Gandhi and his wise monkeys


There’s this pictorial maxim, dating back to 17th century Japan, of the three wise monkeys that see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil. Gandhi possessed a small statue of these three monkeys. He likely told them not to hear, see or repeat many of the evil things he had said all his life—such as about blacks in South Africa, about women in general, or the ‘untouchables’ whom he fondly called names. Some faithfuls even believe Gandhi came up with the idea of the monkeys, and they follow the dictum that they should not see, hear or utter any of the indefensible things Gandhi said and wrote in his lifetime: in that lies the wisdom of monkeys. They brazenly suggest that “Gandhi must be forgiven these prejudices in the context of the time and the circumstances”. One person who defied the odds and sought to expose the Mahatma in his own lifetime was B.R. Ambedkar. What Arundhati Roy did in “The Doctor and the Saint”, her substantive introduction to the the annotated, critical edition of B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, was she had reopened the debate in a partisan way: by taking the side of justice and equality, and hence of Ambedkar.

And now we have to ask: Can any amount of ‘contextualized’ quoting save Gandhi for Gandhians? What are the Principles of Historical Debate? On 11 April, on the eve of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, the weekly journal Economic and Political Weekly featured a piece by the Mahatma’s grandson Rajmohan Gandhi, indicating that it was extending the ‘Ambedkar–Gandhi debate’. This was a shortened version of a book-length essay by Rajmohan Gandhi that has been circulating since January on the internet. The said purpose of the piece, the EPW blurb announced, was “not to analyse or assess the [Ambedkar–Gandhi] debate as such, disavowing any desire to confront either Gandhi or Ambedkar”; the essay’s main raison d’être was that it “disagreed with [Arundhati] Roy”, and went “so far as to insinuate that the chief purpose of “The Doctor and the Saint” was to demolish Gandhi”. Gandhians seemed happy that one of their own had rescued Gandhi from Roy’s withering critique based on original citations.

In the latest issue of EPW, Arundhati Roy, with her stinging essay, “All the World’s a Half-Built Dam”, joins issue with Rajmohan Gandhi—who, with scant respect for facts, tries to argue incredulously that the success of Kanshi Ram and the BSP owes to the Poona Pact. Roy argues that Rajmohan Gandhi deliberately misreads her essay and the troubling part is “Rajmohan Gandhi has nothing of substance to say about any of this very worrying material. His chief complaint is that I did not simultaneously quote some nicer things Gandhi might have said on different occasions to mitigate or ‘balance’ things out.”

Roy concludes: “When a legend continues to harm a people who have already been grievously harmed by history, then perhaps it’s time to step up to the plate with clear, unsentimental eyes.”

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