Indeed, Gandhi’s politics was contradictory and invited criticism from many sides. His ‘non- violence’ has found support internationally- Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King and more recently Obama‘s reiteration of the Mahatma’s message as being pertinent for our times. There seems to be a fatigue on part of his Indian critics, though. A section of Left nationalists like Bipan Chandra 1, Prof. PC Joshi2 and the communist ideologue Mohit Sen have come to admire Gandhi’s political vision, mainstream communists, particularly the CPI(M), ignore him. The RSS and other Hindutva outfits, except for an occasional outburst, too ignore him. Though this is in sharp contrast to earlier times. Golwalkar, for example, had commented thus on Gandhi (without naming him, though)3 :
Those who declare ‘No swaraj without Hindu- Muslim unity’ have thus perpetrated the greatest treason to our society. They have committed the most heinous sin of killing the life- spirit of a great and ancient people. To preach impotency to a society which gave rise to Shivaji who, in the words of the historian Jadunath Sarkar, ‘proved to the whole world that the Hindu has drunk the elixir of immortality’ and to break the self- confident and proud spirit of such a great and virile society has no parallel in the history of the world for sheer magnitude of its betrayal.
While politically Gandhi may be ignored today, he has found newer adherents among the intelligentsia in the form of what is sometimes called the ‘neo- Gandhian school‘, particularly Ashish Nandy, Bhiku Parikh and TN Madan. The only ideological and political current of thought that is heavily critical of Gandhi is the Dalit stream deriving it’s inspiration from Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.
It is indeed pertinent to remember what Dr. Ambedkar had to say about Gandhi and Gandhism. The first of his accusations was that Gandhi was an advocate of class collaboration. In his essay ‘Gandhism’, he wrote:
Mr Gandhi does not wish to hurt the propertied class. He is even opposed to a campaign against them. He has no passion for economic equality… His solution for the economic conflict between the owners and workers, between the rich and the poor, between the landlords and tenants, between the employers and the employees is very simple. The owners need not deprive themselves of property…4
There was nothing new in this criticism even when it was written. The communists were already saying this and Dr Ambedkar acknowledged the same.
It is the other point that the latter raised that was original, and makes Dr Ambedkar standout as a far better Marxist than all the Indian communist ideologues put together. This was in relation to Gandhi’s extremely reactionary approach towards caste. Once this perspective was adopted, all Ambedkar had to do was quote Gandhi in full and his historically regressive stance became evident. The communists missed this altogether partly because of their class based analysis but much more because they were dominated and controlled by the Brahmins and upper castes.
Ambedkar quotes from Gandhi’s Gujarati journal Nava Jiwan (1922):
1. I believe that if Hindu Society has been able to stand it is because it is founded on the caste system.
2. The seeds of Swaraj are to be found in the caste system. Different castes are like different sections of military division. Each division is working for the good of the whole.
3. A community which can create the caste system must be said to possess unique power of organization.
4. Caste has a ready made means for spreading primary education. Every caste can take responsibility for the education of the children of the caste…
5. I believe that interdining and intermarriage are not necessary for promoting national unity. That dining together creates friendship is contrary to experience…
6. … The caste system cannot be said to be bad because it does not allow interdining or intermarriage between different castes.
7. Caste is another name for control. Caste puts a limit on enjoyment…
8. To destroy the caste system and adopt the Western European social system means that Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation which is the soul of the caste system. Hereditary principle is an eternal principle. To change it is to create disorder…
The grounds for supporting the caste system was obviously to maintain social stability. Indeed Gandhi himself had said so in his writing ‘ Caste versus Class’5.
Ambedkar’s scathing criticism of ‘Gandhism’ is summarized well below:
What hope can Gandhism offer to the untouchables? To the untouchables, Hinduism is a veritable chamber of horrors. The sanctity and infallibility of the Vedas, Smritis and Shastras, the iron law of caste, the heartless law of Karma, and the senseless law of status birth are to the untouchables veritable instruments of torture which Hinduism has forged against the untouchables. These very instruments which have mutilated, blasted and blighted the life of untouchables are to be found intact and untarnished in the bosom of Gandhism. How can the untouchables say that Gandhism is a heaven and not a chamber of horrors as Hinduism has been? The only reaction and a very natural reaction of untouchables would be to run away from Gandhi.
Elsewhere Ambedkar traced the roots of Gandhi’s conservatism6:
As a Mahatma, he may be trying to spiritualize politics. Whether he has succeeded or not politics has surely commercialized him. A politician must know that society cannot bear the whole truth and that he must not speak the whole truth; if he is speaking the whole truth then it is bad for his politics. The reason why the Mahatma is always supporting caste and varna is because he is afraid that if he opposed them he will lose his place in politics. Whatever maybe the source of this confusion the Mahatma must be told that he is deceiving himself and also deceiving the people by preaching caste under the name of varna.
While there is no gainsaying the fact that Gandhi was an astute politician and a great anti- imperialist leader, he lacked the stamina for a social revolution. Indeed, he did his best to maintain ‘social stability’ and hence was in essence a reactionary.
For an overwhelming number of people who constitute the poor and the working classes in the country, there are grounds to feel no need for his ideals in the 21st century and are justified, as Dr. Ambedkar indicated, in trying to ‘run away from Gandhi’.
1. India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra et al.
2. Essay on Gandhi by PC Joshi published in National and Left Movements in India
3. page 150,151, A Bunch of Thoughts by MS Golwalkar (1966 edition)
4. Page 157, Essential Writings of Dr. Ambedkar by Valerian Rodrigues, OUP, 2002
5. Page 313, op cit (“Reply to the Mahatma”)
6. Page 316, op cit (“Reply to the Mahatma”)