Posted by Omana Pisharoty
A political science teacher at my school once deducted a mark off of my assignment for writing “Gandhi” instead of “Gandhiji”. To her, it was unacceptable to refer to him without giving him his due. After all, he is the father of the nation.
As a student fascinated by history, I am, but, deeply struck by Gandhi. The reason being that in a conservative society, where not too many were willing to let go of their communal identities, Gandhi brought down a few walls and reached out to embrace the other side. His inclusive line of thinking, though not completely unheard of, was certainly revolutionary.
But I am also a staunch, pussy-hat wearing, card-carrying, marching-with-a-sign feminist. And if you are too, then you know the word on the street is that Gandhi was not quite the feminist icon we deserve.
At times, I find myself somewhat trapped between these two identities.
Bitter Pill To Swallow
Gandhi induced his young female disciples (including his nieces) to sleep naked beside him as a ‘test‘ of his purity in celibacy. He believed women belonged in the household – so much so, that he had to be convinced by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to even let women join the Dandi March.
On one instance, he responded to the rape of two female disciples by chopping off their hair to prevent their sexual assault in the future. Rape, according to Gandhi, made the Indian woman lose her human value.
He also expressed deeply racist sentiments in his youth – he argued for segregation, denouncing Africans and claiming the grouping together of Indians with ‘savage‘ Africans as offensive. Gandhi’s hampering of electoral reservations and special political rights for Scheduled Castes is often seen as patronising and obstructive.
This list is certainly not exhaustive. Gandhi’s many pitfalls are comprehensively documented in letters, reports and accounts – I have merely tiptoed around them and picked a select few.
History, Apologists and Wokeness
I am aware that holding historical figures to modern-day standards of woke-ness is an exercise in futility. Few chalk up to having championed today’s version of equality. Lincoln, despite ushering in the emancipation of Black Americans still harboured racist sentiments. More recently, Ruth Bader Ginsburg worked to demolish the patriarchy, but denied justice to indigeneous tribes, condemned the Black Lives Matter movement and defended Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct from several women, a “very decent man”.
Mind you, I am not trying to justify these actions as acceptable for the times they lived in. When a close disciple heard of Gandhi’s “experiments with celibacy”, he had threatened to leave the ashram, unless Gandhi rectified his predatory behaviour. His choices were clearly never acceptable.
All Or Nothing
However, I find the idea of ‘cancelling‘ Gandhi altogether both unwise and unperceptive.
As much as this sounds like TERF-y, pandering, centrism – there is nuance to Gandhi. Just as he bartered peace on Direct Action Day, he used racial slurs to refer to Africans and eschewed their subjugation. Just as he rallied the masses to obtain poorna swaraj, he abused his position, violating young women’s boundaries.
In our ‘worship culture’, we often interpret historical figures as either hero or villain. Either ‘Mahatma’, or deserving of a bullet to the head.
Just as I do not understand his cancellation, I do not understand this branding of a human man as ‘father of the nation’, ‘the greatest Indian to ever exist‘ or a ‘saint‘. Gandhi was, by pure empirical evidence, none of these grand superlatives.
It is this all-or-nothing attitude that brings us to either unequivocally champion, or otherwise, cancel a person.
Bleaching Of A Legacy
When we declare Gandhi as an unquestionable saint, we do ourselves a grave disservice. ‘Deitizing’ this man means that we can no longer engage in a fruitful discourse on him – we have to blindly accept all of his ideas, instead. Anyway, our textbooks only cite him as a man akin to god, minus flaws. Refer to him only as ‘Gandhiji’.
Somewhere within this projected bleaching white of Gandhi’s humanity, his flawed legacy is lost.
Cancelling him gives us the same results: we would then reject his every thought. We would never consider his ideas on the value of the rural economy; we would never reflect on his justified fears of western hegemony; never discuss his theories on the quasi-separation of church and state. Here too, we lose valuable insight.
Instead, just as we bestow praise on RBG’s groundbreaking lawmaking, yet hold her accountable for her judgements on indigenous land rights, can we not admire Gandhi for his unmatched role in India’s freedom and conception while we condemn him for his unacceptable and exploitative behaviour?
Can we not uphold Gandhi’s ideology of secular thought, and yet dismiss his degradation of Africa? Can we not believe in peace and freedom, and yet stomp out his imposition of gender roles?
Some of Gandhi’s actions were nauseating, just as some others were revolutionary. He was no mythologised Mahatma, and certainly no feminist, and it is important that the discourse around Gandhi includes both these narratives instead of shutting down the discourse itself.