Saint of Action

A Personal Reflection

On Jan. 30, 1948, 73 years ago, at 5:17 p.m. an assassin pumped three bullets at point blank range into Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. 

I never saw Gandhi, as I am the beneficiary of the fight for Independence that he led so strategically. I am a child of independent India.

Photograph by author. Recreation of Gandhi’s final steps. Gandhi Smriti, New Delhi

This is not a political post but a personal one. 

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I dismissed Gandhi as the "Great Man in History" ----significant in history but out of context in India's modern needs of which there were plenty.  

Gandhi, indeed, is a great man in history. He is a man like no other that I can think of. He did not just want to change the status quo of India (and before that of Indians in South Africa) but he also wanted to change himself. For the latter, he struggled every living day of his life to confront himself, his physical desires, his thinking, his place in the universe, and his responses to both good and evil like no other person that I know of in human history (that leaves alone the whataboutery of Jesus, Muhammad and the Buddha).  

Gandhi, photographed by Kulwant Roy. The process is a shattered negative.

An acquaintance of mine who transformed himself from a revolutionary following a path laced in violence to a Gandhian working toward reconciliation, mediation and nonviolent political activity is often referred to as someone "who willed himself into a Gandhian." I think that the person who willed himself to be a Gandhian (in all the attributes that we assign to that description) is Gandhi himself. He wasn't a god, a saint, an avatar. He was what many derisively described as a Gujarati baniya (of the merchant caste).  He was that and he made no bones about his ability to negotiate, cajole, and coax rightly or not. His famous political machinations to sideline Subhas Bose after the Haripura Congress presidency after he realized that Bose wasn't going to commit to nonviolence. And his preference for Nehru over the efficient strongman, Vallabhbhai Patel, for the prime ministership are mountains of grist for historians still.

But who could ever deny him (I know, I know ---the saffron brigade) what he tried to do after the 1946 Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta and Bengal villages. "When Mahatma Gandhi moved around, unarmed and completely unprotected, through riot-torn districts during the violence of Indian Partition, he was not only bringing new ideas to some, but also helping to build greater determination of those whose main ideas matched, perhaps in some vague form, those of Gandhiji, but who did not have the courage and defiant confidence that Gandhi brought to them."

( Amartya Sen, The Country of First Boys). 

Nirmal Kumar Bose, the anthropologist, was Gandhi's secretary and interpreter as Gandhi, in the fall and winter of 1946 after the convulsive, some say cataclysmic, Hindu-Muslim carnage in Calcutta and in Bengal villages, walked barefoot through ravaged villages in Noakhali district. Noakhali is in the delta region leading into the Bay of Bengal in modern-day Bangladesh.

When I was an undergraduate I met Dr. Bose through my then-girlfriend's mother, who was a philosophy professor at the university and a scholar of Gandhi, especially his religious, philosophical beliefs. Both professors used to tell me their stories about Gandhi, especially his moral struggles, I think in an effort to show me that revolutionaries come in more shades than one, and that violent revolution wasn’t the only path in India.

In today's world and in India, who, leading the millions of people of different faiths,  with any authority, moral or otherwise , can articulate the simple truth as Gandhi did on December 10, 1946 in Srirampur?

Gandhi stayed in a burnt-out hut,  and that evening stood up at an open meeting,  bare-chested, with a dhoti tied tightly between his legs, spindly legs, barefoot, with wire-rim glasses and said no religion "is without blemishes." Islam had forgotten its ideals and taken to violence, Christians very often forget that their master asked them to love their enemies, while as the 'untouchables' showed, 'in Hindustan, too, diabolical wrong has been perpetuated in the name of religion." (Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948. Knopf, 2018).

He was and always will be for me, a "saint of action, rather than of contemplation." (C. F. Andrews).