Gandhi: India’s Greatest Public Defender

GandhiThe renowned writer, journalist, director, and producer, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas narrates an important encounter that took place between Gandhi and Hakiman, an elderly weaver woman from Panipat. The story provides important insight into the atmosphere during the fight for freedom from colonial administration that took place on the Indian sub-continent during the first half of the 20th century. Abbas’ story illustrates the function of Gandhi’s persona in South Asia during this period. In his autobiography, Abbas recounts his impressions of Gandhi’s visit to the historic town of Panipat. He notes that Gandhi travelled the country extensively. This was the primary manner in which Gandhi was able to spread his message.

Though images, newsreels, and reports of Gandhi and the freedom struggle were splashed across global media from the 1920s onwards, the British administration did their best to limit his visibility on the subcontinent due to his incredible popular appeal. In India and abroad, Gandhi’s charisma was unparalleled. His celebrity was certainly profitable for news agencies. Yet, while he became a household name abroad, in his own home all references to Gandhi in the public space were subject to absolute censorship.Even foreign films that featured Gandhi and his struggles were banned and confiscated in India by the British administration. For the common men and women of the subcontinent, Gandhi was not an image or an everyday presence, but he was a man who stood for a familiar system of values and a set of ideas.

The figure and figuration of Gandhi was particularly contentious for the British administration. In 1921, D. N. Sampat, the proprietor of Kohinoor Studios in Bombay, took advantage of his resemblance to Gandhi by borrowing his iconic attire to create a character in his film under production, Bhakti Vidur. The film centered on Vidur, an important character in the Mahabharata epic. By dressing Vidhur in Gandhian garb, Sampat was linking the narrative of his film with the heroes of the freedom struggle. The film was banned, because it was considered “a thinly veiled resume of political events in India” (Kaul, 21). Around the same time, the Imperial administration also saw political underpinning in a short film made on a football match between Mohan Bagan and an all-white Calcutta team, and promptly ordered it out of circulation. The censor office saw the film as a projection of the colonized overpowering the colonizer.

All newsreels and talkies that were directly about the freedom struggle and especially about Gandhi were immediately banned by British censors and confiscated. Kaul argues that much of the motivation behind Gandhi’s imprisonment was simply to keep his image from circulating. While even the mildest allusions to Gandhi and his movement attracted massive popular interest, the scope of the censorship practices of the British administration meant that the figure of Gandhi was not the same globally as it was in South Asia. What seems unimaginable is that the growth of rigid censorship practices during the freedom struggle meant that there was a significant gap between the global figuration of Gandhi as the charismatic and spiritual leader of the Indian freedom struggle and his domestic reception. The figure of Gandhi inspired the world, but it was the form of his ideas that captured the South Asian populous. It was ultimately these ideas, not the figure of Gandhi that led the sub-continent towards freedom from the British.

In the course of his extensive travels, Gandhi organized community meetings where he championed his moral and political ideology and sought support for the freedom struggle. During his meetings, he would pass around what Abbas refers to as his beggar bowl to collect funds of varying sizes. Both Abbas and Hakiman were present at one such meeting in Panipat.

Hakiman, or Hakko Nanni as she was called, was a well known and much loved resident of Panipat. Abbas describes her character, her discipline, her tireless work ethic and her strength. When Gandhi came to Panipat, she was there to listen. Abbas narrates the moment when Gandhi spoke of the Charkha and the handloom as the main weapons in the battle for freedom. He writes that Hakko Nanni smiled when she heard this; these were weapons she knew how to wield.  When Gandhi’s beggar bowl was passed around, Hakko Nanni emptied all her jewelry into it. Many other women followed placing a ring or a bracelet in the bowl. But Abbas writes that no one came close to rivaling Hakko Nanni’s generosity. In a single instant she had given up her entire life savings and the future and security of her children out of commitment to a set of ideals that Gandhi had articulated but that she lived by every day. Abbas writes that it was Hakko nanni’s longing to witness the arrival of Swaraj that even made her experience the fear of death for the very first time. For the young Abbas, it was Hakko Nanni, through her daily conduct, generosity, and dedication to her ideals, who shined more brightly than the luminaries of the independence movement. According to Abbas, the elderly weaver was a reminder of Gandhi’s message for the people of his town.

This beautiful and very personal account of the freedom struggle is told from the eyes of a young boy sitting on his grandfather’s lap. It is especially revealing in the context of censorship. First, it reaffirms what the censorial practices of the British administration at the time reveal: Gandhi was salient in his absence from the everyday lives of domestic populations. Gandhi made an extensive effort to travel through out the subcontinent and thereby spread his message. But, it is likely that he never built up the iconic celebrity across South Asia that he had in the rest of the world at the time. Post-independence the political leaders of the freedom struggle were championed by the government as the movement’s true heroes. As a result, Gandhi soon came to occupy a prime position in political history as well as on every denomination of Indian currency. However, this narration emerged in the course of the construction of new national myths. Before this transition, the personna of Gandhi was faint. What resounded in the hearts of the millions who gave him their support was his ideology and not his image. Abroad, Gandhi won the hearts of foreign audiences through his charisma. At home, his popularity stemmed from the harmony of his views with the ideals of the common masses of the nation. According to Abbas, Hakko Nanni was fascinated not by Gandhi, but by his description and promise of Swaraj.

Gandhi’s greatest prayers and meditations were centered on understanding the experience of the common Indian. Gandhi wanted to understand and articulate the deepest essence of the values that united the denizens. His success and the success of his movement lies in the fact that he succeeded in this endeavor. Hakko Nanni did not sacrifice her entire life savings for Gandhi himself or for any other competing version of freedom, nation and nationhood. She gave her life and her life’s work to the idea of Swaraj, spending her last days weaving her very own khadi shroud for her coffin. This is because Gandhi stood not for freedom or for India, but because Gandhi stood for her and the ideals by which she lived her life–not only in his dress and his habits, but in the strivings of his ideology and thought processes. It was the fear of the power of these masses and their strength, spirit and dedication that drove the British administration to attempt to erase any mark of Gandhi’s influence in the Subcontinent. What this administration overlooked however was a simple truth: with or without Gandhi, Gandhi’s ideology would echo forth. Gandhi did nothing more than defend the culture and the lives of the common men and women of the subcontinent. He articulated an argument that championed a vision of a society that was governed on their terms. He gave the masses of South Asia a language that was their own but that could be heard and understood across the world. In so doing, he gave them weapons to wield in breaking down the elitist systems of control that prevailed over their daily lives. These weapons have proliferated unlike any others and have been wielded by common men and women across the world–from South Africa, to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and to the recent Occupy Wall Street protests. Though the common men and women of India still have a long road ahead of them in their search for Swaraj, Gandhi has marked the path a good distance, and for this reason alone, for a time, he was their leader.


5_2Lakshmi Gopal practices photographer and studies political philosophy. Her interests are at the cross-section of philosophy and society. Her academic research focuses on the socio-political implications of philosophical frames and the impact of abstract frames on the creation of social orders. Her photographic practice parallels my scholarly research and seeks to provide a visual study of the social impact of dominant philosophical frames as well as a chronicle of the defiance of hegemony.

About Lakshmi Gopal

Lakshmi Gopal practices photography and studies political philosophy. Her interests are at the cross-section of philosophy and society. Her academic research focuses on the socio-political implications of philosophical frames and the impact of abstract frames on the creation of social orders. Her photographic practice parallels my scholarly research and seeks to provide a visual study of the social impact of dominant philosophical frames as well as a chronicle of the defiance of hegemony.

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