Notebook: Gandhi's luck to miss the spiteful press
Saturday 06 February 1999
IN 1934 a great earthquake shook northern India and many thousands of people, most of them poor, died under rubble and earth. Mahatma Gandhi said that it was their own fault. They had been sinful and God was punishing them.
As Gandhi was then the most popular political figure in India and on his way to sainthood status in the rest of the world, his remarks were of a kind which would come to be described later in the century - this week in fact - as an "error of judgement". Gandhi symbolised non-violence and, by extension, gentleness and compassion. This reputation was obviously at risk.
There were also more pragmatic considerations for his colleagues in the Indian independence movement. Gandhi was then their only mass leader, but his political power depended on the support of unprivileged Indians like the many who were now grieving over their crushed and dead relations.
Gandhi already had critics and enemies, Indian as well as British, inside the independence movement and out of it. His religious beliefs melded his own Hinduism with aspects of Christianity. "Mish-mash" is this week's word. Earthquakes-as-punishment clearly owed as much to the Old Testament as anything in the ancient Indian epics. His social ideas - favouring handicrafts over machines, villages over industrial towns - were partly inspired by English Victorian utopians. His egalitarianism came from the European Enlightenment. He believed that the caste system detracted from human dignity, that untouchability should be abolished, that even the highest castes should clean their own cesspits.
Perhaps only in the most superficial way - his dress - did he completely exemplify the reality of the ordinary Indian. Almost everything else about him was controversial inside his own country.
The newspapers had a field day: "Gandhi's Gaffe", "The Muddled Mahatma", and so on. Politicians, sniffing the populist breeze, were quick to follow. The Minister for Tramcars and Government Stationery (Bengal) told the Calcutta Assembly, to laughter, that Gandhi "couldn't tell his karma from his Calvin". There were many other jests of that kind.
Still, Gandhi might have survived had his fellow-leader, Pandit Nehru, not chosen to appear on an early All-India Radio talk show, A Jolly Good Morning, with Sunil and Smita. The programme was known for its "light, bright look" at current events and people in the news. Nehru did not expect searching questions about Hindu-Muslim relations, the cure for mass poverty, or how quickly (if at all) his country could leave the British Empire - otherwise he would not have gone on the show. And indeed he did not get them.
Sunil and Smita said it was great to have him in the studio. Nehru said it was great to be there. Smita adjusted her sari, uncovering a fetching slice of midriff. Sunil asked about the new Viceroy ("quite a nice bloke", said Nehru). Smita wanted to know how his daughter, Indira, was getting on at her Swiss boarding school ("oh, y'know, throwin' snowballs, ski- in', eatin' fondu and that kinda thing," said Nehru, smiling, "a typical Indian kid").
It was going so well. Then came an awkward one: the earthquake question. Nehru had prepared for this; he knew what to do and say. A smile, a shrug, something about Gandhi just being Gandhi, the ever-present danger of misquotation.
But there was in Nehru a desperate wish to be liked, to be Mr Bloke, to share the opinions of your average man in a dhoti. So he said, well, y'know, if Gandhi had actually said what he was reported to have said, then, yes, he would have to go.
The next day Gandhi went. Several trays of photographic flash-powder fizzed and popped as a half-naked man retreated behind the doors of his ashram, where he span happily and privately for the next 30 years. Historians still argue over whether, had he stayed, India might been independent earlier than 1961, or won cricket's world cup before 1983.
HOW MUCH of the above is true? This much:
On 15 January 1934, an earthquake flattened several towns in the state of Bihar. The precise casualty figures will never be known, but certainly tens of thousands of people died. Gandhi, who was then campaigning against untouchability a thousand miles way in southern India, made a public statement. "A man like me", he said, "cannot but believe that this earthquake is a divine chastisement sent by God for our sins... For me there is a vital connection between the Bihar calamity and the untouchability campaign."
Several of his friends and associates were shocked. Rabindranath Tagore, the writer/philosopher who was the first non-white to win a Nobel prize, issued another public statement in reply which expressed his "painful surprise" at his friend's "truly tragic" views.
"It is all the more unfortunate," said Tagore, "because this kind of unscientific view of phenomenon is too readily accepted by a large section of our countrymen... If we associate ethical principles with the cosmic phenomena, we shall have to admit that human nature is morally much superior to [a] Providence that preaches its lessons of good behaviour in orgies of the worst behaviour possible. For we can never imagine any civilised ruler of men making indiscriminate examples of casual victims... in order to impress others dwelling at a safe distance, who possibly deserve more severe condemnation."
Gandhi, who could be stubborn and slippery at the same time, showed no remorse. Far from mumbling about his words being taken out of context or distorted, he wrote a piece for his newspaper, the Harijan, which only added to the original offence. "We do not know the laws of God nor their working. Knowledge of the tallest scientist or the spiritualist is like a particle of dust... With me the connection between cosmic phenomena and human behaviour is a living faith that draws me nearer to God, humbles me and makes me readier for facing him."
Nehru was beginning a tour of the earthquake zone when he read Gandhi's first statement. Later he wrote: "A staggering remark.... Anything more opposed to the scientific outlook it would be difficult to imagine... The idea of sin and divine wrath and man's relative importance in the affairs of the universe - they take us back a few hundred years when the Inquisition flourished and burned Giordano Bruno for his scientific heresy and sent many a witch to the stake!"
And that was that, pretty well. A robust exchange of views, then silence. India had a mainly illiterate population, newspaper circulations were small, their primary content information culled from telegrams and government departments. The institutions, tools and excitements of modern democracy and the modern media had yet to arrive; the demos had yet to be electrified.
Gandhi sailed on. His remarks about the earthquake became a small footnote in his great biography, as overlooked as that phrase in our insurance documents - "excepting acts of God" - which Gandhi, after all, had only been trying to explain.
GANDHI AND Glenn Hoddle make a mad analogy. Their religious beliefs have little in common. Oddly, Gandhi, who was a sort of Hindu, did not believe that untouchability was, for the untouchable, a punishment for the sins of a previous life; whereas Hoddle, a sort of Christian, clearly would. All they share is a faith that the supernatural can intervene in human affairs and that the intervention can sometimes be punitive.
Most of the world used to think this. A lot of it does still. As an explanation for suffering, it may be crude, but it is only that - an explanation. Those who believe it can be just as compassionate - Gandhi for sure, Hoddle by various accounts - as those who do not. This simple difference between faith and behaviour used to be more widely understood.
Reading and watching the media this week, I could not help thinking how lucky a public figure like Gandhi had been to miss its fickle, orgasmic sensationalism. Every branch is infected. It can no longer be described as a tabloid phenomenon (the only widely available paper to put Hoddle in the sports section was the Herald Tribune). The vomit in the pail slid from side to side. At the beginning of the week, he must go. At the end, he deserves our sympathy. Mr Bloke had arisen, was inescapable in the form of men without proper jobs: David Mellor, Tony Banks, Charlie Whelan.
A desperation is increasingly evident, mainly the desperation of newspapers to sell copies in a uniquely competitive but declining market. Many people feel alienated by it, not least (you may be happy to know) some of those who work in the media. Gandhi, although a political opponent of Britain, was always an admirer of its intelligent, liberal temper which in so many ways had formed his own. This week its replacement by an ignorant, paltry, joyful vindictiveness was a frightening thing.
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