An abiding need
Next week, we shall mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi‘s martyrdom. So long after his death, does Gandhi still matter? Should he matter? In this column, I shall offer ten weighty reasons why Gandhi, his life, and his ideas still matter in the third decade of the 21st century.
The first reason Gandhi matters is that he gave India, and the world, a means of resisting unjust authority without using force oneself. Interestingly, the idea of satyagraha was born in a meeting held in Johannesburg’s Empire Theatre on September 11, 1906, when Indians under Gandhi’s leadership resolved to court arrest in protest against racially discriminatory laws. Ninety-five years later to the day, the World Trade Center was blown up by terrorists. Two 9/11s: one seeking justice through non-violent struggle and personal sacrifice; the other seeking to intimidate the enemy through terror and force. As history has demonstrated, as a form of protest against injustice, satyagraha is more moral, as well as arguably more efficacious, than the alternatives. After its first iterations under British rule in South Africa and India, Gandhi’s method has had many remarkable emulators, most notably perhaps the civil rights struggle in the United States of America.
The second reason Gandhi matters is that he loved his country and culture while recognising its disfiguring qualities and seeking to remedy them. As the historian, Sunil Khilnani, once remarked, Gandhi was not just fighting the British, he was also fighting India. He knew his society, our society, to be characterised by a deep and pervasive inequality. His struggle against untouchability came out of this desire to make Indians more fit for true freedom. And while by no means a thoroughgoing feminist, he did an enormous amount to bring women into public life.
The third reason Gandhi matters is that while a practicing Hindu, he refused to define citizenship on the basis of faith. If caste divided Hindus horizontally, religion divided India vertically. Gandhi struggled to build bridges between these vertical, and often historically opposed, blocs. The pursuit of Hindu-Muslim harmony was an abiding concern; he lived for it and, in the end, was prepared to die for it too.
The fourth reason Gandhi matters is that while steeped in Gujarati culture, and an acknowledged master of Gujarati prose, he was not a narrow-minded regionalist. Just as he had space and love for religions other than his own, he had space and love for languages other than his own. His understanding of the religious and linguistic diversity of India was deepened by his years in the diaspora, when his closest comrades were as often Muslim or Parsi as they were Hindu, and Tamil speakers as often as they were Gujaratis.
The fifth reason Gandhi matters is that he was both a patriot and an internationalist. He appreciated the richness and heritage of Indian civilisation, yet knew that in the 20th century no country could be a frog in the well. It helped if one saw oneself in the mirror of another. His own influences were as much Western as Indian. His philosophical and political outlook owed as much to Tolstoy and Ruskin as it did to Gokhale and Raychandbhai. He cultivated deep friendships across the racial divide with, among others, Henry and Millie Polak, Hermann Kallenbach, and C.F. Andrews, all of whom played critical roles in his personal and his public life.
I am now going to pause, and explain how, without these five aspects of Gandhi’s legacy, independent India might have chosen an altogether different path than it in fact did. Because Gandhi eschewed violence in favour of dialogue, this helped us emerge as a multi-party democracy, not a single-party totalitarian State (which was the fate of most Asian and African countries which chose the violent path to self-determination). Because people like Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar emphasised gender and caste equality, these principles were encoded in our Constitution. Because people like Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru emphasised religious and linguistic freedoms, India — unlike many other countries — did not define citizenship on the basis of a single superior religion and a single superior language.
As the invocation of Ambedkar and Nehru suggests, I would not for a moment claim that Gandhi alone contributed to the creation of an independent India with a democratic and inclusive political ethos. However, he played a critical role, through his leadership and his repeated emphasis on democracy, cultural pluralism, and social equality.
The sixth reason Gandhi matters is that he was a precocious environmentalist, who anticipated that unbridled growth and consumerism could bring planetary disaster. As he wrote in December 1928: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” This was extraordinarily prescient, for in emulating the capital-intensive, resource-intensive, and energy-intensive path of industrialisation pioneered by the West, China and India are indeed threatening to strip the world bare like locusts. In his life and his work, Gandhi advocated an ethic of restraint and responsibility on whose wider acceptance the future of our planet may depend.
The seventh reason Gandhi matters was his ability to grow and evolve as he had fresh encounters and new experiences. A famous quote probably mistakenly attributed to the economist, John Maynard Keynes, runs: “When the facts change, I change my mind. And how about you, sir?” A quote actually made by Gandhi, in 1934, is this: “I make no hobgoblin of consistency. If I am true to myself from moment to moment, I do not mind all the inconsistencies that may be flung in my face.”
Over the course of his life, Gandhi changed his mind on three critical issues in particular. These were race, caste, and gender, on all of which he shed his youthful prejudices in favour of more progressive positions. From being an unthinking racist, he became a principled anti-racist; from challenging caste hierarchies timidly and hesitantly, he confronted them directly and unreservedly; from assigning non-political roles to women, he came to whole-heartedly encourage their participation in the public sphere and in the freedom struggle.
The eighth reason Gandhi matters is that he had a rare knack of making leaders out of followers. He identified talent, nurtured and developed it, and then set it free to grow further on its own. Many of the disciples who flocked to him became major makers of history in their own right. These remarkable followers-turned-leaders included Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, C. Rajagopalachari, Zakir Husain, J.B. Kripalani, J.C. Kumarappa, Sarala Devi (Catherine Mary Heilmann), and many, many others.
Gandhi’s ability to nurture future leaders is in striking contrast to the inability to do so of the three most influential prime ministers of independent India. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Narendra Modi have varied greatly amongst themselves in terms of character and political ideology. However, in one respect they are akin — the tendency to identify the party, the government, the State, with themselves. Indira carried this personalisation of power much further than Nehru, and Modi has carried it even further than India. Yet all saw themselves as somehow indispensable and irreplaceable. They did little to foster the next generation of leaders. (Outside politics, this trait of personalising authority is also characteristic of many Indian corporate leaders as well as heads of Indian civil society organisations, who likewise encourage an identification of the organisation with themselves.)
The ninth reason Gandhi matters was his willingness to see the opponent’s point of view, coupled with his readiness to reach out to them and seek an honourable compromise. Thus, his patient attempt, over many years, to find common ground with political adversaries such as Jinnah and Ambedkar, and with imperial proconsuls in South Africa and India as well. Gandhi had no personal dislikes or hatreds, only intellectual or political differences, and these also he hoped he could resolve. He had an absolute inability to bear grudges.
The tenth reason Gandhi matters is the transparency of his political life. Anyone could walk into his ashram; anyone could debate with him; indeed, as eventually happened, anyone could walk up to him and murder him. What a contrast this is with the security-obsessed lives of other political leaders, whether in his time or ours!
The lessons from Gandhi’s life that I have outlined here are not necessarily of relevance to this country alone. However, in a climate of aggressive religious majoritarianism, a political culture of invective and abuse, the purveying of falsehoods and untruths by leaders and governments, the ravaging of the natural environment, and the creation of personality cults, it may be in India that they matter most of all.