Humans are not born great, they achieve greatness through struggle. And inevitably, they make mistakes on that journey. As the “father of the nation”, Gandhi’s life and sayings have been deeply scrutinised. His ideas changed and evolved throughout his life.
His philosophy moved from benevolent autocracy, to enlightened anarchy, to decentralisation and socialism. His ideas were adopted and adapted by other players, who made them more politically expedient. Others tried to forge a school of thought, Gandhi-ism, of which he did not approve. I learned all this from the two Delhi University students who run Safarnama, walking tours in Delhi from a feminist perspective.
The walking group met at Rajghat, where Gandhi was cremated after being assassinated by a Hindu radical. It is a pleasant park, with lots of open space, flowerbeds and a central area containing a black marble plinth, and an eternal flame. It was very moving.
After the walk, I went to the Gandhi museum to learn more about the man. I shudder to think what he would have made of India’s industrial progress and development over the past sixty years.
God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism…is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300,000,000 took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts. (CWMG V38 p243)
It is unfair to judge him by today’s standards. He was a man of his time. In 1883, at the age of 13, he had an arranged marriage to Kasturbai, who was a year older at 14.
His incongruous views about women are difficult to understand. He was a very controlling husband, who did not allow her to make new friends. She felt that this was how he expressed his love. He is reported to have told a colleague that his wife was the most venomous woman he knew. He was very traditional in his beliefs and apparently even approved of honour killings. On the one hand he compared women to deities, and on the other hand he expressed the view that women who have been raped are no longer human beings.
He respected the dignity of women, but said that sex should be just for procreation, not pleasure. Menstruation was a “distortion of a woman’s soul”. He was against contraception and thought that using condoms would make men homosexual. He was trusted enough to be allowed to address an assembly of Muslim women without being blindfolded.
In 1891, he undertook a vow of celibacy. He would sleep with two of his young nieces, not his wife, in order to challenge and control his carnal desires. One author has suggested that he had a homosexual relationship with Hermann Kallenbach in South Africa in 1913, but the book on the subject has been banned in India.
It is not nationalism that is evil, it is the narrowness, selfishness, exclusiveness which is the bane of modern nations which is evil.
He neglected his four sons and did not have a normal family life. He was fastidious about personal hygiene and cleaning toilets (at which Kasturbai assisted him). This has been adopted by the present government of India as the Swachh Bharat Mission – “There is nothing more beautiful than helping those who work to keep our country clean. Take the pledge today. A clean India is the best tribute we can pay to Bapu.”
The cause of many of our diseases is the condition of our lavatories and our bad habit of disposing of excreta anywhere and everywhere. (CWMG: V27 p 154)
He also expressed racist views about black Africans when in South Africa. At one point he even stated that the white race should be the predominant race in South Africa. At the same time, he challenged the traditional view of untouchables, giving them a new name, harijans – which translates as “children of the God Vishnu”. They detested the term, calling it a “dirty word” and preferred to be known as dalits (the oppressed). I can understand how British colonial administrators found him frustrating and incomprehensible to deal with.
“I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people, an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. There can be no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability or the curse of intoxicating drinks and drugs. Women will enjoy the same rights as men. This is the India of my dreams.”
Mahatma (Great Soul) Gandhi, born 2nd October 1869, assassinated 30th January 1948.