The actual problem in our politics-infested and elitism-smacking intellectual climate is not with Gandhi being described in the manner that BJP president Amit Shah has done

When Mahatma Gandhi’s ship docked at Marseilles on September 11, 1931, and he was on his way to the 1st Round Table conference convened by the custodians of the Raj to deliberate upon the fate and the future of India, William Shirer, American war correspondent, historian of the Third Reich, and eventually author of the magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, was there to receive and meet him.

In his moving opuscule on the Mahatma, Gandhi a Memoir, (1979), Shirer, who, had a long association with Gandhi, as he himself once observed, “I spent much of my time travelling up and down the land with him”, jostled through the crowd and made his way through to the second class cabin so that he could interview him. The Shirer-Gandhi interview in Marseilles is per se not the point of our discussion; a reading of the transcript clearly shows the mutual admiration, trust and faith and the confidence that Gandhi had developed in Shirer’s reporting methods and analysis. Our interest, however, rests in certain descriptions that Shirer makes of Gandhi, while recalling that tête-a-tête in his popular memoir, calling him “one of the shrewdest men in the world”.

“We turned to other topics”, Shirer recalled. “I asked Gandhi about Press reports saying he hoped to make a barnstorming tour of England, making speeches everywhere in an effort to gain backing from the people. ‘I don’t intend even to make a speech at the Round Table Conference’, he said. I took that piece of information with a large grain of salt. ‘I will try’, he said, ‘to present my position to the cotton-mill workers of Lancashire, hundreds of thousands of whom are out of work due largely to our Indian boycott” He would tell them, he hinted, that if their Government gave India its independence the boycott would end and their factories might start humming again. There was something of the banian trader in Gandhi, reflecting the caste from which he came.”

In another context, that of Gandhi’s adherence to Hindu customs, Shirer found him to be “an old Fogey”. Yet, Shirer’s account is one of the most moving and popular memoirs of the Mahatma, which, when it appeared as late as 1980 presented before an international audience a refreshing dimension and reading of Gandhi’s life and struggles.

Gandhi himself, as a number of people have shown in the past couple of days, with references and citations, often referred to his bania conditioning which enabled him to take quick, calculated, and risk free decisions. He took pride in the fact that that conditioning prevented him from being fooled. These observations that Gandhi made on himself were almost always laced with humour and generated waves of mirth among his adherents.

The actual problem in our politics-infested and elitism-smacking intellectual climate is not with Gandhi being described as a “chatur bania’, it is rather with the chatur charlatans who have arrogated themselves the right to control discourses, interpretations and narratives. These chatur charlatans, many of whom are either Congressmen, Congress apologists or its ‘first family’s’ court historians, some of whom are card-carrying communist party members who pass off as historians and some others who have taken an intellectual U-turn by repudiating the work of their own lifetime, have suddenly jumped to Gandhi’s defence the moment BJP president Amit Shah referred to the Mahatma colloquially and rightly so as a “chatur bania”.

The irony is that these chatur charlatans, of all shades and hues are the very ones who have either dumped the Mahatma in his entirety —philosophically, ethically, politically and in terms of service to society, or have, while paying lip service to his vision — ensured that they cleverly sweep out of their narratives and actions all that Gandhi essentially stood for.

Of course, the chatur charlatans’ new found love for Gandhi and their valiant knight-like defence of his persona can be traced to the new found love of the Congress’s first family for one of Mahatma’s most political and shrewdest grandson, who, under a veneer of trying to be a replica of the Mahatma himself, has always displayed astute political opportunism and subservience.

Having dumped Gandhi all these years, having laughed off all that he espoused, having sidelined his adherents, acolytes and members of his family, the Congress, communists and their depleting eco-system have found an occasion to latch on to the Mahatma and to take control of his legacy. It will give them, they hope, a sort of belated and much needed legitimacy.

However had this ‘chatur bania’ remark been made by the ‘full literate’ types such as Ramchandra Guha, Shashi Tharoor, Partha Chatterjee, Gopal Krishna Gandhi et al. it would have been lapped up by a certain class as the highest enunciation, emerging out of the depths of deep reflection and research, but just because the non-elitist Amit Shah made it, it needed to be attacked and condemned. The attack on Shah’s comments is not a defence of Gandhi, it is essentially a display of crass elitism and of an intrinsic disdain for the other’s assessment, it is a hatred for the robust and earthy Indian reading of the lives of our greats; it is a rejection of our attempt to understand and interpret ourselves under the rubric of our traditions and societal systems and frameworks.

On the issue of the Congress being a ‘special purpose vehicle’ for the freedom movement, Shah could not be nearer the truth. The Congress of the freedom movement essentially started unscrambling after Patel’s death, the Nehruvian Congress was a new being altogether. What had held the disparate ideological elements within the Congress together was essentially the Mahatma’s persona and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s strong hold over the organisation and the overweening objective of trying to win independence. Gandhi had foreseen the fall in the standards and in the ways of the Congress once freedom was achieved and had asked for it to be disbanded; in fact one of the last things he was working on was a constitution for disbanding the Congress and recreating it in a new avatar with the sole objective of societal service. Gandhi said that “Congressmen were not sufficiently interested in constructive work” and their objectives and aims had begun altering post-independence.

Amit Shah was right on both counts in his assessment. The only ones irked are Congressmen and their apologists, the chatur charlatans, who have always and invariably stymied all attempts at making a real assessment of ourselves.

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