Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Gandhi nobody knows

In response to my post about Gandhi's pacifism, a number of people (Ed Driscoll publicly, others in private e-mails) have called my attention to Richard Grenier's essay on Gandhi that appeared in a 1983 issue of Commentary.

Driscoll calls it "undoubtedly one of the most incredible film reviews ever written," and I second the motion.

Driscoll's reference is quite the wry understatement. The essay is far more than a film review, although its take-off point is indeed a critique of the Oscar-winning movie of 1982. Whether the movie "Gandhi" could truly be termed a film biography is doubtful; it probably is so only in the Oliver Stone-ish sense.

Grenier writes what could more rightly be called a fisking of the Gandhi movie--in the course of which he pretty effectively demolishes the Gandhi myth as well. He makes a very good case that the actual historical figure is a far more complex and flawed person than the Gandhi most of us think we know.

Here's an excerpt which is especially relevant to the pacifism discussion on the earlier thread:

"Gandhi", then, is a large, pious, historical morality tale centered on a saintly, sanitized Mahatma Gandhi cleansed of anything too embarrassingly Hindu (the word "caste" is not mentioned from one end of the film to the other) and, indeed, of most of the rest of Gandhi's life, much of which would drastically diminish his saintliness in Western eyes...

[I]t is not widely realized (nor will this film tell you) how much violence was associated with Gandhi's so-called "nonviolent" movement from the very beginning. India's Nobel Prize-winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore, had sensed a strong current of nihilism in Gandhi almost from his first days, and as early as 1920 wrote of Gandhi's "fierce joy of annihilation," which Tagore feared would lead India into hideous orgies of devastation--which ultimately proved to be the case. Robert Payne has said that there was unquestionably an "unhealthy atmosphere" among many of Gandhi's fanatic followers, and that Gandhi's habit of going to the edge of violence and then suddenly retreating was fraught with danger. "In matters of conscience I am uncompromising," proclaimed Gandhi proudly. "Nobody can make me yield." The judgment of Tagore was categorical. Much as he might revere Gandhi as a holy man, he quite detested him as a politician and considered that his campaigns were almost always so close to violence that it was utterly disingenuous to call them nonviolent.

For every satyagraha true believer, moreover, sworn not to harm the adversary or even to lift a finger in his own defense, there were sometimes thousands of incensed freebooters and skirmishers bound by no such vow. Gandhi, to be fair, was aware of this, and nominally deplored it--but with nothing like the consistency shown in the movie. The film leads the audience to believe that Gandhi's first "fast unto death," for example, was in protest against an act of barbarous violence, the slaughter by an Indian crowd of a detachment of police constables. But in actual fact Gandhi reserved this "ultimate weapon" of his to interdict a 1931 British proposal to grant Untouchables a "separate electorate" in the Indian national legislature--in effect a kind of affirmative-action program for Untouchables. For reasons I have not been able to decrypt, Gandhi was dead set against the project, but I confess it is another scene I would like to have seen in the movie: Gandhi almost starving himself to death to block affirmative action for Untouchables.

...Meanwhile, on the passionate subject of swaraj Gandhi was crying, "I would not flinch from sacrificing a million lives for India's liberty!" The million Indian lives were indeed sacrificed, and in full. They fell, however, not to the bullets of British soldiers but to the knives and clubs of their fellow lndians in savage butcheries when the British finally withdrew.

I came across Grenier's piece about a year ago and found it extraordinary, and extraordinarily shocking. I've done a fairly extensive online search to see whether anyone has effectively countered any of the facts in it, and have found nothing save ad hominem attacks on Grenier himself. Makes me think he may have gotten his facts right. (Here, by the way, is a short bio on Grenier himself.)

Read Grenier's piece and judge for yourself.


At 11:02 AM, October 02, 2005, Anonymous erasmus said...

"...Gandhi, who was after all born in 1869, did not understand the nature of totalitarianism and saw everyhting in terms of his own struggle against the British government." George Orwell, "Reflections on Gandhi," 1949

Orwell knew

At 11:52 AM, October 02, 2005, Anonymous thedragonflies said...

Gandhi has really just become an icon for the anti-capitalist, anti-American, ex-communists, anarchists (and a few utopian fools) doing so much damage in the world today. They just trot out a supposedly saintly icon that no one knows much about and use his name in their cammpaign to dispirit America from defending itself. The goal is not pacifism or peace, the goal is to keep America from having the will to fight.

At 4:08 PM, October 02, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...


Ref yr. last sentence.

Pre Damn Cisely

At 7:23 AM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I need an enema-- bad!

At 8:51 AM, October 03, 2005, Blogger David Thomson said...

This 1983 Commentary essay is also included in Richard Grenier’s Capturing the Culture: Film, Art, and Politics. A used paperback edition can be purchased via for less than $10, shipping included (this always cost a $3.50 per each book). I’ve long blamed Ghandi’s outright idiocy for the some one million deaths which occurred during the 1947 partition. But didn’t he oppose this action? It simply doesn’t matter. Ghandi forced the British government to turn over political autonomy to the citizens of India before they were ready to handle this enormous responsibility.

Good intentions alone are never sufficient. Is your head on straight is often a far more important question. Ghandi can easily be compared to a little child playing with matches.

At 9:19 AM, October 03, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

-blasting sacred cows with a shotgun, better late than never-

At 12:19 PM, October 03, 2005, Blogger Kunal said...

I don't agree with putting all the blame for Partition solely on Gandhi's shoulders. Partition was a huge event, and no one person, or even one party can be credited or blamed for it.

Secondly, Gandhi, if nothing else, was mindful of the violence his non-violent agitation was bound to lead to. In the early 1920s, his Non-Cooperation Movement was on the verge of undermining the British Inidan Government, when the Chauri Chaura incident happened (I believe this is the "slaughter by an Indian crowd of a detachment of police constables" that Mr Grenier talks about). He took responsibility for the deaths, and called off the agitation. Indian Independence was delayed a further 25 years because of this.

And finally, when David Thomson says "Ghandi (sic) forced the British government to turn over political autonomy to the citizens of India before they were ready to handle this enormous responsibility", I really hope I misunderstood him, because that looks very offensive to me.

At 12:56 PM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

Kunal. Maybe Thomson is wrong. Maybe Gandhi didn't force the transfer to the Indians before they were ready for it.
Maybe somebody else did.

At 5:23 PM, October 03, 2005, Blogger jinnmabe said...

Thank you for that link, truly fascinating.

At 10:09 PM, October 03, 2005, Blogger MD said...

Kunal, it is offensive; at least I find it so. And an odd sentiment to find in a blog comments section full of people who supported the liberation of Iraq. But who knows, maybe they aren't ready for freedom yet, also and all those leftists who didn't support the invasion are right? You know those brown people, they just can't get a hang of this freedom thing. Better to leave the Saddams, or the ultimately more humane British in charge, eh?

At 10:10 PM, October 03, 2005, Blogger David Thomson said...

“I really hope I misunderstood him, because that looks very offensive to me.”

You did not even slightly misunderstand me. I am guilty as charged. The people of India were not ready for political autonomy in the late 1940s. England should have retained power for at least another ten years. The diverse people of India were barely one step above pure savagery when the Brits arrived. Do you truly find my assertion to be offensive? Well, that’s your problem---and not mine.

At 11:03 PM, October 03, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

A million dead at the hands of their friends and neighbors is not reassuring.

It wasn't even political. It was personal.

Like the Balkans who don't show much promise, either. Although having the UN in charge of the transition is a positive handicap.

At 6:52 AM, October 04, 2005, Blogger Jinesh Zaveri said...

Gandhi's passion for self reliance lives even today. How ahead of time he was!!!

Today India and Indians are arguably one of the giants in software, all reflects the Swadesi school of thought of Mahatma.

The Economy is prospering the gandhian way.

At 9:33 AM, October 04, 2005, Blogger David Thomson said...

“The Economy is prospering the gandhian way.”

Ghandi was outright hostile towards economic development. If it was truly up to him---India would have returned to the 8th Century. One can make the argument that Ghandi was something of a nihilist.

At 10:34 AM, October 04, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

"The diverse people of India were barely one step above pure savagery when the Brits arrived."

Now that's offensive. And quite untrue.

However, I do not find the assertion that a given group of people is not yet ready for democracy to be inherently offensive. As I see it, the state "not ready for democracy" has far less to do with the inherent dispositions and aptitudes of the people invloved, and far more to do with the political situation at the time.

As an example, right now the Iraqi people may be "ready for democracy" in the sense that they are potentially capable of practising it as well as anyone else on Earth, but they may be unready in the more immediate sense that a sudden switch to total independence would allow a violent extremist group to seize control, thus ending any chance at democracy practically before it started. So the people may be "ready," but the situation may not.

It is in this second sense that it may be justifiable to say that India was unready for independence at the time the British left. At the very least, a slower and more deliberate withdrawal (i.e. not one forced by Gandhi) might have given time for a more orderly transfer of power and perhaps allowed the transition to occur without the bloody war. Frankly, I don't know enough about Indian history to know whether this is a defensible position, but it does at least seem a plausible and non-offensive one.

At 10:57 AM, October 04, 2005, Blogger David Thomson said...

“Now that's offensive. And quite untrue.”

Tell that to the wives burned alive during a suttee ritual. The English greatly helped to civilize the generally intolerant and murderous Indian population. Women were second class citizens, and God help those who were a members of the lower castes. A democracy requires a minimal degree of enlightened attitudes among the common citizenry. The people in Iraq have enough going for themselves to make it work. The Indian population of the late 1940s did not!

You worry far to much about not wanting to appear “offensive.” One should be far more interested in the truth---regardless of how disquieting it might be.

At 11:54 AM, October 04, 2005, Blogger neo-neocon said...

David Thomson: I'm not interested in PC niceties, but I think you are incorrect. There's a difference between being "one step above pure savagery" and having some savage customs. Indian civilization was ancient and well-developed--with some "savage customs"--but was very very many steps indeed above "pure savagery."

I agree with alex also about the fact that saying a group isn't ready for democracy is merely stating a fact, and is not at all inherently racist. Saying they never can have democracy because of some innate failure would be racist, but no one here has said that, to the best of my knowledge.

The racist card has come to be played whenever a negative word is said about a minority or third-world group. That's absurd and tedious. Many scholars think that independence did come too early in India in terms of readiness of the institutions necessary for a successful democracy; whether they are right or wrong I have not a clue, not being any sort of expert on Indian history. The fact that many decades after achieving independence India is a functioning democracy is a good sign, but it doesn't really tell us whether a slower transition would have been better.

At 12:08 PM, October 04, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

David Thompson:

You wrote that Indians were "barely one step above pure savagery" before the British came along. Do you have any idea what your words mean? "Barely one step above pure savagery" brings to mind a bunch of dimwits whacking each other with clubs, and not, say, the culture that created one of the oldest classical literatures, Sanskrit. Despite its failings (I certainly won't defend suttee) there is simply no way you can call one of Earth's major classical civilizations "barely a step above pure savagery." That isn't un-PC, that's simply untrue. To assert it is, I daresay, offensive.

But wait, suppose that practices like suttee and the caste system really are enough to declare an entire culture "barely a step above savagery." Then how would the US, circa 1840, fare? We had a wide-spread practice of human slavery, with all the rape and murder and torture and degradation that entails. By your standard, if India was unready for democarcy in 1940 than the US was certainly unready for democracy in 1840.

And yet in fact, I don't think it was unready. I think that it's possible for democracy and barbaric practices to co-exist, to an extent, and one hopes that with time democracy will push those practices out of the culture. Certainly if we said that any group that did something barbaric was unfit to self-govern, we would have very few sovereign peoples in this world.

At 12:11 PM, October 04, 2005, Blogger Alex said...

Posted that last one before I saw neo-neocon's response, but good to see we're thinking along the same lines regarding the difference between "pure savagery" and savage customs.

At 1:10 PM, October 04, 2005, Blogger MD said...

neo-neocon, well put, but:

Whose calling anyone a racist? The brown comment was a bit hyperbolic on my part, but it was odd to read the comments section about Gandhi from the first post, coupled with the anove. Funny, and sad. I mean if PCness is tedious it's also tedious to hear Gandhi compared to Hitler on another thread, and to hear how partition was much worse than what the British had done in India already.

First of all, plenty of Indian scholars (quite patriotic and nationalistic) have stated that Indian independence did not come about in the best way; partition was bloody and it was the Indians who did it to themselves. But they were colonized for many years beforehand, so you can never do the experiment to see how ready they would have been for democracy without that colonization.

And I stand by my statement that it is odd to find the 'not ready for democracy statement' in the comments section to this particular blog. So, if there is a massive blood letting when US troops leave, ala the Partition, will that mean that the supportes of the liberation of Iraq were wrong?

PS: I voted for Bush, and support the mission in Iraq.

At 1:31 PM, October 04, 2005, Blogger MD said...

Indians discuss the British raj amongst themselves:

Ok, since this is a peripheral topic, I'll stop here :)

Thanks for the discussion, all....

At 2:35 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Jinesh Zaveri said...

Gandhiji said "I Have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and Non-Violence are as old as the hills"

If the strength of Indians would have united to fight the handfull of britishers then Just Imagine the devastating effects of it. What are the suggestions of "him being wrong in his approach" amounting too?

I think we need a serious thought before we debate on anything like this.

There is a lot that one is unaware of gandhi and its quite ostensible by these fact deficient arguements.

No offence intended.

At 8:06 AM, October 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Historian Paul Johnson's Modern Times also debunks some of the Gandhi mythology.

At 12:38 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Kunal said...

Although I can understand when you say a country (a country, mind, not a people) is not ready for democracy, I believe that saying that a country is not ready for Independence is highly prejudicial. That's probably what the British kept saying to themselves all through the 190 years of the Raj. They need us, the sahibs probably thought, or they'll continue with their sati and thuggee and other savagery.

As Alex said, upto the 1860s, the United States government legally allowed the enslavement of human beings. Until the 1840s, there was a local government somewhere in the US that paid bounties for American Indian scalps. The US Army is known to have given said American Indians blankets infected with smallpox in an attempt to reduce their numbers. In 1940, the US government imprisoned thousands of their own citizens simply for being of Japanese descent. Despite this, the US turned out ok (if you'll forgive my condescension). Nobody (no sane person that is) makes the claim that perhaps Britain ought to have retained their North American colonies because their colonists were too savage to govern themselves responsibly. The US is one of the freest and best governed nations in the world precisely because those "savage" colonists decided to govern themselves 219 years ago.

So yeah, you'll fogive me if I take offense at your statement.

At 1:44 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger submandave said...

Kunal, while I can understand your visceral reaction of offense, I have to agree with others that logically it is unfounded. Likewise, I don't buy the distinction you made between "democracy" and "independence" since "independence" and "national autonomy" are not equivalent. All discussions of "independence" cary the implicit assumption of "democracy", the best practical political system found to optimize personal freedom.

As neo said, the presence of barbaric or deplorable practices within a society does not necessarilly serve as an indication of its ability to pactice democracy or to exercise its independence peacefully. The chief determinant, from my perspective, is achieving a critical mass of individuals within the society that posess sufficient political accumen and knowledge to prevent subjugation or manipulation by a ruling elite.

The fact of violent, bloody civil war following British withdrawal should be evidence enough that idea that India was not ready is not unfounded. I have long felt that the greatest ill effect of the colonialism of the 18th and 19th centuries was on the development of native societies. During the period of colonialism, most of these societies were basically held in a suspended adolescence and not allowed to natuarally develop. As a result, an abrupt withdrawl of the colonial masters often placed people and societies unprepared for the modern world in charge of their destinies, sometimes with disasterous results. In Africa, for example, there are many societies that are basically working through the same political issues seen in Europe during the Reniasance, but doing so with modern weaponry.

A basic underlying concept of colonialism was the "White Man's Burden", a perhaps noble and well-intentioned but none-the-less intrinsically racist idea. The retreat from colonialism was too often an abandonment of the very responsibility that initially drove it. What the underdeveloped nations needed, though was not a "parent", but a partner. I see our engagement in Iraq (and the Middle East in large) precisely as a re-embracing of the moral responsibility to help the underdevelped without the racist undertones implicit in colonialism.

At 1:58 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger submandave said...

btw Kunal, not to pick nits, but some of what I read as your counter-examples of American "barbarity", besides being irrelevent to my position, do not work well even as you seem to present them.

Coming from Native stock myself, I would never try to excuse a 200-year national policy of genocide, but while there can be no doubt that a large number of Native Americans died resulting from infected blankets and such in all my readings I've never found a source for the apocraphyl allegations of intentional use of disease as a weapon. If you have a verifiable source I'd be most interested.

Secondly, the assertion that "In 1940, the US government imprisoned thousands of their own citizens simply for being of Japanese descent" conviently ignores that we just happened to be at war with Japan at the time. Now, if the interment (not imprisonment) was based upon an actual or imagined threat can and often has been debated, but to present it as an individual event without context is, at the very least, disingenuine.

At 12:39 AM, October 07, 2005, Blogger Kunal said...

submandave: I still do not agree that the Partition violence is evidence that Indians were not ready for Independance in 1947. Maybe the official reaction to Partition riots sucked because the new political class was not ready to handle the violence. But the violence itself was the result of the very idea of Partition, and that was something the British were at least partly responsible for.

Also, in what other part of the world could you divide a heterogenous country on the basis of two antithetical religions and not have violence writ large? Where else in the world could this have happened peacefully? Could a more "responsible" people have handled this better? I think not.

The point I was trying to make with the "examples of barbarity" was that the US government and the American people did a lot of stuff that we would consider barbaric, but that does not mean that they were not responsible enough to rule themselves.

Re the blankets: I have heard the story so many times that I thought it was a well accepted fact. I did not know it might be Apocryphal, and I well might be totally wrong there.

Re the Japanese Americans: Internment (in this case) refers to confinement of belligerent armed forces by neutral states or enemy civilians by belligerent states under the second Hague Convention*. However, 62% of the people "interred" in 1942 were US citizens of Japanese origin, not aliens with Japanese citizenship. Interring citizens of a country you are at war with is understandable. however, as I said, 62% were American citizens, and interring themsimply because they were of Japanese descent was, almost certainly racist, more so because German- and Italian-Americans were not interred in the same way. Also I don't think anyone who reads this blog is unawareof the ostensible reason for the internment. But since you think it was disingenuine of me not to say so, yes there was a war on, and Japan had just attacked the US.

* I'm not sure whether internment of enemy civilians is provided for by Hague II or some other international treaty, but its in there somewhere.

(PS: Apologies to Neo-neocon for filling up your comments with such unrelated stuff.)

At 6:20 PM, October 15, 2005, Anonymous Richard G. Combs said...

Just want to say thanks for the fascinating post and discussion and toss in one clarification: The story about the Army giving smallpox-laden blankets to Indians came from Ward Churchill, Colorado's most famous moonbat leftist professor. It's been totally and thoroughly discredited by several other academics.

In fact, one of the charges against Churchill being investigated by a faculty committee is that he committed academic fraud in this case and some other instances.

For more than you ever wanted to know about Ward Churchill, see PirateBallerina.

At 11:24 PM, July 15, 2006, Blogger Ranjit Singh said...

I am an Indian, and generally like American neocon ideals. I do not understand why this Grenier article, which has been thoroughly debunked as lies and racist libel, carries so much currency with you people. This Greiner is a full-scale lunatic with a lot of hate and bile against India in general. His tirade is full of factual errors ("Khilafat" is not a mispronounciation of "Caliphate", it's the other way round, and Hindus do not 'wallow in feces').

He makes absurd cultural generalizations that are border on hate-speech against Indians and Hindus. To him, we are less than human compared to Europeans. This is ironic coming from a Jewish person, as the 2000-year long history of Indian Jews has had no anti-semitism or violence from Hindus, whereas his precious Europeans hated and attacked Jews for centuries. In fact, Grenier's screed is almost Goebbellian in it's scope, and is no different from the antisemitic hate-speech of Nazi Germany.

Hindus and Jews are well-represented in Western Society and relations are excellent. India and Israel have excellent diplomatic , militray and cultural relations and we are fighting the common enemy of Islamic fundamentalism.

Please read the rebuttal to this libelous article if you wish to have a balanced view on this situation:

Please don't be deceived by this hateful pack of lies. Hindus share the same basic values that neocons do, and we are an ally, not an enemy.

At 11:06 PM, July 16, 2006, Blogger Ranjit Singh said...

Oh, and here's the wierd thing. Mohandas Gandhi would have made the ideal neoconservative. He:

1. Believed in the importance of family values

2. Was pro-life (opposed abortion)

2.5 Opposed birth control and family planning.

3. Wanted to decentralize the economy and administration (opposed big government)

4. Wanted to spread democracy.

So it's a fault of liberal fatties like Michael Moore who constantly tout Gandhi to defend liberal negationism. The reality is that Gandhi, if born in the US, would have made a veritable poster boy for the conservative parties.

At 11:11 PM, July 16, 2006, Blogger Ranjit Singh said...

To david thompson:

Sieg heil to you too my friend. Sati had nothing to do with intolerance. It was an entirely voluntary practice practiced by widows who would rather die than be raped by roving gangs of muslims. It was standard practice among muslims to depopulate Hindu communities. Plus, the British had nothing to do with stopping sati. It was done by Raja Ram-Mohan Roy and the Brahmo Samaaj. Roy was an Indian. You are just another white supremacist neo-nazi masquerading as a conservative.

At 8:14 AM, October 14, 2006, Blogger Anand said...

Grenier was no more than a film critic and his observations are very much biased and are fraught with inaccuracies. In order to better understand Gandhi, for that matter anyone, one has to go through his entire life's works. Perceptions need not always turned out to be correct. Gandhi captivated me since a long time and when I came across Grenier's article, decided to study more about Gandhi before commenting anything. And, I am still studying him, reading him for the last two years. From what I knew about Gandhi so far, I believe that Grenier would not have spent probably more than couple of months reading Gandhi materials to come up with his critique. One striking and inaccurate observation he made is about Gandhi's approach to untouchables. Gandhi has spent a good amount of his life for the uplifting of the untouchables that no one can deny, though in his own style. As someone said in this blog, it is worthless to argue about a topic without having any serious study on the topic. Again, perceptions are not same as historical truth. Read, read and read with a mind of a researcher to understand a topic and in Grenier's case, he has done nothing. And neo’s remarks that since he has not found any anti remarks on Grenier’s article made him believe that whatever Grenier said is true is an utter false assumption. There could be many reasons why people would not want to comment on his article, not always because it is true.

At 11:17 AM, October 10, 2007, Blogger meteetsee said...

I agree with most of the article, however, I saw some problematic ideas as well:

"But Gandhi did not worship the one God. He did not worship the God of mercy. He did not worship the God of forgiveness."

And if he did, it would make what he did okay? Monotheists have never done anything as terrible?

"IT SHOULD be plain by now that here is much in the Hindu culture that is distasteful to the Western mind"

And why is the Western mind the ultimate authority? Westerners are not innocent.

"Hackneyed Indian falsehoods such as that "the British keep trying to break India up" (as if Britain didn't give India a unity
it had never enjoyed in history), or that the British *created* Indian poverty(a poverty which had not only existed since time immemorial but had been
considered holy), almost pass unnoticed in the tide of adulation for our fictional saint."

Life was not better under the British. This sounds like an excuse for colonialism.

"As soon as the oppressive British were gone, however, the Indians--gentle,tolerant people that they are gave themselves over to an orgy of bloodletting."

This statement tries to make it sound like there are cultures somehow less barbaric than the Indian one, but in truth we are all pretty barbaric.

I am glad that people are exposing Gandhi for the patronizing racist that he was, but I do not condone doing it in a patronizing and racist way.


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