A social activist I greatly admire recently began a public lecture by saying: ‘We cannot all be Gandhi or Mao, but we can at least try and imbibe some of their spirit’. For a man of my age the juxtaposition made some—if not perfect—sense. But it would perhaps have escaped the many in the audience who were much younger than me. And it certainly would have angered those much older.
Can one speak, in the same breath, of Gandhi and Mao? One was a reformist who talked of the beauty of compromise, who thought that social change should come about through non-violent means, and who never held public office. The other was a militant revolutionary, who believed that the national and social revolutions could be accomplished only with the aid of the gun, and who ran the Chinese Communist Party for forty years and the Chinese State for twenty-five. Orthodox Gandhians would comprehensively reject the placing of their mentor’s name alongside Mao’s. So, for other reasons, would orthodox Maoists.
The social worker who put the two leaders side-by-side came of political age in the late sixties and early seventies. At that time, China was in the grip of the second of Mao’s great experiments, the Cultural Revolution. It was not then known—outside China, at any rate—that twenty million had perished in his first such experiment, the Great Leap Forward. Anyway, this new experiment sought to declass the intelligentsia, to bridge—or abolish, rather—the gap that separated the middle class mandarins from the workers and the peasants. University professors were pulled out of their classrooms and sent to work in the countryside, armed only with the Little Red Book of their Chairman’s Thoughts.
To a young, sensitive, idealistic Indian, it seemed to bring Gandhi to mind. Had not the Mahatma also spoken of abolishing the division between mental and manual labour, of making the Brahmin do the work of the Bhangi? It was clear that, despite twenty years of Independence, distinctions of status and class were pervasive in Indian society. Congressmen had moved into the offices and bungalows left behind by the departing British, and installed themselves as the new ruling caste. Khadi, once the livery of freedom, now signified the corruptions and seductions of power. There had been some progress in the cities, but the villages were still caught in the vice of feudalism.
On four occasions in the last century, thousands of young and middle-class Indians have come, collectively, to sacrifice family and career in a higher cause. The first three occasions were Gandhi’s great struggles: the non-co-operation movement of 1919-22, the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930-4, and the Quit India movement of 1942. The fourth such act of collective renunciation was not mandated by a leader from above. Rather, it was an uncoordinated response to a deepening social crisis in the country. The nineteen sixties witnessed two wars, two deaths of Prime Ministers, successive failures of the monsoon, and an alarming dip in foreign exchange reserves. There were desperate scarcities of food in the villages, and shortages of essential commodities in the cities. If there ever was a time when India—the whole of India, that is—was not ‘shining’, it was this.
These multiple crises produced, in the late sixties and early seventies, the fourth—and to date, last—great burst of idealism among the Indian middle class. For the young man or woman seeking to identify more directly with the poor, there were three paths to choose from. One was mandated by Mao, that of armed revolution. Thus hundreds of students left their colleges to join the Naxalite movement. A second was mandated by Gandhi, that of social service. Thus a good many young teachers and doctors took to the villages to begin schools and hospitals. But there was also a third path, which partook mostly from Gandhi but was also (at some level) influenced by Mao. This combined social work with social activism. It sought not just to bring succour to poor villagers but to seek greater rights for them from the state. These, so say, left-wing Gandhians organized satyagrahas around land and forest, worked with dam-displaced people, and began human rights organizations.
The paradigmatic Gandhian-Maoists probably were the Chatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini of Bihar. This was the organization of students which brought Jayaprakash Narayan back into agitational politics after decades spent as a social worker. Notably, when, in 1974, ‘JP’ decided to launch a countrywide movement against the Indira-Congress Raj he gave it the name ‘Total Revolution’, a label that might have been coined by Mao himself. Meanwhile, in Bihar, the Chatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini began a movement against one of the State’s largest and most brutal landlords, the Mahant of Bodh Gaya. This adopted a technique which was named ‘peaceful class struggle’. That is, the landless were organized against the landlords on class lines, but instead of shooting the oppressor they fasted and struck work. The analytical grid, in other words, was Maoist; but the techniques of protest were Gandhian.
The good Indian I quoted at the beginning of this article began her own career as a social worker, helping rural artisans form co-operatives and get a better deal for their products. In time she became a social activist, building a popular movement against the Government of her State, a movement aimed at ending corruption in the administration and which has involved dharna and morchas as much as village and commiteee meetings. However, while her language is occasionally somewhat Marxist, she or her colleagues have never fired a gun in anger (or in love, either).
I am a good ten years younger than her. And I have never been a social worker, still less a social activist. But when I was coming of age intellectually, it was not uncommon to hear of Gandhi and Mao being talked of together. Both identified with the poor and oppressed rather than the rich and propertied. Both organized mass campaigns among the peasantry, a class that constituted the bulk of the population yet were treated with condescension by the elite. Both were anti-imperialists whose succesful ending of colonial rule in their countries could inspire contemporary struggles against the World Bank, multi-national corporations, and other manifestations of ‘neo-colonialism’.
It seemed almost natural among progressive Indians then to bring the two men together, as in a book by the Calcutta political scientist Jayantuja Bandopadhyaya, published in the late seventies, and called, simply, Gandhi and Mao. In the early eighties the Delhi sociologist Ashis Nandy wrote several essays praising Mao and Gandhi as ‘critical traditionalists’, who stood apart from gung-ho modernists on the one hand and the uncritical (or reactionary) traditionalists on the other. In the late eighties I myself published an essay on the agrarian origins of Indian environmentalism which began by invoking Gandhi, and ended by saluting Mao.
I would not make the same mistake now. For mistake it indeed was. The evidence of Mao’s crimes since accumulated by historians is hard to ignore and impossible to refute. Mao was directly responsible for the deaths of millions of people. His latest biographer, Jun Chang, puts the figure at seventy million. Even if you bring this down by half (as other, more cautious scholars would) he still ranks as one of the greatest mass murderers of all time. His dark deeds in power comprehensively nullify any achievements we might credit to him, such as the nurturing of a sense of pride and national mission in a defeated and subjugated people.
The signal lesson of the twentieth century is that democracy is much to be preferred to totalitarianisms of left or right. As a ruler and power-wielder, the autocratic Mao might be contrasted to our own first Prime Minister who, despite his many errors of policy and practice, stayed resolutely committed to the democratic ideal, and whose personal integrity and love of country was as complete as his Master’s. Goodness knows India needs honest and capable politicians as much as it needs fearless yet committedly non-violent social activists. I would therefore like to rework my friend’s injunction, and say: ‘We cannot all be Gandhi or Nehru, but we can at least try and imbibe some of their spirit’.

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