Last week BJP President Amit Shah did something he excels at: make a flippant, political remark, then sit back and watch as social media erupts in indignation.
The target of his mischief was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who he called a "chatur baniya" after the trader caste he came from, unleashing anger from a section of Indians who idolise Gandhi. But Shah's remark was hardly surprising. Historically, Gandhi has enjoyed an oddly schizophrenic status among India's rightwing, made even more ambiguous by the workings of contemporary politics.
Assassinated by a man having affiliations with the RSS, Gandhi has been as much reviled as co-opted by the Right. He's a convenient punching bag or a poster boy, depending the way the political winds are blowing. The same man whose iconic round-framed glasses is a mascot for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat campaign is ridiculed by the PM's closest aide as a scheming, petty businessman.
Shah's comment, apart from being tasteless, is historically unsound. Ramachandra Guha took it apart in a fine response in The Indian Express this morning. Gandhi, as he argued persuasively, belonged to all castes and none. He had the entrepreneurial sense of a true baniya and the scholarly instincts associated with the Brahmins. He also made it his life's mission to break the taboo on untouchability by doing so-called menial tasks, like manual scavenging, traditionally carried out by the Shudras.
Beyond this informed rebuttal to Shah, it's amusing to speculate how Gandhi himself might have reacted to his remark, based on the philosophy of non-violence he preached and tried to practice scrupulously through his life.
The opportunity to indulge in such an exercise is offered by a new book by Arun Gandhi, grandson of the man himself, who writes accessibly of ten crucial lessons in non-violence and anger management that he picked up from his grandfather during the two years he spent with him in his ashram in Sabarmati between the ages of 12 and 14.
Uses of anger
The Gift of Anger combines memoir and reflection to arrive at a format that works both as historical reflection and contemporary self-help. Parts of it may appear too idealistic, even a bit far-fetched, but overall it is a useful primer to managing anger at a time strangers in real life, or on social media, have no qualms about taking pot shots at other strangers.
"Anger to people is like gas to the automobile—it fuels you to move forward and get to a better place."MK Gandhi
Growing up in his grandfather's farm in South Africa, Arun Gandhi faced the contempt of the locals as well as the tyrannies of the apartheid regime, run by the white colonisers. As a child with a lot of pent up anger, he sought his grandfather's guidance to conquer his feelings. What he got, in return, was a lesson in turning his inner rage into a gift.
"Anger to people is like gas to the automobile—it fuels you to move forward and get to a better place," Gandhi said to his grandson, asking him to spin cotton to work out the surge of aggression rising within him. It's a lesson Arun Gandhi carried into his adult life, becoming a "peace farmer" himself, who sowed his grandfather's message across the world.
Contradiction is cool
The public perception of Gandhi as a leader who commanded the absolute and unquestioning devotion of his followers is challenged by the reminiscences of Arun Gandhi. His grandfather, we learn, was a great champion of actions taken out of immense conviction, even though the outcome may be contradictory to his principles.
In one telling instance, Arun Gandhi remembers his 6-year-old sister Ela walking up to Bapuji (as he called his grandfather) and complaining about the bland boiled pumpkin served at all meals at the ashram. Gandhi's amused concern over this "injustice" and his admiration of his granddaughter's just rage not only makes for an endearing read but also shows his capacity to accept views he didn't necessarily subscribe to.
As it turns out, Arun Gandhi, who currently lives in the US, never practiced the severe asceticism of his grandfather. He's not against capitalism (nor was Gandhi, as one finds out if one cares to engage with his politics subtly and sensitively), he's not a vegetarian and he's never glorified poverty (once again, nor did his grandfather). Yet, none of these seeming differences from Gandhi's lifestyle and values have ever come in the way of Arun Gandhi's mission of preaching his grandfather's words. Such harmonious coexistence of opposites is too sophisticated an idea for contemporary India to process, mired as it is in a politics that's black or white, with grey areas being scoffed at and dismissed without a thought.
'Chatur' is not a bad word
In spite of all the brouhaha it has created, Amit Shah's description would have, in all likelihood, amused Gandhi, not offended him. In fact, he might even have felt flattered for being called 'chatur' (clever, wily, crafty).
Always astute about the ways of the world, Gandhi never undermined the importance of wealth. Wherever he went, he collected donations from the masses, only to have it all distributed among the most needy. In a moving chapter, Arun Gandhi writes of his experience of travelling with Bapuji by train, meeting hordes of people at every station waiting for his darshan. Men, women, rich and poor, all poured their gifts into a sack that Gandhi held out for their contributions. The Mahatma also charged a princely sum of five rupees for every autograph he signed, not even sparing his young grandson, who tried every which way to get it by fluke, but failed to fool his grandfather in the end.
True to his word, Gandhi always taught others by first making an example of himself. If he had to tell a boy to not eat too many sweets because of his health, he insisted on first giving up sweets himself, before he had the moral standing to make the request.
A few years ago Arun Gandhi tried to raise funds for his own philanthropic work by auctioning some of his grandfather's original letters. The incident led to outrage, with the Indian government stepping in to buy that national heritage—after ignoring it for years. Arun Gandhi justifies that episode by citing his grandfather's attitude towards acquisition of money—as a means to an end, but never unto itself.
If he had the benefit of social media, Gandhi would certainly have used it to his advantage, Arun Gandhi believes. "I know my grandfather would have used Twitter and Facebook and other social media, just as he used radio broadcasts to communicate his message in his day," he writes, adding that Gandhi would have also known that "we can't change the world by hitting 'like' on a post".
Here's hoping this message gets across to our modern-day politicians.
The Gift of Anger is published by Penguin (₹599).
Also on HuffPost