It happened today - September 16, 2015

GhandiOn September 16, 1932, Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, already in jail, began a hunger strike against the British decision to create separate political representation for “untouchable” outcastes. To me it embodies everything that is most admirable and most annoying about Gandhi simultaneously.

To start with the admirable, Gandhi was utterly opposed to discrimination against untouchables or anyone else, whether it was social or legal. He was an absolutist for rights. Moreover, he had a genius for organization, a gift for PR and a commitment to non-violence.

Now to the annoying. As purists do if they are not careful, Gandhi lacked any sense of proportion. The reason the British were bringing in this measure was not to treat untouchables separately and worse as, for instance, segregation in the United States was meant to do. Rather, it was to make sure they did have a political voice in a society that treated them miserably. In taking his stand, Gandhi rather ignored the nastiness of too many of his countrymen or brushed it aside as trivial.

Moreover, he never seemed to grasp the fact that his methods only worked because the British were, more generally, extraordinarily benevolent colonial masters, who were concerned with the rights of all Indians rather than, as the Japanese or Germans showed themselves as colonizers, contemptuous of them all. Non-violence would have succumbed quickly to the machine-guns of either of those powers. And Britain was willing to grant self-government to India but slowly because of concerns about the sudden coming of political liberty to people unused to it.

In the Second World War, Gandhi did not grasp how important British victory was to the ultimate success of his campaign for self-government in India, or the trouble that would arise trying to contain sectarian violence when the Raj ended. And he did not understand how deeply rooted prejudices of all kinds were among Indians, how indeed the British were on the whole far more enlightened on such matters ethnic, religious and class/caste based.

For all that, Gandhi did set a standard that, while inflexible and unrealistic was inspiring. Indeed, to some extent it was inspiring precisely for those reasons. And he meant what he said and lived it himself. He was, in short, admirable and annoying not by turns but simultaneously and for the same ideas and habits not conflicting ones.

That India is today a functioning, if rambunctious, democracy is a tribute to both Gandhi and his British opponents.

It happened todayJohn Robson