Monday, April 25, 2011

Gandhi and Lincoln: A Life of Evolving Ideas.

Joseph Lelyveld's, just released, "Great Soul:Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle with India" created a furore in India. Gujarat government immediately banned it before anyone had read it. The furore centered around two issues. First, and the most inflaming, was Lelyveld's imputation that Gandhi might have had bi-sexual impulses. Second was Lelyveld delving deep into how Gandhi, the one who became Mahatma, was forged in South Africa. A recent sad trend in India is for Dalit leaders and Dalit opinion makers to trash Gandhi as racist while uncritically praising Ambedkar. Everyone can choose whom they want to idolize but when we choose to trash someone we need some justification. Meena Kandasamy, a Dalit activist, ruffled a few feathers by quoting Gandhi from his days in South Africa, about blacks. A post office used to have two entrances, one for whites and another for the rest. Gandhi had written that "Kaffirs" (referring to blacks) should not be clubbed with Indians, the latter being superior to blacks. The quotes supplied by Meena Kandasamy were accurate. The online edition of Gandhi's "Collected Works" has them verbatim. [“Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized - the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals.” ~ CWMG, Vol. VIII, pp. 135-136] So shall we label Gandhi as 'racist'?

The 2011 Pulitzer for the best book on an American historical subject went to Eric Foner's "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and Slavery". Just as Indian kids learn about how Gandhi was a Mahatma, American kids learn how Lincoln ended slavery, though a tad little less hagiographic.  Lincoln, as anyone with a little deeper knowledge of history would know, had very jaded opinions on blacks. While he was strongly anti-slavery he did not believe that all men were 'created equal' as Jefferson, the slave owner, wrote in "Declaration of Independence". Foner, writes, "while his racial views changed during the Civil War, he never became a principled egalitarian.."

A little perspective helps us to appreciate Gandhi better. The institution of slavery remains America's 'original sin'. George Washington who decreed that his slaves are to be free men after his wife's death in his lifetime would go to great lengths to recapture a slave who had escaped. Thomas Jefferson famously sired an illegitimate child with a slave while declaring that all men are created equal. It would be childish to  decry all of them as arrogant hypocrites. Far from it they were struggling between what they knew was right versus what was possible when a country was being willed into becoming. Abraham Lincoln became president fully aware of the slavery issue and knew full well that as President he would have to address either wholly or in part. In a sort of historical passing of baton Lincoln was killed 4 years before Gandhi was born in 1869. Unlike Lincoln Gandhi was born into a society that was steeped into racism for centuries and lacked an intellectual framework that challenged such evil. Anti-Slavery abolitionism, intellectual opposition to slavery were rigorous in America for a long time, in fact ever since its birth. Slavery in America did not gain the religious sanction, or at least to the level that casteism enjoyed in India. Gandhi's stay in London was not a period of intellectual fermentation. In fact he went to great lengths to keep his famous promises to his mother. It is this man who came to South Africa.

Eric Foner admirably cautions, "the problem is that we tend too often to read Lincoln's growth backward, as an unproblematic trajectory toward a predetermined end. This enables scholars t ignore or downplay aspects of Lincoln's beliefs with which they are uncomfortable- his long association with the idea of colonization, for example- while fastening on that which is most admirable at each stage of his career, especially his deep hatred of slavery". Foner then invites the reader to trace lIncoln's "growth, as it were, forward, as it unfolded, with sideways and even backward steps along the way".

Thanks to the movie Gandhi is even more sanitized and fossilized. Most Indians who have never read a full length biography of Gandhi are shocked and swayed when Meena and others fling accusation from selections that lend heft to their personal agendas. The same Gandhi who wanted separate doors for Indians was also one who would later slap his wife for not cleaning the toilets of a low caste ashram inmate. This was the same Gandhi who would choose to stay in the huts of outcaste when he toured. He would eat their food.

Lelyveld has done a signal service to Gandhi in fleshing out the evolution of Gandhi. Every schoolboy in India knows how Gandhi was thrown out of a train because he was brown skinned. Lelyveld adds a little known fact. Gandhi wrote about that incident to the train company and got a free ticket to travel first class again, which he did complete. In a long life like that of Gandhi's there are always new events that can be teased to throw some new light. Gandhi, Churchill, Lincoln, Napoleon, Einstein are all a biographer's delight.

Gandhi lived through a very tumultuous era. He judged appropriately within his time. Malcolm X is a firebrand Afro-American leader who was famous for his violent speeches that, unlike Martin Luther King Jr, decried any pacifist approach towards white America. In Malcolm's view both races could never co-exist. Till last month the most famous biography of Malcolm X was the one by Alex Haley. Manning Marable's recently published biography had a shocker. Malcolm X had met with the violence prone white racist group KKK (Ku Klux Khan) to negotiate separate living spaces. Its akin to a Jewish leader negotiating with the Nazis. Marable goes on to write that after Malcolm X parted ways with "Nation of Islam" his views on racial reconciliation started to mellow and mirror King's approach. Lives like that of Gandhi, Malcolm X, Abraham Lincoln etc were all lived amidst very turbulent times, they were involved in redrawing centuries old social boundaries. Their lives caused tectonic shifts and they themselves had to first undergo such shifts within themselves.

It is one thing to call Hitler an anti-semite but to call Gandhi anti-Dalit only portrays an amateurish attitude towards a very complex life. Anyone is free to disagree with his convoluted, at time nonsensical too, logic of preserving components of Hindu religious structure but to attribute malicious intentions is sheer injustice. Let us learn to appreciate lives in their rich spectrum. Very rarely in life do we come across sheer evil like we saw in Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Even rarer, or shall we say never, is to see complete unsullied good.

A short note on Lelyveld's biography. Leyveld is no cheap sensationalist. He is a Pulitzer awarded writer who has worked in South Africa for decades. When evidence emerged that Jefferson had a child through a slave within hours that information was incorprated in the guided official tours at his residence in Monticello. Annette Gordon-Reed who wrote a biography of that episode was awarded a Pulitzer and to cap it was also selected as a "MacArthur Genius". Jeyamohan, a noted contemporary writer in Tamil, chides America for indulging in such tabloidism and slyly imputes a Christian conspiracy behind such maligning of a historical figure loved by Hindus. He forgets that America is the country where "The Last Temptation of Christ" was screened. Also see my earlier blog on free expression in USA . 

1 comment:

practic said...

I appreciate the thought you express that we must look at these historical figures and their actions in the light of their society and the background of the ideas of their times.

Leaders who have to establish new ways of thought, against the established traditions, are going up a steep path, and deserve our sympathy, not our condemnation.

We are sitting on top of a hill that they had to climb, and instead of sitting in judgment on them, should consider instead what hills we have to climb in our day, to continue the progress. There are still great evils that mankind needs to be emancipated from.