Gandhi is past 150 this week. He had wanted to live for 125 years, only to lose the appetite for life in his last years. On the occasion of his 79th birthday , which was to be his last, a well-wisher wrote, “…May I suggest that the present situation should not depress you?”

Gandhi did not agree with him. It was not a state of depression he was in. What he was saying was a plain fact. He was perhaps not the fittest instrument to carry out the divine purpose. Perhaps a more courageous, more far-seeing person was wanted for the final purpose.

“If I had the impertinence to declare my wish to live 125 years, I must have the humility, under changed circumstances, openly to shed that wish,” he wrote. “I have done no more, no less. This has not been done in a spirit of depression. The more apt term, perhaps, is helplessness.”

The fires of hatred raged around him and he felt helpless, defeated by his own people. His dearest dream of Hindu-Muslim unity lay shattered. The untruth of the claim of Ahimsa had bared itself and he had to admit that what he and his country people had practised was not non-violence at all. What should he live for? A country or nation without the British but defined by the desire to colonise “the other’’ was not a land he would have wished to live in.

An innate egalitarianism

Gandhi had nothing against the British. He had in fact wept when he learnt that London was bombed by the Germans. London had shaped him. It had taken him to the Gita and it was here that he understood that vegetarianism was not only a matter of faith, there was a scientific basis to it too. He internalised the poetry of the Bible and developed a unique religious frame in which the Sermon on the Mount could share place with the Gita. What made you truly civilised was your striving and ability to make the other feel equal to you and feel confident to keep her head high in your presence.

London schooled Gandhi in the ideals of hospitality and neighbourliness. A true nation was one where the strangers felt welcome and safe. His understanding of Christianity make him think about the value of suffering for one’s cause and also the value of service.

He welcomed them to live in an independent India as equals. What he despised was the claim of superiority and civilisational arrogance of the British and the justification of their domination in the name of civilising “inferior’’ masses. He, one of their subjects rebuked them for being un-Christian and claimed the right to teach them true Christianity without leaving Hinduism.

Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada / CC BY-SA

Gandhi felt responsible for the religion he was born into. It was easy to leave it and find a more comfortable abode in some other religion. He could have become a Muslim and a Christian or a Sikh. But to continue to live with the imperfectness of your religion and constantly fight with it requires a mettle only Gandhi had. His religion had some role in making him and he also had a duty to make it human. So, he imagined a different Hinduism and made it a persuasive case. We seldom care to think about his insistence that for him Ram was a fictional character, an imagination and Gita a poetic text. He tried to live religion like poetry. Poetry frees the reader and gives her or him the power to interpret. Similarly a nation has to be like a poem, a long unfinished poem.

The concept of Vaishnav Jan, one who feels the pain of the other is not a novel idea of Gandhi but to make it a political project to work towards making a nation of such Vaishnav Jan was a unique Gandhian invention. The otherness must never be obliterated. The temptation to teach others the ‘true path’ must be resisted.

The structures of dominance, Gandhi knew and realised after his London days were not only imposed by the Europeans on India. The structures of internal colonialisms were taken as natural and the making of providence. Caste was one such structure of dominance which bred violence and normalised the ideology of slavery. When you turn others into your slaves, you do not mind living as slaves when faced with a more powerful force. The dominant castes that lorded over the “lower” castes readily prostrated before the colonial sahibs and their disciplinary structures. It is this ideology of high and low which has to be opposed.

Driven by justice

So, Gandhi made it his mission to fight for the rights of the most dispossessed of his land, those who are officially listed as the scheduled castes and tribes. He called them the true people of Hari and said that those who call themselves Savarna do not qualify to be given this title. Gandhi was hated for this fight. He was abused, attacked and finally killed. It is a French feminist Helene Cixous who understands this hatred against Gandhi which ultimately took his life.

“I imagine you believe that he was for the most part adored; in fact he was hated and he is still hated today,” she wrote. “Hatred is still alive in India and he died of it. Those who were for mostly from those what is called the scheduled castes, those who belonged to the gutters with whom he had sided. Yet he did not ask anything of anyone; he simply went his own way…But the simple fact that he lived according to his own law—which was ascetic and demanding of himself was something people could not tolerate.”

It was not generosity but justice which drove Gandhi. Colonialism was unjust, hence immoral. Caste could not thought about without thinking about the dominant and dominated. It was unjust and unethical.

The ideas of justice and the primacy of the individual form the bedrock of the Gandhian world view. It was swa’’, self, that is supreme. No power could be allowed to colonise this “swa”.


Striving for swaraj

Swaraj for Gandhi was not freedom from the British. He said, very clearly, “Real swaraj will come, not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused. In other words, swaraj is to be attained by educating the masses to a sense of their capacity to regulate and control authority.”

The capacity to resist authority and to say no when it oversteps its limits must be retained and renewed.

It is this definition of swaraj the government wants to bury. This definition is under severe stress and needs to be recalled when we marked his birth anniversary on October 2:

 “It has been said that Indian swaraj will be the rule of the majority community, i.e., the Hindus. There could not be a greater mistake than that. If it were to be true, I for one would refuse to call it swaraj and would fight it with all the strength at my command, for to me Hind Swaraj is the rule of all people, is the rule of justice. Whether, under rule, the ministers were Hindus or Musalmans or Sikhs and whether legislatures were exclusively filled by the Hindus or Musalmans or any other community, they would have to do even-handed justice.”

“Even handed justice” is what he expected from the India he helped take shape. It is this which is being denied by all organs of the state today. If we fail to struggle to recover this dream of swaraj, we lose the right to remember Gandhi.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.