Mahatma Gandhi, as this newspaper’s editorial said on October 2, 2019, to mark the beginning of his 150th birth anniversary celebrations, was the greatest Indian ever.
The breadth and transparency of his public engagements; the quality and duration of his public life where he extensively dealt with all the big questions of modern times; his core values of freedom, democracy, non-violence, truth, Hindu-Muslim unity, and individual dignity; his empathy, including for those who opposed him; his ability to construct an umbrella coalition of remarkable freedom fighters; and his belief in pluralism and peace has helped make India what it is today.
Also read: Gandhi: The chronicler
As we remember the Mahatma this year, it is time to return to the core ideas which made him what he was. To rediscover these, Hindustan Times returns to a set of sparkling essays published last year as a part of a series titled Gandhi: 150 Years On.
In her essay on Gandhi and modern political thought, academic Karuna Mantena wrote that Gandhi was “both a man of action and a philosopher” and the “originality and depth of his political thought was closely connected to action”.
It was a philosophy for “popular politics in the street, maidan and village”. Gandhi’s key innovation was, of course, the idea of satyagraha, which according to Mantena, “was means for generating opportunities for persuasion and realignment rather than retrenchment and polarisation”. It was central to his belief in the importance of means, and a way to build strength through deeds and action.
But what did satyagraha entail? The scholar David Hardiman wrote of how Gandhi disliked the term passive resistance — which is, all too often, mistakenly used to describe Gandhi’s methods since it suggested passivity.
Satyagraha — drawn from Satya (truth) and agraha (seizing or laying hold of) — was soul force, an “attitude of mind”. Gandhi fused this with ahimsa, non-violence — arguing not just for its ethical nature but also pointing to its tactical value, for violence would invite a draconian response from a vast, coercive imperial machinery. Gandhi’s movements saw this dialectic between mass participation in peaceful movements with occasional bouts of violence, which also led him to withdraw the movement altogether in some cases such as the Non-Cooperation Movement after the violence at Chauri Chaura. But Hardiman wrote, “Gandhi’s method succeeded because of the relentless pressure it put on rulers — forcing them to give in to mass demands.” This, then, became an example for other political and civil liberty movements across the world. In a separate essay, David Arnold wrote of how Gandhi “stole Britain’s moral fire”. “Gandhi punctured the moral balloon of British rule in India and it never recovered from that spectacular deflation.”
But Gandhi was engaged with not just the external battle with the colonial rulers, but the internal nature of Indian society, from the question of religion to caste, from an economic vision to the constructive work needed in Indian society. Take three examples.
Caste, economy, environment
Caste was a central preoccupation of Gandhi’s life. His views evolved on the issue — but it fundamentally came from a position of seeking reform in social attitudes, creating enabling conditions to encourage exchanges between members of different castes, taking on occupations seen as only the task of the “lower” castes, and striving for harmony — but within the broad Hindu social order. This is where his clash with BR Ambedkar, who saw it as a political issue and recognised the indispensability of representation, became most acute. Dhrubo Jyoti, in his essay, wrote of the Poona Pact where Amebdkar pushed for separate electorates for Scheduled Castes as formalised by the British after the second round-table conference — on the grounds that a joint electorate will rob the community of independent leadership. Gandhi resisted it through a fast, criticising their “statutory separation even in a limited form, from the Hindu fold”. Ambedkar finally had to relent, albeit reluctantly, acutely aware of the implications on Dalits if Gandhi’s life was compromised. The architecture of reservations for Dalits remains a legacy of this pact.
Also read: When Gandhi stood trial for sedition
How did Gandhian ideas extend to the economic realm? In a thoughtful essay, Niranjan Rajadhyakhsa wrote of how Gandhi offered a radically different path. “He argued for an India of household production for local consumption...Independent India rejected the Gandhian option, while paying polite tributes to it.” The roots of his economic ideas could be traced to ethical concerns, scepticism of modern technology, and belief in decentralised production as a way to offer dignity.
While his economic model may not have the same resonance, his views on the environment are perhaps more critical today than ever before — and there is a close linkage between the two in Gandhi’s views, as the world realises now in the midst of the climate crisis as a product of the relentless quest for growth. Venu Madhav Govindu in his essay acknowledged that Gandhi did not use the vocabulary of modern day environmentalism, but says, “his way of living reflected environmental concerns”.
This was most clearly reflected in his ashrams in Ahmedabad and Sewagram, but it went beyond that, for Gandhi understood “the devastating economic consequences” of the global commodity trade under colonialism. Over the decades, Gandhian activists have been at the forefront of some of India’s key environmental issues.
From the internal emotional and psychological drivers of human action to the community-building around a set of principles, from waging a non-violent but extraordinarily successful mass movement against the British Raj to envisioning a new free India and what it should look like, Gandhi’s worldview was vast, complex and nuanced. On his 151st birth anniversary, India can do no better than translate Gandhi’s ideals of simplicity, truth, non-violence, non discrimination and religious unity, and care for nature into reality.