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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 49, November 29, 2014

Gandhi amidst Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?

Monday 1 December 2014


by Dev Pathak

Beneath the shadow of the grand announcement of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, coinciding with the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, there is a hotbed of questions. They deserve due deliberation in public forums, political as well as apolitical. For, the Abhiyan’s connection with Gandhi shakes awake some of the old debates and some new ones. The questions seeking for public deliberation are three-fold and interspersed with critical observations.

Firstly, what is the connection of the Abhiyan with Mahatma Gandhi? One can call it a non-issue by suggesting that the date on which it starts is annually celebrated as the birth anniversary of Gandhi; hence the Abhiyan is related to Gandhi. A more nuanced response, perhaps, could relate the motto of the Abhiyan with the Gandhian idealisation of cleanliness.

This is indeed a meaningful point, which yields another crucial question: what was the epistemological significance and sociological imagination behind Gandhi’s engagement with dirt and actions for cleanliness? As we are aware, primarily from nuggets of Gandhi’s writings and manifold analyses by Gandhian scholars, that his approach to dirt was not for mere tokenism. It was primarily to critically engage with the notion of purity and pollution. Based on these binary oppositions of purity and pollution, a key characteristic of the caste system, social stratas have been organised in India. Gandhi’s urge with his actions and message was to overcome the binaries and redefine human engagement with not only dirt but also whole approach to work, profession, and specialisation, and so on so forth. The binaries are at the core of the sheme of social stratification in which some works defile while other ennoble By altering it, Gandhi envisaged the formation of a society in which everybody could clean everybody’s dirt. It was an imagination of a society, sociologically debatable and ideally embraceable, in which cleaning dirt does not amount to defiling; and hence neither disposition of caste nor of class should define a work.

With this brief note, it is significant to explore whether the nature and scope of the recent Abhiyan has an iota of Gandhian philosophy and action inherent in it. The Abhiyan is vague and misleading about its epistemological and sociological significance.

Secondly, we are aware that Gandhi’s actions and messages regarding cleanliness emerged from his prolonged debate with motley of inspiring forces. They were located in India as well as beyond. We are familiar with Gandhi’s engagement with the humanistic ideology in the part of the West which scholars have called the ‘other Europe’. In other words, Gandhi’s drive for cleanliness, encapsulating his evangelic actions and philosophical engagement with the idea of dirt, departed from both, the modern-rationalist thinking as well as the socio-cultural status quo in India. For him, there was another justification for the cleanliness than the modern rationalist one or the caste-based idea of purity against pollution. It was to unite with those who dealt with dirt and defiled themselves in the social perspective. It was, simply, to suggest that those who clean are superior to those who preach about cleaning, show off token-ritual cleanliness, and sidestep the cleaner as defiled. This was how Gandhi made confident claims of changing the social structures, not by some formula invocation or token actions for photo-ops. It was cleaning as a normative, socio-cultural and consistent, action beyond dominant rationality of modernity and thereof classes or tradition and thereof caste.

One can dare asking: how does the Abhiyan in question challenge the dominant rationality of our time? Needless to say, the dominant rationality of our time is premised upon the Non-resident Indians’ and global South Asians’ imaginations. It also has in the backdrop a particular notion of development, which harps on sheen and shine concealing the murky truth. In short, could the Abhiyan bring about a radical transformation in the social structure, which perpetuates strange cognitive binaries of our time: the urban poor proliferate dirt and the rich think of cleaning it!

If the dichotomy of the poor and rich looks too banal, one can reformulate it as: the powerless are dirtying and the powerful (elite) are cleaning!

The third very significant point involved in the backdrop of the Abhiyan in question is related to the popular perception of Gandhi. This subsumes a long history in which Gandhi has been dubbed as- a textual entity in the prison of academics available for the ruminations and consumption of the academic elites, a symbolic entity in the prison of industries (including the Khadi Gramodyog) available for the consumption of all and sundry with purchasing power. One could come up with several other forms of Gandhi, reinvented day in and day out. There has been consistent engagement with Gandhi in popular Hindi cinema, modern theatrical performances, and recently in contemporary visual art. They all lead to the formation of thick subjective narratives with due inherent complexity. Gandhi thereby becomes a historical icon to debate with, a popular icon to be entertained by, and also a muse for many in creative domains. This enables us to love, to hate and also to be agnostic about Gandhi.

And hence it becomes difficult to invoke an all-encompassing pro-Gandhi conscience just by making an image of Gandhi with marigold flowers at the hotspots in Delhi on the occasion of the birth anniversary. As a matter of argument, it seems a hollow ritual without any meaning whatsoever even when the chief of a nation goes to offer floral tribute to Gandhi at Rajghat. Also, it does not cut across the checkered conscience of a nation when grand invocations are made in the national dailies.

For, Gandhi is not a monolithic category in the popular conscience; the latter is built upon several strands, some from textual Gandhi, some from symbolic (mis)appropriation of Gandhi, and some from popular cinematic renditions of Gandhi. In this wake, one wonder as to how an Abhiyan associated with Gandhi, if at all, takes care of the subjective complexity of a nation. If it does not, it would remain a mere propaganda technic harming the ideas, values, and actions that Gandhi embodied.

Moreover, it would be yet another ritual event which does not sync with the critical conscience of the masses, inspiring more indifference and apathy.

The author teaches Social Anthropology and researches on performance culture at the South Asian University, a university of SAARC nations, in New Delhi.

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