How Gandhi became Mahatma among the ‘sadharan janta’

Who was Gandhi to the peasants of rural India, far removed from the dynamics of political activities in the urban nerve centres of the country?

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi | Updated: October 2, 2016 3:18 pm
Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhi jayanti, Gandhi birthday, second october, 2nd october, Gandhi history, Indian history, Indian national movement, Indian freedom struggle, Shahid Amin, Indian express Discussing the perception of Gandhi among the masses in Gorakhpur, Amin referred to some glowing narratives in the Gorakhpur local newspaper, Swadesh. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the early 1980s, history writing in India had undergone a significant change. A group of scholars decided to shift focus from the activities of the political elite and concentrate upon the consciousness of those whose voices had hitherto been unheard- peasants, workers, women and the like. This movement that goes by the name ‘subaltern studies’ changed the narrative of Indian history, particularly the history of the Indian national movement.

It was at this point in time that we see the very first attempts to understand the personality of Mahatma Gandhi through the eyes of the non-elites. Who was Gandhi to the peasants of rural India, far removed from the dynamics of political activities in the urban nerve centres of the country? Was he perceived as a saint who could do miracles, a religious preacher whose mere ‘darshan’ would solve all practical problems, or a deity worthy of worship? Historian Shahid Amin, writing in the early 1980s, locates the personality of Gandhi as it registered into the consciousness of simple peasants of rural India of 1920s.

Also Watch: Ten lesser known facts about Lal Bahadur Shastri

We need to understand that for the ‘sadharan junta’ ( a term used by Amin in his work to refer to the masses), in the smaller towns and villages, the struggle with the British was a distant affair, made somewhat understandable through the local leaders. Mahatma Gandhi to them was just as alien a figure as the British.

Discussing the perception of Gandhi among the masses in Gorakhpur, Amin referred to some glowing narratives in the Gorakhpur local newspaper, Swadesh, which makes very clear the devotion that made Gandhi Mahatma.

“It had not occurred to us in our wildest dreams that the same Gorakhpur which was politically dormant would suddenly wake up like this. A crowd of 2.2V2 lakhs for the darshan of Gandhiji is no ordinary thing. It can probably be said that this is the biggest crowd that ever gathered for the darshan of Mahatma…But let no one think that this vast multitude came like sheep, inspired by blind faith (andhbhakti) and went back empty handed. Those with eyes can see that the darshan of ‘Gandhi Mahatam’ (this is the phrase used in villages) have not been in vain. The janta came with devotion (bhakti) in their hearts and returned with feelings and ideas (bhav). The name of Guru-Gandhi has now spread in all four corners of the district”

To understand the emerging popularity of Gandhi in the villages in the early twentieth century, Indianexpress.com spoke to Shahid Amin. Apart from revisiting his work, Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur district, Eastern UP, 1921-22, where he discusses the deification of Gandhi in Gorakhpur, he also spoke about how the perception of Gandhi has changed over time and why he appears less appealing to the youth than Bhagat Singh.

What spurred your interest into understanding the way the peasants of India understood Gandhi?

While researching on peasant politics in Gorakhpur in the 1980s I came upon this newspaper called ‘Swadesh’. I started looking at this newspaper in detail and there was mention about Gandhi’s visit to Goarakhpur in the 1920s and there was this column called ‘Bhakton ki Bhawnayein”. And then I got the idea in the winter of 1981 that I will regard Gandhi as an event in the history of this area, and try and marry it with the ideas of Gandhi before he comes. You cannot write about Gandhi without writing about Mahatma. When you write about Gandhi you have to write about how people regarded him. And that I could get only through second hand sources, especially through the newspapers.

And I suddenly got the idea of basing myself on rumours flying about Gandhi as an expression for understanding what the truth of Gandhi is. That was a new idea for its time. The idea was to use something in history which is evidently not true to write about a very true event which is that of peasant’s view of Gandhi.

While describing Gandhi’s deification among the peasants of Gorakhpur you describe the cultural and political atmosphere as very Hindu. Do you think that had an impact upon the way Gandhi and the national movement was perceived?

What is interesting about this period- 1920-22, is that at a formal, organizational level, there was a coming together of the Congress and the Khilafat. The president of the Khilafat committee and the Congress committee were more or less the same at this time. If you look at the major leaders of Chauri Chaura, there were Muslims. But in terms of nationalism, it was very clear that from the 1910s, the ideas of language, community and nation were coming together very strongly, be it the whole Hindi movement, or starting a Sanskrit pathshala or gaushalas. So the idea of nationalism among the peasants , is very tied up to what they are otherwise thinking culturally and it is within this that Gandhi comes. The religiosity of peasants is heavily influenced by the over all religious atmosphere, and ways of appreciating Gods and Goddesses and so on which is held in common.

Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhi jayanti, Gandhi birthday, second october, 2nd october, Gandhi history, Indian history, Indian national movement, Indian freedom struggle, Shahid Amin, Indian express ‘ When you write about Gandhi you have to write about how people regarded him, ‘ said Shahid Amin.

In fact I had this idea at the back of my mind whether there can be a Muslim deification of Gandhi but I guess that the fact that at the local village level, peasant involvement in Gandhian themes is not at this time rigidly through Hindus or Muslims. The major organisation of Chauri Chaura at this village had been started by a Khilafat guy and all sorts of Muslims. So it’s not like Muslim peasants are keeping aloof from Gandhi because the rumours are very “Hindu”. There is a lot in terms of ideas that they share. At this time there is the idea that Gandhi overrides everybody.

How would you say the perception of Gandhi has changed from the 1980s to 2016?

I belong broadly to a Left Marxist tradition of history writing. In effect, subaltern studies emerging from that were the first set of scholars interested in looking seriously at Gandhi rather than condemning him. Earlier, he was treated as a bourgeois leader who led everyone astray.

Now is a period of super criticism which is coming at two levels. One is in response to Ambedkar. It comes out very clearly in Arundhati Roy’s work on annihilation of caste, someone whom I otherwise admire. Even though she has some nice things to say about my work, I think she has got it wrong. She uses my work to say that it’s all manufactured, that’s it’s a big con trick that is being played out by Gandhi on the masses. I don’t think I am arguing that.

Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi, Gandhi jayanti, Gandhi birthday, second october, 2nd october, Gandhi history, Indian history, Indian national movement, Indian freedom struggle, Shahid Amin, Indian express ‘We need to understand that Gandhi’s ideas about who the peasants and downtrodden were, was not when he was studying law,’ said Shahid Amin. (Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly I also have problems with the new trend in the diaspora studies on Gandhi- that Gandhi was a racist in South Africa. It was very subsequently that he started talking about the abolition of indentured labour. But we need to understand that Gandhi’s ideas about who the peasants and downtrodden were, was not when he was studying law. It happened over time in stages. So to condemn Gandhi’s South Africa as zero relationship to South Africans is a bit thick because then we have to explain how he managed to con all of South Africa. We are going to be at a dead end if politics were to determine who historical figures were. At least in the realm of historical writing, in which I am very proud to say in that India as a non European country has a very high reputation- let there be thousand schools of thoughts. There has to be some appropriate level of scholarship within which we debate and bring out new things.

How would you explain the contemporary youth’s engagement more with Bhagat Singh than with Gandhi?

First of all, people know even less about Bhagat Singh than about Gandhi. And secondly, it is a kind of attachment to this idea of sacrifice in a very palpable way. The element of sacrifice is central to Gandhi in the way he lives. People don’t say this, but his assassination is a supreme case of sacrifice. But Bhagat Singh’s defiance and the way in which colonial authorities go about creating the trial, has a romance associated with it.

Do you think that the image of Gandhi monopolises the entire national movement?

The Indian national movement with all its ups and downs, the way it leads to independence is definitely identified with Gandhi. When we talk about world history, unfortunately it’s all ghettoized national history. What do we know about American history other than Lincoln? And Gandhi is such an important malleable figure, it is not a bad idea to have him around unlike others who are unidimensional. This guy is a figure of all sorts of contradictions.

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  1. I
    IslamForFools
    Oct 2, 2016 at 6:09 pm
    Jihadi
    Reply
    1. I
      IslamForFools
      Oct 2, 2016 at 2:44 pm
      This guy is the biggest enemy of Hinduism and the guy who broke Hindu land into three prices for Islam and still allowed Muslims to stay in India. So every riots , blasts, rapes, atrocities done by Muslims today are due to This guy M K hi ( can never call this mahatma). Only Hindus with no self respect or no respect for humanity will consider him mahatma. He is highly overrated and other freedom fighters are highly underrated. Muslims and sickularists through their anti Hindu propaa deified this cunning old man
      Reply
      1. I
        IslamForFools
        Oct 2, 2016 at 6:33 pm
        m k hi gave Hindus nuclear Islamic enemy called stan, never forgive bald hi
        Reply
        1. I
          Indian
          Oct 2, 2016 at 6:19 pm
          What about his stubness which caused the parion of india and thousands lost lives. It was the British who portra him mahatma just to delay the independence of the country basically he acted as British agent just get in the driving seat. The real hero is baghat Singh regardless how his pictures are portra he was son of small farmer self educated hanged at the age of 23 of which last four years spend in the jail fighting for independence.
          Reply
          1. S
            stranger
            Oct 2, 2016 at 5:23 pm
            hi was just a b promoted by slimy indian politicians and businessmen for masking their misdeeds by showcasing themselves as supporter of a maniac austere and sadly it continues same to this day most probably hi was brainchild of motilal to sidestep real patriots like lal bal pal in those days. the simple test how sleazy the politician is is how much he claims a mahatma in hi.
            Reply
            1. K
              Kalayata Maha
              Oct 2, 2016 at 1:35 pm
              The world recognizes hi for what he was, a great human being, who had human weaknesses, but who counted. Most Indians either deify him or ignore him. But there is one section of Indians - who believe in an imagined glorious past of India, who think India was only a Hindu nation and all others should be second cl citizens - whose mission is to vilify him. These are the members of the Parivar who ignore facts and indulge in fabrication.
              Reply
              1. M
                Mahesh Bhagnari
                Oct 2, 2016 at 10:27 am
                hi became 'Mahatma' by slick packaging and marketing. Don't trust me, read some books about him.
                Reply
                1. M
                  mathimathi
                  Oct 2, 2016 at 7:20 am
                  How Mahatma became Mohanlal. LOL
                  Reply
                  1. M
                    mayank
                    Oct 2, 2016 at 6:10 pm
                    Then the same can be said for all past leaders and specially the current bogus ones.
                    Reply
                    1. M
                      mayank
                      Oct 2, 2016 at 6:12 pm
                      Truly a great man whom the world adores and looks upto.We need more like him in our nation.
                      Reply
                      1. P
                        PRAVIN S
                        Oct 2, 2016 at 3:40 pm
                        SC/ST /OBC = 60 % consider DR B R ABMBEDKAR father of nation lt;br/gt;Muslims = believe in only one allah = 15 %lt;br/gt;Christians = believe in jesus = 5 %lt;br/gt;Sikhs believe in Sikhism = 5 %lt;br/gt;85 % don’t even consider him – then he is father of which nation – no nation - anyway it is not consutional post – it was pasted on him by same RS SS who killed him
                        Reply
                        1. R
                          Real Truth
                          Oct 2, 2016 at 6:21 pm
                          Mullah Sawan, your rewriting of history to suit your Islamic agenda doesn't change facts : Islamic separatism and bigotry existed and dominated Muslim politics long before RSS came into being. RSS was actually a response to this separatism and bigotry. Check out the dates.
                          Reply
                          1. R
                            Real Truth
                            Oct 2, 2016 at 6:25 pm
                            No doubt, but you should read some history.
                            Reply
                            1. R
                              Real Truth
                              Oct 2, 2016 at 6:23 pm
                              No doubt, but you should read some history.
                              Reply
                              1. R
                                Real Truth
                                Oct 2, 2016 at 6:22 pm
                                Only a Mullah will write a post like that.
                                Reply
                                1. S
                                  Sawan
                                  Oct 2, 2016 at 6:01 pm
                                  Parion was opposed very strongly by hiji and the Congress initially. It was Sardar Patel who convinced both hiji, Nehru and the Congress that parion was the way forward for Independence and also for the greater good of the country. Even before that the idea of Parion found legitimacy because of the b of Hindu-centric Nationalism vigorously promoted by the leaders of RSS (namely Savarkar and earlier Golwalkar) and the Hindu Mahasabha. They gave the IML the necessary reason to persuade the British to split India, who anyway wanted to do maximum harm to it's polity. So don't blame Congress and hi, blame yourself and your organization.
                                  Reply
                                  1. S
                                    Sawan
                                    Oct 2, 2016 at 8:12 pm
                                    RSS was a response which helped the "Islamic agenda" because they provided the other hand to clap this macabre dance of parion (I am sure you know that two hands are required to clap). They provided the A-IML the "I told you so moment", the perfect excuse for their demand for a separate state". It is on archival records, all that I said about Parion, Sardar Patel, hiji and Nehru. @Ram Ratan your ignorance is laughably appalling. Do some research before you cross swords with me.
                                    Reply
                                    1. S
                                      Sawan
                                      Oct 2, 2016 at 8:01 pm
                                      What about Modiji? He praises hiji right, left and center especially when he is abroad.
                                      Reply
                                      1. S
                                        Sawan
                                        Oct 2, 2016 at 6:03 pm
                                        You would certainly believe that being a part of the "Big Jumla"
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                                        1. P
                                          Patriot
                                          Oct 2, 2016 at 7:44 pm
                                          It is a conspiracy of hi in order to make Hindu state gave a small piece of land. It is hi responsible for v break of India not Jinn ah.
                                          Reply
                                          1. P
                                            Patriot
                                            Oct 2, 2016 at 7:42 pm
                                            We did not get independence because of hi. Muslims do jihad against British and millions died and killed muslims by britisher. hi just harvest the crop.
                                            Reply
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