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  For the Edit Page
  Rethinking Gandhi

Devesh Vijay

The Pioneer

30/1/04, Op.Ed.


Rethinking Gandhi in the Twenty First Century

On 30th January 1948, Mahatma Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullets for championing the minorities’ rights in independent India. Politics in our country has come a long way since then and the gap between Gandhian ideals of nonviolence and satyagraha and recent obsessions such as Mandir, Mandal and M-TV appears so vast that one wonders if the nation has entirely outlived its ‘father’s’ legacy or his vision was impractical from the beginning: a useful plank to mobilize the illiterate masses against foreign rule but too cumbersome for a nation craving for a standing amongst great (nuclear) powers of the world.

It is understandable that given his stark view of human nature, Bapu’s ardent concerns such as khadi, charkha, self sufficient villages and, of course, celibacy, truth and nonviolence find few adherents in the contemporary world. Yet, it seems sad that the philosophical legacy of Gandhi also generates little interest even among scholars now. While the ashram at Sabarmati is little more than a museum today, the model of development chosen by Bapu’s dearest follower—Nehru, proved to be a complete antithesis of his vision. This raises an intriguing question though: was Gandhi complicit in his marginalization in India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ ? After all it was he who chose Nehru as his heir, overriding many more authentic Gandhians deliberately.

           Yet, the apparent irrelevance of the Mahatma to the contemporary world and to India, is just a chimera. Gandhian movements were, in fact, the crucible in which Indian democracy and nationhood were largely forged. More significantly, these movements have had few parallels in scale and character within or outside the country before or after Gandhi. The manner in which the movements unleashed by the ‘Father of the Nation’ bound together almost the entire spectrum of Indian society (from the tribals of central Indian forests to the proud Pathans of the North West and from foreign returned barristers in big cities to illiterate housewives in small towns) is still an enigma.

Indeed the political breakthrough offered by Gandhian struggles can be fully appreciated only by remembering that in five thousand years of Indian history there are very few examples of large scale struggles against plunder and invasions; even monstrosities like untouchability were seldom challenged here. In the modern era too, the pre-Gandhian anti-imperialist struggles largely remained urban and/ or regional while the post Gandhian Indian polity is yet to witness a comparable democratic upsurge despite the best efforts of numerous radicals and critics.

         The key factor behind the success of Gandhian movements was neither some ‘bania tactic’ nor the economic crises after the first World War nor the limited expansion of franchise in 1919 but the simplest of human values unflinchingly followed by the great soul; values that could inspire thousands to dedicate their lives to the cause of ‘a militant non violence’. The mass appeal of Gandhi’s extraordinary sainthood in Indian culture has been well documented both in his own autobiography and of many of his followers who brought into Indian public life a unique democratic ethos and idealism that served the country well even after independence when many other ex-colonies (including those within South Asia) succumbed to dictators one after another.   

        But lessons in mass mobilization are not the only major legacy of Gandhi. The content and form of his struggles evident in the principles of satyagraha and civil disobedience may actually hold a significant promise for the future when, conceivably, brutal reprisals by the state would be restrained by a more aware and united world opinion. Even a return to Gandhian values of self reliance and a life lived in harmony with nature is conceivable, as a reaction to hedonism, in the long run.

        Meanwhile, contemporary Indian society, moaning in the grip of corruption, terror and pervasive demoralization remains remote from such values. Yet, Gandhi remains relevant here too, at least as a rare and vital meeting point between the many hostile blocks of India’s fractured polity: the far Right and the Left, the lower and the upper castes, Hindus and Muslims, perhaps, even the state and the separatists.

       Surely, Bapu had his own share of failings. All his major movements had to be withdrawn or were suppressed while India’s freedom came ultimately through a variety of factors and in a manner unacceptable to him. Partition and the communal bloodbath were seen (even by him) as major failures— exposing the impracticality of his peculiar vision in the contemporary situation.

        But given the emotive pitch of communalism and the colonial context, it is difficult to say how the bloodbath could have been checked then. And who fought the madness better than the Mahatma— running with his aging body from one carnage to another, living and fasting in the midst of raging hatred and anger and managing to inspire scores of disciples (including young mothers with clinging infants) to join him in the perilous attempt at quelling the fires with little protection except the power of Satyagraha.   

       The moment of Mahatma’s biggest failure was also his “finest hour” undoubtedly. It is true that his stark and idealist view of human nature ensured that neither Gandhi nor Gandhism would survive India’s freedom for long. Yet, despite this ideological failure, Gandhi managed to infuse vitality into many other contemporary processes. The exceptional survival of democracy and federalism in underdeveloped India owes not a little to the sacrifices of this saint-politician. While Gandhi has been widely recognized as a great mobiliser, his contributions as a thinker and as a saint who took spirituality to its logical conclusion (of unceasing penance in political action against every oppression) await rehabilitation in a more tranquil tomorrow.