India’s Half-Naked Fakir: Understanding Gandhi


To millions, he was the great soul, the Mahatma – a virtual saint seeking to bring moral regeneration to India, to her British masters, and even to a troubled world at large.  To others, he was a social reformer, attempting to free India from the scars of poverty, caste, class antagonism, untouchability, and conflict between the adherents of Hinduism and Islam.  And even to a few, he was a dangerous charlatan, a quack who played games and bluffed.  But more than fifty years after his assassination, history still cannot categorize his exact profession.  Then what was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi?  While philosophy and religion provide sanctuary to Gandhi”s life and memory, it is the job of history, however favorable or unfortunate, to go behind the theatrical hero-worship of the second-Jesus, put aside the glorifying epitaphs and look beyond the panegyric eulogies.  Only then does a realistic portrayal of a realistic man begin to emerge – that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was not just a saint or reformer, but also a clever political maestro.  He was a shrewd rabble rouser in the garb of a saintly preacher, drawing out the latent force of India”s millions, guiding and directing it in channels of non-violent direct action toward the goal of Indian freedom from British rule.  By arousing the conscience of a nation, electrifying the emotions of millions globally, and cleverly manipulating his apparent shortcomings into his invincible strengths, Winston Churchill”s hallmark of a “half-naked fakir” surprisingly proved to be well-versed in the political arena, playing his cards like no other had expected him to.

Gandhi”s political forte rested in his exceptional ability to evade.  Conventionally, a politician stands in the spotlight of heated debate and controversy.  When tensions mount, public opinion goes haywire.  But Gandhi evaded the normalcy of political life.  He clothed himself in the semblance of the common people.  He made himself the victim-leader of a nation of millions.  To the eyes of a passerby, Gandhi was no more than a thin brown man draped in a loincloth.  His only worldly possessions were his sandals, watch, glasses, spoons, bowls, and book of songs.  When he died seventy-eight years later, he was what he had always been: an individual lacking wealth, property, title, or official position.  Yet the chiefs of almost every government and the heads of all religions paid homage to him.  The Security Council of the United Nations interrupted its deliberations to pay tribute to him.  The United Nations lowered its flag to half-mast because a private citizen had died.  Gandhi was a true politician in that he had an ability to change disguises; one day, he was the sole representative of a nation on the steps of the Viceroy”s palace in Britain negotiating the fate of his country, the next day he could be found in the sweltering heat of a small, remote Indian village, milking a goat and spinning his own clothes.  Gandhi was a mastermind at evasion.

One of Gandhi”s closest associates, the poetess Sarojini Naidu, used to call him, “India”s Mickey Mouse.”  Others proclaimed him to be a Messiah, half-brother to Buddha or Christ, possessing divine attributes, wholly selfless and devoting his life to the good of humanity.  Those who believed this would kneel before him and touch his feet, or wait for days at a railroad station in the hope of catching a glimpse of him as his train passed in the night.  The truth, of course, is that he was variable, and was sometimes Mickey Mouse, sometimes a Messiah speaking with tongues of flame.  He acted many roles, and never wearied of his performances.  As Robert Payne explained,

Since [Gandhi] played these changing roles so well., he was sometimes accused of being a virtuoso performer with extraordinary powers of improvisation. In fact, he was the author of the play, the stage manager and most of the players … He wore many public masks and many private ones, and sometimes, like all men, he mislaid the masks and showed himself naked. Also he was sometimes mischievous, and what seemed to be a mask was often his own face smiling with amusement because he had outwitted the observer.

No doubt, Payne is correct.  Gandhi “outwitted the observer.”  Even today, people of all classes and creeds, villagers and politicians alike, regard him as the spokesman for nonviolence.  But Gandhi”s views were much more complex than this.  In 1918, in an effort to recruit Indian soldiers for the war, Gandhi promoted violence and killing: “There can be no partnership between the brave and the effeminate.  We are regarded as cowardly people. If we want to become free from that reproach, we should learn the use of arms…‘…we should have the ability to bear arms and use them…””   Gandhi was explicit that a violent self-defense was better than no defense at all.  Cowardice was inexcusable.  “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence,” he said.  “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence… I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor.”   He was always on the offensive, always aggressive with his opponents.  But while he avoided violence against his opponents, he welcomed violence towards himself and his disciples.  Like a soldier, a nonviolent activist – according to Gandhi – must be ready to die for the cause, even violently.

The second misconception of Gandhi is that many make him out to be a virtuous, pure saint who came to redeem the world.  But Gandhi was a mortal like all the rest, possessing a dark side to his nature.  Many described him as a bad father, an uncontrollable husband, an “individual fascinated by sex to the point of obsession, and long after he had taken a formal vow of chastity he would share his bed with women, saying that all animal passion had died in him and therefore he was behaving with perfect purity.”  The point here is not to stain Gandhi”s reputation, but to remind ourselves that such hero-worship is the fault not of Gandhi but of those who have revered him as being some flawless, saintly demigod, which he was not.

Within his ocean of passion and inconsistencies were waves of insight and political dexterity that brought him and his countrymen to shore.  Gandhi did fight, but he strategically detoured his anger and resentment in terms which were euphemistic and eloquent, gaining the prayers, support, and attention of the global community to side with his trek towards Truth.  In theory, Gandhi was the virtual puppet-master of the British regime, controlling the strings on the basis of his own whims.  Flawed he was, no question, but gifted he was assuredly.

Gandhi sensed that in order to gain self-autonomy, India would need to fight; this was inevitable.  But he also strategically knew that 85% of the population in India inhabited online casino the villages and were poor, illiterate, diseased, and discouraged.  “Peasant liberation from destitution could not be the achievement of the small upper-class.”  If any attempt at gaining independence would be made, it would have to come with the support of a majority, if not all, of these common people.  Thus, the “saintly” politician went to work at achieving this end.

In 1916, the ear of India began to catch the voice of a man who placed the poor above the rich.  Villagers heard his name and longed for him to hear their grievances of British and upper-class unfairness.  Gandhi, the new champion of the poor, now dressed among them, traveled from village to village, lending his ear, singing their song.  He adopted the language of the people for all political purposes.  He was hardly discernable from the Indian peasant.  The first step, he argued, had to be the realization of a common life.  His demand on even Indian political workers proved his persuasion.  He beseeched that all should identify themselves, through culture, conduct, life, speech, thought, habit, clothing, food, and habitation, with the starving, naked and illiterate masses.  Gandhi was now Gandhiji – a title of respect.  Gandhi had gained the trust of India”s poor.

The ruling British and the astute Gandhi both knew India’s second weakness.  The nation was home to millions of different nationalities and religions.  Unity meant bringing together Hindus and Muslims.  Gandhi of course had planned ahead when explaining his personal religious views.  Always tolerant and fair-minded, Gandhi doubted that only the sacred Hindu Vedas were the revealed word of God. “Why not the Bible and the Koran?” he asked.  In 1942, as a guest in his house, Louis Fischer noticed the one decoration on the mud walls of Gandhi”s little hut: a black-and-white print of Jesus Christ under which was written, “He is our Peace. Fischer told Gandhi, “You are not a Christian.” Gandhi replied, “I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Moslem and a Jew”. Gandhi, thus, presented a perplexing problem to Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and even Hindu divines in India.  It would be very hard for any group to portray Gandhi as narrow-minded or argue with a man who was more religious and devout than they were. Thus, his religious views welcomed several groups to support him in his fight for independence while finding little reason to resist him and his efforts.

Unfortunately though, one final event had to occur to permanently set the stage for Gandhi”s complete rise to power: a gory blood bath in Amritsar that would galvanize complete support of India and the world.  On April 13, 1919, between ten and twenty thousand Indians gathered on the Jallianwalla Bagh grounds in Amritsar to peacefully hold a protest.  General Reginald E.H. Dyer ordered his 50 armed troops to fire into the unarmed crowd without warning.  Ten minutes later, after 1,650 rounds were fired, at least 379 were killed and at least 1,137 people were wounded. “The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre was a turning point in the history of Anglo-Indian relations, more decisive even than the Indian Mutiny sixty-three years before.”  But moreover, for Gandhi, it was the most strategic time for him to act since the entire nation was united in a similar sentiment.  Here, Gandhi borrowed heavily from the momentum of leaders like Bhagat Singh.  He realized that he had to escalate his platform and take control of the organization that had become synonymous with India”s nationalist aspirations.

By the autumn of 1920, Gandhi was the dominant figure on the political stage, commanding an influence never attained by any political leader in India or perhaps in any other country.  He transformed the Indian National Congress into a political instrument fueling Indian nationalism.  His program of nonviolent non-cooperation with the British government included boycott not only of British manufactures but of institutions operated or aided by the British in India.  “Indian students would boycott British schools; lawyers, British courts; employees, British jobs; soldiers, British honors.  Gandhi sought to transform the inertia and inaction of the Indian character.”  Before this, the likelihood of an active and collective revolution in India was unlikely.  Gandhi changed this passivity by building a movement not built on aggression and violence but where “passivity and endurance were turned into sources of strength and energy.”  His famous political tool of satyagraha, soul force, was a new technique for redressing wrongs through inviting suffering rather than inflicting it.  By its implications, “the adversary would be resisted without rancor and would be fought against without violence.”  As has been noted: “It was a most civilized form of warfare, and yet dangerous to the stability of the state”.  While many may argue that such a peaceful philosophy makes Gandhi a saint, Gandhi himself admitted that “Satyagraha puts us on our best behavior and seems to put the adversary in the wrong”.  Thus, Gandhi did not only recognize the peaceful nature of satyagraha, and that this would be fitting for the tone of his countrymen, but he was well aware of the political implications it would bring about.  To outsiders, if Indians did not retaliate to British actions, Britain would be the imperialist bully.

But Gandhi”s genius lay in his penchant for the simple yet dramatic.  He reasoned that in order for even a united India (composed of different creeds and different classes) to gain independence, it would be necessary to attack the economic pillar of the British Raj.  Britain purchased raw Indian cotton at low-cost, shipped it to the mills of Lancashire to be woven into textiles, then shipped the finished products back to India to be sold at a substantial profit in a market that virtually excluded non-British textiles.  Gandhi would take on the British heavyweight not with fine Indian machinery but through the use of an old wooden spinning wheel that would drive a national sensation.

For decades, Gandhi urged all of India to give up foreign textiles and, instead, opt for the rough cotton cloth produced by millions of domestic spinning wheels.  For the poor and the villages, the wheel, he said, would revive India’s rural backwoods which had seen a decline in village crafts.  For those in the cities, the wheel represented their connection to the real India, the link to a spiritual adulation of manual labor.  For himself, in September 1921, Gandhi solemnly renounced for the rest of his life any form of clothing besides a homespun loincloth and a shawl.  “Based on the humblest of chores, spinning became a kind of sacrament linking Congress”s diverse membership with a common people. The product of the wheel, cotton khadi, became the uniform element of the independence movement, wrapping rich and poor, great and small, in a common swath of rough white cloth.”

So simple was this politician”s solution to independence: produce homespun cloth. But imagine a modem day state whose inhabitants acquiesce to one man”s desire for them all to dress alike everyday for years. The very idea of it appears facetious, almost comical. Yet Gandhi was so persuasive and so convincing a politician that his ideas spread like wildfire.  As he uttered, so his countrymen followed.  Although he managed to manipulate opinions and inspire massive upheaval by playing at the emotions of his countrymen, Gandhi never held a political office in his life and ironically, yet fittingly, this gives him an even greater image of a true politician: pushing all the right buttons, getting all that he wanted.

In the towns, Gandhi set ablaze not only the passion of India but, quite literally, the shoes, socks, trousers, shirts, hats, coats from all over India.  He said for India to win self-rule, its citizens must renounce foreign clothing.  People stood naked before him to signify their devotion.  A bonfire of “Made In England” clothing would soon place the British in a quandary which Gandhi wanted.  On one hand, if they arrested him, they would acknowledge their fear and make him a martyr, striking even harder at the emotions of his people, an effect Gandhi wanted.  If they ignored his actions, they would themselves make him a hero and celebrate his defiance.  So when thirty thousand people were arrested, meetings and parades were broken up by force, and Congress offices were ransacked, Gandhi won.  On February I, 1922, he wrote to the Viceroy to inform him that he was intensifying his action. Non-cooperation was to be escalated to civil disobedience.  He counseled peasants to refuse to pay taxes, city dwellers to ignore British laws, and soldiers to stop servicing the Crown.  It was Gandhi”s declaration of war on India”s colonial government.  Let there be no mistake; this was the act of no saint.  This was the word of a shrewd politician.

In 1930, another answer came.  It was bizarre but another symbolic overthrow of an old imperialist regime, one that would make Gandhi world famous overnight.  He would march to the sea and make salt.   So austere the mere thought, so dramatic its execution.  “Salt was an essential ingredient in every man”s diet.  It lay in great white sheets along the Indian shorelines. But its manufacture and sale was the exclusive monopoly of the state, which built a tax into its selling price. It was a small tax, but for a poor peasant it represented, each year, two weeks” income.”

On March 12, 1930, at six-thirty in the morning, Gandhi, with 78 disciples, marched for the sea, 240 miles away. On April 5, at six o”clock in the evening, Gandhi and an entourage of thousands and thousands, reached the banks of the Indian Ocean. At dawn the next day, Gandhi, before newsmen from all over the world, reached down in the ocean, opened his fist, and exposed the white crystals in his palm. This was the newest symbol in Gandhi”s crusade. The British replied with the most massive roundup in Indian history, sweeping people to jail by the thousands; Gandhi was among them. But before leaving, he sent an arousing message, “The honor of India has been symbolized by a fistful of salt in the hand of a man of nonviolence. The fist which held the salt may be broken, but it will not yield up its salt”.  He had once again successfully attracted national unity and, once again, he played at the emotions of his people, forcing even the British to marvel at his political genius and for the rest of the world to sympathize with India.

The result was a Round Table Conference in late 1930, which Gandhi attended. In a meeting that Gandhi had with Lord Irwin, Winston Churchill said he was revolted by “the nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one-time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy”s palace, there to negotiate and parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”  What angered Churchill was not Gandhi’s clothes or his chosen profession.  Rather, it was the reality that this private citizen had obtained the equality the British had afforded him at that moment, parleying with Irwin as the leader of his unborn nation in order to negotiate “on equal terms” with the representative of Great Britain. The Salt March proved England was unable to direct India against Gandhi and Gandhi demonstrated that Britain was unable to direct India at all.

In effect, Gandhi was perhaps one of the most effective politicians of modem times, cleverly combining religion into his politics to form a bandwagon which the majority of the nation”s inhabitants could relate to and, thus join. Gandhi made certain to include nearly everyone.  While critics may argue about the ethics of Gandhi”s decision to integrate religious values into political issues, the sheer nature of the facts is that Gandhi, at the most, was no saint but, indelibly, he was a great political force who was cognizant of how the people would react to what he offered them. No doubt, it was unorthodox. No doubt, it was unprecedented. But Gandhi, the political maestro, acted realistically; religion and politics, if combined, would paint a picture of misfortune and sympathy – people would have to react in the name of God, in the name of social reform, in the name of truth.  Gandhi played not at their rationale, but he played directly to their emotions, arousing tempers, fueling further animosity, galvanizing them into action and participation in a manner which was effective and productive.

Gandhi appeared in an India where political activity was restricted to petitions and prayers to the British authorities. He changed all this, for he discovered in Indian traditions a technique of struggle suited to the land.   No other outsider could know how salt from the sea or cloth spun at home could unite a nation and bring it together. No other outsider could starve himself for weeks on end and render the effect of pacifying the egos of age-old enemies.  No other politician could frustrate great people of great nations by his simple politics.  Gandhi understood the subtleties and nuances of his countrymen and knew how to combine them at the right moment with an effective remedy. He did not overlook the disabilities under which he had to work, but neither did he allow them to overawe and immobilize him. He recognized that independence was a slow process.  He knew that a country weakened and debilitated through the oppression of centuries could not be expected to sacrifice for him overnight. His patience in plan and his knowledge in step of human nature guided his effective decisions. But it is vital to never overlook the facts: Gandhi was no saint. He broke the law, was arrested on many occasions, openly acted in a seditious nature, and committed many personal transgressions. And despite all this, Gandhi managed to secure a strong reputation. This was because Gandhi was wily and subtle. He was the master of realism, camouflaged in the suit of an idealist “saintly” victim. This crafty arm-waver, this political-saint, this evasive and discerning influence peddler was, ultimately, the essential cornerstone of Indian autonomy and a new worldwide movement.