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Gandhism redux? Wanna be Gandhis and the original Gandhi [Barun Mitra]

This is by my good friend Barun Mitra. The original version was published here.

Saturday, August 20, 2011
Many of today’s anti-corruption protestors believe that they are participating in the second freedom struggle from misrule. Ambedkar had warned against extra-constitutional means of protests. But today, in the name of Gandhi, many believe that constitutional processes are expendable. It is good that Gandhi is back in the public memory. If this provides an opportunity to try and understand him, it will be even better. While the tumultuous protests we are witnessing today seem to cluster under the umbrella of Gandhism, but how Gandhian is the Anna Hazare led movement, asks Barun Mitra.
What we see: social activist Anna Hazare forever poised on the lip of a threat, that of a prolonged fast. What we know: Hazare is demanding that the Parliament of India adopt the Jan Lok Pal bill, as drafted by his team, promising to create a new, independent and anti-corruption agency.
What with the fasting and a leader wearing a white cotton cap of a certain kind, it seems that Gandhi and Gandhism, is back in vogue again. Gandhi led one of the greatest political movements the world had ever witnessed – India’s non-violent march towards independence from colonial rule. Many of today’s protestors believe that they are participating in the second freedom struggle from misrule.
And so, they don the Gandhi cap as they join street protests against corruption and mis-governance in India. Cap=Gandhi, fasting=Gandhism? Equally, while exercising the freedom to protest, there is a danger of undermining the very constitutional processes that have protected these freedoms.
Gandhi led the Indian struggle for Independence but he did not fast against British rule as such. Occasionally, he did protest against specific actions or policies of the British by fasting, such as better facilities in prisons.
Actually, the contrast could not be starker between the original Gandhi and his self-proclaimed heirs of today. Gandhi did not fast to fan anger and didn’t seek to bring pressure on the government. His political fasts always had a very specific message for his followers. He did not need to fast on a public platform, nor did he need to appear on 24/7 news channels. Yet his political fasts carried the message, strongly, succinctly, and widely, inspiring millions. Gandhi’s self-denial was an occasion for introspection, and bringing the spotlight on the issue at hand. This is why almost on every occasion he was willing and able to compromise and carry his critics along.
There is no doubt about the angst in society today. A large section of the populace has been both victim as well as participant in the prevailing corrupt environment, governance failure and economic mismanagement. The lack of credible political leadership at the moment has created a vacuum, and it is this space that civil society activists like Anna Hazare has filled. However, good intentions are not sufficient to cure all ills. It is much easier to join a popular campaign, rather than doing the requisite hard work to understand the underlying causes.
As for the coverage in the mass media, the 24/7 news media have their own interests in stoking the fire in pursuit of the drama, and hardly have the time and space necessary for a dispassionate discourse on any issue.
Mass movement
Gandhi taught the world the power of satyagraha, peaceful civil disobedience, as he led India’s struggle against British rule. Today, however, the Congress party, which he once led, is seen to be muzzling the peaceful protest led by Anna Hazare in Delhi.
Gandhi had transformed Indian politics by converting the Congress from a select club to a mass movement. Today, the same party seems confused as it confronts a few thousand people on the street.
Gandhi gave a completely new meaning to the concept of fasting, by turning the traditional Indian ritual into a powerful political tool. The fasting symbolised Gandhi’s own conviction and reflected his confidence in his followers. Gandhi was a leader who expected his friends and followers to rise to the high standards that he set. Today, political leadership primarily consists of pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Gandhi initiated fasts on a number of occasions throughout his long public life. However, he was anything but inflexible. On February 4, 1922, police fired on a procession of protestors near Gorakhpur. A rampaging mob then set fire to the police station in Chauri Chaura, killing more than 20 policemen. Gandhi called off the agitation despite objection from his colleagues in the Congress Party. He felt that his followers had not yet grasped the essence of non-violence and therefore, were not ready to undertake satyagraha. This capacity to lead from the front, established Gandhi as the true leader of the masses.
 Highlights from a few of Gandhi’s fasts
  • In South Africa, Gandhi went on a fast as a penance for some moral lapse on the part of two inmates of his ashram. He also undertook a fast when some members objected to the admission of a few Harijans to the ashram.
  • In 1919, Gandhi went on a 72- hour fast to protest the massacre of civilians by British troops in Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab, and also in opposition to the public disturbances that followed in other parts of the country.
  • In November 1921, Gandhi vowed to fast on every Monday till India gained swaraj or self-rule.
  • In February 1922, Gandhi went on a fast to introspect and underscore the significance of peaceful civil disobedience among his followers, following the deaths of policemen in Chauri Chaura.
  • In 1933, Gandhi undertook a fast for his own self-purification and that of his colleagues.
  • In 1939, while on a three- day fast to protest some decisions of the ruler of Rajkot, Gandhi issued a statement, appealing to Congressmen “to make supreme efforts to clean the Congress house of proved corruption and impurities.”
Fast essentials
In 1932, Gandhi started his politically most controversial fast while in jail, in Pune. The British government had accepted a proposal for separate electorate for lower caste sections of the population, following a demand from Dr B. R. Ambedkar. Gandhi went on a fast against this proposal. He was not fasting against the British government but wanted Ambedkar to withdraw his demand, and not divide the Indian Hindu population on caste lines. After days of negotiations, a compromise was reached, and it was agreed that rather than a separate electorate, a certain number of seats in the assembly would be reserved for the lower caste sections, in order to facilitate their political participation.
Ambedkar was not very happy with the Poona Pact but he accepted the compromise because he felt that if something were to happen to Gandhi, he and the lower caste population would be blamed, and that would put at risk whatever little progress was being made in the matter.
In 1947, India was partitioned, and Pakistan was carved out, at the time of Independence. Millions of people were uprooted from their homes. Hindus sought to move to India, and Muslims to Pakistan. Emotions ran high and communal riots engulfed Bengal in the east, Punjab in the west.
The government of India struggled to keep peace in the west, as refugees poured into Delhi. Gandhi and a handful of followers went on a march through rural Bengal, comforting victims and seeking an end to the senseless violence.
Then Gandhi performed his biggest miracle in September 1947. He went on a fast in Calcutta, in an ordinary house in a Muslim locality in the city. He said he did not want to see the destruction of the ideals he had tried to strive for all his life. Gandhi declared that unless the violence ended, he would prefer to die. As the word of his fast spread, citizens and leaders began to come out, calling for peace. In three days, the 78- year- old Gandhi was able to calm the religious frenzy and the mob violence ebbed.
Today, the protestors claim to believe in constitutional democracy but do not seem to believe in the legitimacy of the elected Members of Parliament. They claim to represent the angst of the masses against corruption but feel that the same masses are gullible and would never elect ‘honest’ people to office. They claim to be followers of Gandhian ideals… yet one of the most talked about Anna Hazare legends is of him tying up village drunkards to a tree and whipping them with a belt!
Gandhi spoke of village republics. Anna has been stressing that in a democracy sovereignty lies with the people, and it is the gram sabhas that is the foundation of democracy. Yet, Anna has no hesitation in acknowledging that if he were to contest an election, he is likely to lose his deposit, because the people are ignorant. It is this kind of disdain, which gives rise to the sense of arrogance that only Anna has the light, and that those who disagree are either living in the dark or must be corrupt.
Changing course
For those who want to uphold Gandhian values and fight corruption, it would be worthwhile to ponder if their target should be the elected government of the day, or if, like Gandhi, they could inspire people to eschew the giving and taking of bribes.
The anti-corruption campaigners want to create a strong and independent institution of Lok Pal, combining the roles of policing, investigation and prosecution, all in one. They may be looking for a Superman who could easily turn into Monster Man.
Caught in the middle of the anti-corruption battle, today’s crusaders seems to have forgotten that corruption is not merely a consequence of moral frailty but an outcome of policies that sanction state patronage, bestow favours, and distort the normal economic functions.
Institutions matter. But in their zeal to end corruption, the campaigners are attempting to de-legitimise the only institution which the people are able to hold accountable – the Legislature. Most other segments of society, be it family, industry, non-profit organisations, or religious orders, do not have such a regular and periodic turnover of leadership, as is the case with the elected representatives. For good or bad, less than half of the sitting legislators have a reasonable prospect of getting re-elected.
In the current turbulent times, it would be useful to remember what Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Committee which drafted the Constitution, said in the Constituent Assembly, in 1949:
If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgment we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.
In the name of Gandhi, one should not throw his values and constitutional methods out of the window. Actually, it is good that Gandhi is back in the public memory. If this provides an opportunity to try and understand him, it will be even better.
Author : Mr Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute, an independent public policy think tank in New Delhi. 
This article was published in the Liberty Institute on Saturday, August 20, 2011.
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I have NOT commented on Hazare’s actual arrest – but on Hazare’s method and attitude.

I've received numerous comments on FB  but have no time to respond to them. It seems people are mixing up the specific actions of the Congress goverment with my comments about Hazare's method and attitude.

Let me clarify what I'm saying, and what I'm NOT saying.

First, I'm NOT commenting on the precise nature of Hazare's arrest and what is going on. I don't have detailed knowledge of such things, and don't have time to follow the details. What I have said is roughly this – that Hazare can't keep threatening to break the law and yet expect the government to do nothing. That would destroy India totally. The government cannot tolerate its laws being broken. And yes, Anna has threatened to break the law, apart from burning the lokpal bill and asking people to fill jails.

The precise actions a government initiates in response to such threats to public safety and order, are left in the law to the local administration. No one can tell a district magistrate what to do in such circumstances (although I know that some district magistrates may be malleable and listen to polticians – but in the National Academy we taught how DMs must exercise THEIR judgement on such matters, since they have the local knowledge).

The DM is required to exercise his (or her) power with due diligence, care, and accountability. So whether Hazare is now in Tihar or elsewhere, that's not something I'm commenting on, since I assume the law is being followed. Only if they law is broken by the local administration can one comment further on this.

Second, and in this is my main point, I'm saying that Hazare is an anarchist even though he claims a "democratic right" to break the law. Effectively he is intent on overthrowing an elected government for not accepting his version of the Lokpal bill. He refuses to use the constitutionally legitimate method, of getting elected and changing the laws. He is not a 100% anarchist, since then he would not even want any law, but pretty close to being an anarchist. 

Third, I'm saying that Hazare is NOT a Gandhian. He is a pretend Gandhian.

Gandhi would NEVER have done what Hazare is doing. I have already provided SUFFICIENT evidence about this matter from Gandhi's own writings in the past (e.g. Research into Gandhi’s views on suicide and fasting #2 and Research into Gandhi’s views on suicide and fasting #3).

But also, after the Poona Confernce of 1932, Gandhi realised that fasting CAN'T BE A VALID method to use in any constitutional form of government. The evidence emerged recently for this view of Gandhi: If Hazare disputes this, I CHALLENGE him to cite Gandhi to justify his actions.

Let me reproduce key sections from this important article (thanks to Karthik for pointing this out)

“After Gandhiji was released and we had the Poona Conference over which M.S. Aney, who was then the Acting President of the Congress, presided, I tried to meet Gandhiji but his nephew prevented me from meeting him because he knew my views to which I shall refer presently. Anyway, Aney was good enough to invite me to that meeting of Congressmen….
“I went up to Gandhiji at the end of the meeting and I said, ‘I am trying to meet you and your nephew is preventing me from meeting you.' He said, ‘No, no, nobody can do that. You come and see me.' I would like to mention that in my speech I had said, ‘I do not know what card Gandhiji had up his sleeve.' I was amused to find that some people thought this to be disrespectful because Gandhiji never played cards.
“When I went to him the next day, he showed me the letter which he had prepared for being dispatched to the Viceroy. In the letter, he had mentioned that satyagraha must be recognised as a constitutional right. So, I said to Gandhiji with utmost respect, ‘Several views have been expressed for framing our Constitution. Tomorrow, when India is free, would you say that satyagraha is a constitutional right and write it into the Constitution. And, if we do, what does it mean? It means that anybody can break the law with impunity and nothing could be done. Actually, it would be contrary to your own ideas. Satyagraha, you say, means disobeying authority and facing the consequences. Now, if satyagraha is a constitutional right and it is permitted, what are the consequences to face?' It would be said to the credit of the great man that he started thinking and he said, ‘ There is something in what you say.' Next day, he sent for me and said, ‘ You are right. I have decided not to send that letter.' Such was the greatness of the man; he always kept an open mind. After he had actually drafted the letter and finalised it, he said, ‘I am not sending it.'

I'll try to write more (in the context of the many comments I've received on FB) later – time permitting. I am desperately busy at the moment, and I'm replying to this well after midnight, and have a working day from early tomorrow…

I'm not a retired man like Anna. I have to earn a living through a full time job. And I have many other responsibilities as well. So let me say what I can now, and will add more info later.

I trust this clarifies at least some of the MANY comments I have received.

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Gandhi was in two minds about science and the scientific method

As part of my research to investigate whether Hinduism promotes or denies reason, I've conducted a brief study of Gandhi's collected works – 98 volumes in all. (Today, every word that Gandhi wrote can be searched in a millisecond! Just go to advanced google search and restrict the search to the domain: 

Gandhi is not a Hindu teacher, but his views were often informed by his Hindu upbringing. Posted below is my preliminary research. Happy to receive other evidence (either for or against) on this topic. In brief, I find that Gandhi was not clear about the role of science and reason

(There is another possible candidate. I studied in DAV College Jullundur, most academics of which were Arya Samajis – followers of Dayananda Saraswati. DAV institutions have been at the forefront of science. For instance, the Nobelist Hargovind Khorana not only studied in DAV High school Multan but got his BSc degree from DAV College Lahore. I can vouch for the high quality of the chemistry labs in DAV Jullundur. It is quite possible that Dayanand Saraswati might have advocated science and reason. Anyone know anything about that?)

1) Gandhi understood and broadly supported the scientific method:

"A person who is scientifically inclined does not take the truth of anything  for  granted;  he  tries  to  prove  it  himself.  In  this  way  he develops  his  own  intellect  and  also  obtains  knowledge  of  the potentialities of things. Why does an apple fall off the tree, why does it not fly up? It is said that this question arose in Newton’s mind and he discovered the law of  gravitation. Is the earth flat like a  plate? Is it stationary? Such questions arose in Galileo’s mind and he discovered that the earth is spherical like an orange and revolves on its axis. Such discoveries have produced great results." (SourceCollected works of Gandhi, p.40, Vol. 81.


"It is enough for us to know that it is  the correct goal and, having started the activity,  we have to correct our mistakes and go forward. That is the essence of the scientific method.  No science has  dropped from the skies in a perfect form. All sciences develop and are built up through experience. Perfection is not an attribute of science. Absolute perfection is not possible either for man or for the science that he creates. For example, astronomy is continually progressing. Many mistakes  have  been  made  and  corrected. The process still continues. The same may be said of the science of khadi." (SourceCollected works of Gandhi, p.179, Vol. 90.

2) But Gandhi was not a fan of technology:

‘“mass production” is a technical term for production by the fewest possible number through the aid of highly complicated machinery. I have said to myself that that is wrong. My machinery must be of the most elementary type which I can put in the homes of the millions.’[3]  
3) He also thought that science did not offer anything substantial:
‘Nothing that the modern civilization can offer in the way of stability can ever make any more certain that which is inherently uncertain; that, when we come to think of it, the boast about the wonderful discoveries and the marvellous inventions of science, good as they undoubtedly are in themselves, is, after all, an empty boast. They offer nothing substantial to the struggling humanity.[4]
4) And he positively opposed modern medicine:
‘Do not deceive yourself with the belief that allopathy today holds the field by virtue of the backing and patronage that it receives from the Government. In my opinion it holds its present position in the world because, though it is a false science, its votaries have faith in it and have made great sacrifices to advance it. But the modern naturopaths have made no sacrifices. They are easily satisfied. No wonder they feel they have earned the right to fleece the poor and gullible and grow rich.[5]


[3] Collected works of Gandhi, p.20, Vol. 54.

[4] Collected works of Gandhi, p.209, Vol. 53.

[5] Collected works of Gandhi, p.157 Vol. 95

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Please don’t “misunderestimate” Gandhi’s genius

Many of India's "educated" people seem to have little sense of history and seriously underestimate Gandhi. Regardless of all his flaws and shortcomings, Gandhi remains a towering figure – both as a man of love and non-violence and as a man of superlative strategic genius.

A small movement of his feet, clad in thongs, would set the entire country aflutter and dashing off after him. If at all there is an illustration in the world in recent times of the sheer power of goodness and morality, his example must surely rank at the top. (I'm talking very broadly here – for even Gandhi did not claim he was perfect.)

As illustration of this erroneous sense that many people in India have about Gandhi, and in order to help minimise this common misunderstanding about Gandhi's role in India (and the world), here's what a commentator wrote on this blog today, and here's my response:

The commentator, Ranganath R (here's his blog) wrote:

Both Anna H and MKG are/were deluded and misguided messiahs. If you think AH has no idea or theory of a state or nation, even MKG did not really have any. His vision of a Sevagram economy and society  if implemented would have landed India in a greater disaster than Nehruvian socialism.

Gandhi's charisma, popularity and the spirit of the times in which he reached his peak provided the intellectual justification and rationalization for his mediaval and outmoded ideas and methods. While it is a hypothetical argument now, Gandhi with his idealistic theories and satyagraha antics delayed our 'freedom' from colonial rule by atleast 50 years, by crowding other effective agitational methods.

Here's my response:

Dear Ranganath

I’m unable to agree. Gandhi did know precisely what he was doing, and why. He kept learning and innovating as he progressed, and he can’t be considered to have been widely read, but he did have a justification for what he promoted. His worldview was simplistic in the extreme, but that simplicity was founded on love. That not everyone felt it (e.g.Jinnah or the Harijans) is inevitable.

I do not agree that without Gandhi India would have got its independence 50 years earlier. First, he came on the scene only 30 years before independence (from 1915). Second, all other programs before his movements were elite-based and the masses in India did not care for independence, for they could not distinguish between ancient Hindu kings, Mughal rule, and British rule. In fact, many of the things in their life were getting better in the British rule, so they were not particularly anti-British (recall that the British did not commit any major atrocities before 1919 Jalianwalah Bagh, after Gandhi had come on the scene and started turning up the pressure by one notch).

The first mass movement in India occurred in 1921-22, being called off after Chauri Chaura. It was the first mass expression of the people after 1857 (which was much smaller in extent).

It was these growing mass protests that unnerved the British. They had no reason to fear anyone but Gandhi. What if he did not call off his non-violence moment after Chauri Chaura? He held an instrument more powerful in his hands than anyone before him – and after him. He could turn the entire country on and off like a tap. That power was what ultimately put the fear of God into the British – and indeed the Quit India of 1942 was at least a partial expression of that power.

And it was through his efforts that we slowly got a democracy – based on the 1935 Act. He carefully tutored DEMOCRATS like Nehru, and shunned violent rebels like Bose. Without his over-arching influence India would have become a broken nation, racked by internal violence of a magnitude 10 times more than what you see today.

He could not prevent the partition of India, but without him India would not have been 3 countries, but 30.

I don’t buy your arguments. Gandhi was a genius, and he did have a solid theory. Read his work – it goes into millions of words. He had very clear understandings of what he was doing and why.

Let IAC not compare the super-genius Gandhi with a half-baked copycat AH, or a confused Ramdev.


(Note:I use a Bushism in the title of this blog post for I find this interesting word more illuminating than the simple word, "underestimate", given it can be used to refer to the concept of serious under-estimation).


'Gandhi did not oppose science' ("Most Indian philosophy of the last few centuries consists of the study of Indian philosophers of the past. Gandhi was one of the few who produced a philosophy of his own")


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