For a large part of my childhood, I remember Mahatma Gandhi’s (Gandhi) face as Ben Kinsley. The portrayal of Gandhi by Ben Kinsley in
Richard Attenborough‘s 1982 film Gandhi was near perfect. The film itself was a masterpiece that won 8 Oscars the following year and would become the go-to movie for the Indian national television for many years.
Since 1983, every year on October the 2nd, Doordarshan (DD), the national broadcaster, made sure to telecast the film without fail. The ritual would continue until 2006 when Rajkumar Hirani connected Indians back to Gandhi’s teachings with his blockbuster film Lage Raho Munna Bhai. DD then swiftly pick the later film and replaced it with the original.
Over the years, Bollywood has not attempted a film parallel to Richard Attenborough’s scale. I am yet to understand the reason for that, maybe because films like these should be untouched. I mean, they did attempt to recreate Ben Hur in 2016 and failed miserably.
Though the popular visual medium on Gandhi is limited, we have done great in other mediums as there are hundreds of books written around the great man. Sadly, these books never make to the educational system of India. You see, the way we study Gandhi in our schools is more objective than subjective. We all know the when and how, but these books fail to deliver why.
I believe that’s with most of the history lessons we get in school. We memorize the dates, the names of the historical events, and sometimes the people involved. We never learn the event leading up to that exact moment in history or the thoughts behind such an event.
Every Indian like myself first read about Gandhi at age 10. I am confident that every Indian kid has written an essay about him at least once in their lifetime. However, those essays usually revolve around things that are vague at best. Something expected out of a 12-year-old.
Sadly, when we grow up, we somehow get distant from the teachings or thoughts of Gandhi. We remember him on his Date of Birth with #GandhiJayanti and the date of his assassination with #LongLiveGandhi, and that’s it. We have fulfilled our duty towards the great man.
But in the last year or so, I connected with Gandhi again. Mostly, because in recent times, Indians, while facing oppression from the system, did not take the route of violence but took the path of fearlessness and passive resistance, which was first introduced by Gandhi. India is full of examples where ordinary men did extraordinary things just by following passive resistance and non-violence. These are the principles that define our country. In her book Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “We all were born in Gogol’s Overcoat.” We Indians were born out of Gandhi’s struggle, and deep down inside us, it still exists.
So in my 30s, I finally reconnected with Gandhi through reading his Autobiography My experiments with truth and his 1909 manifesto Hind Swaraj to realize that while whatever he did was magical of sorts, he achieved it not by sheer luck but with immaculate planning.
There’s an image of Gandhi as portrayed after India’s independence. A widely popular song, “De di humein Azadi, Bina khadag Bina dhaal, Sabarmati ke Sant tuney kar diya Kamaal,” describes this image to perfection. The song translates to “you gave us freedom without using sword or shield, the saint of Sabarmati, you did the impossible.” The idea of a saint or Mahatma who miraculously saved India from the hands of the colonial masters is beautiful, but not entirely true.
So, unlike any young revolutionary, who is making things up as he goes, Gandhi had planned the revolution to its last detail. But that’s not only why he was a sharp politician. Gandhi knew that making a loud noise right after entering Indian Politics could paint a target on his face. So, he was patient enough to wait out and work on the ground before starting his first big campaign, the Non-cooperation movement in 1920, 5 years after actively coming to politics.
A good tactician will always follow his enemies closely. That’s what he did during his stay in South Africa. Unlike any Indian revolutionary of the past, Gandhi understood the British. He understood that the British empire’s core plan was not being a tyrant but to create a global marketplace to sell their products. Something that America did post world war two and China does today. He understood, unlike the first revolution of 1857, which started and failed because of emotional reasons, he needed to give something more than emotions to drive out the British.
Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915. By then, India had already begun a second more focused revolution for freedom. Gandhi had a winning formula, a significant enough sample size to work upon, and favorable conditions. A perfect recipe for starting a freedom movement. Something which is a product of planning and not sheer luck.
To better understand the context, let’s briefly know how the second revolution began and why it is essential.
By the early 1900s, the British had absolute control over all the kings and princely states in India. But the commoners living in these states were still living under the same King and not some white foreigner. For most of those people, all they could see that India is developing. Indians were allowed to study in British universities. The country was getting connected with railroads and telegraphs. Most importantly, the British did not differentiate Indian people as per their casts, and everyone was allowed education and jobs.
However, in this new British capitalism, the country witnessed a massive difference in society. The one who wore pants or western clothes was called Saheb ( Sir in English), and the rest were low-class Indians. There were famines across the country, while the kings enjoyed their high tea with china imported from Great Britain. But like every revolution in history, there comes a moment that starts the chain reaction. For India, it was the partition of Bengal in 1905. Lord Curzon, despite the massive protest, divided Bengal into east and west. As stated by Britannica, “It began a transformation of the Indian National Congress from a middle-class pressure group into a nationwide mass movement.
So, as you can see, Gandhi was not instrumental in starting either of India’s two revolutions. The first in 1857 and the next in 1905. However, he used the newfound focus and rage in the right direction.
In the next part of the blog, I explore the journey more and why Gandhi is the most dangerous revolutionary an empire could face.