By Arré Bench Oct. 02, 2020
For all the divisive opinions about MK Gandhi, there remains a power in his legacy, but 150 years is a long time. Gandhi’s quotes have been repurposed, reimagined, and restructured to fit an array of agendas. Exhibit A: The recent tweet that claimed he said, “A nation is dumb without a national language.”
This year, October 2, will mark Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s 151st birth anniversary. He’s the Father of the Nation, and like any father with a large brood, he represents different things to each Indian. While Prime Minister Modi will praise him to the sky and name government initiatives after him, representatives of the PM’s own Bharatiya Janata Party will fire bullets into Gandhi’s effigies to celebrate his murderer, Nathuram Godse.
For all the divisive opinions about Gandhi, there remains a power in his legacy. It is a legacy that survives through his words, left behind in sources like his book, My Experiments With Truth, and other compilations of his writings. Venerable figure that he is, a choice quote from Bapu can easily become the last word in any political or social argument in the Indian context, even today.
But 150 years is a long time. Especially when Gandhi hasn’t been around for over 70 of those. And in the intervening period, Gandhi’s quotes have been repurposed, reimagined, and restructured to fit an array of agendas, regardless of how they would have aligned with Gandhi’s own in his lifetime. Recently, a controversy erupted on social media related to what is being seen as the elevation of Hindi over other regional Indian languages. The current BJP-led central government has been at the forefront of this push to bestow Hindi with primacy, and when the Ministry of Panchayati Raj shared a “Gandhian” quote pertaining to the issue, they were attacked for misattributing the quote to Gandhi.
The quote said, “A nation is dumb without a national language”. When discussing matters of national importance, it always helps to have the Father of the Nation in your corner. Except there’s no record of Gandhi ever actually having said those words. Yes, in My Experiments With Truth there are passages where Gandhi admits that a blend of Hindi and Urdu could become the lingua franca of India, but he never advocated for a single language to be given the status of a national language.
Lies, damned lies, and quotes
The Panchayati Raj Ministry’s blunder, however, was not one it could lay sole claim to. Inaccurate versions or even outright bastardisations of Gandhi’s quotes are littered throughout social media. On the internet, where information is often consumed like fast-food, without a care for its provenance or nature, simply sticking text onto a sombre black-and-white portrait of a famous historical figure is an easy way to pass off fakes as the genuine article. And when it comes to Gandhi, there might be as many fakes as authentic quotes doing the rounds.
Gandhi’s quotes have been repurposed, reimagined, and restructured to fit an array of agendas, regardless of how they would have aligned with Gandhi’s own in his lifetime.
Sometimes, these are patently identifiable as a hoax. After all, no record of Gandhi ever uttering the phrase “Wah bh**dike wah”, or randomly blurting out the word “Death” as a non-sequitur, or confessing to laughing so hard he farted. Posts like these might be useful as memes intended for a laugh, but their historical and informative value is nil. But can one really be sure about the way it will be consumed, perhaps five years down the line?
Then you have pages that rely on the drawing power of Gandhi’s words to lure followers but have nothing to do whatsoever with Gandhi himself. For instance, one the most popular Gandhi-themed pages on Facebook, imaginatively called “Mahatma Gandhi Quotes”, has Bapu on its profile picture, but a timeline filled with clips from the Kapil Sharma show and scenes from random films. It’s unclear how they tie back to the freedom fighter, but the page has over 53,000 followers, and some of the credit has to go to the bait-and-switch. Between fabrications like these and the distortions most recently practised by the Panchayati Raj Ministry, it would be wise to cross-check the veracity of a so-called Gandhi quote before hitting the share button this Gandhi Jayanti.
Fake quotes factory
After all, you wouldn’t be the first person to be misquoting Gandhi. Many of the well-known quotes attributed to Gandhi have no evidence to support the attribution. Even world leaders have fallen into this trap.
During his successful 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump shared a photo of Gandhi with the text, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” While an apt summary of the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolent resistance, the quote is actually a slightly modified version of a speech delivered by an American trade union leader, Nicholas Klein, in 1918.
It seems like the internet, at least the fast-moving, social media-led part of it, is hell-bent on seizing Gandhi’s legacy for countless ends.
Even the famous words, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” are likely a fabrication, arrived at after paraphrasing a longer Gandhi quote which includes the line “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.” It’s a similar situation with “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”, which was likely first written to describe Gandhi’s aversion to violence, but began to be viewed as a quote from Gandhi himself somewhere down the years.
It seems like the internet, at least the fast-moving, social media-led part of it, is hell-bent on seizing Gandhi’s legacy for countless ends. Which is a tragedy, because if you can’t trust hastily thrown together text and images on Facebook, what can you really trust? Luckily for those who’d like to gain some actual knowledge about Gandhi’s life, there’s always that second-best option – books.