HUM HINDUSTANI: The match that Mahatma lost —J Sri Raman - Friday, April 08, 2011

The forces responsible for his failure are still alive and active. They divided the Indian people on communal and caste lines when he was engaged in his epic struggle, and they continue to do so

Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India has yet to reach bookstores in India. From the flurry of reviews, however, cricket does not seem to figure at all in the volume, over which some people tried to whip up a familiar kind of controversy.

They may have succeeded, if Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s sixer on April 2 in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium had not won the cricket World Cup for India and sent national pride soaring sky-high. The ban imposed on the book on March 30 as a national humiliation in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat could not become the start of a politically profitable campaign.

Even-handed Modi had earlier banned Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah — India, Partition, Independence. Singh, now back in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after expulsion from the party that endorsed Modi then, took on a liberal defence of Lelyveld. In retrospect, no defence was really necessary. The alleged denigration of Gandhi had produced no outrage among the populace that preferred (arguably disproportionate and often obscenely chest-thumping) celebrations of the victory over a strong Sri Lanka in a pulsating final.

The government in New Delhi, which was getting ready to emulate the Gujarat example, has mercifully given up the move. (Modi got no support and solidarity, for once, from the non-BJP far right. The Shiv Sena, the book-burning brigade, had succeeded in pressuring a Congress-led government in Maharashtra to proscribe James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India some years ago. Unlike the BJP and Modi trying to don an ill-fitting Gandhian garb, the Sena has stayed eloquently silent on the latest addition to Gandhiana as the literature on the Mahatma is labelled.)

To believe the indignant Indian critics of the book, who could not read a page of it, Lelyveld has dealt largely with Gandhi’s personal life and denigrated him in the process. The eminent American journalist-author, of course, does not explore Gandhi’s encounters with cricket (his days as ‘a dashing cricketer’ in his Rajkot school, as recalled by a classmate, for example, or his campaign against ‘communal’ matches in Bombay of the early 1920s). What makes the Lelyveld-baiters livid is the supposed insinuation in the book about Gandhi’s intimate life.

The clarification that only a rabid-colonialist review, and not the book, calls Gandhi ‘a bisexual’ has done nothing to calm them. The reason is clear. What they cannot really accept is the author’s political assessment of the Mahatma and his mission. Great Soul, as the full title makes explicit, is about Gandhi’s struggle with India than for it.

The book has also been berated for recording, by all accounts, Gandhi’s evolution from a barrister with a baggage of class and even quasi-racial prejudices to what he became. As Geoffrey C Ward sums it up in a review captioned ‘How Gandhi Became Gandhi’, “The non-violent campaigns he waged to bring about equality between Indians and whites over the next 20 years would lead him — slowly and unsteadily, but inexorably — to advocate equality between Indian and Indian, first across caste and religious lines and then between rich and poor.”

The more important point made by the book, however, is about the end result of these efforts towards an egalitarian Indian society. Gandhi set out to raise and strengthen “four pillars on which the structure of swaraj (self-rule) would ever rest”: a firm alliance between Hindus and Muslims; universal acceptance of the doctrine of non-violence, transformation of the lives of India’s poor and an end to untouchability.

The real tragedy of his life, Lelyveld is quoted as writing, was “not because he (Gandhi) was assassinated, nor because his noblest qualities inflamed the hatred in his killer’s heart. The tragic element is that he was ultimately forced, like Lear, to see the limits of his ambition to remake his world”. The Mahatma failed on all four counts, though it was a magnificent failure.

The forces responsible for his failure are still alive and active. They divided the Indian people on communal and caste lines when he was engaged in his epic struggle, and they continue to do so. They strive to ensure that independence for India would make no difference to the indescribably poor millions, and they are still trying to keep the fruits of hard-won freedom away from the faceless and voiceless masses. They cannot let a Lelyveld remind India of Gandhi’s forgotten legacy.

Asked once whether independent India would abandon all of the legacy of British rule, Gandhi is said to have replied with a wry smile: “I think we will keep cricket.” India has indeed kept cricket, and how. But the country, or at least its crème de la crème, has opted not to keep the memory of the Mahatma and his core message agonisingly alive.

The writer is a journalist based in Chennai, India. A peace activist, he is also the author of a sheaf of poems titled At Gunpoint

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