The Impossible Gandhian Project and its Limits – Remembering the Mahatma Today

Gandhi, Nehru and Azad, Wardha 1935, image courtesy Governance Now

Majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi (Roughly: Compulsion thy name is Mahatma Gandhi)

I have grown up hearing this expression and have often wondered about its meaning and at the almost proverbial status acquired by it. Whose majboori or compulsion was Gandhi really? Well, at one level, everybody’s, for practically every current within the anti-colonial struggle was uncomfortable with his presence and his leadership. Jawaharlal Nehru had even remarked once that after independence, his fads would have to be kept in check. All nationalists who fought for independence from colonial rule (as opposed to the pseudo-nationalists who tried to convert it into a cow-protection movement) had their gaze fixed on the state. They wanted control of that coveted instrument – that was the crux of their anticolonial struggle. There were others like BR Ambedkar, who too invested a lot in the state but realized that the state in the hands of the nationalists would be a disaster for his people. But no one among them (poet-thinkers like Tagore apart) was prepared to look beyond the state. And Gandhi’s disavowal of the state – and of politics as such – was something that no one could digest. More than anything else, that was what made him a majboori for this set of people who could only lay their hands on their object of desire as long as Gandhi was in the leadership – for he alone could move millions like no one among his contemporaries could.

But my hunch is that these were not the people who coined this expression. Gandhi was a bigger majboori for another set of people who were, ironically, equally disinterested in the state and its ‘capture’ – at least till recently. Yes, these were the different currents of the Hindutva Brigade (VD Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha and his followers and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). They had to tolerate Gandhi – that is exactly what their majboori meant – till they could finally eliminate him. And it was one Nathuram Godse, with connections to both Savarkar and the RSS, who eventually killed him. There were earlier attempts too on Gandhi’s life – all from upper caste Hindus (one lot being Chitpavan Brahmins).

Redefining Hinduism

So what was it in the Gandhian project that so rattled the Hindutva Brigade? Ashis Nandy has suggested that it was Gandhi’s attempt at redefining Hinduism, indeed, redefining its centre – challenging Brahminical hegemony and bringing in the lower castes and labour at the very centre of his redefinition. True, there are serious problems with Gandhi’s understanding of  caste and untouchability but we aren’t really discussing Gandhi here but rather what it was about him that rattled the Hindus. Working with your own hands – from spinning the charkha to cleaning your own shit – was a radical challenge to the fundamentals of Brahminism, especially at a time when the Hindutva Brigade under the leadership of Chitpavan Brahmins was attempting to redefine Hinduism in a completely different fashion. That Hindutva neither was, nor is, a respecter of traditional Hinduism, is a point that thinkers like Nandy have been trying to hammer in for decades now. It wanted to recast Hinduism in the way Savarkar had outlined: Hinduize society and militarize Hindudom. The project was to make Hindus organize under a single command, with a single book and a common figure – a militarized Ram being made to serve that purpose. It was, as Nandy correctly insisted, a ‘secular’ – not a religious – project, for it wanted most fundamentally, a nation-statist reconstitution of Hindu society. This was necessary because, as Nandy further pointed out and umpteen Sangh pronouncements even in recent times show, the Hindutva Brigade wanted to build a nation-state of the European kind, where ‘secularism’ stands on the ground of a fundamentally Christian (either Catholic or Protestant) ‘cultural’ constitution. That objective was too far from reach at least as long as Gandhi was alive, for he – and this is Nandy’s second point – exemplified, in his persona, an androgynous, almost feminine rendering of Hinduism in opposition to the masculinist, militaristic Hindutva project of cultural transformation.

But perhaps more important than anything else, in this respect, was the fact that for Gandhi, the project of transformation of Hinduism was essentially a project of self-transformation. Giving up practices of untouchability, working with your own hands, shunning masculinity, a certain dignity of labour – all these were projects aimed as transformation of Hinduism via a transformation of the Hindu Self. This, we can see today, was a failed project but was powerful and threatening enough once, for forces who wanted to steer modern ‘Hindudom’ in an altogether different direction. It is a matter of speculation but it does seem that Gandhi’s chances became more and more difficult as the moment of independence approached – for it led to a scramble for power that very soon negated the effect of everything he had been trying to achieve. Gandhi’s well-known avoidance of the demands for complete independence and his periodic retreats from politics as such to the domain of social service and constructive activity, I wager, was linked to what can only be called Gandhi’s disavowal of the political. It is productive to read his moves not just as tactical or strategic withdrawals but as the expression of an intuitive belief that politics really was the problem, not the solution to what he was trying to achieve.

Refusal of Nation-Time

Even though Gandhi led the anticolonial nationalist movement and has simply been seen as a nationalist, the other dimension that marks his ‘quirky’ or ‘faddish’ project was his refusal to inhabit the Time of the nation. In many more ways than the most obvious – for instance, his suggestion at the time of independence to disband the Congress and convert it into a Congress Seva Dal, which would devote itself to social work. That was when there was this mad rush for power and frantic negotiations of different kinds were going on openly, as well as behind the scenes. Gandhi’s refusal to be part of the Constituent Assembly and instead of joining the celebrations of Independence, take the solitary trek in Noakhali, must not be read as simple tactical or strategic moves. They are of a piece with his belief that this is not where the solution to the problems of the poor – the daridra narayan – lay. The soul of India was being ruptured, violently wrenched apart in the bloody war between Hindus and Muslims. This soul lived in the everyday, not in the political time of the nation – where the speed of events and the compulsions of power would never allow a stepping back which was so necessary to be able to see what was being destroyed. Gandhi insisted on the ‘aesthetic of slowness’, where alone the soul of the everyday lived.

It is also well-known that nations see their existence as eternal; their being is marked by the endless search for that hallowed, pristine, ‘uncorrupted’ past when all the impure elements of the present had not attached themselves to its body. No one seems to have escaped this logic of the search for national purity in some pristine moment. Nehru too could not resist harking back, in the inaugural speech to the Constituent Assembly, to ‘3000 years of our ancient civilization’. This search for a pristine purity is what underlies the twentieth century history of ethnic cleansing/s.  It  is, however, different with Gandhi. The fact that he called his scandalous text Hind Swaraj and not Bharatiya Swaraj or some such thing, is quite striking. That this was not just an absent-minded choice is evident from the fact that to him, India that is Hind, was what it was in his own time. He was not looking for some ancient pristine Nation but took India as it existed in the present – with all those who had come and made it their home over centuries. What nationalists were wont to see impurities, Gandhi saw as the strength of the Hind whose swaraj he dedicated himself to – a swaraj that was not only, or even mainly, political.

This year, having gone through five years of the ravages of the very forces who killed Gandhi, this is what leaps across to me. It is politics that is destroying, relentlessly, the rhythms of everyday life – from the Akhlaqs and Pehlu Khans to the Dalit youth of Una, from the way people love, eat, worship – the texture of the everyday is being ripped apart. We might have to engage politically, protest, organize and vote – as indeed Gandhi had to do – but we might do well to remember that the problem is politics itself.

4 thoughts on “The Impossible Gandhian Project and its Limits – Remembering the Mahatma Today”

  1. This has little to do with the argument Aditya develops, but I always thought that “Majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi” had a more lumpen, cynical meaning. When you didn’t have any options, when you were majboor, then you could turn the situation to your moral advantage by saying you did what did (remember, you had no other option!) for pious, this-is-good-for-all-even-if-bad-for-me, reasons!


  2. We have all have grown up hearing this ‘proverb’ and have thought about it as Gandhi being majboori for the British and the hindutva forces. This analysis is very deep and insightful and addresses the issue head on which is so required at a time when Gandhi is being appropriated by the forces who could hardly ever respect him and his ideas or his politics!It yet again throws light on richness of Gandhi’s thoughts despite his shortcomings on caste or on women question.

    One question though that I want to ask Aditya Nigam is why is politics a problem? The note on which he ends the article.


    1. Preeti, the question you have asked actually calls for a much longer answer but that will have to wait for another occasion. I always thought the explicit disavowal of politics by Gandhi – but also by people like Vivekananda in a sense – was an aspect of the way in which many late 19th and early 20th century Indian intellectuals had come to believe in the superiority of their ‘spiritual’ as opposed to the West’s ‘political’/ ‘material’ approach to things. Partha Chatterjee read this, in the context of nationalist discourse, as a way of demarcating nationalism’s sovereignty in the cultural/ spiritual domain, even if enslaved in the political/ material domain. I think Partha’s reading was right but it limited the question to one dimension. It is only in recent years that I have begun to feel that this disavowal of politics goes far deeper. And not just in the trivial sense of the way ordinary people would say ‘politics ghus ayee hai yahan’ – which would mean this is a sure sign of disaster. What I have to say need not be the sense in which Gandhi sees politics as a problem. But very simply my point is this: Our discipline trains us to see politics as the solution to everything, whereas it seems to me to be the problem everywhere. Nationalisms, fascism, ethnic cleansing, genocides, the perversion of the democratic ideal into a majoritarian one – none of these have either an economic basis (capitalism, feudalism etc) or can be thought as the preserve of only one kind of politics. We have left-wing versions of each of these as well (Stalins and Pol Pots are not aberrations) and so we cannot get away with the simplistic answer that once we do away with XYZ, we will live happily ever after. We are also seeing how ‘welfare’ disbursal by states too becomes an occasion for the increased surveillance and control of people’s lives (Aadhar is truly a Foucauldian nightmare).

      And to think of it, the entire structure of political theory and political science, indeed of all modern polities, stands on the fiction of ‘popular sovereignty’ – the idea that ‘the people’ (which is itself a fiction) is sovereign. It is oligarchs who rule in the name of the people. Even empirically, the majority of ‘people’ don’t even vote. And even those who vote do not do so in exercise of their sovereignty but for many other reasons including caste alliances, religion and even cash. But as long as we affirm this fiction, we affirm the ‘right’ of all the Donald Trumps and Narendra Modi’s to rule – in the name of a fictive entity. I could go on but this is not the place for it.


  3. लिखने के लिए शुक्रिया।
    इतिहास के गर्त में सिर्फ़ हीरे-मोती ही नहीं होते, बल्कि बहुत सी बेकार और बेकाम चीज़ें भी बहुतायत में होती हैं। फ़र्क़ वहाँ पड़ता हैं, जब इतिहास को एक संदर्भ बनाते हुए किन चीज़ों की दुहाई दी जाती हैं? जैसा नेहरु और उसके बाद के हुक्मरानो ने किया; भारतीय इतिहास के ‘स्वर्णिम’ पक्ष की दुहाई बारम्बार दी, जो की केवल एकपक्षीय थी। जिसे बाद में हिंदुत्व ताक़तों ने अपना हथियार बनाया। जिसके चलते इस ‘स्वर्णिम’ इतिहास के सामने आकर खड़ा हो गया, ‘ह्रास’/loss (एक विचार के रूप में), भारतीय संस्कृति का, संस्कार का और भारतीय समाज का!, जो बाद में एक अकूत विचार बन गया, जिसे आज भी संघ गिरोह इस्तेमाल करता रहता हैं।( लेकिन ये ह्रास केवल उस एकपक्षीय इतिहास की ही व्याख्या करता था, जिसकी दुहाई दी जाती रही थी, ना की सम्पूर्ण एतिहासिक गर्त की।) गांधी ने इसके उलट इतिहास के उस गर्त से ना केवल वो ‘बेकार’ ‘बेकाम’ चीज़ें उठाई और उनका उपचार वर्तमान (गांधी के समय में) में, राजनीति के अलहदा जाके, खोजने की कोशिश की? जिसका डर संघ के एकरूपिय ढाँचे के विचार को था।


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