The Truth about Gandhi?

A new book about Gandhi has made some waves this week, not least because it exposes Gandhi as a bisexual, even as, as reactionary historian Andrew Roberts put it, a “sexual wierdo”. [For a classic exposé on Roberts, see this piece by Johann Hari.] Apparently, this book is already banned in Gujarat [Gandhi’s home state] and may be banned in the whole of India.

Personally, I don’t see what the big deal is. Yes, I know I have very liberal beliefs regarding this subject. But still, what exactly does it change? To me, it seems like Gandhi and his wife Kasturba become like FDR and Eleanor: a powerful couple but for all intents, not physically bonded.

Then again, my views on Gandhi are very complicated and still in flux. I loved the 1982 movie and who could not see it and want to learn more about this Great Soul? He absolutely was a leader of men and a great man of his time, and deserves to be hallowed by the people of India.

But, in my view, his achievements are way exaggerated. I do not want to minimize the achievement of being able to get the message out to all of the Indian people about the wrongs of the British. But the principle of ahimsa, or nonviolence, worked only in his special case, where there were 3000 Indians for every British in India during Gandhi’s time. The British further had no interest in exterminating the natives, just controlling them enough to get at the jewels of the land. Gandhi knew that if enough people were willing to take the blows and the bullets, then the British were in a no-win situation.

But even with those odds, Gandhi did not succeed in his mission. He was only able to seem like he drove the British out where, in fact, the British treasury and strength were completely sapped due to WWII. WWII permanently changed the political face of the earth and, although the British were on the winning side, they ultimately became amongst the long-term losers. Colonies in the Levant, Singapore and South Africa were breaking away. India was going as well, Gandhi or no Gandhi.

It’s not to say that Gandhi played no role in this. Gandhi helped define India as a secular, socialist state for the first 45 or so years of its existence. [Nehru would have much more of a role in hardening the clay formed by Gandhi.] That is, Gandhi helped India down the path of a terribly poor, third-world nation, unable to keep its most talented citizens from leaving to enrich nations like the US and the UK. Only recently has India begun to make use of its considerable manpower, although it still houses 1/3 of the world’s poor.

Worse, Gandhi was so blinded by ahimsa principle that he thought it could solve problems everywhere. Gandhi’s answer to the tragedy of the slaughter of Europe’s Jews was, of course, nonviolence. But did he not understand that the Nazis were bent on annihilation, not subjugation? They did care a bit for world opinion, but only in peacetime; the real killings took place during the war, and they were convinced that they were in the right. And, further, Jews made up, at most, 10% of any country – and even that is an anomoly, a typical figure was 2%. Greatly outnumbered, only wanted dead by a ruthless state, how was ahmisa to work in the face of incredible himsa? At some point, the whole thing is just silly.

Ahimsa further had no role to play in the controversy in Kashmir, a conflict that is active to this very day and could have greater consequences to the world than anything in the Middle East. I know little about the role Gandhi played in Kashmir, although it could not have been very great given its history. The only thing I could imagine Gandhi doing at this point is fasting, only nobody would care now.

That said, Gandhi remains a fascinating figure of 19th and 20th century history and I look forward to reading this new book.