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Cherry-picking from Gandhi 
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Illustration: N.V. Jose

When you look at Gandhi and think of what would have happened if he was alive, it becomes a totally different issue. If Gandhi was alive, there would have been two things. One is that he would have seen the emergence of Bangladesh, which now becomes a secular country. He, of course, died at the height of a Hindu-Muslim separatist identity. Within four or five years, the Bengalis started agitating and began the Language Movement. Pakistanis made the mistake of shooting some of them down during the protest on February 21 (which went on to being recognised as the International Mother Language Day by Unesco).
If Gandhi had seen that, he would have thought about how religion and politics work. But he didn't, of course, because he lived in British India, and a few months in independent India.
No person is frozen, so I think he would have taken a different view. For instance, during Hind Swaraj, Gandhi was opposed to the idea of railways. But, by the time he was dying, he wasn't opposed to it. So this is one way of looking at it—which I think is counter factual history—to see how it would have gone if he had been alive. It interests us, but I don't think we would get a settled answer.
Is it an interesting subject? Yes, absolutely. But, on the other hand, he is a dead guy with a lot of interesting ideas. So we must pick up some that suit us, not every one of these ideas. Like we look at Marx saying that India needs a lot of change, but don't buy his rather dilapidated anthropology about Asian society, in which there was no truth. We look at David Hume's immensely elevating ideas about humanity and not at the passage in which he says Africans may actually be somewhat inferior. He did not apply that to the Chinese or to the Indians. We do not pick that up because that is not the interesting part of Hume. Positive thinking is the most interesting part of Hume's works.
(Similarly, we don't pick up Adam Smith's argument about the nutritional value of the potato, which he makes to counter the English prejudice against the Irish. We pick up that he is against the English superiority going back to the Fairy Queen, and the misgovernance of Ireland.) Also, we do not remember Aristotle for thinking that women could not be a part of politics and slaves should not have voting rights. We think of him in terms of the discourses in political democracy that he has championed. Or the idea of capability, which I got very involved in, in the Indian context.
I feel it would be a mistake to see whether we are being fair to a person by looking at only some of their ideas. It is perfectly fine to get some inspiration from certain aspects of Gandhi. His ideas can be very relevant in a political context when our multiple identities are questioned. Tagore was much more clear on this. Gandhi propagated Hindu thought of a different kind as opposed to the one taken today by the BJP, which considers itself the guardian of Hindu ideology. I would also look at his ideas of peace and non-violence.
I got strongly criticised by my friend Ramachandra Guha for cherry-picking. Historians like him have a totally different picture, but I feel cherry-picking is fine. When westerners talk about the western civilisation, they do not mention the Goths and the Visigoths. They talk about the Greeks and the Athenians. There is nothing wrong with this, because that is the interesting part of it.
I feel it is fine to be inspired by Gandhi. For me, the question would be whether there are things that India can learn from Gandhi, but hasn't. I feel there are. Environmentalism is one such idea. An idea of community-connected secularism, as opposed to religion-connected secularism, is another. The fact that these are not representative of all of Gandhi's ideas doesn't worry me in the least.
When we are dead and gone, if there is a fraction of an idea that we want to be remembered for, it wouldn't be the one we put forward when we were in discomfort. It might be something interesting we said, which might have been relevant then and later.
Sen was in New Delhi to attend an event that honoured Infosys Prize winners.

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