Gandhi, Ambedkar, Savarkar: Vinayak Chaturvedi on Critiquing the Mahatma in 2022
On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, Prof Vinayak Chaturvedi speaks about how to critique Gandhi in this day and age.
Mahatma Gandhi is revered worldwide, but his writings and actions are not free of criticism. On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, Prof Vinayak Chaturvedi, who teaches history at the University of California, Irvine, speaks to The Quint about the many criticisms of Gandhi – from BR Ambedkar's critique to the feminist critique.
Prof Chaturvedi, who is also the author of 'Hindutva and Violence: VD Savarkar and the Politics of History,' which was published this year, talks about Gandhi's legacy now and in the future, and answers a pertinent question: if Gandhi is the father of the nation, is Savarkar the 'ghost' father of the nation?
While there is a lot of valid criticism of Mahatma Gandhi, there is also a lot of misinformation that surrounds him now. In this clutter, the valid criticism often gets lost. How should Gandhi be critiqued?
The biggest challenge about working on Gandhi – which also explains why he's the most written-about individual in Indian history – is the fact that he also wrote a huge amount of material. There are approximately 100 volumes of writings, which means that no matter what one argues within Gandhi's own work, there are ways to expose his internal contradictions.
For Gandhi, this was actually a part of a strategy, too. For him, it was important to write, and at one place he notes that "It is important you read what I wrote most recently, not what I wrote yesterday… in part because my thoughts are constantly evolving, reflecting the contemporary moment."
For scholars interested in writing about Gandhi, this becomes a big challenge – which moments of Gandhi are we talking about, and are his ideas really changing over time? And if they are, then how do we responsibly provide a critique. That's the academic interpretation of the challenges of writing about Gandhi.
You can go to any bookstore anywhere in the world. In the 'India' section, there will be writings by Gandhi and about Gandhi. So, there's something about him that has certainly captured the imagination of many individuals.
But equally, what ends up happening is that there are criticisms of Gandhi that happen on a whole range of topics, and the question I always ask is, 'Which Gandhi are you talking about, in terms of his text?' The best way to provide a criticism of Gandhi is by looking at his writings. The burden is on the individual who is either providing a celebratory moment of Gandhi or criticism of Gandhi.
Within India, we have a hagiographical tradition of celebrating the individual as this larger-than-life figure. In a way, we can interpret India's biographical tradition which has elevated individuals. In contemporary India, there is a tradition that one can call the 'Amar Chitra Katha' legacy of how we interpret human beings in the biographical traditions.
You mentioned that you often ask which Gandhi one's talking about. Could you tell us more about these different Gandhis?
I always begin my class asking what assumptions people have about Gandhi because many would have seen Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi, which won the Academy award, or they would have been exposed to Gandhi in their text books.
My task always is to have students only read Gandhi for the first half of the class – so, mostly Hind Swaraj, his autobiographical writings, and his select essays from three different newspapers – to give three different genres of writing that he was actively participating in.
What we see is the evolution of Gandhi. Recently, Ramchandra Guha's books have talked about the South African Gandhi, the Indian Gandhi, and then the legacies of Gandhi. I suspect he (Guha) would say that Gandhi, like any other figure, is constantly evolving.
The most important thing before beginning any kind of critique is to actually read them, and that is sort of becoming a lost art. We can choose to poke holes in individuals for a whole number of reasons, but it is important to read their works to come to an assessment.
I would like to know how you address the criticism of Gandhi in your class, especially that of BR Ambedkar.
In the second half of the class, I get my students to read criticisms of Gandhi as well as interpretations of Gandhi. The Ambedkar perspective – which is the most powerful – and the critique of Gandhi on caste is what students find most compelling.
Then there is the Muslim League's critique of Gandhi, where they say that what he really wanted to do was establish Hindu hegemony in India, and they start using that phrase, especially Muhammad Ali Jinnah, quite regularly.
There is the feminist critique of Gandhi, the Marxist critique, and the Hindu right's critique.
I have been spending a lot of time reading VD Savarkar's writings and his interpretations of Gandhi. I think the Hindu right is fixated on Gandhi's non-violence. They believe that Gandhi's non-violence is the greatest existential threat to Hindus.
Even within Savarkar's writings, especially in his last book Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History or Saha Soneri Pane, he emphasises on the politics of assassination, where he says that what's important is for Hindus to use violence against individuals, especially those who advocate non-violence.
Savarkar's emphasis is really on Buddha's non-violence, but I think that is just a deflection because he didn't really want to mention Gandhi in this explicit way. It is a celebration of using violence against those who advocate non-violence.
For Savarkar and his disciples, the advocacy of non-violence is antithetical to being Hindu. For him, Hindus should embrace themselves as violent beings. So, Buddha and Gandhi provided that existential threat to Hindus because they advocated non-violence.
When you say that Savarkar advocated that Hindus should embrace violence, did he mean that this should be done in order to protect one's community and honour?
Yes, and no. Yes, in the sense that Savarkar also says that he abhors violence, but he says that victims of violence should be able to use violence against their perpetrators.
One argument I raised in my work recently was that within his own writing, the original perpetrators were Hindus themselves in India; that a Hindu became a Hindu in the act of violence.
So, the Hindus themselves are perpetrators of violence. So when a figure like Gandhi or Buddha comes along and says that non-violence is what defines Hindus, for Savarkar, that is a major problem because it goes against his understanding of what it means to be a Hindu.
He has a passage in his last work where he says that the individuals advocating excessive non-violence should suffer a cruel death.
In his last work, Savarkar can't fully articulate what he wants to say about Gandhi, so he talks about Hindus in the past who fought against non-violence as a way of thinking about creating a Hindu Rashtra, and in a sense, some of those are ideas are being perpetuated today.
How do some of your students try to understand the critique of Gandhi, his views on racism in the backdrop of 'Black Lives Matter,' or his views on gender in the context of the 'Me Too' movement?
The issue of race is interesting. There is a book called The South African Gandhi, in which Ashwin Desai and Ghulam Waheed talk about Gandhi's complicated interpretations of race, regarding Africans and his interactions with them.
And they articulate it within his claim that he was a loyal subject of the British empire, and so he has loyalty to the British empire, but he is also making certain kinds of remarks about the Africans that today look racist and disparaging.
What we have seen in Ghana, South Africa, and even parts of east Africa is that any kind of monument or statue of Gandhi has either been targeted or taken down.
This, in fact, is a part of challenging the hagiographical formation of Gandhi as a figure. Statues have now become targets at a global level and have been for many years. It is a rejection of a kind of validity of a certain figure.
Within the BLM globally, we saw students become more and more uncomfortable thinking about Gandhi's disparaging comments and the negation of talking about them. Gandhi, today, seems a figure who is racist.
But I always tell students that if you look at Savarkar's writings, for example, his interpretation of Africans, we find that he has made even more disparaging comments. If we unpack most of our thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th century, we will find – from today's optics – that there were serious problems in their thoughts. This realisation is a part of studying any field of history – recognising your own subjectivity.
About the feminist interpretations of Gandhi, he wrote in his autobiography My Experiments with Truth about paying prostitutes, his experiments with sleeping next to his niece, and so on. These things raise major questions about Gandhi's moralities.
It is important to point out that feminists at that time, too, were raising these concerns, and so were Africans. I don't want to misrepresent that we are only doing this today, when in fact this has been a long-term critique. There is a long history of such critique.
Can you talk a bit more about Ambedkar's criticism of Gandhi? Are more and more people talking about it now than before?
Yes, I think so. I think 20 years ago, there was very sparse work on Ambedkar as an intellectual and as a figure. I think that in the last 20 years, the 'Ambedkar moment' is here.
He can no longer be ignored as a major thinker for understanding contemporary India. As a consequence of that, we see a flourishing of very important works on Ambedkar, and if you are writing about him, you are also writing about Gandhi. If you are writing about Savarkar, again, you are also writing about Gandhi. So, the development of Ambedkar as a thinker also means there's a new way of thinking about Gandhi.
All three need to be read together. It seems obvious to us today but it hasn't been obvious in the past.
Ambedkar's criticism is powerful because he is a very good writer, and articulates his position with conviction and evidence. It is a compelling read – whether it's caste discrimination, structures of the caste system and how it has stopped Dalits, or as he calls the 'depressed classes,' from fulfilling themselves as human beings.
I think the humanistic part of Ambedkar's arguments in the liberal tradition is very powerful. And Gandhi, in a sense, is seen as that kind of religious figure who is wanting to improve the varna system from within and Ambedkar is challenging it from the outside, saying this is not going to be resolved if we leave it to Gandhi.
In a 1955 interview, Ambedkar talked about two different Gandhis – the public Gandhi and the private Gandhi. Gandhi, in his writings, always says that he wants to dismantle the idea of the private and the public when it comes to him. But what Ambedkar argues is that there is still a private Gandhi, and he says that "Gandhi shows me his fangs when I meet him. But he doesn't show his fangs when he meets other people in private or in public." Ambedkar revealed this seven years after Gandhi's death.
Ambedkar also pointed out polemically – and I think that he might actually be correct – that the only reason we continue to revere Gandhi is because he was assassinated. Had he died a natural death, we would not have elevated Gandhi to the status he is at.
I teach Gandhi to American students and when they read Ambedkar's critique, they realise that something else is going on in this relationship.
Gandhi is a political figure who has figured out a way to remain powerful and dominant in pushing a certain kind of idea and discourse about a nation in which the OBC, the Dalits, and the 'depressed classes' are all being marginalised.
This is unjust, especially since it is coming from the individual who wrote India's constitution. Ambedkar is one of the main figures, the main constitutionalist who says that this nation is unfair. The ways in which we celebrate Gandhi are unfair. And what is being proposed in the construction of India as a Republic is unfair.
Is there a concentrated effort to defame Gandhi by the Hindu right-wing?
As I was pointing out that these kinds of hagiographies of Gandhi are seen as larger than life, it always means that his authority will constantly be questioned as long as he remains in this position.
In the long run, the idea is to actually replace Gandhi, the 'Father of the Nation', with Savarkar, who is sort of the 'Father-in-Waiting'.
The Hindutva strategy in the long run is not only just to go after Gandhi, but everything that represents the Indian National Congress. They have figured out a long-term strategy of dismantling it at every level, while simultaneously building Savarkar's authority and reputation from its kind of marginal status into a sort of the dominant place that it is reaching today.
Whether we imagine in the next 10 or 20 years, India's currency notes will no longer just be about Gandhi. But you can imagine that Savarkar's image will be there. I don't think we are that far-off from that happening. We are already beginning to see this. We are building bigger monuments, we are building more monuments. This is a tactic, not simply of the Hindu right, but many governments do this. But Savarkar, I suspect, is certainly the ghost father in the waiting.
I think that is really important for people to read these figures. Otherwise, the criticisms we have are almost vacuous at certain points.
We are constantly in the process of revising. Defamation is about dishonouring, disgracing, and shaming, and that is being done to Gandhi. How often do we want to do it is the question now.
What we see today is that it is possible to dismantle a whole range of things – buildings, libraries, documents – by saying that we don't want this history to be read by anyone else.
25 years later, as India turns 100, how do you think Gandhi will be remembered? What do you think his legacy will be, or do you see it being entirely dismantled by then?
I think we are seeing something happening already in that sense. When we celebrate India's 100th year of independence, we can't ignore Gandhi in that. His critique will continue to grow and evolve but I think the public response will depend on how far the government will push to replace Gandhi with Savarkar.
I don't think there is any other individual that they will replace him with. It will be a long, slow process. Publicly, Gandhi's presence might diminish, but maybe Gandhi doesn't need that same presence in order for his legacy to continue. So, there won't be that one legacy, there will be multiple legacies.
We discussed critiquing Gandhi and his legacy. But if you had to define Gandhi, how would you do that?
When I started studying in graduate school, one of the things I promised myself was that I would not work on Gandhi. Instead, I ended up working on Gujarat for my PhD dissertation. I quickly realised that I would have to talk about Gandhi if I talk about Gujarat.
So, the Gandhi I wrote about in my first book was a Gandhi who recognised that a large number of lower-caste peasants, who were being marginalised by the colonial state local-landed populations, were in trouble. Gandhi ended up supporting the landed populations as opposed to the lower-caste peasants whose labour and land was being squeezed.
The Gandhi that I left thinking about after my first book was a Gandhi who was a political tactician, who had the reputation of supporting peasants and had the support of peasants but in the heartland, but supported the Patidars and the Patels. Today, they have gained their dominance on the backs of these lower-caste peasant groups who were completely marginalised in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The legacy of Gandhi from my first project was really about these legacies of criminality and marginalisation in Gujarat that had a lot to do with the tactics and strategies that he had imposed.
My second understanding of Gandhi was when I was working on my Savarkar book, I realised quickly that I had to become fluent regarding Gandhi. This Gandhi was slightly different from the other Gandhi I had encountered. This one spoke about celebrating non-violence.
But if I had to choose which Gandhi I still hold on to, it would be the one I first encountered. I don't want in my critique of him to sort of remove the power that he had as a political strategist and as a politician.
It is important to place him within that framing as well. That Gandhi himself was fully aware, both as a lawyer and also as a kind of political strategist, of the ways in which to not only gain authority over an immoral government, but also lay out strategies for fighting.
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