Not all is well in the sick heart of young India, which is reflected vehemently in the social media
A friend of mine working for a top-notch American consultancy in Seattle, was visiting India after a gap of three years. I picked him up from the airport and on the way back home, decided to show him around. The insecure Indian in me wanted him to appreciate how much Delhi has changed over the years and also India. While driving past Rajghat, I said: “Maybe, we are slowly moving towards an Indian dream, which Bapu had envisioned long ago.”
He looked at me in disdain and replied caustically: “Shouldn’t this structure be gone already? How long are we going to deify a man who has done irreversible damage to our nation’s foundation?”
I was taken aback, but remained silent. Here was this guy, whom I have known for more than ten years, and who was always known for his balanced and rational arguments in our friend’s circle, who has studied in premier engineering and MBA colleges in India and abroad, and yet he seemed to have utter contempt for the Father of our nation.
It set me thinking. What about the lakhs of other Indian youth, who have never got a chance to understand Gandhi or his thinking? How do they perceive Gandhi today? Has young India outlived Gandhi’s legacy or were his ideals impractical from the start? Or could this be the most relevant time to understand and propagate his ideals? These were some of the questions I needed to understand before seeking answers to Gandhi’s relevance in modern India.
I headed to social media to understand about Gandhi’s perception, as this is where most of Indian youth spend a considerable time. To my astonishment, social media is abuzz with anti-Gandhi sentiments these days. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc, have become a hotspot for Gandhi bashing. Every other day, a new article or a ‘historical fact’ crops up, which brings a new angle to anti-Gandhi theories. These are then shared, forwarded and retweeted number of times. What makes the number of these Gandhi bashers increase, day by day?
Our textbooks have tried their level best to teach us about Gandhi’s ideals. They talk about truth, non-violence, equality, tolerance, satyagraha, celibacy, self-reliance and much more. One tends to categorize these into their appropriate buckets, whether of sociology, polity, philosophy and other social sciences for a clearer understanding.
But as one digs deeper, the realization dawns that it’s quite difficult to categorize and classify Gandhi. His pitch (if you want to call it that) is essentially about how to live life simply and develop regular habits. There is no hyperbole here, nor any fancy terms. Yet, our youth find it difficult to understand.
I approached Tarang Kapoor, a PhD student in Philosophy at Delhi University, who is researching Gandhi’s influence on Western thinkers. She offered some insight here: “I once tried to fit a biscuit into a Pepsi bottle. Because the bottle had a narrow opening, I had to use force, the biscuit broke and the crumbs spilled over. Gandhi’s ideas are so extensive and high on morality that one needs a very open-mind and flexible approach to understand them. Else there will be misinterpretation.”
Does this mean Gandhi’s ideals are so righteous that they put off today’s youth? School history teacher Meenu Tanwar’s answer is “definitely yes. Most of my students would agree to Honey Singh’s ‘chaar botal vodka’ than Gandhi’s call of celibacy. It gives them an instant sense of belonging. Gandhi’s ideals are caught in a complex web of self-restraint and morality, which is devoid of current reality. So, students are bound to be repelled by such ideals.”
“Can you blame the Gangotri for the pollution of the Ganga?” differs Subhash Chandra, a research associate at the National Physics Laboratory. “It is always easy to put the blame on Gandhi’s ideals than questioning ourselves. But majority are not interested in self-questioning and introspection, especially the younger generation. It requires lot of patience, which is quite scarce these days.”
ALL ABOUT OPINIONS
Subhash’s argument seems valid. If we zoom out of the nitty-gritty of daily life, we can see how drastically society has changed, especially over the last decade. Reasoned and sensible discussion has given way to superficial newsroom debates, blame games and trolling on social media. Being opinionated is trendy these days. All it requires is a cursory glance through a few articles, if not headlines, and lo and behold, you have an opinion.
In the pursuit of short-term gratification, no one has the time for understanding Gandhi. If one browses through certain FB pages like “I Hate Gandhi”, or “Respect Nathuram Godse”, it’s not difficult to see how easily opinions can be built up or manipulated. All that is required are some photoshop skills and fluency with language. All such FB pages have two points common to them – unequivocal hatred towards Gandhi (not essentially his principles) and an appalling departure from all logic and substance. And the pages buzz!
“Confirmation bias has become a decree in social media these days,” says Anurag Kundu, who works with Delhi government. “I mean, why should I need to verify facts, when the given information subscribes to my per-conceived notions! The other day, someone was questioning Mahatma Gandhi’s questionable role in seeking commutation of Bhagat Singh’s death penalty. According to this gentleman, if Gandhi had tried, he could have saved Bhagat Singh. I then reproduced the letter sent by Gandhi to Lord Irwin, the then Viceroy of India, seeking pardon for Bhagat Singh. To this the gentleman replied, ‘I don’t see the required sincerity in Gandhi’s words’.”
Kundu says he chose to remain silent. “You see, there are just two kinds of people in this world, those who admire Gandhi, and those who don’t understand him at all.”
But we can’t completely ignore Gandhi’s detractors even if their arguments lack substance. Let’s try and look at some of these arguments. Accusations that he was an imperialist stooge or a sex addict hold no ground and can be easily dismissed. Where there is evidence offered against him, the most obvious are his ostentatious adherence of non-violence as shown by his decision to end the Non-Cooperation Movement and his criticism of the revolutionaries; his immense faith in few individuals especially Nehru; and his impractical views on secularism which his critics say has resulted in the “trivialization” of the Hindutva agenda.
“To a remarkable extent, all of this is true,” says Prof Swati Sonal, who teaches Hindi at Banasthali University. “Gandhi placed his ideals much above individuals and events. Hence, his condemning the Chauri Chaura incident and the killing of police officer John Saunders, is no surprise. Equally true is his admiration of and over the top reliance on Nehru, at the cost of other popular leaders like Subhash Chandra Bose. That has a practical reason though. In his later years, Gandhi could foresee how Indian society could be easily fragmented on the basis of religion. Hence, secularism became his priority. In Nehru, he saw the mellowed statesman, who could carry forward the agenda of pluralism. How his secular bend harmed Hinduism, as claimed by right wing extremists, is debatable.”
The ferocity with which Gandhi’s critics charge him has a distinct pattern. They mostly pick on emotive issues, where there is a very thin line between right and wrong and which are open to interpretation. The interpretation invariably shows Gandhi in poor light. Nathuram Godse’s court address during his trial is one example. It is quite evocative, high on rhetoric and full of uncorroborated opinions. This can be effectively used to put the blame squarely on Gandhi and justify Godse’s actions.
Gandhi’s over reliance on Nehru has also been used quite smartly by his detractors to malign him. See how this works. It is relatively easy to hold the Congress responsible for the nation’s failure, as it has ruled India for more than 50 years. The frame of blame can be easily shifted on Nehru, as he was directly or indirectly involved for most of these years. Through syllogism, it can be easily deduced that Gandhi is responsible for India’s current miseries even though the truth has been compromised at many stages.
“Isn’t this how the propaganda machinery works?” asks Ramya, who heads the advertising firm, GetReal in Mumbai. “You feed people with some manufactured theories and then wait for psychology to take over. As no one wants to validate information through facts, they tend to take mental shortcuts which rely on immediate examples that come to the person’s mind when evaluating a topic, concept or decision. This, availability heuristics, a form of cognitive bias, is being increasingly used by advertising firms as well as propaganda theorists.”
PERFECTLY IMPERFECT GANDHI
It becomes easy for us to seek perfection in every individual, especially our leaders. In the process, the slightest imperfection leads us to reject the complete idea of the individual. Here, we are talking about a man who has undergone the strictest possible scrutiny through different generations. After all, Gandhi too was a human being and imperfections were integral part of his existence. His own admissions of lies and theft are a few examples of his imperfections. In his younger days in Africa, he was in favour of imperialism (for a short time), and had reservations about Africa’s black people.
But the important point to remember is how he reflected upon his shortcomings and worked to improve on them. Nelson Mandela in his article Gandhi, the Prisoner, wrote: “Gandhi had been initially shocked that Indians were classified with Natives in prison. His prejudices were quite obvious, but he was reacting not to “Natives”, but criminalized Natives…. All in all, Gandhi must be forgiven these prejudices in the context of the time and the circumstances.”
Mandela’s words gives an interesting insight into Gandhi’s persona. Gandhi’s ideals were not a result of epiphanies and serendipities. They emerged out of the cocoon of social conditions of his time and matured over the time with his discernment and prudence. It is quite easy to find out a dark spot on a white sheet. But, turning those dark spots into life lessons, was what made Gandhi, Mahatma.
MAHATMA IN OUR TIMES
One might still argue that Gandhi’s ethos were quite pertinent in his times but have become obsolete now. Lalit Bansal, Assistant Manager at ICICI Bank, Mumbai, agrees –“Gandhi was smart enough to use his ideas of non-violence and celibacy in times, when information was not easily accessible. In this age of consumerism, when Sunny Leone is all over TV, internet and newspapers, do we expect youngsters to follow celibacy?”
There are many more like Lalit, who feel that Gandhi’s ideals have long expired. In current scenario, more practical and contextual ideas are needed. Abhishek Anand, an ISB graduate, had similar questions and concerns. He spent his summer in Gandhi Ashram, Wardha, to validate his doubts. “Now is the time, when we need Gandhi more than ever. In fact, Gandhi was way ahead of his time. It would be his ideals which is going to save our society into spiralling into that endless pit we are headed to”- he contends.
“There is quite a fine line between practicality and sustenance”, Anand continues. “Sometimes we discard solutions which require more efforts and time and rather opt for short term, band-aid solutions. US, the superpower, tried to destroy Taliban with all its might, but look how Taliban is making its headway into Afghanistan again. But, Gandhi’s non-violence, which inspired both Mandela and King, uprooted much deep-rooted social problems. That talks a lot about sustainability of an idea.”
One might take sides with either Lalit or Sonal, but one simply can’t ignore the power of Gandhi’s ideas, which is still being discussed all around the world, long after he is gone. Right from power corridors to on-ground implementations, Gandhi is guiding our thoughts in some way or the other. When Modi gave a clarion call for ‘Make In India’, did you hear ‘self-reliance’ in all the hullabaloo? Or when Amartya Sen talks about development economics, do you see a linkage to the rural economy which Gandhi a long ago? I set out to find answers for some of the questions I had in my mind after the Rajghat episode with my friend. I have definitely found some answers, while some remain unanswered. But, in the process I realized that when given a choice, we always tend to pick the easier ones which have short term gains. That day, at Rajghat, I chose silence. I didn’t ask the questions, uncomfortable yet right questions. Gandhi chose that over anything else in his life. That’s why he is Mahatma and will remain so for all times to come.
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