Ramachandra Guha had to walk long distances on Thursday, first to visit C.F. Andrew’s grave (a Calcutta ritual he follows) and then to KLM, co-hosted by Victoria Memorial, all thanks to Mamata Banerjee’s show of strength at the Brigade Parade Grounds. Though his bones regretted it, “my mind doesn’t, because it brought me face-to-face with the exuberance and anarchy of Indian democracy,” Guha said before his lecture.
The last session on the last day of KLM 2014 paid tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 66th death anniversary, January 30. Guha, who recently published Gandhi Before India, spoke about the Mahatma at a talk titled Arguments with Gandhi, followed by a Q&A with Rudrangshu Mukherjee of The Telegraph.
According to Guha, the beauty of studying Gandhi is that for every evocative quote in praise of him, there is an equally evocative quote denigrating him.
“History and historians thrive on controversy and there is no bigger controversial figure than Gandhi,” Guha smiled, and went on to explain what makes Gandhi so interesting, so intriguing and so controversial.
“He had as many as four professions, arguably five. He was a freedom fighter who fought for political emancipation from the British, he was a social reformer who worked for the abolition of untouchability and the uplift of women, he was a religious pluralist who strove life-long for inter-faith harmony, and he was also a prophet and a futurist who tried to forge alternatives to what he saw as a destructive industrial civilisation.”
There was a fifth too, and Guha had much fun saying it.
“He was also a writer. In the previous session there was a reference to how prolific Rabindranath and Sunil Gangopadhyay were. The Collected Works of Gandhi run to 97 volumes. How many volumes are there in Rabindra Rachanabali?”
Rudrangshu Mukherjee replied, “Sixteen”. Guha looked mighty pleased. “So Gandhi was a more prolific writer than Tagore by a factor of five!”
What was even more extraordinary, Guha said, was that Gandhi forged novel and radical techniques in each of these spheres.
“In the realm of his political activism, he innovated the idea of satyagraha, non-violent collective resistance. In the realm of social reform, he innovated the idea of temple entry and also of an upper caste man taking on the role of scavenger and doing sanitation work. As a religious pluralist, he invented the inter-faith prayer, and as a critic of industrial civilisation he worked on alternative technologies, like improving the charkha.”
Next Guha showed how each of Gandhi’s daring, innovative and often unacceptable techniques were sharply and savagely contested by everyone from liberal constuitutionalists to upper caste Hindus to Marxists to Muslims to Dalits.
In his Q&A, the first question that Mukherjee posed to Guha, in fact, added two more professions to Gandhi’s impressive job list — In 1923, during his first trial in Ahmedabad, Gandhi had described himself as a farmer and weaver. “Was this a piece of political manouvre?” Mukherjee wanted to know.
Guha agreed it was a political manoeuvre, for Gandhi was an ambitious politician and attempted to claim a wider audience, but it was also a deep-felt belief.
“Because in South Africa itself, he had become a farmer, with Tolstoy Farm and Phoenix Farm. The weaving happens later, when he comes back to India,” Guha said.
Guha also discussed why Nehru was Gandhi’s chosen one (because he was the most inclusive among the Congress leaders), and how Gandhi’s assassination gave India a decade and a half of communal peace.