There have been personalities in the history of mankind who have invoked extreme emotions in people. Regarding Plato, it is said that one can be either Platonic or anti-Platonic but one can’t be non-platonic. Similar is the case with Gandhi. While his sky-high ideals, moral values, unquestionable integrity and much-celebrated leadership in the freedom movement are revered by millions of people, concerns and questions always remained in public discourse about his inconsistency in ideals, private life and alleged inclination towards a particular religious minority.
When Gandhi called off the Non-Cooperation Movement in the aftermath of Chauri Chaura incident of 1922, he invited vehement criticism from the masses as well as the leaders of Congress. Upon being asked, he reiterated that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. He rejected consequentialism and held that the right end can never ever be achieved using the wrong means. Non-violence for him was more than avoidance of physical violence.
However, a pragmatic shift in his ideals could be seen in the last phase of freedom struggle when he made the formal announcement of Quit India Movement. He held that either free India or die in the attempt but do not remain alive to see India in slavery. Hitherto existing restrictions on the use of violence were removed with the pronouncement itself. It became explicit when all the important leaders were arrested on the next day. A departure from the idea of non-violence can be attributed to his theory of pragmatic idealism. He held that if he were to choose between cowardice and violence, he would have chosen the latter.
A section of society has always been critical of Gandhi’s values especially his alleged image of a Muslim sympathiser. According to emerging popular anti-Gandhi discourse, the concept of minority appeasement had its genesis in the Gandhian era when he merged the Rowlatt Satyagraha with Khilafat movement. Apparently, this was the first time the Muslim community was termed as a separate entity and it required a formalisation of Hindu-Muslim unity to transform it into a mass movement.
However, seeds of religion-based politics were already sown with the partition of Bengal and the formation of Muslim League. Gandhi just utilised an opportunity which emerged out of a geopolitical situation that provided a common ground for both the Congress party and the Muslim community.
Gandhi was also put through fiery criticism for unfairly leaning towards Muslims. Many believe that his alleged favouritism towards Muslims was among the major factors ultimately leading to his assassination by Nathuram Godse in 1948. He went on a hunger strike, demanding ₹55 crore be given to Pakistan.
A communalized perception developed slowly and steadily after independence had certainly helped to make these allegations stronger. Acts committed and words quoted in the pre-independence era are now being judged with a biased outlook which has emerged at the backdrop of the right-wing versus Congress debate. The fact remains that Gandhi demanded distribution of resources equitably.
Also, the seeds of communalism were already sown with Indian Councils Act in 1909. Therefore, though the idea of a merger of the Rowlatt Satyagraha and Khilafat movement was incoherently developed into a single mass movement, integration of two movements by explicitly mentioning their separateness as distinct identity groups and authoritatively enforcing the idea of single cause uniting two completely distinct causes didn’t invoke communalism directly.
Gandhi’s sexual life remains the most controversial aspect of his personal as well as public life. He is believed to have accepted celibacy in 1906. His method of self-control consisted of some weird practices including sleeping next to naked women. While he never shied away from hiding this particular aspect of his personal life and explained his approach in his work My Experiments With Truth, he faced severe public wrath and criticism.
It was basically criticized on two grounds:
1) Sex had always been considered as a taboo subject in public discourse. Bringing this subject in public discourse made people with conservative outlook uncomfortable in a way, and
2) Methods adopted by Gandhi were socio-culturally unaccepted in traditional societies.
However, his method of controlling sexual urges never created hindrance to his socio-political program and his magnanimous image of a leader of the freedom struggle because celibacy had been considered a moral virtue and a symbol of goodness in Indian culture and traditions. Also, he purportedly didn’t indulge sexually despite sleeping with women including his nieces.
However, since he asked people to follow the same and tried to normalise this behavior, it certainly raised genuine concerns and helped cultivating an anti-Gandhi sentiment in the minds of people.
His approach to practicing celibacy is logically implementable and culturally and ethically unacceptable at the same time. We can see confrontation of ethics and morality in Gandhi’s ideas.
Gandhi was a utopian. All his theories including a stateless society remain a utopia at best. He possessed capability, courage and will to practice moral values of highest order but at the same time, he didn’t hesitate to take a step back when circumstances required, which he called pragmatic idealism. As he was against the separation of politics and ethics, he derived moral and ethical values from religion, sometimes without even logical and scientific validation. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay followed Gandhi but she differed with some of his decisions where he excluded women from some political activities.
Despite of all allegations, there is no denying the fact that his values of non-violence and satyagraha were not meant for the weak. It required unlimited courage and moral uprightness. Only he could follow his own values. Many of his principles including the seven sins remain relevant even today. Gandhi’s immense contribution and sacrifice to nation can’t be countered or neutralised with a binary outlook. You can love Gandhi, you can hate Gandhi but you can’t ignore Gandhi.