Gandhi and Historiography: Some Thoughts

G Arunima

Dr. G. Arunima is an Associate Professor at the Women’s Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

I am of the generation of historians, who as students in Delhi in the early ‘80s grew up on a pretty comprehensive Left critique of Gandhi. Interestingly, that was the only critique available within the Anglophone academy at that time. Looking back, I am reminded of two significant moments even then. One was Sumit Sarkar’s eloquent, and deeply moving, very small section in what is still a classic, Modern India (1983) on Gandhi’s fast after the riots at Noakhali.  Reading it brings tears to my eyes even now.This was about the helplessness, and utter vulnerability of an old man who had lived his life out as a public political figure. One who had maneuvered, strategized, and won many battles through sheer bullishness and the ability to monopolize public opinion. Sarkar’s empathy with Gandhi at this moment, in a book that is one of the earliest, and most subtle Left critiques, of the Indian National Congress’s kind of nationalism, is his ability to understand the profound tragedy of that moment. This was the pathos of ineffectiveness of that grand master strategy – satyagraha- and the inevitability of not only the Partition, but that of endless, relentless bloodshed and communal violence that has ravaged this country, and its neighbours, ever since.

Gandhi with Nehru and Patel

Gandhi with Nehru and Patel

The other was a beautiful little essay, ‘The Myth of the Mahatma’ (1985?) by Shahid Amin (which would later be a part of one of the classics on rethinking history and historiography in modern India, Event, Metaphor, Memory). Amin’s essay did many things. Having read it many times in the subsequent years, and taught it at different points, it’s a little hard to remember precisely the details of one’s early excitement. Yet I think even as early as the mid ‘80s, the idea that the ‘Mahatma’ wasn’t a great ‘man’(corporeal being) but produced discursively, was certainly very compelling. And it opened up the possibility for not only rethinking Gandhi, but also for imagining an Indian political that wasn’t focused on personality cults or high politics.  Most importantly, both these works (amongst others) allowed for a very important critique of the project of nationalism itself.

The work of Dalit movements from the 1980s onwards (especially in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu) created the grounds for rethinking Gandhi,producing some of the most powerful critiques in contemporary Indian politics, and historiography. By the 1990s some of this became available to an English reading public. Again, I am reminded of two early works, Eleanor Zelliot’s, From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement; and V. Geetha and S. V. Rajadurai’s Towards a Non Brahmin Millennium. I still think of these as foundational in helping many of us refine and rethink an older Left critique of Gandhi. Geetha and Rajadurai’s sophisticated work explored how Periyar’s idea of ‘self respect’ for Dalits made a trenchant critique, as early as 1927, of what he termed the “fraudulent unity” of Gandhian Congress, and its location within high/caste Hinduism. More importantly, it produced a radically different critique of power, and the possibility for imagining rights and justice in entirely new ways.  Zelliot’s work similarly is amongst the earliest (in English) that examines the details of the Ambedkarite critique, emerging from the differences provoked by Gandhi’s stance on the Communal Award, leading eventually to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste in 1936 (and later What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables in 1945).  Interestingly, though, post ’45 Gandhi’s own stances, in deference to Ambedkar’s criticism, involved some rethinking regarding electoral participation by ‘Untouchables’, this was never reflected in Congress’s politics in the 1940s.

This is not a comprehensive essay on Gandhi. And I am no expert on Gandhiana. These thoughts were provoked by day long views, status updates and posts in the media – mainly the socially mediatized world of Facebook and Twitter on Gandhi. It made me think of the last three decades of writing that has provided reflections on Gandhi, from Congress high politics, Left and subalternalternatives, Dalit critiques, to more recent, very sophisticated ways of conceptualizing his moral universe. Yet despite this rich, and diverse, body of writing what I saw today was sadly tired, and predictable, statements alternatingly reviling,or reclaiming, the man. I unfortunately did not encounter any thought,statement, or longer reflection that attempted to rethink the past, from the vantage point of this rich corpus of work on that very period. And if nothing else, Gandhi, like Nehru, Periyar or Ambedkar, is an intensely complex historical figure, who demands understanding (which does not mean agreement). And like him, all others too, also need to be read, in keeping with Amin’s early work, as discursively produced figures.

India today is both deeply communal, and intensely casteist. We are also poised in an election year in which the Hindu Right has named one of the most dangerous men in contemporary India, Narendra Modi, as its Prime Ministerial candidate. If history has any uses, is this not the time to read, and re-read, this complex body of writing that might help us understand at least some things about our present predicament? To re-phrase Santayana’s oft quoted line, those who cannot remember the complexities of history writing, are condemned to making ill-informed, though rashly apodictic, statements about the political present.