In the 150th anniversary year of his birth, Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy has taken a rollercoaster ride. Heavily touted by the Indian government apparatus, the ‘Father of the Nation’ has been especially conspicuously praised by the ascendant Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who told a meeting at the United Nations in September that his fellow Gujarati “was Indian, but he belonged not just to India. People who Gandhiji never met were also greatly influenced by his life. Whether it was Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela, the basis of their ideas was Mahatma Gandhi and Gandhiji’s vision.”
But right alongside very many flamboyant encomiums have come slurs and brickbats, very often generated
by the same political alignment as the Prime Minister. For example, in the run up to the national elections, the controversial Sadhvi Pragya Tiwari – who wound up thrashing the Congress veteran Digvijaya Singh to win Bhopal for the BJP – described Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse as “a true patriot.” She recanted soon afterwards, but Modi told the press he would never be able to forgive her.
The complicated fun and games have not been restricted to India. Last month, students wrote an open letter to the administrators of Manchester in the UK, demanding they remove a statue of Gandhi gifted to the city on the occasion of this 150th anniversary, due to the subject’s “well-documented anti-black racism” and their belief he was being “used as a propaganda tool by the current Indian government.” Even now, a hashtag continues to circulate on the Internet, #GandhiMustFall mirrors the previous #RhodesMustFall which targeted the unquestionably odious imperialist icon, Cecil Rhodes.
In response, the outstanding Oxford historian Faisal Devji wrote, “perhaps Gandhi was a racist, but we get no sense of this from his enemies, whose personalized arguments deprive his thought of integrity and ignore the many contexts in which he operated…I prefer a flawed Gandhi to his saintly effigy, just as I prefer the problematic figures of his political descendants Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, whose sexual and other lapses have not resulted in their statues being vandalized or names banned from commemoration.”
Devji also pointed out with acute perceptiveness, “if the memory of Mahatma Gandhi lives on today, then it is mainly thanks to his enemies, who seem unable to forget him. The Mahatma’s followers, on the other hand, have turned him into a saint whose teachings can safely be ignored as the words of a superior being to be admired from afar. Given the ritualistic respect offered to Gandhi in India, which is received with public indifference, it is puzzling why he remains so alive for his critics. Perhaps they are the only ones who continue to feel betrayed by Gandhi’s loss of sainthood.”
What does any of this have to do with the International Film Festival of India, in its golden jubilee edition? Quite a lot, because what we are experiencing at this event brings to mind the great man’s most basic dictums, aspirations and fears for his beloved nation. The report card is most definitely mixed. But at the bottom line is unquestionably
this – in the greatly varied banquet of cinema that is being so avidly consumed all around us every day, there is some fulfillment of the Mahatma’s most basic aspiration for his countrymen and women. “I do not want my house to
be walled on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Read more from The Peacock: Issue 7 (2019) here