When even his detractors cannot help but imply saintliness – Mathatma means “Great Soul” – you know any assault against Gandhi’s character should advance tentatively. Much like in pushing the elephant up the stairs, you’re unlikely to make headway, more likely showered in shit.
But such attempts must be made. How else are we, as a species, going to outgrow our unfortunate habit of person worship?
As the case with all saints, no one is particularly certain about how the person in question came to earn their title. Both religious and secular saints, should they be Che Guevara, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul or Diana Spencer, simply are. To question it is to invite quizzical looks and sharp intakes of breath.
(Taking each of those listed above in turn, we have: 1) an apocalyptically-minded adventurer mistaken for the Holy Ghost, 2) a hideous bint who conflated suffering with godliness, 3) a cross-dresser who believed condoms were worse than AIDS, and 4) a bore who, in keeping with her aristocratic roots, left nothing to charity come death, and treated her body as a commodity in life.)
With Gandhi – here in Britain at least – answers are especially vague. Usually the reasons given bring to mind Orwell’s idea of the worst type of socialist, “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist”. Almost a full house!
“But he freed India.” Did he? Of all of independent India’s founding fathers, Gandhi offered the least in way of original thought, and, in fact, at times resembled a British stooge.
When insolent Boers needed to be taught a lesson, Gandhi didn’t waste time in volunteering for the British aggressors. But by the time their bloodied monocles turned east toward the subcontinent, he had become decidedly holier-than-thou. He issued lofty calls for non-violence in the face of a crumbling empire that had very little to lose by exercising its trigger finger.
But, to his credit, unlike Western pacifists he was clear-headed about what this principle meant in practice. He expected the oppressed multitude to bow their heads when confronted with hostile military force, and get them blown off should it come to it. No, really. Asked what Europe’s Jews should have done in response to the Nazi threat, he responded: beat them to the punch – commit mass-suicide. This, apparently, would have awoken the latent sympathies of the outside world. What purpose that would’ve achieved is unknown, seeing as how the international community would have been wrong in Gandhi’s view to use power or coercion in response. (The only benefit I can think of is this: it would have given the others on Hitler’s list time to consider whether they would rather reach for the razor blade or rope when the SS came knocking.)
In the end, our poor-sighted midget added, most of the Jews died anyway.
Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. As it is, they succumbed anyway in their millions.
From Gandhi’s correspondence to his biographer Louis Fischer
And when the fascist contingent from the East was threatening to subordinate his homeland all over again, he let it be known that the people of India should allow the Japanese to kill them in their millions, rather than resort to violence. To his English readers, he urged them, that should (although, at the time, it seemed more a question of when) the Axis’ armies arrive to
take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself man, woman and child, to be slaughtered …
Does this sound like a great catalyst of liberation, or the ramblings of a deluded megalomaniac, distant from the consequences his words might have? And how does his acceptance of Japanese slaughter square with his stated ambition of freeing India from any and all “yoke”?
Gandhi’s moral convictions frequently led to contradictions such as these (this was a man who drove about the place, carrying the message “Boycott British Goods”, in a Rolls Royce). Giving one the ironical thought: this supposed simple man of
inaction, was in fact far better suited to the isolation of the ivory tower. A place where one can impress upon and impress peers with the impeccable logic of their ethical stances, safe in the knowledge they will never have to act upon them.
Gandhi was forever nominating himself as a mediator: in 1937 in Palestine, for example, where he concluded that Jews could demand a state of their own only if all Arab opinion were to become reconciled to it; and later unsolicitedly advising the peoples of Czechoslovakia to try what Lelyveld calls “satyagraha to combat storm troopers.”
The Great Soul did however, as we shall see in Part II, inflict his moral code on the world. And still it demands its tribute.