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).
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.