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Ramchandra Guha on how Gandhi outgrew his Gujarati bania 'parochialism'

By Rajiv Shah
More than a fortnight ago, prominent historian Ramchandra Guha, who calls himself Gandhi scholar and not a Gandhian, came to Ahmedabad. While I was part of a small group of persons who met him at lunch, his lecture on Gandhi in the evening, where he sought to interpret what swaraj meant to Gandhi, surely, interested the selected audience that had been called to listen to him.
Organized by well-known Gujarat High Court lawyer-activist Anand Yagnik, and moderated by political scientist Sharik Laliwala, what attracted me immediately, as the lecture ended, was the short, around three-minute intervention by Kartikeya Sarabhai, one of the trustees of Gandhi Ashram.
Kartikeya’s main aim was to reply to Yagnik’s introductory remarks, as to why were the trustees of Gandhi Ashram and Gandhi Vidyapeeth – two of Ahmedabad’s top Gandhian institutions – silent when protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were summarily detained in the city at the drop of a hat.
Kartikeya, who happens to be the son of the Father of India’s Space Programme, Vikram Sarabhai, began by asserting that “each institute has its own function and purpose”, underlining, their job as Gandhi Ashram trustees was “not to speak” but to “let people explore Gandhi”.
Kartikeya tried to explain by giving the example of an exhibition at the Ashram, where a question was posed as to whether Gandhi was parochial in selecting Ahmedabad. “The answer was not written by anyone, but in Gandhi’s own words”, he said, adding, “The role of the Ashram is to create a forum where people get well-preserved and unedited material on Gandhi…”
Kartikeya continued, “The Ashram does not feel that it can speak at the Gandhi Ashram”, adding, none in Gandhi Ashram or Gandhi Vidyapeeth, he or Elaben Bhatt (Vidyapeeth chancellor) or others, was so arrogant as to speak out on behalf of the Ashram, because “Gandhi Ashram is as much your Gandhi Ashram as mine or someone else’s…” He concluded by exhorting critics not to “trash institutions which have specific functions.”
Kartikeya Sarabhai intervening
I was a little amused by Kartikeya’s explanation. I wondered: If Gandhi Ashram’s job is to only provide people with “unedited” material on Gandhi, why is it that it is known to have displayed expensive looking panels singing paeans to Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
Anand Sahay, a Delhi-based senior journalist, was on a visit to Ahmedabad in late 2017, and he went to Gandhi Ashram. One meeting he, he wondering whether anyone had notice “lavish praise” on the Modi government’s trademark programmes which, experts believe, had fetched little by way of positive result for the country.
These panels, he wrote, stood next to “mounted rare photographs on Gandhi’s life with appropriate annotations in a series of rooms”, all of which “lead to an open verandah where the Modi panels stood”. Complained a recent visitor, "Modi is still very prominently seen in many photographs displayed in Gandhi Ashram."
Guha, amidst a huge applause, told Kartikeya that he knew those in the Gandhian institutions were doing “amazing” work, but he would still say that “since May 2014 you should have kept our Prime Minister at arm’s length”, noting, “By you I mean Ashram’s trustees collectively.”
Wanting a future historian to document how much love Modi had for Gandhi and the Gandhi Ashram before May 2014, Guha continued, he felt “aesthetic distaste, when every foreign minister, including many dictators, are taken there and shown around.” He added, “I feel the Prime Minister has misused Gandhi’s name to promote himself.”
During his lecture, titled “What would Gandhi make of India Today”, I found, on one hand Guha was also seeking to critique Gandhians who had reduced Gandhi into a ritual (eating vegetarian food, wearing khadi, spinning charkha etc.), and, on the other, left-wingers like Arundhati Roy and quite a few Dalit scholars, who are known for their view that Gandhi didn’t want caste system abolished.
Guha said, way back in 1922, the year he was arrested for the first time in India, Gandhi created a “wonderful image” of swaraj, by pointing out that it had four pillars: Removal of untouchability, manufacture of khaddar, Hindu-Muslim unity, cultivation of non-violence. Gandhi said, these “are not measures of a temporary nature”, adding, “They are the four pillars on which the structure of swaraj must forever rest. Take away any of these pillars, and we will top it out.”
Guha interpreted the four pillars, giving them a broader meaning. The first vision is the removal of untouchability. “I am going to use this terms for social justice; not just abolition of caste distinction, but also abolition of gender distinction”, he said, adding, “When Gandhi talks of Hindu-Muslim unity, we should understand it more broadly as pluralism of all kinds, including of language and race.”
Panels on display in Gandhi Ashram
As for khaddar, he was talking about the vital importance of economic self-reliance and his commitment to environmental sustainability, pointing out how western industrialization was keeping the world in chains.
And as for his absolute commitment to non-violence, it came in South Africa, especially on September 11, 1906, when he, leading Indians, challenged racist laws in South Africa. Returning to India in ship, he wrote about why non-violence was necessary to fight discrimination and oppression. According to Guha, this was “the most brilliant statement of why non-violence is not just morally efficacious aspect of political resistance, but also the most sustainable in the long run.”
Pointing towards how Gandhi’s mind mind expanded, whether on religion or gender, Guha gave a glimpse of what drove him. He said, Gandhi was “an utterly mediocre student”, quoting a former headmaster of the King Alfred School Rajkot, now Mahatma Gandhi Memorial School, where Gandhi studied, as revealing in his early 1960s book that Gandhi ranked 424th out of 800 students in matriculation, and he scored 44.5% in Gujarati, and 45% in English.
Noting that Gandhi’s views evolved, Guha said, this was primarily due to exposure to the world, by going to London, where he met his first foreign friends and understood importance of other faiths, and then to South Africa. While Gandhi did return to India from London in 1891 and tried to establish himself as a lawyer in Bombay and Rajkot, he failed in both the places.
According to Guha, “What if he had succeeded? He would have never outgrown his Gujarati bania parochialism”, the reason being that “Gujarati banias would have given him his rozi roti, and the world to him would have been very different... If he had succeeded, he would have lived in a Gujarati community in a Gujarati ghetto, in a Gujarati Hindu community.” Guha added, “Gandhi failed at the bar, and was rescued from professional oblivion by an invitation from South Africa, where there were two Gujarati merchants, actually cousins, fighting.”
It turned out they were not of his caste or his religion, but were Muslims, said Guha, adding, Gandhi went to South Africa in 1893 to solve a dispute, he stayed for the first time in his life with Gujarati Muslims, which was totally inconceivable in Rajkot or in Porbandar, or even in Bombay. During his struggle, those who helped him were Parsis, Gujarati Muslims and Tamils.
If Gandhi had succeeded as a lawyer in India, he would have lived in a Gujarati community in a Gujarati ghetto, in a Gujarati Hindu community
He also befriended with Jews, with Katurba and he sharing a home with husband-and-wife Henry Pollack, a Jew, and Millie Pollack, a Christian. One of the things that Millie Pollack did, said Guha, was to fire the first arrow at Gandhi’s traditional Hindu patriarchy. While Gandhi did talk about how he bullied Kasturba, he left out how Millie Pollack expanded his mind. Her book, “Gandhi the Man” shows that she was the first person who told Gandhi that women too had rights.
Further, Guha said, after the first attempt on his life, which was by an Indian in South Africa, Gandhi was rescued by a Christian priest and their family, Joseph Doke, and was nursed back to health by Dock’s wife and daughter. “So the expansion of Gandhi’s mind, his understanding of the vital importance of religion and pluralism, of economic self-reliance, of non-violence, came in South Africa”, said Guha.
The only thing, said Guha, Gandhi did not learn in South Africa were the “awful horrors of the caste system, in particular of untouchability.” This was mainly because in the diaspora caste, distinctions were not so rigidly observed. On returning to India, though he described untouchability as “the Dyers of Hinduism”, during his travel across India, in Kerala, he met followers of the great reformer, Shri Narayana Guru, whose slogan was “One caste, one religion, one humanity.”
One of the followers of Narayana Guru was a journalist called TK Madhavan, who told Gandhi, attacking untouchability was not enough. One needed to practice what you preached. This led Gandhi to support the non-violent Vaikom satyagraha, in which a Brahmin, a Nayar, and a Dalit held hands as a team, disobeying the caste order. Brutalised by the police, this was “an extraordinary satyagraha which finally led to temples of Kerala be opened to all Indians”, said Guha.
Thus, according to Guha, first Narayana Guru and later Ambedkar pushed Gandhi to take more and more radical positions on untouchability. “It is part of the greatness of Gandhi that he was willing to change, unlike some people in power today. Gandhi went to the extent of saying he made Himalayan blunder. He was always searching, questioning, reforming, improving himself, expanding his vision.”
Ambedkarite intellectuals don't talk about evolution of Gandhian views, refuse to recognise that no upper caste Indian reformer did more than Gandhi to challenge caste
Referring to the manner in which some leaders had tried to pit BR Ambedkar against Gandhi, Guha said, while historically they have been placed in opposition, the main culprits were the Gandhians themselves who demoralised Ambedkar. In 1930s and 1940s there were visceral attacks on Ambedkar by Gandhians, saying, how dare he (Ambedkar) use polemical language “on our beloved Bapu.”
Asserting that Gandhi had never any of objections, Guha said, he, Nehru and particularly Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, were able to have reconciliation with Ambedkar, bringing him back into the Cabinet, and making chairman for drafting the Constitution. Guha regretted, “You can see many Ambedkarite intellectuals not talking about evolution of Gandhian views, refusing to recognise that no upper caste Indian reformer did more than Gandhi to challenge caste.”
Similarly, while Gandhi’s evolution on gender started with Millie Pollack, it didn’t stop there. Noting how Sarojini Naidu was an important influence on him, Guha added, she sat right next to him in Ahmedabad court where he was tried in 1922. And in 1925, Sarojini Naidu was appointed president of the Indian National Congress “at a time when no major political party in supposedly advanced countries could have contemplated to have a district president as female.”
Sharply criticising Modi for trying to appropriate Gandhi, Guha said, it was utterly deceitful for the Prime Minister to quote Gandhi on CAA, which went against one of the four pillars of swaraj – Hindu-Muslim unity. “On October 2, 2019, the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth, the ‘New York Times’ allowed the Prime Minister to write an opinion piece on Gandhi. It had everything, but for what Gandhi lived and died: Hindu-Muslim harmony”, Guha underscored.
Even as wanting to make the four pillars of swaraj more robust, Guha insisted, one cannot blindly or mechanically follow Gandhi. Gandhi may remain a source of inspiration, but so must many others. For, one should remember, Gandhi couldn’t anticipate the problems of the third decade of the 21st century. “We need to draw on our own resources and we also need to draw on ideas of other great Indians”, he said, adding, “Karl Marx famously said towards the end of his life that I am not a Marxist, and Gandhi would have surely said I am not a Gandhian.”

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