Sociological facts often create problems that a society does not fully confront. For example, everyone talks about the demographic dividend as a new identity kit for India. While other societies are ageing, we are proud that the majority of our population is under 25 years. Yet few ask what is the relation between demography and memory. How much of history, civilisation or the legacy of politics do our youth remember? How does a society born long after 1950 remember the national movement?
I remember talking to my students about that great trio of Indian nationalism, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. One of them wickedly assured me, “Thank God, Nehru was called chacha Nehru.” It is so much easier to remember him outside a book. The prefix chacha turned him into a familiar mnemonic rather than into an abstract footnote. When I asked about Patel, they claimed he was lucky in another way. Patel's style became a metaphor for governance, a presence by its very absence in the Nehruvian style of governance. I queried them about Gandhi and the response was more reflective, even silent.
“Which Gandhi?” one of them asked. Gandhi seemed to move between polyphony and stereotype. As official stereotype, he is the father of the nation, the ethical genius of Indian politics, the satyagrahi immortalised by Ben Kingsley. Yet, Gandhi is an irritant, a protean creature, which transcends stereotypes.
The beauty of Gandhi was that he was still a part of oral memory, influencing the very idea of India and of being Indian. He seems part ethics, part morality play; he is open to cartooning and can be recreated as a graphic novel. The students said that Gandhi is contemporary, and added that the textbooks turned the icon into footnotes. Gandhi gets reduced to a collection or a dhobi list of events like the Dandi march and the partition. The humour, the ambiguity, the laughter and the tragedy is all levelled into flat land.
A younger historian who looked fresh out of history workshops told me that there were three problems of remembering Gandhi; the first, the nature of official history; second, the issue of memory; and third, the nature of the man called Gandhi.
He observed that history often plays trickster. Gandhi works as a coffee table narrative. Yet, there are silences. The period in Africa is still untapped. I recollected that even Gandhi's diaries on the Partition have not been published. The government is sitting over them like an unhatched egg. The trouble with history is that it wishes to dictate what you should remember and memory plays strange tricks on history.
Gandhi, he claimed, was distorted twice, orally by his ‘Gandhian' followers where he became technique, and, historically, where he became a form of political correctness. He becomes a catechism. In this strait-laced narrative, there is only one answer and it is the least interesting. Gandhi then becomes an exam question with four points to remember: the struggle, the ambiguity, the irony and the humour. The rethinking of the man is lost in the need to create an officially-approved discourse.
Basically, one failed to reinvent or reread narrative in the first few decades. It is only when Ashis Nandy relocated Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore in the debates of nationalism and the new biographies like Joseph Lelyveld's opened up issues about the South African period that some controversy entered the Gandhian domain.
However, it was not what Gandhians did to Gandhi that revived him. Gandhi became a floating metaphor in the 1960s and 1970s, inspiring the Chipko and anti-Narmada movement. He became a kind of trope for the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. However, it was a new generation searching for the world of ideals, nostalgic for the poetry of nationalism that reinvented him as a guiding symbol, a heuristic for peaceful protest. The younger wave of protest around Anna Hazare, those fighting the indifference to gang-rape, found in Gandhi the wisdom of using the very vulnerability of the body as a site for protest.
The new era is inventing Gandhi like a happy Ekalavya waving thumbs down to the establishment. They realise that their very ignorance and the sheer polyphony of Gandhian interpretations allow reinvention. You invent a Gandhi that suits the time. He becomes both a technique and an ideal. As memory gives way to reinvention, a new generation creates fresh perspectives and one can wickedly talk of the demographic dividend of Gandhi, where the youth discover, or at least reinvent, him. It can be Munnabhai, a new play on Mahadev Desai, something Gandhian begins to make sense both as being and doing.
There is a second theoretical factor. The power of memory stems from the power of what it is opposed to. The power of oppositions creates its own drama. The old opposition of Gandhi versus Subhas Bose is passé, the other, Nehru versus Gandhi has served its time, but the opposition of Gandhi to Ambedkar and their styles and philosophies in the making of India have added a new vitality to Gandhian scholarship.
In fact, one of the ways our time has kept Gandhi alive is by counterposing him to someone in his conversational circle. Earlier it was Tagore. The new argumentative India uses Ambedkar as a counterpoint raising issues of violence, reform and social justice. Instead of being an official term, defined by the definitions of political correctness, Gandhi becomes a shifter, whose meaning is defined by use and context. The debate is no longer local. A Vaclav Havel becomes as crucially interesting as a Stephen Biko, Nelson Mandela or Baba Amte.
Gandhi serves as a tacit counterpoint to the new concern for the body in India. I am talking about how the history of the body affects the very creation of the body politic. The body in India has achieved new avatars in the language of protest, sexuality, foeticide, consumption, terror, rape and violence. In exploring these manifestations, the satyagrahic body creates as it were a set of moral and symbolic indicators. Gandhi plays tuning fork to the new drama of the body.
The idea of Gandhi sets up new experiments. His original essay provides as it were a baseline for truth and candidness. Gandhi becomes a base for a new reading, for mis-readings, for experiments creating a baseline for a new site for protest, consumption and sexuality.
There is one other domain where Gandhi might prove a creative irritant to the new generation. It is in the studies of peace. It does not require an Irom Sharmila in Manipur or the waves of Naxalite discontent to remind us that internal war, whether as insurgent struggle, separatism, or developmental violence, is haunting India.
Unfortunately, peace and security are defined as part of the officialdom of the nation state and its conceptual apparatus. The Gandhian emphasis on the body and the community might open up a new way of constructing peace, as a new Swaraj. I must confess this is still tentative. One sees it in the new work of the Self-Employed Women's Association of India and Ela Bhatt, and in Mahasweta Devi's politics. The young are still to respond to these septuagenarian ideas. But one hears inklings of it in the gossip of Manipur and Koodankulam, in ways of thinking peace, which link livelihood and ecology to a critique of violence. These are rumours in the rain, but they promise the seedlings of new Gandhian ideas. One hopes they survive and Gandhi becomes a pretext for a new generation of hopeful experiments.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.
Bapu the batsman
Though Gandhi claimed to have an aversion to physical exercise at school, a high-school classmate of his at Rajkot, Ratilal Ghelabhai Mehta, said in an interview that Gandhi was a “dashing cricketer” and “was good both at batting and bowling”. While in South Africa, Gandhi started two football clubs in Johannesburg and Pretoria, both named Passive Resisters, to reach out to the Indian community.