Commenter “expat” points us to this article about Obama’s constant references to and reverence for Gandhi, expressed during his Indian visit, and the fact that this isn’t exactly reassuring to the present-day Indian government and business leaders.
Obama is many things, but one of them is what I would call “amateur historian.” His knowledge of so much of history (including Gandhi) is superficial liberal boilerpate. The reality is more complex (might I say “more nuanced”?):
Gandhi’s vision of a village-dominated economy was shunted aside during his lifetime as rural romanticism, and his call for a national ethos of personal austerity and nonviolence has proved antithetical to the goals of an aspiring economic and military power.
If anything, India’s rise as a global power seems likely to distance it even further from Gandhi.
Of course, it’s mainly this global business context in which Obama’s visit occurs. Obama’s near-constant references to Gandhi are beginning to wear on even the Indians—or maybe especially the Indians, who after all are probably most familiar with Gandhi’s flaws:
“The impression on the Indian side is every time you meet him, he talks about Gandhi,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express, a leading English-language newspaper, adding that the repeated references struck some officials as platitudinous.
Did I say “Gandhi’s flaws?” Yes, I did.
Talking this way about Gandhi is tricky, because he is so universally admired. But history is history, and Gandhi’s is hardly all sweetness and light. Obama does not appear to be familiar with the Gandhi facts outlined here and here.
They make for sobering reading, indeed. There are so many nuggets of information there that I hardly know which ones to excerpt, but this will have to do:
All great visionaries are extremists, and Gandhi was no exception. By the sheer force of his personality he managed to hold together a movement against the British that ended up with a measure of success in terms of winning Indian independence. But that initial success was followed by the unleashing of internal forces of violence of such an extreme nature that they dwarfed any outrages the British had committed in India. When partition (which Gandhi had opposed) occurred, the country was already on the brink of a turmoil that erupted into a series of massacres which killed at least a million or more, although the true figures will never be known. Gandhi’s methods were utterly powerless against the violence between Moslem and Hindu, as opposed to his relative success against the British colonial authorities.
Gandhi was not only extremist, he was utterly consistent as well. I was shocked to learn that what he had earlier recommended for the Jews in the face of Hitler, he also applied to his own people on partition: that they surrender themselves to death. In this article by Dr. Koenraad Elst, a Belgian scholar on India, the author discusses a number of mistakes he feels Gandhi made. Elst writes:
Gandhi refused to see the realities of human nature; of Islamic doctrine with its ambition of domination; of the modern mentality with its resentment of autocratic impositions; of people’s daily needs making them willing to collaborate with the rulers in exchange for career and business opportunities; of the nationalism of the Hindus who would oppose the partition of their Motherland tooth and nail; of the nature of the Pakistani state as intrinsically anti-India and anti-Hindu.
In most of these cases, Gandhi’s mistake was not his pacifism per se…The Khilafat pogroms revealed one of the real problems with his pacifism: all while riding a high horse and imposing strict conformity with the pacifist principle, he indirectly provoked far more violence than was in his power to control. Other leaders of the freedom movement, such as Annie Besant and Lala Lajpat Rai, had warned him that he was playing with fire, but he preferred to obey his suprarational “inner voice”.
The fundamental problem with Gandhi’s pacifism, not in the initial stages but when he had become the world-famous leader of India’s freedom movement (1920-47), was his increasing extremism. All sense of proportion had vanished when he advocated non-violence not as a technique of moral pressure by a weaker on a stronger party, but as a form of masochistic surrender…
During his prayer meeting on 1 May 1947, he prepared the Hindus and Sikhs for the anticipated massacres of their kind in the upcoming state of Pakistan with these words: “I would tell the Hindus to face death cheerfully if the Muslims are out to kill them. I would be a real sinner if after being stabbed I wished in my last moment that my son should seek revenge. I must die without rancour. You may turn round and ask whether all Hindus and all Sikhs should die. Yes, I would say. Such martyrdom will not be in vain.” (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol.LXXXVII, p.394-5) It is left unexplained what purpose would be served by this senseless and avoidable surrender to murder.
Even when the killing had started, Gandhi refused to take pity on the Hindu victims, much less to point fingers at the Pakistani aggressors. More importantly for the principle of non-violence, he failed to offer them a non-violent technique of countering and dissuading the murderers. Instead, he told the Hindu refugees from Pakistan to go back and die. On 6 August 1947, Gandhiji commented to Congress workers on the incipient communal conflagration in Lahore thus: “I am grieved to learn that people are running away from the West Punjab and I am told that Lahore is being evacuated by the non-Muslims. I must say that this is what it should not be. If you think Lahore is dead or is dying, do not run away from it, but die with what you think is the dying Lahore…”
I cannot read that excerpt without feeling a literal shiver of dread and horror. I cannot see that “Die with the dying Lahore” is a sentiment to emulate.