If you want to know a vacuous intellectual from one with genuine substance, you can spot one from the very first sentence he writes or speaks. In today’s Times of India (2 October 2019), Sunil Khilnani, the man who is said to have coined the term, “the idea of India”, almost lost his readers with his first line. “We have made the Mahatma our national Zelig, patching him in whenever it might suit our convenience.”
We can surely get a sense of what Khilnani may have wanted to convey from the second part of the sentence, but not the first. If you quickly look up your Wikipedia to understand what Zelig means, you will learn that he was a fictional character created by Woody Allen in a 1983 film, where Leonard Zelig is an enigmatic persona who has the ability to take on the appearance of the people who surround him.
In short, Khilnani wants to say that Mahatma Gandhi could be whatever he wanted to be, or what one wanted him to be.
Just a few sentences down the line, Khilnani again opts for the unintelligible over the simple. He writes: “Gandhi’s marginalised post-colonial voice can be conveniently ventriloquised. He is a Blakean anti-enlightenment siren. A Heideggerian artisanal philosopher. A gadfly anti-liberal moral extremist. These are just a few of the current avatars you’ll find among the high professoriate.”
We can probably sense what Khilnani is trying to suggest: that we can all use Gandhi’s utterances for our own purposes.
Despite his many faults, and his many contradictions, one wonders if Gandhi, whose communication was simplicity itself, deserves to be analysed by faux intellectuals like Khilnani.
Gandhi proved to be one of India’s greatest communicators because he spoke from the heart and spoke in words everyone could understand. That his simplicity was often simplistic and ended up misleading many is a different issue, but surely, he needs rescuing from the Khilnanis of the world, who too try and use the Mahatma for their own political and ideological ends. They praise him in order to denounce others.
Quite apart from using words and sentences that mean nothing to the average reader of English, Khilnani gives the game away when he indulges in polemics. Consider this paragraph: “Until his assassination in 1948 by a Hindu militant with RSS connections, Gandhi directed his abilities towards two world historical tasks. The first was to undermine the largest empire in human history. The second was to challenge the world’s most anti-egalitarian, hierarchical society, one in which violence defined and permeated its daily life. He was, that’s to say, taking on Britain and India at once.”
If Khilnani uses complex wordplay to confuse one about what is simple, here he does the opposite: uses simple words to rubbish what is essentially a complex phenomenon.
We all know that Nathuram Godse assassinated the Mahatma, but his reasons for doing so were complex, for Gandhi was seen to be bartering away the rights of Hindus based on his own sense of right and wrong. Also, while it is true that Gandhi took on the might of colonial Britain, it is far from true that it was Gandhi alone who brought us freedom.
British premier Clement Attlee, who succeeded Winston Churchill after Labour won the elections after the Second World War, that the British were more worried about militant leaders like Netaji Bose than Gandhi, not to speak of the erosion of loyalties among the armed forces, as the Indian Naval Mutiny indicated.
One also wonders whether the characterisation of Godse as “a Hindu militant with RSS connections” is at all relevant in this case. Godse was not particularly enthused by the RSS’s perceived pusillanimity, and it is far from clear that his association with the RSS was the cause of his decision to kill Gandhi. If we were to accept guilt-by-association as valid argument to tar an individual or organisation, any jihadi should, by definition, be identified with Islam’s core teachings.
Khilnani’s characterisation of Hinduism as “the world’s most anti-egalitarian, hierarchical society, one in which violence defined and permeated its daily life” is equally problematic.
Nobody today will defend the inequities of caste and caste-based hierarchies and oppression, but it is a clear over-simplification to reduce caste to just this one attribute. Caste is kinship, and a form of social capital. If today the scheduled castes are trying to build a more homogeneous super-caste under the nomenclature “Dalit”, it is because the creation of a super-caste empowers them and aids them in their fight to end iniquities.
If caste is still a major factor in India, it is not just because of the structure we inherited from the past, but because it still fulfils useful functions in mobilising voters in larger groups, and serves as a protective shell for smaller groups of people in ultra-diverse India.
We can talk about the inegalitarian nature of caste, but neither Islam nor Christianity has been able to eradicate caste among the millions who converted away from Hinduism. And more than a century-and-a-half after fighting a civil war to end slavery, America is still a racist country.
Neither Christianity nor Islam have abandoned the inherent superiority complex of their religious narratives. If Hinduism has hundreds of castes, the Abrahamic religions have at least two: the believers and the non-believers. The latter will go to hell after life, assuming their lives are not made hell right here in this life.
Khilnani is right to suggest that Gandhi overestimated the possibility of initiating change from within a caste-based society, and that Dr B R Ambedkar was correct to ask Dalits to organise and agitate to “blow apart” caste oppression. But he forgets that Ambedkar did not think highly of Islam’s or Christianity’s ability to do end their inequities either. Those religions brought their own forms of oppression along with their egalitarian tendencies.
Khilnani also makes a dubious point about the correlation between religion and violence. What he says about religion is equally true of any ideology – including the ideology of equality and egalitarianism.
Khilnani writes: “Gandhi was too hopeful in another of his core beliefs: that he could separate religion and violence – as his own fate made desperately plain. He felt he could release the scriptural declarations of tolerance, peace and diversity that feature in a variety of religious traditions and use such better-angels concepts to tame the violence which religious belief also entails. His was a brave effort to counter the weight of history’s evidence, previous and since, that there may be between faith and bloodshed a near-ineliminable connection. The only thing that can weaken that connection, we also know from history, is a state that refuses to belong to any religion – especially when that religion forms a social majority.”
It is true that religious belief has led to violence; but it is equally true that secular, non-religious ideas can also lead to violence, as the mass genocides of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others have shown. Hitler had hatred for Jews, but his bigotry was no bigger than the egalitarian bigotry of his communist peers – where the state specifically declined to validate any religion.
It is only in India, where religions hotly contested one another but did not end up perpetrating violence on the scale seen in the Abrahamic traditions, that diversity and difference was celebrated. But all Khilnani sees in India is caste-based and religious violence.
The true generator of violence is the idea that only one idea is better than the rest. This passion for proclaiming ideological superiority marks many Abrahamic traditions, of which Marxism and Stalinism were merely non-God-based extensions. It is ideology untempered with humility that kills, not religion alone.
Put another way, Khilnani’s “Idea of India” has a greater potential for violence in future due to its Abrahamic pretence that there can be only one “Idea of India”. The antidote to violence is that there can be many “Ideas of India” which can coexist, cohabit, cooperate and occasionally contest one another in the land that is called India. Khilnani’s “idea of India” is exclusivism and superiority masquerading as egalitarianism.
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