The enchanting music video produced by the Ministry of External Affairs featuring musicians from several countries singing Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite bhajan Vaishnav Jana that was released on October 2, 2018, to mark the beginning of the Gandhi sesquicentennial celebrations was the subject of my classes today.

Gandhi remains an enduring and respected icon among even younger American generations born well after Gandhi, King, Lennon, and other peace icons, and the video gave us much to talk about in terms of culture, representation, and the many meanings of Gandhi in the contemporary world.

We watched the video twice in each of my two classes, once on its own, and once again, after reading the translated lyrics. After this, I asked my students to share a few thoughts on the video, and also on the broader meaning of Gandhi; specifically, “what does the world see in Gandhi’s vision of the world?”

Our conversation covered not only the video and its irresistibly positive message but also the broader issue of the role of media and mediation in the construction of arguably one of the most famous global icons in the world (I occasionally teach a longer semester-length seminar for seniors on Gandhi in the Media). We did not shy away from the questions that have emerged of late about Gandhi’s alleged racism in South Africa, and of the troubling nature of some of his moral-behavioural “experiments” with celibacy. I also briefly shared with my students a context they are probably not aware of, which is the criticisms made of Gandhi’s political actions and failures by various groups in India, including Hindus. As media students, we paid attention to the role of media in the construction of both “Gandhi the Saint,” and “Gandhi the Fraud,” touching on Romain Rolland and the hunger for a non-violent vision of the world in the West in the 1920s, and the more recent tendencies in media to create sensational “fall of celebrity” narratives.

All the critiques of media and myth-making aside, what moved me in the end though was the incredible “faith” that Gandhi inspires (one of my students used that word, hence the quote-marks) that there is something good in human beings that can be discovered, cultivated, and brought to bear upon the world. Over many years of teaching about Gandhi, I have come across certain tropes that are commonly associated with Gandhi in the American mind such as peace, non-violent protest, civil rights, justice, and sometimes more “spiritual” rather than “political” notions such as “compassion.” What I found somewhat interesting, and different, in student responses to the MEA music video though, was the very high recurrence of the word “unity.”

The message of the song, with a diverse group of performers singing a song about “being good” essentially, seems to have really resonated with young viewers as an experience of “unity and diversity.” One of my students wrote, for example, that:

“Even though they speak different languages, they all sing in the same language.”

Another student picked up very nicely on the way “unity” and “diversity” were signified—not by erasing one’s self, but by celebrating one’s self along with others:

“Because people were wearing their traditional clothes, so I think they have pride in their culture

Yet another student observed that:

“… every singer (shows) expressive joy and contentment”

I must admit that I was impressed by the keen perceptiveness with which my students engaged with the fairly prolific profusion of cultural symbols in the video (the smooth editing between geographical landmarks and performers’ bodies and faces was nicely done and appreciated). When was the last time a music video, even a “good cause/world unity” sort of effort like the 1980s “We Are the World” song (that was the only reference that somehow came up today, interestingly enough), managed to draw attention to a microscopic detail like “contentment” in a performer’s face? 

There is something about the aesthetics of Gandhian idealism (and this particular video too) that I think cultural commentators, and officials engaged with issues of diplomacy and “soft power” should take note of. What I have found is that Gandhian idealism in global contexts tends to come across primarily as an alternative to dominant Western assumptions about power, violence, and identity; the mystical/world music sensibility found its anthem in Yesudas’s Ahimsa album, and the academics and activists concerned about Huntington and Clash of Civilizations seemingly coming true after 9/11 and the Iraq war found their answers in Gandhian universalism, just to mention two examples. We have examples of American sweetheart celebrities from Hollywood quoting Gandhi as their go-to philosophers to help them get over ugly break-ups and paparazzi-pain. The booming Yoga culture in America may turn “Su-rayya-na-ma-sa-ka-raas” into something even more “outdic” (non-Indic) with some beer-yoga props and such, but still, the only thing Indian that still visibly remains in the highly appropriated world of American yoga is the occasional Gandhi picture and quote on the studio wall. 

In India, on the other hand, the symbolism of Gandhi remains caught up with far more pressing domestic political concerns. The Indian Establishment, particularly its overtly Congress-leaning wings, have reduced Gandhi over the decades into a prop for their shallow rationales for their even more shallow, sullied, and suffocating anti-Hindu fanaticism, aka, “secularism.” They ignore Gandhi the “Gau Rakshak,” Gandhi the Anti-Conversion advocate, and much more about his Hindu-Indian civilizational roots (complicated as they might be by his “experimental” epistemic, and perhaps more self-defeating politics), and propagate him as little more than a martyr at the hands of the other and perhaps even more earnestly Gandhian Gandhians (the RSS).  

The Hindu movement, veering from one bout of angry and fervent popular resistance to another against a wildly destructive zealotry among deracinated Hindus similar to the frenzied mob-mutilation of a learned woman like Hypatia long ago, has no time left in it to think about the complex Hinduness of Gandhi at all, and only rues his many perceived betrayals of Hindus. The Dalit critique of Gandhi, combined with the rising stature of Ambedkar as a more relevant indigenous hero/national father-figure for Indians, also leaves Gandhi with little admiration among progressives. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has understandably, given the logical overlaps between Sangh ideals in Integral Humanism and Gandhian universalism and Hind Swaraj, taken the Gandhi legacy seriously, despite all his critics’ efforts to paint him and his supporters as Godseites, Savarkarians, and of course, Hitler-Mussolini admirers. Swach Bharat, and the ubiquitous imagery of the broomstick, have given a renewed sense of Gandhi-relevance under the BJP, and this will perhaps remain all the more visible as both BJP and Sangh appear to move towards a strongly secular-nationalist-modernist vision (albeit in principle a fairer and less Hindu-hostile one than the Congress-Left one) for the future. 

Given this contrast between the “global Gandhi” and the “domestic Gandhi,” it is perhaps important for all who believe that representation, images, and narratives matter to not take the career of Gandhi (or his image) and its bearing on Indian soft power in the future for granted. In my view, “Gandhi” is a far more India-identified brand than “Yoga” is, or is likely to be in the near future, given the limited reach that the “Yoga Day” events have had into mainstream attention in America (beyond the Indian consulates and diasporic community that is), and the already extreme states of appropriation and denial of Hindu and even Indian roots pervasive in American yoga. 

Gandhi, on the other hand, and notwithstanding the growing performance of protests at Gandhi statues and Independence Day ceremonies by various militant-separatist critics, remains a powerful symbol of a genuinely planet-saving environmental, egalitarian, peaceful, universal vision for the young, and he remains firmly connected with his Indian roots (in the global mind as well). Passionate global interests with no love lost for India or Indians have tried to promote alternative equivalents using their media-machinery such as a Malala or Mother Theresa or Jamal of Slumdog Millionaire or even the “Gandhians with Guns.” While these flawed icons do have their currency and tend to overlap with the same liberal mindspace as Gandhi-admiration in the West, they are as of now still nowhere close to the kind of global inspiration and value Gandhi holds, and that is a good thing still for India.

It would be a pity therefore if all we can do with Gandhi now is to confine ourselves to the image of either only a broom or a charkha (or morphed angry Hindu memes of him doing a ballroom dance with an Englishwoman), or worse, let him continued to be reduced by one decrepit political cult in India to its cover for global respectability in the wake of sustained public rejection of its dishonesty and venality. I think Prime Minister Narendra Modi can do much with Gandhi, both in the image and in substance, but that will call for a much deeper and bolder engagement than what we have seen so far, centered on the unashamed adoption and projection of Gandhi as Hindu, both in terms of his failures and his promises.