Monday, July 22, 2013

Gandhi And The Failure Of Indian Education

Hating, misrepresenting, misunderstanding and mostly not understanding Gandhi is the latest fad in India. It is fashionable to say that the British left India because they were exhausted by War and could no longer control India from afar and India's independence had nothing to do with Gandhi. It is easy to ridicule 'Satyagraha' as an inefficient and impractical instrument of protest against powers unlike British and like Hitler or Rajapakse. From the political left and the right the man who comes in for equal hate and ridicule is Gandhi. Ferreting quotes without context for a man who lived to 79 and wrote or spoke voluminously over 50 of those years is easy. Ascribing conspiratorial motives for Gandhi 'selecting' Nehru over the more popular and duly elected 'Patel' is a national pastime. To cap it all is Gandhi's own shameful brahmacharya experiments are taken and made out to look like the man did nothing in his life other than sleep with women. Then there is the contentious Poona pact with Ambedkar that can be mined for selective re-telling to portray, of all people, Gandhi as a reactionary Hindu who was disinterested in the upliftment of the Untouchables, the Dalits, or 'Harijans' as he called them.

Yet, Gandhi is revered in the West. Louis Fischer, William Shirer, George Orwell, Stanley Wolpert, MLK Jr, Richard Attenborough, Time Magazine editorial committee and legions of other intellectuals across a political spectrum. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner included Gandhi alongside music composer Igor Stravinsky amongst a list of people he chose to study 'creativity'. Joseph Lelyveld in his biography marvels at the untouchability tour by Gandhi when he collected a princely sum to be devoted to projects for Dalits. Lelyveld wonders why no one speaks of it in India today.

The chief culprit is Indian education. Our school textbooks have deified Gandhi without humanizing him. As much as American textbooks may not speak of Jefferson fathering a child with his slave I do not expect Indian textbooks to speak of the Brahmacharya experiments. But every fault of Indian education is brought out clearly in how little or how wrongly Indians have understood Gandhi. That applies both to his detractors and to many admirers.

In response to the draconian Rowlatt act of 1919 Gandhi called upon Indians to observe a 'day of prayer' and remain in their homes. It was called 'hartal' (in Hindi). Tamil Nadu's insipid 'Equitable Education' textbook for 10th grade deals with this in 3 sentences: "In order to face the revolutionary movement in a successful manner, the British government passed the Rowlatt Act in 1919. It empowered the British Government to arrest any one without warrant and imprisoned without trial. The Indians under the leadership of Gandhiki opposed it. There was country wide hartal on April 6th 1919".

Classic Indian textbook. In order to encourage higher pass percentage a pivotal event is reduced to 3 badly written sentences. There is no detail on whether the protest succeeded, why such a protest was novel, no sense of wonderment or appreciation for what a one time tongue tied lawyer achieved in a country that spoke 30 languages and hundreds of dialects with so many religions and castes.

I understood the greatness of that 'hartal' from Larry Collin's and Dominique Lapierre's 'Freedom at Midnight' and from the third rate movie 'Gandhi' by Richard Attenborough. Gandhi and his people face an oppressor that was an Empire across continents. An impoverished people who last rebellion was a sham and a total failure had to find a way to tell their oppressor that they did not like a law. Gandhi, with no government propaganda machinery, asked Indians to do a simple act. 'Remain indoors'. It was a genius of creativity because only Gandhi thought of way for Indians to express their displeasure without hurting their rulers physically and opening the possibility of being hurt in return. The movie will show the Viceroy receiving reports of India, one fifth of humanity, coming to stand still. Napoleon and Alexander did not wield such power.

The same textbook then deals with Dandi march in a shameful manner. In 3 very short paragraphs, the most pivotal event of the most glorious freedom movement in all of human history is dismissed off. Within those 3 short paragraphs of just two-three lines each the student learns the dates and the distance covered. I am sure that students would hunch over and try to learn by rote memorizing the dates and the distance.

Overlooking the Great Depression Time Magazine exulted in declaring Gandhi as 'Person of the Year' in January 1931 for the Salt March. Collins and Lapierre reconstructed how a frail 61 year old man with a bamboo staff in his hand 'shook the pillars of the Empire' and 'dominated the world press'. Nehru, the Harrow-Candridge educated aristocrat, when he hears of the Salt March at first demurs. Later seeing its success he feels humbled before a man who had searched for his 'inner voice' to identify a suitable struggle to protest. Most western commentators have marveled at Gandhi's genius for choosing to protest the salt tax as it touched a commodity used by all Indians in as basic a function as cooking food. Even today it is ranked as one of the most successful protests in the quest for justice by a people in all history.

Irwin thought Gandhi will walk to Dandi in a little noticed event and what he got was newsreels of a half-naked fakir challenging an Empire where the sun never set. Gandhi included Dalits in his march much to the chagrin of upper caste Congress members. In every town that he crossed he insisted on staying in the poorest hut. Every penny of funds collected was accounted for no expense was too little to be scrutinized for impropriety. Only children and vainglorious adults will be thrilled reading about Alexander crossing into India or Ceasar crossing the Rubicon. No march by any army in history has left humanity a better place like Dandi March.

New York Times's report Webb Miller filed his immortal report of the Dharasana Salt March that told the world what it was to be Satyagrahi. At Dharasana, in one of the beautifully filmed scenes in the movie 'Gandhi', we see stoic satyagrahis walking up to receive mortally wounding blows without raising a single finger to strike back. Miller wrote "not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend of the blows. They went down like ten-pins'. C.E.M. Joad, writing for an anthology in honor of Gandhi's 75th birthday, said 'Gandhi's greatest success was in inspiring men and women to allow themselves to be beaten to pulp without raising a single finger in defense". In an age when suicide bombers are spoken of admiringly I think of those brave satyagrahis. A suicide bomber needs courage for just a minute and does not live with the consequences. Those satyagrahis were mostly poor and could not even afford hospitalization costs for the injuries suffered. Most injuries were life altering too. Gandhi, unlike Prabakaran and Arafat, led by example.

When Gandhi visited Liverpool factories the workers, mostly women, mobbed him affectionately. Here is the man who, by his boycott of their products, was causing them misery and unemployment. Yet, those workers understood Gandhi better than any modern Indian citizen. They knew and understood who Gandhi was fighting against. Many Indians would look at the photograph and glide by without pausing to wonder if any rebel in all history has ever been so affectionately received by those who were affected by a rebellion.

The 10th grade textbook remains shamefully silent on the horrendous riots during partition. It was the greatest migration undertaken by a people, again, to use an overused word phrase now, in all of human history. India was torn asunder and a civil war situation prevailed. Collins and Lapierre detail harrowing events like a train arriving from Pakistan with all its occupants killed and on the walls of the train was scrawled 'gift to Nehru and Patel'. Yasmin Khan's book 'The great partition' is a compelling read and is without the sensationalism of Collins and Lapierre.

West Bengal that had seen thousands of Hindu's killed on Jinnah's 'Direct action day' was ready to reap vengeance. With millions of muslim lives at stake and no police or military force to spare Mountbatten and Nehru appeal to the only man who can achieve what no military could have done. Gandhi undertook his fast unto death. He remained the only force between hordes of murderous thugs and quivering Muslims afraid for their lives. No man as leader has ever used his personal charisma to such a use saving thousands of lives. It is this act that Ambedkar, with personal animus, called 'blackmail with body as political tool'. If Bengal's riots had gone on unchecked India would have splintered in no time. Yet Indians write that an exhausted oppressor just ceased to oppress and India was born. Ever since Christ was crucified by his own people never was a man who led his people to freedom so disrespected.

Meena Kandasamy, a so called 'activist', raised shackles in a college event by quoting Gandhi's letter to South African authorities protesting against clubbing Indians together with 'kafirs', as he referred to blacks. The letters are actually in the 'Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi'. Little do we realize that Gandhi, just like Lincoln, was not born a liberator. Its a life's journey that he undertook. Also we do not even notice the fact that Gandhi arrives in South Africa in 1893, aged just 24. Just, 24 years old. He leaves South Africa in 1914 aged, just 44 years. In an age and time when worldly knowledge and experiences were limited he was maturing into a leader. Let us not forget that Thomas Jefferson, aged just 33 in 1776, declared 'all men are created equal' while holding slaves. Lincoln never believed that blacks were 'equals' to whites. In a nation where learning history is so shoddy Meena Kandasamys proliferate and prosper.

While Indian speaker Thamizhachi sought to discredit Gandhi slanderously American professor Howard Gardner exults that Gandhi was probably the greatest leader in a 1000 years. Watch "" .

Is Gardner naive? Would Gardner not know about Gandhi's warts? Why did William Shirer, a man who understood Hitler before most did, think Gandhi towered above his warts like being dictatorial at times or titular even? Did Lelyveld not know about his Brahmacharya experiments? Nothing has been a better stick to beat Gandhi with than his patently shameful Brahmacharya experiments with women associates. Sudhir Kakar wrote that several women were mentally affected. It was Nirmal Bose's 'My days with Gandhi' that laid bare the details of those experiments for the first time. Collins and Lapierre too dwell on it for some length. What no one has accused Gandhi was of molesting or abuse. Nirmal Bose's book paints a more complex picture. I reject attempts to whitewash this part of Gandhi but I equally reject attempts  to portray him like a Casanova. The experiments were consensual amongst adults who freely consented. This part of Gandhi's life is the most taxing on any person who admires him. Yet, it is this part that clearly calls for a perspective rooted in a historical appreciation of the man's life as a whole.

In a way we can extend the failure of Indians to understand historical personalities due to shoddy education to Nehru too. Nehru is easily ridiculed for Kashmir, being soft on Pakistan, of course his affairs with Edwina and others, focusing on heavy industries and more. Nehru was Washington and Jefferson combined. No man since Nehru has worried about educating Indians as he did. In an age when politicians send their children to English convents while asking others to study in mother-toungue  we should worship a Cambridge alumnus for trying to create the equivalent of Harvard and MIT in India.

Nehru nurtured the nascent institutions of government with a democratic zeal that was almost herculean in proportions. As Prime Minister he was insistent on attending the question hour in the parliament. He wrote incessantly to state CM's educating them on every matter conceivable as relevant to shaping a country. His writings run to 50 volumes and is still incomplete. The steady leadership of Nehru in the turbulent early 17 years was instrumental in cementing India as a country. Even his economic policy, which I disagree with, was actually in tune with the times. Harry Truman and FDR were to the left of Nehru on economics.

Indians, thanks to such shoddy education, lack the intellectual discipline to understand a life as complex and varied as that of Gandhi's. We don't even know how to mentally reconstruct events and understand their historical nature. In an education that focuses on dates and data without context a race to score marks ensures that the mind is incapable of contemplation and understanding complexity.

A recent discussion on Facebook summarizes this blog.

Here is Subhash Bose walking past a guard of honor by the army he raised. On the side is Gandhi in a dancing pose with a white lady. The question was "who did more for Indian freedom?" Bose, in his hatred for British, thought Hitler and the Japanese were nothing worse if not better. One shudders to think a what if about Hitler winning the war. Such is the level of historical perspectives amongst Indians.

An American school textbook I read had a chapter on Gandhi. At the end a question was posed as a debate exercise "would India have won freedom earlier if Gandhi had adopted violent means of protest". I'd point them to Gandhi's own writings of Satyagraha as a strategy and Orwell's essay on Gandhi where Orwell is skeptical if Gandhian methods would work against Hitler. Gandhi did advice Churchill to hand over the British Isles to Hitler and convert him by 'soul force'. Thankfully Churchill did not listen. At the same time lets not forget how MLK Jr adored Gandhi and found in Gandhi a mentor for the Civil Rights struggle. Indians cheekily ask "can Gandhi's method work against tyrants". They dont have the knowledge of world history to ask "could Kurdish people have adopted MLK Jr's methods against Saddam".

Gandhi and Nehru should be rescued from Indian education and re-introduced to Indians through Western presentation. Irony.

Suggested Reading:

1. Gandhi: A Biography -- Louis Fischer
2. Freedom at Midnight - Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.
3. Gandhi: 75th Birthday Anthology by S.Radhakrishnan
4.Gandhi - 8 volumes by D.G. Tendulkar
5. Gandhi: A memoir - William Shirer
6. The great Partition - Yasmeen Khan
8. Creativity - Howard Gardner
9. Gandhi - Stanley Wolpert
10. 'Great Soul' - Joseph Lelyveld.
11. My earlier blog "Thamizhachi Thangapandiyan's Slander on Gandhi"


Himanshu Rai said...

Good post..

Ankit Vyas said...

This is something I have always believed in. Now I know there's at least one another person who sees sense. Here's something I had written on the topic:

Anonymous said...

Love this post ! Thanks for sharing the books.