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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.
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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.
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.
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.