Thursday, April 29, 2010

From the shelves of the Paco library

Today I have a quick read for your consideration.

The late Richard Grenier – a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, foreign correspondent, movie script-writer and syndicated columnist – wrote a slender volume (originally published in 1983) entitled The Gandhi Nobody Knows. This survey of Gandhi’s beliefs and political activities came out in the wake of, and as an attempted antidote to, the hagiographical movie produced and directed by Sir Richard Attenborough. It is a fact-based dash of cold water thrown in the faces of those who have come to see Gandhi “as a kind of Indian St. Francis of Assissi.”

To take just one example of the gap between the reality of the actual life, and the plaster saint depicted in the movie, there is Gandhi’s adherence to non-violence:
It is something of an anomaly that Gandhi, held in popular myth to be a pure pacifist (a myth which governments of India have always been at great pains to sustain in the belief that it will reflect credit on India itself, and to which the present movie adheres slavishly), was until fifty not ill-disposed to war at all. As I have already noted, in three wars, no sooner had the bugles sounded than Gandhi not only gave his support, but was clamoring for arms. To form new regiments! To fight! To destroy the enemies of empire! Regular Indian army units fought in both the Boer War and World War I, but this was not enough for Gandhi. He wanted to raise new troops, even, in the case of the Boer and Kaffir Wars, from the tiny Indian colony in South Africa…

But it is not widely realized (nor will this film tell you) how much violence was associated with Gandhi’s so-called “nonviolent” movement from the very beginning. India’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore, had sensed a strong current of nihilism in Gandhi almost from his first days, and as early as 1920 wrote of Gandhi’s “fierce joy of annihilation,” which Tagore feared would lead India into hideous orgies of devastation – which ultimately proved to be the case.
There is much more, pertaining to other aspects of Gandhi’s life, such as his obsession with bowel movements, his “monstrous behavior to his own family”, his call for the Jews of Europe to submit meekly to Hitler’s genocide, and the striking lack of consistency that led this critic of modern technology and advocate of an idyllic village life to hand-pick “as the first Prime Minister of an independent India Pandit Nehru, who was committed to a policy of industrialization and for whom the last word in the politic-economic organization of the state was (and remained) Beatrice Webb.”

Also quite fascinating, and refreshing, is Grenier’s introduction, in which he unapologetically expresses his belief in the superiority of liberal democracy.
I at no time, for even the blink of an eye, have ever admired Moscow, Havana or Hanoi. I have been given the red carpet treatment in totalitarian countries, been fed caviar and driven about in luxurious government limousines, but for some reason it has never taken. I have also been treated less ceremoniously, being arrested by Soviet paratroops during the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. But for all the courtesy shown me by these paratroopers (not shooting me, for example), and despite unrelenting efforts on my part to keep my mind open, I have found all the societies I have visited frankly inferior to our own.
There are some choice observations on the political fallacies of our intelligentsia, too, like the woman who told the author that “socialism ‘really works in North Korea’”, and the person who, when challenged by Grenier to name a society superior to our own, “just to set a standard of comparison,” suggested Angola.

This is a small volume (only 118 pages), but it contains much food for thought.


cac said...

I will have to track this one down.

The last comment you quoted reminds me of how struck I was when, over Christmas, family cac travelled to central Europe. On the surface, these countries differ little from western Europe. But you only have to dig a little deeper to see that only a few decades ago they were firmly under the totalitarian thumb. For instance, the view from our apartment in Budapest had a low key memorial. I eventually found a Hungarian who could tell me what it was for and it was for the thousand people who had been shot in that square after the '56 uprising.

My other impression was that the locals in Bohemia, Slovakia, Hungary and Estonia have deservedly very little time for those in the West during the 80s who claimed that the Eastern bloc wasn't all that bad. It's easy to forget what a superb leap forward for liberty the events of 89/90 really were.

Minicapt said...


smitty1e said...

One of three possibilities:
(a) Ghandi has benefitted from some fantastic airbrushing,
(b) Grenier was engaging in character assassination,
(c) A combination of (a) & (b), probably sitting closer to (a).

Paco said...

Smitty: Very much closer to (a), as far as I can tell. And the book is not pure denunciation; e.g., Grenier does give credit to Gandhi for trying to improve the lot of the "untouchables".

RebeccaH said...

In my years at my mediocre midwestern university, I came to understand from our many Indian graduate students that Gandhi is not nearly as revered in India (government notwithstanding) as he is elsewhere.

There was one jarring note in that Gandhi movie: the fact that whenever the violence began, Gandhi was always safely tucked away under arrest.

bruce said...

In India, Gandhi is respected for his political skill in rousing the masses to fight for Indian independence, previously only wanted by elites and certain warrior clans.

'Non-violence' was expedient, it is not a core principle for Hindus.

Younger Indians are often heard criticising Gandhi now, as the nightmare that is Pakistan grinds on. (Some of Gandhi's critics have an Indian Nazi-type belief, which has grown stronger in recent decades - so-called Rightwing Hindus).

Grenier's book sounds like an excellent resource and a valuable corrective to the official myth.

JeffS said...

I always did wonder about Ghandi. That movie seemed too surreal, as post-1980 Hollywood biographies tend to be. I just couldn't take it at face value. Nice to know that I wasn't completely off base.

I'll have to find that book as well.

JeffS said...

WHOA! That was easy!

blogstrop said...

Scratch a green and you'll find a violent anti-globallistic just itching to go ballistic.