Grappling with the possibility that your life’s work has been a failure must be a terrible state to be in. Imagine that you’re Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and you have devoted your life to ahimsa, to questioning the hegemony of the modern industrial world, to communal peace and to the end of untouchability. Now imagine that you’re in 1947, when ahimsa and communal amity are being rejected so savagely that you’re forced to question whether the freedom struggle had really been non-violent as you had thought? Your chosen successor does not see eye to eye with your idea of an India based on a model of empowered self-governing villages, and caste-based discrimination, despite all your efforts, is as entrenched as ever.
This was the reality faced by Gandhi from 1945-1948, the period covered in Sudhir Chandra’s Gandhi: An Impossible Possibility (translated into English by Chitra Padmanabhan). Concentrating on what was the most trying time of his life, the book presents Gandhi in a light which our hagiographies often ignore.
A less-confident Gandhi
In popular imagination Gandhi is seen as a cocksure idealist – a man who is so cocooned by his belief in his ideals that he is beyond the pale of any self-doubt. Historians may know better but it is fascinating, as a lay reader, to come face to face with a Gandhi who realises that the freedom movement led by him had never actually adhered to ahimsa, but only to passive resistance masquerading as ahimsa. As Gandhi himself noted,
“There was a time when everyone believed in Gandhi because Gandhi showed them the way to combat the British….At that time the purpose seemed more achievable through ahimsa, so Gandhi was much in demand. No one had taught us how to make the atom bomb then. If we had possessed that knowledge then we would have seriously considered obliterating the British with it. But since no such option was available, I was accepted and my authority prevailed.”
This is a Gandhi who travels to Noakhali in 1946 to give strength to the Hindus against whom violence has been unleashed by Muslims. He goes in the midst of people to “reason with them and create such circumstances that would prompt Hindus and Muslims to begin living on good terms with each other again”. He tries to control the riots in Bihar that follow soon, where violence has been unleashed by Hindus on Muslims. As independence approaches, the people whom he has led during the freedom struggle no longer seem to have much use for his leadership or message. He is perceived as a dreamer, unaware of the ‘real’ world. He finds his connection with the people is weaker. They no longer listen to him.
It is at this point that the strength of Gandhi, the leader, asserts itself in a wholly unexpected manner. On the eve of independence he decides to go to Noakhali. It is a symbolic statement that unless mutual hostility ceases, freedom would never be secure. When he reaches Calcutta, he is begged by the city’s Muslim leadership, which till recently had derided him as only a Hindu leader, to stay and ensure calm in the city. Gandhi extracts a promise from them that he would stay in Calcutta if they ensured that no harm would come to the Hindus of Noakhali where he was bound.
It is an extraordinary moment. In Calcutta, Gandhi faces irate mobs, reaches out to Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy – the man who had been responsible for the ‘great Calcutta killings’ of 1946, who now finds the courage, in Gandhi’s company, to admit to a crowd of angry Hindus that it was he who had been responsible for the Calcutta killings. The tension breaks. People of both communities come together on August 15, 1947. But this calm is broken violently two weeks later and Gandhi goes on a fast unto death. Young volunteers go out and try to stop the violence. Some even lose their lives while doing so. In the end, the ‘miracle of Calcutta’ is achieved and Gandhi breaks his fast. The dark moment when a bloodbath seemed imminent has passed.
Interestingly, this narration is not intended to make Gandhi seem like a great leader who was always sure of his method and achieved his objective. Rather, a study of his actions and his concerns in those days convey a deep sense of helplessness. Yet, he perseveres. Chandra dwells on moments when Gandhi “was surrounded by an impenetrable darkness”. In 1946 he tells noted anthropologist N.K. Bose, his interpreter and Bangla tutor in Noakhali, that his “body just gives way”, admitting that his mind had never before been so hazy. Gandhi, Chandra writes, was “overcome with a weariness of body and spirit”.
What is of note is the fact that Gandhi, in the final years of his life, while fighting the same battles that he has fought all his life, seems to be doing so only out of conviction, with no great hope that people would listen to him. The fact that he succeeds in Calcutta and in his final Delhi fast surprises him more than anybody else. This is a man who acts despite grave risks to his safety and his health, not because his idealism makes him feel secure but because it leaves him so vulnerable that he has no option but to follow his convictions.
It is the vulnerability of this frail old man that is so moving. If it moves you as a reader separated in time from the man by about seven decades, then one can imagine the effect on those living at that time and subject to this emotional onslaught from a man who bewilderingly and repeatedly asked them to rise above themselves.
Gandhi, the tallest leader that this country has had, presents a very interesting quandary regarding the role of a leader and his relationship with his people. If the role of a leader is to lead, the question of trust does not arise. They are to be told what is good for them and are to be persuaded to act accordingly. If, however, a leader chooses to listen, to observe and to engage with his people, does he cease to lead? Does he become less of a leader because he feels “each one must look at oneself, without worrying whether others are looking at themselves”, thereby asking them to recognise the possibilities in themselves?
Gandhi chose to inspire, not lead. This fragile republic, which rests and struggles to survive on the ideas of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, would do well to remember that. If India, which was not given a great chance for survival after its tumultuous experience of independence and partition, still stands, it is not because of force of arms or feat of diplomacy but because there was a sense of a moral consensus that this country chose to abide by. Regardless of the passions that led people to commit unspeakable crimes in those days, they came around to Gandhi’s way of thinking, moved by the sheer force of his will. This, then was a moral consensus presented by Gandhi who never, despite all his weariness and doubts about being able to convince people to see reason, let go of his convictions.
Looking for a moral politics
It is, perhaps, the intuitive understanding of this politics of morality that has kept this country together, despite many travails.It is also this very politics of morality that promises a way out of the state that India finds itself in today.
By morality one does not mean the present-day conception of moral judgements passed on individuals to define acceptable and unacceptable modes of behaviour. This kind of morality is limiting. It tries to fit a person into a box. There is a larger political morality, however, which seeks to liberate. The beauty of this political morality is that it need not promise riches or power, it only needs a message that everyone will be safe and will be cared for. It is the most basic message a democracy can convey to its citizens.
Political morality is a function of deep-rooted personal convictions. It defines the parameters of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in public life. Derision of this kind of morality leads us to the situation we are in, when lies become ‘post-truth’ and leaders are as likely to be celebrated for their powers of manipulation as their governance.
It is not surprising that people, not only in India but all over the world, seem to be flocking to leaders who intend to challenge this lack of political morality. Seen widely across Europe, it became even more apparent in the US, where the people chose to trust a person totally untested in politics just because he represented a break from the vacuous politics that had so become the norm. India is clearly no stranger to this phenomenon.
Often, it is not what the leader believes that moves people, but it is the strength of that belief. This is not what democracy is, or should be about. Democracy needs to be a dialogue between the leader and the ‘led’, neither of them perhaps fully understanding the other but also without having any contempt for each other. Contempt by the government for the governed, or vice versa, can be fatal to democracy.
In times of fear and insecurity, much of it manufactured, it is only a politics of morality that can come up with an appropriate response. A politics of morality that even if it is not pegged to high ideals such as ahimsa, speaks of enabling people to have an orderly civic existence, go about their lives normally. In his last days, Gandhi, known as Mahatma to many and as a ‘chatur baniya’ to some, saw this as his message and contrary to his own fears, may yet save us all.