Unpacking Gandhi’s Legacy With Historian Vijay Prashad

Mahatma Gandhi
George Rinhart / Getty
Mahatma Gandhi
George Rinhart / Getty

Unpacking Gandhi’s Legacy With Historian Vijay Prashad

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Tomorrow marks 150 years since Mahatma Gandhi was born in a small town in India’s state of Gujarat. Raised in a conservative middle-class, upper-caste milieu, Gandhi would develop his political consciousness in England, where he studied law, and in South Africa, where he started his legal practice by working against racist colonial policies.

As Gandhi matured, he would return to India and become a leader of the burgeoning nationalist movement, eventually theorizing and implementing “Satyagraha,” or truth-force, a mode of nonviolent direct action that politically and economically crippled the British Raj. Due in large part to Gandhi’s leadership and ideology, India was able to peacefully overthrow British colonialism and declare independence as a secular, democratically governed republic in 1947.

In the years since India’s founding and Gandhi’s assassination shortly thereafter, India has veered considerably away from the vision Gandhi had advanced. Caste-based oppression is still a reality, forms of socialism advocated by Gandhi and India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru have largely been overtaken by drastic economic inequality and the longstanding tradition of secularism is giving way to a resurgent Hindu nationalist movement that seeks to define India as an explicitly Hindu nation.

Historian Vijay Prashad joins the show to discuss Gandhi’s legacy and its impact on modern India. We also assess Gandhi’s shortcomings on issues of race, caste and class in the light of contemporary debates on these issues in India and the larger postcolonial world and examine his disagreements with other revolutionary thinkers such as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who advocated further-reaching action to dismantle the caste system and the injustices it perpetuated. Here are some of his thoughts:

On Gandhi’s Origins:

Gandhi was born in 1869 in a small town called Porbandar in Gujarat, and he came from a very conservative, Gujarati Hindu background. He imbibed some of the rigidities of Hinduism, including caste and so on. And it was not until Gandhi goes off to take a degree in England that some of these rigidities are shaken a little bit.

When he’s in London, he’s a vegetarian has to find vegetarian restaurants. And there were of course, vegetarian restaurants in London, but they were run by people who were dissenters of one kind or another, oddball people, non-conformists and so on. So Gandhi’s vegetarianism inadvertently expands his political horizons.

On the formation of Gandhi’s political consciousness:

In fact, Gandhi becomes “Gandhi” in South Africa. That’s his real rebirth into this icon of nonviolence. It’s in South Africa, working with South Asian traders against discriminatory colonial policies that Gandhi discovers the Indian working class in South Africa. The colonial administration had imported enormous numbers of indentured laborers, particularly from what is now Tamil Nadu, to work in mines. 

It’s from these South Indian miners that Gandhi learns the tactics which become part of his idea of nonviolence: the mobilization of hunger strikes, boycotts and nonviolent activity. Gandhi followed them into prison and engaged with them there, and that’s where his real schooling takes place.

On criticisms of Gandhi’s anti-Black racism:

It’s a legitimate criticism when you see Gandhi’s writings. He uses slurs that whites commonly used to refer to Black South Africans. This was also a vocabulary imbibed by the Indians. You must understand that under colonialism, there were gradations of humiliation. Whites were on top, then there were Coloreds, Indians and then Blacks. 

This was a standard feature of everyday life and affected everybody. In other words, even the Indians would absorb the sense that “at least we are better than the Blacks.” And this was something that entered their vocabulary. Some of the most hurtful words were used by Indians to refer to Black South Africans. It’s important to understand that it’s not because Indians have some sort of inherent racism; it’s the system of graded humiliation that produces participation in racism and Gandhi certainly adopted that.

It would have been extraordinary for Gandhi at the time, in the late 19th century and early 20th century to have been above that. Gandhi is a person. Let’s understand him. Let’s criticize him, but also let’s learn from somebody like that.

On Gandhi’s contributions to the Indian Freedom Movement:

One of the quite intelligent things about Gandhi was his ability to take anti-colonial theory and give it a popular character. 19th century Indian nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji wrote about the drain of wealth from India, but it was a difficult theory to explain. Gandhi was able to take that theory and make it a mass political movement out of it by saying that every Indian should sow their own clothes. 

So now imagine Indians in individual houses spinning their own cloth as a national activity. Anti-colonial nationalism was now no longer merely an activity of the streets, of people who are willing to get beaten, sacrifice themselves and so on. It became something that could happen in any house, in the domestic sphere.

Salt was the very same thing. It’s a very elegant critique that Gandhi made. Gandhi condensed all of the unfair levies and taxes around the salt tax and said, “I’m going to march from one end of Gujarat to the sea and I’m going to make salt.”

And by doing that, he not only challenged the British Empire, but he also allowed people to see that the salt tax was an injustice. So in both the spinning of cotton and the Salt March, we see in Gandhi a very keen understanding of how to take complicated ideas and make a mass movement out of them.

On Gandhi’s ideology of nonviolence:

Nonviolence is not just the absence of violence, it’s about masses of people challenging power. This strategy was greatly embarrassing for the British because colonial governments don’t like to be seen as colonial governments. They like to be seen as avuncular and benevolent. But when the British left India in 1947, the literacy rate was 12 percent. Only 12 percent of Indians after 350 years of British colonial rule could read and write. So this avuncular posture was merely their self-image. So, by challenging the roots of empire, Gandhi forced the imperialists to fight back.

On untouchability and caste politics:

Dalit leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was a thorn in the side of Gandhi. Gandhi had a liberal view of caste. He felt that the worst aspects of the caste system, untouchability and so on, should be abolished - but he didn’t have a problem with caste by itself. Dr. Ambedkar was very upset with Gandhi’s position. In fact, in a important speech called “The Annihilation of Caste,” Ambedkar argued that there is no way to reform the caste system. It has to be entirely destroyed. Gandhi and Ambedkar clashed right through the 1930’s and 40’s, disagreeing on this fundamental aspect of Indian society.

Hear a clip of B.R. Ambedkar’s views on caste from a 1955 BBC Radio interview recorded a few years after Gandhi’s death:

On Gandhian socialism:

Ambedkar argued that political democracy wasn’t enough; you have to have economic democracy, which means you have to attack the basis of the caste system. And if you’re going to have economic democracy, you’re going to have something like socialism. Gandhi didn’t want to go in that direction. He had created his own understanding of socialism called “Sarvodaya,” which means “Welfare to All.” Gandhi had very romantic ideas about the economy. He wanted a sort of village communism without power relations. Dr. Ambedkar said, however, that village communities in India are bathed in caste hierarchy. So unless you attack caste hierarchy, your village communism is going to become village totalitarianism, with the upper castes dominating.

On Gandhi’s development as a political leader:

Gandhi becomes a radicalized figure towards the end of his life, in a similar way to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unfortunately in the last two decades before the independence of India and Pakistan, religious politics became a very important part of the political landscape. And in 1925, you had the creation of a group in Nagpur called the Rashtriya Swayamsevakh Sangh - the RSS, a right-wing fascistic organization of which the current Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a member. 

Religious politics comes to a head in the 1940’s when the question of independence is on the horizon and terrible riots break out between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal. Gandhi plays what I think is his most important role here. He goes to these places almost as a solitary figure. This is an individual satyagraha, this is action on the basis of truth with Gandhi as the only satyagrahi. He walks for miles, meeting people, begging them not to fight, arguing that Hindus and Muslims must learn to coexist. 

In this time in India particularly, I think the most important lesson we can learn from Gandhi is amity amongst people. The current ramping-up of religious intolerance is breaking India apart today. India is not the same country as it was when Gandhi knew it, nor is it the same one in which I was born 52 years ago. 

On economic justice in India

India is now a country that boasts about its billionaires. Gandhi gave a speech in the 1920’s in which he said “the test of a civilization is not the number of millionaires it has, but the absence of starvation among its masses.” Let that be our lesson we take from Gandhi. Today, when there are not just millionaires but billionaires and yet hunger amongst so many people, we encounter a truly disgraceful situation. There’s no point in having a statue of Gandhi in a city if you have hungry people in that city.

Manvee Vaid contributed translation to this segment.

To celebrate Gandhi’s 150th anniversary, Worldview is co-hosting a summit on October 18th at the Field Museum with living descendants of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, and Rev. Jesse Jackson.