Relations between India and Canada had reached their nadir during September-October, 2023 after the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had publicly implicated India in the killing of Khalistani separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June 2023 outside a Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia.
It is not often that Mahatma Gandhi is described as a radical thinker, though his life and career bear countless evidences of his fearless mind, his eagerness to support social change and evolve structured and progressive political thoughts and movements.
Interestingly, Jawaharlal Nehru had commented on Gandhi’s friend Rabindranath Tagore that “Contrary to the usual course of development as he (Tagore) grew older he became more and more radical in his outlook and views.”, Nehru made no such comment about his close political leader and associate Mahatma Gandhi.
Yet, just a few cursory examples of Gandhi’s ability to think out of the box, which is now becoming an increasingly rare ability, can prove that he can be regarded as a messiah of social change, more noticeably in his responses to the Woman Question, specifically Indian woman-hood and the rights and responsibilities of Indian women in colonial India.
The very recently passed Women’s Reservation Bill by the Indian Parliament which has now been declared a Law by the President of India, Droupudi Murmu, would have undoubtedly pleased Gandhi.
Once at a prayer meeting around early 1947, Gandhi had been asked who he would like to see as the President of India and he had replied, “My answer is that if I have my way the President of the Indian Republic will be a chaste and brave Bhangi (untouchable) girl”.
Also, despite his earlier ambivalence regarding intercaste marriages, in an article published in 1946, Gandhi wrote, “It is certainly desirable that Caste Hindu girls should select Harijan husbands… If I had my way, I would persuade all Caste Hindu girls coming under my influence to select Harijan husbands… Every mixed marriage will tend in varying degrees to remove the stigma attached to such marriages. Finally, there will be one caste, known by the beautiful name Bhangi, that is to say, the reformer and remover of all dirt.”
Gandhi’s contribution was far-reaching in bringing awareness to the masses about the need for improvement in the status of women. Uninhibitedly, he declared: “I am uncompromising in the matter of women’s rights. I have always had a passion to serve the womankind. Ever since my arrival in India, the women have come to look upon me as one of themselves. I hold radical views (italics mine) about the emancipation of women from their fetters which they mistake for adornment. My experience has confirmed me in the view that the real advancement of women can only come by and through their own efforts…”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), the Father of the Indian Nation is celebrated, respected, remembered and referred to throughout the Global North and the Global South as the crusader for peace and non-violence. Gandhi’s strategies of non-violent protest through non co-operation movements are still being used through-out the world as a civilized model of human protest against all forms of oppression.
However, Gandhi’s empathy and support for the women of India, who were routinely exploited and silenced by patriarchy and religious strictures have often been sidelined. In fact
some of Gandhi’s views about women’s agency and freedom seem surprisingly radical, though this radical streak is sometimes self- contradictory with certain conservative responses regarding women’s rights, responsibilities and duties.
In 1919, Gandhi declared in a speech at a women’s meeting: “So long as women in India do not take equal part with men in the affairs of the world and in religious and political matters, we shall not see India’s star rising”.
In 1921, Gandhi wrote in his journal Young India that the fe- male sex is the nobler of the two, as it is the embodiment of sacrifice, silent suffering, humility, faith and knowledge.
He emphasized with indignation, “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsi- ble, none to me is so degrading, so shocking, or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity, the female sex, not the weaker sex.”
In a 1921 article in Young India, Gandhi censured Hindu practices detrimental to women’s well-being, and demanded women’s suffrage and juridical equali- ty. He stated, “I passionately desire the utmost freedom for our women. I detest child-marriages. I shudder to see a child widow, and shiver with rage when a husband just widowed with brutal indifference contracts another marriage. I deplore the criminal indifference of parents who keep their daughters utterly ignorant and illiterate and bring them up only for the purpose of marrying them off to some young men of means. Notwithstanding all grief and rage, I realize the difficulty of the problem. Women must have votes and a legal status”.
Gandhi was deeply disturbed when he read an article on the place of women in the Smriti texts that quoted excerpts from the Smrti texts arguing for a woman’s dependence on man and her complete obedience to her husband regardless of the husband’s moral and physical infirmities. In his response to this specific article, Gandhi wrote in his journal Harijan on 28 November 1936, “I have alrea- dy suggested often enough in these columns that all that is printed in the name of scrip- tures need not be taken as the word of God or the ins- pired word.” Although Gandhi held high ideals of marriage, he strongly urged women to
fight for their own self-development in order that they might not be slaves within the family.
Gandhi had often discussed the roles of Sita and Draupadi with great admiration rather than viewing them as victims, as feminist interpretations underscore.
There are contrary elements in Gandhi’s views about women as we find in his support of the institutions of marriage, family, child-bearing and rearing, widow remarriage, among others. His views about the dangers of contraception along with his harsh criticism about the practice of female infanticide, and child marriage seem self-contradictory and paradoxical.
This contradiction is manifest as he says elsewhere, ‘The wife is not a slave of her husband, but a comrade, his better half, colleague and friend. She is co-sharer with him of equal rights and duties.’ B R Nanda, Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, had stated that Gandhi’s views were not ‘liberal but radical’.’*
Gandhi had declared in the February 1925 edition of Young India: “To call women the weaker sex is a libel. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater courage? Without her, man could not be. If non-violence is the law of our being, then the future is with women.”
In a speech delivered at a Gujarati Sahitya Parishad meet- ing, Gandhi criticised the male- authored creative writing that indulged in objectification of
He asked his audience to perceive women as they really were as he observed, “They are neither Rambhas, celestial maidens, nor slave girls. They too are independent human beings like men. Why should the latter describe them as if they were dolls?”
The horror of Partition, the mass exodus of refugees and the brutal assault unleashed on the bodies of refugees made the deeply disturbed Gandhi write in a letter, “I am sure if women displayed a little courage and freed themselves from narrow religious ideas, they could render a unique service to the nation. I am convinced that no country where women are slaves can ever make any progress. I am amazed that while such barbarities are being perpetrated on women, men who call themselves brave merely look on.”
Also in one of his addresses to Muslim women in March 1947, Gandhi advised them to protect their Hindu sisters and added, “My advice to you is that you should forget distinctions of caste and community… It is one God who has endowed us with human life. We are all human beings, all men and women belonging to the same country. Let us justify our religion as hu- man beings.”
In another meeting with Muslim women at the Gandhi camp in Patna held in April 1947, Gandhi observed, “Rama, Rahim, God or Allah call him by any name you like. His Law is universal.” This letter that has survived as a fragment implores plaintively, “Does defilement only apply to women and not to men? How long must I go on writing? What can I write? My heart is crying. What can my shedding tears avail?”
These heart-wrenching introspective queries still echo in the air of our beloved country as news of women and girl children being assaulted, mutilated, raped and murdered appear in news-paper headlines almost every other day.
Despite his occasional inde- terminacies and ambivalence regarding the ideal and real sta- tus of Indian women, Mahatma Gandhi’s statements prove beyond doubt his radical views about women’s liberation when religious orthodoxy and conservative beliefs and practices dominated the social environment of colonial India.
(The writer is former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Calcutta University)