Is Anna another Gandhi? Should such labels matter for a national campaign?

Posted on January 31, 2012 in Politics

By Sukant Khurana, Ph.D.

Even as Anna recovered from health issues, his criticism from detractors and worship by followers shows no signs of abatement. Given that the government sympathizers are hell-bent on proving that Anna is no Gandhi, it is important to ask if there are parallels between Anna and Gandhi. More important than the comparison between the two heroes, is to ask, if it really matters whether Anna is Gandhi. Most importantly, we need to worry if we are too focused on personalities rather than on issues.

The anticorruption campaign spearheaded by Anna has had a rather forceful yet ridiculous slogan “Anna nahi ye aandhi hai, yahi desh ke Gandhi hai”. Ridiculous it certainly was but no more ridiculous than the slogans of many other social and political campaigns, including the most transformational ones. More than ridiculous, this slogan was an effective one. In a nation full of gods, demigods, saints and mahatmas it is not a surprise that Anna Hazare, a great hero, was compared to the sacred cow image of Gandhi and a lot of colorful slogans were used in the campaign. It was an effort to raise the stature of one very effective human hero, a person of his time, with great leadership qualities and many failings, to the level of the godly image of another exceptional leader of his time. Just as Gandhi stood up to the need of the hour so did Anna in galvanizing support for a mass movement. Given that Indian public is always ready to drink the kool aid of sainthood and personal vilification, Anna’s detractors have been busy proving that one undemocratic mere-mortal Anna Hazare is not comparable to their great savior Mahatma.

The main claim is that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi believed in heart transformation of his opponents, while Hazare wants his enemies to conform. Let us examine the claim. Gandhi, at times, successfully forced British to conform, instead of changing their hearts but enough has been written on those achievements of his, so for a change, I would give you some less than favorable examples of the conduct of father of Indian nation. A look at forcing Subhas Chandra Bose to quit the position of president of Congress when Gandhi could not get his candidate elected can be an eye opener for anyone wanting to see Gandhi’s willingness to twist and bend his opponents will instead of relying on heart transformation and democratic means. Gandhi’s differences with Tagore are often hyped but Gandhi’s reluctance to budge in that equation is again not hidden from any student of modern Indian history. It was not with heart conversion that Gandhi forced a secular, socialist, non-violent champion of unity of South Asia – Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the red shirt alliance leader of Pathans, to accept the dictates of Jinnah’s partition plan. Ghaffar Khan, a lifelong Gandhian appropriately wrote of the betrayal and complained of throwing the fate of Pathans to the hounds of separatism exploiting religion. By no means, I am putting the sole or even an overwhelming burden of partition on the shoulders of Gandhi but I am trying to make it clear that it was not just those who should be considered opponents of the Indian independence but also even those who championed the cause of India, who were forced to conform by Gandhi. I would also urge readers to realize that for many differences between Gandhi and Subhas or Gandhi and Tagore, one should not see their interaction in just black and white of antagonism but in the shades of grey that also involved tremendous corporation. So the charge on Anna, forcing an irresponsible and dictatorial government to budge through non-Gandhian means is untrue, not because Anna is not sticking to heart transformation alone but because even Gandhi did not. In fact, Anna has been less stubborn than Gandhi and Gandhi would have acted no different than Anna in a similar situation.

Just as the association with Gandhi gave some people credibility so does the association with Anna. In fact, now all of the politicians in opposition are attracted to Anna as are bees to the nectar. Similar to Gandhi, Anna has a handpicked team, some with genuine mass support and some without a base. While the charge of non-elected representatives trying to voice Indian concerns is somewhat (not completely) true but for all the pretense of our founding fathers being answerable to people, a look at the electoral play of Congress and Muslim League for much of 30s and 40s will make one realize that it is a repeat of historical mistakes but not a deviation from the sorry existing pattern of South Asian politics. I realize that my last point is an aside, as I am talking of people who run the show on name of a credible leader, instead of the leaders themselves, so it is not a valid comparison of the two people: Hazare and Gandhi but I am just trying to draw historical parallels. Back to Hazare and Gandhi, Anna has been criticized for his lack of inclusiveness. It is somewhat true. He has taken support of progressive forces simply for granted but bent over backwards to allow sectarian Mullahs and Sanghis to share his dais just to make the movement look like a rainbow coalition. This top down approach of getting communities involved by bringing in his fold their leaders has been a plague of all Indian struggles. Such short cut has in part been a reflection of an immature culture of putting too much faith in some leaders by the followers and treatment of followers by the leaders as some kind of sheep herds. Gandhi’s lack of sufficient inclusiveness and acceptance of progressive, freethinking and modern elements, apart from a token self-proclaimed modernist Nehru, who was preoccupied with pushing other agendas of personal ambition more than modernist causes, is similar in this campaign too.

Both Anna and Gandhi have not been secular in true sense of the word. Instead of keeping religion at bay they both have used the Indian logic of balancing different religions. This spirit is unfortunately even summarized in Indian constitution as “sarvadharma sambhava”, which translates to equal respect for all religions instead of secularism: a clear separation of religion and state. Gandhi, a devout Vaishnav, was in part responsible for turning Muslims away from a Congress that transformed under his leadership from a secular but elitist organization into a rural Hindu spiritual organization with mass following. There is no denial that this transformation also catalyzed mass enrollment that otherwise would have taken a longer and harder road of enlightenment and education leading to a modern, progressive and all encompassing struggle. This pro-Hindu bias of Gandhi was not just present during the early change of character of congress that in part sowed the seeds of partition but there are also instances of Gandhi turning his back on Muslims during communal strife, especially at the time of British and even Hindu reaction to the atrocities of Mopla rebellion. No, I am not justifying the heinous dimensions of Mopla rebellion that involved killing of non-Muslims but I am talking of Gandhi’s response to it. Apart from Hindu appeasement, Gandhi was equally responsible for Muslim appeasement at the cost of Hindus interests at multiple times. Inclusion of the Khailafat movement that demanded respectable treatment of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, instead of being concerned with the fate of poor Indians at the forefront of anti-British coalition during the First World War ended up encouraging separate Muslim and Hindu identities instead of promoting a united Indian identity. It consolidated the schism between two non-concentric circles of faith tearing the Muslim identity in the subcontinent: one centered on South Asia: ones motherland and other centered in the foreign Turk and Arab lands associated with mythologies and religion. One can only regret a lack of secular approach that would have excluded all religious demands — Hindu or Muslim from contaminating Indian interests. This compromise of yielding to the backward Muslim feudal religious identity that was more concerned with the fate of Turks than Indians during World War one was not the only compromise of Gandhi. Who can forget Gandhi giving Jinnah the legitimacy of becoming the Quaid, capable of speaking on behalf of whole Muslim quom? In total, Gandhi may not have leaned more to Hindus or more to Muslims, if viewed in totality but in this case the average or the sum total of his leanings hides more than it reveals. Instead of having no business with either faith or having equal disdain for the stupidity of faith based politics, Gandhi tried to balance his biases and leanings. Just as Gandhi dealt with leaders as representatives of Hindu or Muslim community instead of bottom up approach of building true mass base everywhere, when confronted with challenge of inclusion of separatist forces, Anna has not taken a much different road either. Anna is willing to court Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists and religious leaders alike, just as Gandhi did. Anna, like Gandhi is not a secularist or progressive in the modern sense of the word. Who can forget the well-orchestrated publicity stunt of children of underprivileged caste and of Muslim faith helping break Anna’s fast to provide a photo finish to the fast?

In his village, Anna acts like a patriarch, a benevolent dictator who knows what is best for everyone. Anna like Gandhi believes himself to be on some kind of God ordained mission where instead of skeptical secular questioning to evolve solutions, he clearly knows what is right and what is wrong based on his faith. Apart from the obvious weakness in the nature of campaigns due to inclusion of people with religious fundamentalist and separatist interests and overall damage to Indian subcontinent due to backward religious thinking there have been some positive dimensions due to this contamination of religion in mass movements too. Given their unwavering religious faith, both Gandhi and Anna have put all their personal life aside for the sake of what they consider right and necessary sacrifice for their country. The spiritual leader facet of both the leaders has also resulted in them being regarded as a miracle cure to problems by the wide-eyed public. This provides for instant galvanization of support that through secular, educated and questioning means would require longer struggles. Both men did not show any problems being minted as saints. This embrace of sainthood can only come from either religious conviction in ones “right path” or sham performance to grab power. Neither Gandhi nor Anna are in the struggle for iota of personal benefit so clearly this embrace of sainthood comes from their religious convictions.

In his private life Anna has in fact been more of a Gandhi than Gandhi could ever be. Both humans, with obvious failings have within the human bounds bravely experimented with the nature of what they consider ‘truth’. Anna never married, tried addictions, visited prostitute, and verbally and physically assaulted his immediate family member to embrace his way of life, at least nothing comparable to the path of metamorphosis of saint of Sabarmati into a Mahatma. In public life, imposition of ones way of life by Gandhi and Anna has been undeniable. So one should note that though justifiable personal vilification of Anna is easily possible but it is more difficult than that of Gandhi.

Many accusations of Anna not being Gandhi have come from explicit and implicit charge that Anna is not sticking to the principles of non-violence. There is a need to address the question of the use of non-violence as matter of principle or pragmatic policy. One needs to ask where such approach is more successful than others. Indian experiment has been an amazing example of the demonstration of both the pragmatic as well as moral strength and weakness of non-violence. I think examples of success of non-violence such as in salt march and of utter failures as in the inability to prevent Churchill from causing genocide of over 5 million East Indians during the Bengal famine is relevant for a detailed discussion elsewhere. Let us discuss here if Anna is deviating significantly from Gandhi in the use of violence. Just as Gandhi faltered at times in containing the anger of masses so has Anna. Did Gandhi condone violence more than Hazare by considering Bhagwat Gita, a call for arms for sake of ones duty, as his spiritual guide in comparison to Anna’s mere statement on a slap to Sharad Pawar by an angry citizen? Minor deviations aside, up till now Anna has been more successful than Gandhi was in containing people’s anger from spilling over and turning violent. Given that people read what they want to read, for the record, I would also like to state clearly that by defending Anna’s non-violence, in this article I am not defending, condemning or condoning the possibly destructive and violent potential of the wide eyed angry crowd.

I hope that I have shown you the stark similarities between Anna and Gandhi, sufficient to respond to the unjustified criticism of Anna not being Gandhi. I also hope that you realize the need of the comparison of the two is equally as silly as is the criticism. The reason that this comparison of the two is silly and very sad is because it shows how Indians needs justification of one person to be legitimate leader only if one can be connected to a higher unquestionable image, instead of being a questionable human hero. Unfortunately one needs sacred cows, just as Gandhi needed to be minted into a saint, for him to have a mass appeal. It reflects how majority is not willing to support and oppose something in an issue-based manner. How is it different than acceptance of Nehru Gandhi Royalty with dodgy citizenship credentials, unaccounted assets, criminal records and false educational degrees, as having a special place in Indian politics?

I hope that you will admire and criticize Anna whether he can be compared to Gandhi or not in your eyes. Anna being Anna has done a great job and should be credited for it. He has also failed at many instances. When Indian population starts questioning and caring, more Hazares and Gandhis would spring from our soil every day than have sprung in centuries of struggle, because it is everyone in the Indian youth who has the transformational potential and not some specially ordained ones to carry the tricolor to glory at the world stage.

Dr. Sukant Khurana is a New York based scientist and author of Indian origin. He is also a columnist for Youth Ki Awaaz. Some of his social commentary can be read at: https://sites.google.com/site/sukantkhurana2/

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