Sunday, March 15, 2015

On A Naked Fakir in the Parliament Square

The unveiling of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the Parliament Square in London is a moment of triumph for the British Asian community. The statue of the man, who, like no other, represented an unique resistance to British commercial imperialism, being put at the very heart of such institution indicates the prominence and influence of the British Asians in the public life of the UK. The representatives of the community turned up in large numbers, along with a number of students from Hindu faith schools in London. It was a great moment of asserting a community identity and of celebrating integration in the life of their adopted country.

This is a triumph without a corresponding defeat though, fittingly for the man being celebrated. This is not one identity getting better of another - which is the usual zero-sum meaning we associate with the word 'triumph' - but the realisation of a much subtler message Gandhi embodied in his work. Vijay Merchant, the ex-Indian Cricketer who dropped out of the Indian Test Cricket Team in 1932 in protest against the treatment of Indian Nationalist leaders including Gandhi, told a story about Gandhi, which might be appropriate for the occasion. Mr Merchant described the moment when he had the opportunity to meet Gandhi in person first time and presented him with an autograph book, belonging to his sister. Gandhi took the autograph book and chose to sign on the page containing the autographs of all the members of the 1933 MCC Cricket Team (captained by Douglas Jardine) - and he appended his name at the bottom of the list, signing as "17. M K Gandhi". [A slightly different version of this story appears in Judson K Cornelius' Political Humour, which put Laxmi Merchant, Vijays sister, as the main protagonist] The message was indeed unequivocal - Gandhi saw no quarrels with the English Cricket Team, and by extension, the common people of England! Indeed, for a long period of time, he also served as a loyal member of the empire, serving as a Nurse in the Boer War and recruiting Indian servicemen for the Allies in the First World War. He, as a man who believed in the goodness of English people and the British sense of fairness and justice (not unlike many of the Founders of America, including Benjamin Franklin), does indeed have a rightful place in the Parliament Square in London.

However, an observer may also note the omnipresent irony, again quite fittingly for a man who was a master of sarcasm. It would not be amiss that the statue presents Gandhi in his trademark loincloth, which he adopted after dismissing his gentlemanly attire, and which earned him the epithet from a dismissive Churchill - "A Naked Fakir!" The presence of David Cameron, the Conservative British Prime Minister so keen on resurrecting some of Britains past glories, also highlight the irony - Churchill, the last Conservative Prime Minister during Gandhi's lifetime famously demanded to know "Why Gandhi is not dead yet?" when he was told about dying millions during the Bengal famine. The statue was unveiled by Shri Arun Jaitley, the current Indian Finance Minister, who built his political career as a leader of the student wing of Rashtriya Sayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu supremacist organisation which plotted for and carried out the assassination of Gandhi. To heighten the irony, the presence of a left-wing economist, Lord Meghnad Desai, and a famous Indian actor who made his name as a drunken violent young Indian, Amitabh Bachchan, should also be noted.

The timing of the unveiling of the statue also represents many a contradiction that marked Gandhi's life and career. He abstained from sex in his later life as he blamed himself for indulging in his lust for his wife during the moment his father, who he was supposed to be attending, died unattended. He spent 15th August 1947 without celebration and in fasting, in a decrepit house in Calcutta, as he saw India's  independence, which came with partition, as defeat, not a victory. The unveiling of his statue, fittingly, comes as India intends to embark on an undefined quest of 'Development', visualised as an unrestrained opportunity to evict the farmers from their lands to create roads, bridges and factories, in a direct opposition of whatever Gandhi stood for. 

To conclude, Gandhi's statue in the Parliament Square sums up his legacy in more ways than one. And, we may as well return to the theme of patricide, a powerful obsession throughout Gandhis own life, to understand what Gandhi means to Indians. The Swiss Philosopher, Bernard Imhasly, observed the deification of Gandhi - in his statues and numerous Mahatma Gandhi Roads that mark the Indian urban landscape - but the desertation of his message in modern India. Somewhat like a modern day Moses, who, in Freud's incisive portrayal, was killed by the Jews, the same people he helped liberate, Gandhi stands as a symbol, as our feeble minds crave for one and can not go beyond a statue to grasp the complex, higher order principles he really stood for. In that sense, the statue of Gandhi is both an illusion and a hope : An illusion, as this visible celebration undermines the abstractness of his vision which we proved ourselves incapable of carrying; And a hope, because it is a reminder of our patricide, a guilt that we may collectively carry, and a redemption that we may eventually seek.

Bibliography

1. Vijay Merchant In Memorium - Published 1988 by Marcus Cuoto, Bombay.
2. Moses the Man and Monotheistic Religion (1938) - Sigmund Freud
3. Why I Assassinated Gandhi (2015) - Nathuram Godse, Surya Bharati Prakashan, New Delhi
4. Gandhi and Churchill (2009) - Arthur Harman, Arrow
5. Churchill's Secret War (2011) - Madhusree Mukherjee, Basic Books.
6. The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (2015) - Makarand R Paranjape, Random House India.

Photo & Story - The Hindu (see full story here)





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