This series got off to a good start as an attempt by the bourgeois establishment to de-sanctify the legacy of Mohandas Gandhi, and strips away some of the mythology surrounding him. The man revealed is an incredibly driven politician, who sacrificed his family, his sexuality, and other earthly pleasures, in pursuit of building a mass movement.
The story of Gandhi’s early life (told in the first of the series) shows a different figure from the saintly ascetic of popular folklore. The documentary tells of the time he left his dying father’s bedside to satisfy the “carnal desires” he later renounced. It also tells of his first foray into politics where he not only took a racist position towards black South Africans and low-caste Indians, but also sold out all of his comrades. For this act of misleadership he was attacked by a supporter on the way out of prison.
Although the documentary rids Gandhi of his halo, the real-life human being it presents still appears to have almost god-like powers. The documentary completely ignores the historic context in which Gandhi lived. Apart from admitting to some influence by the radical vegetarian scene in London, Gandhi is presented as a figure outside of history who, through force of will-power and satyagraha (literally, grasping the truth), singlehandedly brings down the British Empire. If you believe this story, Gandhi is a deus ex machina, born into a political vacuum to bring forth an army of activists.
In South Africa, where he started his political life as a lawyer for Durban’s Indian merchant class, Gandhi is portrayed as creating a 9,000-strong movement of arrestable non-violent activists from scratch within a matter of weeks. No doubt the man was a talented political organiser and orator, but a truly secular account would have shown history making the man, rather than the man making history.
It is no surprise that Gandhi’s political career starts among the merchant class of South Africa. Here Gandhi develops his own form of reactionary petty-bourgeois socialism that finds no end of support in the upper echelons of the Indian bourgeoisie.
Contrary to the Great Man of History portrayal, Gandhi was very much a product of his time, part of a new movement among India’s intelligentsia. They sought a pan-Indian identity based on One World, One God neo-Hinduism and recoiled from the exploitation and alienation of modern capitalism. The documentary makes the bold comparison between his doctrine and modern jihad.
Nowadays, Gandhi’s political doctrine of non-violence is taught in schools across the world as an example of how the weak can overcome the strong. However, this rendering of history is a fiction. The British left India for economic reasons, not because they were ground down by decades of satyagraha. It was the militant working class (which Gandhi condemned) and the revolutionary peasantry that played the bigger part in the British decision to leave.
Gandhi’s tactics were a failure, born of a failed political doctrine which was not sufficiently secular to prevent the millions slaughtered in Partition. Nor was it sufficiently anti-capitalist to prevent the future millions from dying in India’s slums.
Gandhi’s story is not one of a hero singlehandedly fighting British imperialism. It is the story of a petty-bourgeois leader, bolstered on the shoulders of the Indian aristocracy. His crackpot political philosophy and leadership must bear some responsibility for the bloody massacre of Partition. He was the perfect leader for the Indian bourgeoisie, who were quite happy to entertain his self-flagellating philosophy, so long as he kept a lid on the mass movement. Much of his authority rested on the near deification he accorded himself in his “praxis of Truth”.
Gandhi synthesised the theological teachings of Jesus and the ancient Hindu sages and thought he had discovered an ancient truth about how to bring about change. But far from rolling back history’s web of illusions to uncover timeless truth, Gandhi was a pawn in the game of global capitalist development. His continued legacy is due to the fact that he never really posed a threat to the continued exploitation of the sub-continent.
For the BBC’s part, they take God out of the picture, only to champion Gandhi as a flawed but heroic leader of the oppressed, tapping a deep vein of historic truth. An accurate history would have to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of activists he misled and the hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants that fought their own battles in defiance of his leadership. It would also have to do some honest accounting about the terrors of British colonialism and the abject failings of post-independence India.