Gandhi was no Gunga Din but a dedicated fighter for the poor
Stabroek News
December 8, 2001

Dear Editor,

After submitting Nelson Mandela's [ please note: links provided by LOSP web site ] critique and appreciation of Mahatma Gandhi I now offer my own response to the impassioned and, in some ways, irrational attack on Mahatma Gandhi reproduced by Mr. A. A. Fenty in his 'Frankly Speaking' column (SN 10/19/2001). Unfortunately he did not focus on the issue raised in his first column, that is, Mahatma Gandhi's alleged racism (see Mr. Fenty's original accusation SN 9/7/2001 and my first response SN 18/9/2001).

It is a flawed method to truncate an individual's life and make a judgment of the whole individual based on at most questionable information of that part. The just and compassionate method to arrive at an estimation of a life so pervasive and influence so abiding as that of Mahatma Gandhi is to look at his whole life. It is within the frame of these contradictory dualities that one has to construct the image of Gandhi.

His was a character that was constantly in a process of formation and transformation. Can we think of any other public figure who so persistently and openly wrestled with what he would call his "lower being?" This was a man who never stopped growing in spiritual stature and moral might. This we will only understand by looking at the whole person.

We can all quibble about shades of racism and racialism. These categories involve a great deal of subjectivity. However when we get down to specifics such as, in this case, Gandhi's alleged use of the "nigger" word we must be prepared to substantiate the charge. Mr. Fenty has failed to do this. Otherwise, the barest minimum measure of fairness would require one to retract, or distance one's self from, the charge. This, too, Mr. Fenty has failed to do.

Discourses are not conducted in a vacuum. They are located in history, in a social and cultural context. Knowledge is a socially constructed reality. It is the present that determines how we understand the past. When one recognises the fact that the discussion around Mahatma Gandhi is situated in the Guyanese context with our bitterly racially divided society, one is forced to wonder what mischief is afoot.

Like all good polemicists, Mr. Fenty has also sought to broaden the discourse charging Gandhi with being a "Gunga Din," a traitor, a collaborator. But Gandhi himself made no secret of his admiration of and support for the British. He did not begin his struggle based on a priori truths conveyed in the textbooks of foreign ideologies. His truths were discovered in the crucible of struggle that gradually changed his perspective, from one of support to one of confrontation.

On the eve of the famous Salt March speaking of the British rule in India Gandhi declared, "I regard this rule as a curse. I am out to destroy this system of Government. I have sung the tune 'God save the King' and I have taught others to sing it. I was a believer in the politics of petitions, deputations and friendly negotiations. But these have all gone to dogs. I know that these are not the ways to bring this government round. Sedition has become my religion. Ours is a non-violent battle. We are not out to kill anyone, but it is our Dharma (duty) to see the curse of this Government is blotted out." A Gunga Din, Mr. Fenty, breathing such disaffection?

During the great 1930-31 independence campaign Gandhi, referring to the system of government imposed on India, wrote in Young India, "It is then the duty of those who have realised the awful nature of the system of Indian Government to be disloyal to it and actively and openly preach disloyalty. Indeed loyalty to a State so corrupt is a sin, disloyalty a virtue... It is the duty of those who have realised the terrible nature of the system, however attractive some of its features may, torn from their context, appear to be, to destroy it without delay. It is their clear duty to run any risk to achieve this end." Do Gunga Dins preach revolution, Mr. Fenty?

Finally, when one remembers that Mahatma Gandhi spent 2,338 days of his life in the prisons of British India and his uncompromising non-violent defiance in the face of the greatest power on earth, is it not a travesty therefore to even think that such a person could be a "Gunga Din?" But this is the stuff that propaganda is made of, its inability to recognise the truth, and when it does, to distort and to malign.

It is a fashionable thing to demolish the hero, the icon, especially other people's heroes, to show their weaknesses, failures and pathologies and to ignore their achievements. However, Mahatma Gandhi's greater-than-life achievements speak eloquently for themselves. No one can diminish the might of the moral force he brought to bear on his times. There is not another single individual in all of human history who has so defiantly confronted an empire as mighty as that of the British, and who has questioned and undermined its power and authority more effectively than he.

The other charge of Gandhi's apathy for the poor also flies in the face of history and truth. In as much as it is ridiculous to respond to this charge, as well it is important to do so because untruths have a way of prevailing however temporarily. In the history of struggles it is impossible to think of another case where a leader identified so completely with the poor and the oppressed he served. He lived a life or poverty, his needs were spartan and ascetic, he ate the simplest of foods, and he dressed in exactly the way the poorest of his countrymen dressed, in khadi that he himself wove. For the most part he was half-naked as Churchill rightly said and he lived in the humblest of conditions.

To be forced by circumstances to live in poverty is one thing but to take a vow to consciously live a life of poverty, purity and abstinence, to live as the poor does, involves greater sacrifice and challenge. He made this choice in order to be constantly alive to the sufferings of the poor and at the same time to be conscious of the seduction of power and the luxury it brings with it.

Speaking to the press upon breaking his fast in 1939 Mahatma Gandhi said: "I claim to know the millions. All 24 hours of the day I am with them. They are my first care and last, because I recognise no God except the God that is to be found in the hearts of the dumb millions...I worship God that is Truth or Truth which is God through the service of these millions." Based on his understanding of the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi was sure that the best and simplest means to self-realisation was to serve God's creatures.

God himself set the example of selfless service to his creatures. Hence Gandhi declared, "the best and most understandable place where He [God] can be worshipped is a living creature. The service of the distressed, the crippled and the helpless.... constitutes worship of God." God appeared to him in many forms but was most evident in the poor, the oppressed, the frightened, and the untouchables.

Mahatma Gandhi held the view that the liberation of the masses lay in the spinning wheel used to produce khadi or home spun clothing. He encouraged the poor to take to spinning as a way to end their unemployment and he encouraged the rich to boycott foreign clothing and use only home spun clothing produced from the spinning wheels. For him therefore the use of khadi was the way to serve the poor, and eventually to serve God. The fire of starvation raging all around would be ended not by hand-outs which would increase dependency and continue the cycle of poverty but by providing work. God for Gandhi was not the being to be found in caves and forests, but God was Daridra-Narayana, the God of the Poor and the Oppressed.

Yours faithfully,

Swami Aksharananda