The 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi will surely be an occasion to reflect on his legacy. We will be thinking about Gandhi in an India that is vastly different from what he would have expected it to be. In many ways, Gandhi is a difficult thinker to reflect upon. Even in hindsight, he comes across either as way ahead of the times or way behind them.
The uniqueness of the Gandhian approach to politics—typified as the ‘third way’ or ‘gradual revolution’—is that he attempted to bring about radical social change without conflict and structural transformation without violence.
It is well known that Gandhi attempted to bring far reaching change through non-violence. This idea of non-violence was constituted on a philosophically deep understanding of social dynamics. His idea of non-violence was an attempt to preserve the communitarian and collective living that he considered innate to ‘our way of life’ while transforming discriminatory and exclusionary social practices inherent to it. He rejected both the Marxist idea of revolution and the liberal notion of individual rights as legitimate modes to bring about social transformation.
On caste, Gandhi changed his views from understanding Varna Dharma as a way of co-existing within self-inscribed social limits to launching campaigns against the “sin” of Untouchability. However, even in his struggle against caste he tried to devise a model for change that does not does not create conflict. Rather than challenge the dominant castes, he attempted to dignify the “untouchables” as the children of God—Harijans—and their “profession” of scavenging as a spiritual activity that cared for and served humanity.
Gandhi thought that he was fighting caste in more fundamental ways with his methods. He was deconstructing the very binaries on which the caste system stood. He was breaking the hierarchy between mental and manual labour without necessarily challenging the self-proclaimed superiority of priestly functions. He was also deconstructing the binary between purity and pollution by elevating the idea of filth that constituted the caste hierarchy into a more universal/spiritual mode. Society collectively needed to realise the immense idea of service that is ingrained in those who clean human waste: Gandhi fostered this realisation by cleaning the public toilets of the ‘Harijanwadas’ himself.
Gandhi did something similar with the women’s question by politicising the role of women without throwing a direct challenge at the family and patriarchal domination over women. He once proclaimed, “Woman, I hold, is the personification of self-sacrifice, but unfortunately today she does not realise what tremendous advantage she has over man.” Here again, he was attempting to empower the values that are attached to femininity rather than seeking the emancipation of women by making them challenge their exclusion from public life.
Gandhi was attaching morality to material existence. He was attempting to demonstrate that material social relations had value in terms of the moralism that is attached to social relations. If we could lay claim to universal moral values then our understanding of social mobility or material change are subsumed under those cherished values. He eschewed private property and personal possession and instead cherished ascetism as a more pure and moral way of living. In the same way, fasting and preparedness to suffer was Gandhi’s way of demonstrating a commitment to one’s cause: One becomes a Satyagrahi through lived experience, not by merely accepting Gandhian ideals. Intimate experience was a precondition—or the only way—to reach the truth or God. It was a way to exemplify the cleanliness of one’s intentions.
The Gandhian method demonstrated that what remains at the core of human life and activity is the meaning we attach to it. Whether it is caste-based activities or gendered roles, both have to be reordered by re-signifying the meaning and moral value attached to them. Such a method, by definition, was a deeply collective exercise. Change has to preserve and strengthen the collective, not deprive us of deeper bonds. Gandhi therefore pitched for co-responsibility. He said that we, as a collective, are responsible for every sin committed. In a sense, Gandhian philosophy became a part of the social-psyche of India. Or perhaps Gandhi was articulating a sensibility that was a part of the historical being of India. Either way, he stood for social transformation, whether or not he succeeded in achieving it.
It can be said without much hesitation or doubt that Gandhi stood opposed to religio-cultural majoritarianism. He would have opposed mob lynching and much of what the Right in India today stands for. However, Gandhi still seems to be relevant for the Right. Not merely in the sense that the Right has appropriated his legacy or in terms of his acceptability as “Father of the Nation”. Gandhi remains relevant for the Right in that it has practiced the art of attaching values or moral colour to material and social life. In the last five years the Right has provided the vulnerable a way to find dignity in their suffering. They have attached new meanings to old traditional roles. They have justified hierarchies and exclusions in terms of a moral discourse of justice, nationalism, and sacrifice.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the heyday of his campaign for the 2019 general election, washed the feet of Dalits who worked as scavengers. He also said that scavenging is a deeply spiritual act that brings one closer to God. Multiple meanings were communicated by this act of publicly washing feet. Was he trying to alleviate the discrimination that scavengers face? Was he reinforcing their traditional caste-based occupations? Was he silently telling caste Hindus that the Dalits would continue in their traditionally-assigned roles?
Modi made no attempt to provide the Dalits whose feet he had washed with alternative avenues to leave their employ as scavengers. He offered them no new route to social mobility by, say, promising better educational facilities. Nor did he announce that he would pursue the cause of abolishing public cleaning of toilets or cleaning of dry waste.
Was this washing of feet a contrast or a parallel to what Gandhi did? Is there a way to ascertain that while Gandhi’s approach was transformative, the current Right may look the same but is essentially regressive? Gandhi expected social change with new meanings attached. Today, the same method seems to have been appropriated by the Right. Yet, can we say with a degree of certainty that it is also attempting social change without conflict? Does the Gandhian method offer us an unambiguous method to arrive at the intention and make a clear distinction? Or does it allow for a certain kind of suspended reality in which we seem to be living at the moment?
Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU