandhians where an ‘immaculate’ Gandhi out of Tussauds dominates over the emergent possibility of his life as a process. Yaclav Havell, Luthuli, Lanza Vasto, Badshah Khan, Steve Biko make more sense of Gandhi than the local Gandhians, who are more devoted to correctness as ritual than to truth. We forget that Gandhi’s charkha was an innovation or that the loudspeaker was introduced in one of Gandhi’s mass rallies.

Reading Gandhi too has become a failure of reading.

We read his classic Hind Swaraj one of the great manifestos as a catechism, as monotony of dos and don’ts. No one cares to compare Gandhi with the other great manifestoes like Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, or Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. Such a crisscrossing debate provides a different matra for assessments. No classroom discussions in law asks what did Gandhi ‘s absence mean to the Constituent Assembly debates? Pedagogy demands playfulness and inventiveness and sadly we treat Gandhi who was a master of both as a mere moralist and ideologue.

Gandhian ideas

Modernity for decades was seen as an act of putting down Gandhi’s ideas. His ethics was seen as primitive, his ideas of technological as Luddite, his satyagraha as hardly an answer to the genocide of the 20th century. Yet today when we face the crisis of modernity, it is Gandhi who looks strangely relevant. His experiments with truths becomes an invitation to new experiments for what we can wryly call ethical start-ups in the age of technical startups. We go back to the body as a site, an answer to the broader questions of body politics. It is the body, the vulnerability of the body and its myriad possibilities that ethical processes like fasting, prayer, protest, silence asceticism and satyagraha begin.

For Gandhi, the body was everyman’s test tube to unravel questions of the modern. One experimented on oneself and not on others. One was a trustee of the body before one accepted the trusteeship of the society. Ethics moved across five stages from mere accountancy, to accountability, to responsibility, to trusteeship to sacrifice. Responsibility include swadeshi and swaraj, a sense of the other as neighbourhood and as cosmos.

Planet and locality met in Gandhi’s sense of ethics as craftsmanship. Trusteeship was caring for a defeated or obsolescent other, sustained as a possibility for the future. In this digital age where every act degenerates to routine prose, the satyagrahi remains that one piece of ethical poetry that stands out. It is time to bring alive this Gandhi. We owe to his memory not rote repetition but inventiveness because Gandhi was one of the great inventors of the century. He made ethics inventive so that politics could be transformative. It is this hermeneutic that this generation has to bring back.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: October 14, 2018 | 15:36
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