Gandhi's contested legacy: why his vision for an inclusive India never materialized

The recent rise of sectarian violence in India under a Hindu nationalist government has many citizens reflecting on Gandhian values of secularism and tolerance. However, Gandhi is also a contested figure, labelled by his critics as a racist, misogynist and upholder of India’s caste system. IDEAS explores Gandhi’s vision in the first episode of a two-part series.

With the rise of sectarian violence in India, are Gandhian values relevant today?

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi walked almost 400 km to protest a colonial tax on salt — a basic necessity for all Indians. For more than two decades, Gandhi focused on thinking of nonviolent resistance to move India forward. (Central Press/Getty Images)

*Originally published on October 5, 2020.

The irony couldn't be more bitter. 

In the days leading up to Gandhi's birth anniversary this year, news of the alleged gangrape of a Dalit (formerly untouchable) teenage girl by four upper-caste men, and the callous treatment meted out to her family by police authorities in Hathras district in North India, rocked India.

Days after the Hathras case, there was news of yet another Dalit woman dying after being allegedly gangraped in Balrampur, another district in North India, further shocking and angering citizens. 

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest after the death of a rape victim, in New Delhi, India, October 5, 2020. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Many took to social media to voice their outrage, while others took to the streets to protest in cities across the country. How can this be happening in Gandhi's India — the question arose again and again on Twitter and Facebook posts, and protest posters. 

However, Gandhi's critics point out that his conception of India as Ram Rajya, a democracy where everyone is equal and the sovereignty of the people is based on pure moral authority, reflects his own privilege as an upper-caste Hindu man. They challenge his legacy, calling Gandhi a racist, misogynist and casteist. 

So is Gandhi still relevant today? The short answer: It's complicated.

A misunderstood global icon

Gandhi has become a cliché because he's such a well-known icon, says Faisal Devji, professor of Indian history at the University of Oxford. 

"He is known just for a set of stereotypes [such as his appearance and rimless glasses] and non-violence," he says. "No one really inquires into what that might mean."

Although Gandhi is probably seen as being somewhat heedless of caste oppression, he was always against untouchability, Devji adds.

"He is very likely the first upper-caste, or in his case middle-caste, Indian politician to make caste discrimination one of the centrepieces of his entire project," he says.

Contested politics

Gandhi has come to be seen as an anti-hero when it comes to the caste debate, specifically in relation to B. R. Ambedkar, the iconic Dalit leader. 

B.R. Ambedkar inspired the Dalit Buddhist movement and fought against social discrimination toward the untouchables. (Wikimedia)

"Gandhi was a guilt-ridden upper caste reformer, whereas Ambedkar … had experienced horrible suffering and deprivation himself," says historian and biographer Ramchandra Guha. 

Their two-decade long debate eventually led Gandhi to adopt a more radical attitude, such as advocating for temple entry for Dalits and inter-marriage among castes. 

"His arguments with people made him open his mind," says Guha.

"If you wrote him a critical letter, he would often reproduce it in his newspaper, and often engage with your arguments. He wouldn't just off-hand, brush it off — in the way Donald Trump would. Or Narendra Modi would, or Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping would."

'Politics of a new self'

Gandhi is a radical anarchist and an anti-statist thinker, points out Shruti Kapila, lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge.

Unlike Ambedkar advocating for a political solution to address caste discrimination, Gandhi didn't think that caste can be changed by the law. 

"Gandhi is really interested in a politics of a new self," Kapila tells IDEAS.

"The self will become both the agent and the conclusion of political change."

If we want to find Gandhi's relevance today, we need to support and nurture those resistances that are happening in every corner of India.- Ananya Mukherjee-Reed

Gandhi never wanted to change institutions, Kapila says, but he does determine in his book, Hind Swaraj that "if there is a transformation of the self, then the world can change. So that becomes, I think, the Gandhian credo."

"His thought is … a new and very demanding and a very difficult politics of the self, which cannot be easily reproduced, but it can be practiced."

Gandhi and India today

While the Gandhian framework allowed for the Indian citizen to be a moral agent, and he advocated his ideas as praxis, one hits a limitation with those ideals, says Aparna Vaidaik, associate professor of history at Ashoka University. 

His solution to address the caste system, for example, was for everyone to perform all forms of labour, including ones traditionally assigned to Dalit people such as cleaning human waste. 

"I have always wondered, how does that change the life of someone who is actually a manual scavenger? It doesn't solve it for them because they don't have access to education. They don't have access to clean water. They don't have access to food," says Vaidik. 

Mahatma Gandhi fasted in protest against British rule after his release from prison in Poona, India, in 1933. Author Shruti Kapila points to the historical icon's fasting as an example of 'self abrogating practices' and says this speaks to a 'very, very big political and economic phenomena of today.' (Keystone/Getty Images)

The idea of harmony in a society so entrenched in a hierarchical social order is wishful thinking, says Ananya Mukherjee-Reed.

"If that kind of harmony is actually to be achieved, then there needs to be a lot of strong legal, political safeguards, with constant vigilance," she says.

Mukherjee-Reed adds that right now in India, the democratic polity is being challenged and that vigilance is coming from society itself. 

"It's coming out of social movements mostly … Whether it's a young girl asking for that bicycle to go to school or whether it's a bride reporting her groom because they've asked for dowry, whether it's a woman reporting her rapist," she explains.

"There are millions of mutinies happening in India everyday … If we want to find Gandhi's relevance today, we need to support and nurture those resistances that are happening in every corner of India everyday."

Guests in this episode:

Faisal Devji is a professor of Indian history at St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (Harvard, 2012), and Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Harvard, 2013).

Ramchandra Guha is a historian and biographer based in Bengaluru, India. He's written a two volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi — Gandhi Before India (Knopf, 2014), and Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (Knopf, 2018).

Shruti Kapila is a lecturer in history at Corpus Christi College at  the University of Cambridge. Her upcoming book is titled Violent Fraternity in the Indian Age (Princeton University Press/March 2021).

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed is the provost and vice president academic of the University of British Columbia (Okanagan). She's also a professor in its department of economics, philosophy and political science.

Aparna Vaidik is an associate professor of history at Ashoka University in India. She's the author of Imperial Andamans: Colonial Encounter and Island History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) and My Son's Inheritance: A Secret History of Blood Justice and Lynchings in India (Aleph, 2020).

* This episode was produced by Aparita Bhandari with help from Naheed Mustafa.

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