By Dr. Satish C. Aikant
Historian and author of a monumental biography of Gandhi in two volumes – Gandhi Before India (2013) and Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World (2018) -Ramachandra Guha was in Dehradun recently to deliver a lecture on Gandhi’s relevance in the present times. He talked about ten reasons why Gandhi still matters: One. Gandhi gave us non-violent means of resisting injustice. Non-violence to him was not merely as a politically expedient tactic but a fundamental duty of man. No other country in the world got freedom from the colonial power in the manner India did. Guha went on to say that if we had adopted the ways of Bhagat Singh, V. D. Savarkar and Subhas Chandra Bose – all of them militant nationalists – we could not have attained independence. Moreover it is non-violence alone which is much more effective in sustaining plurality and democracy. The idea of Satyagraha, the non-violent protest against unjust authority, originated in the mind of Mahatma Gandhi while he was in South Africa, when he launched the movement in Johannesburg on 11 September 1905 to fight the unjust laws imposed by the apartheid regime. The date is significant for it was, 95 years later, on 11 September 2001, when the World Trade Center in New York was blown up in the terrorist violence. Now we are at a crossroads where we have to choose between the 9/11 of Gandhi or the 9/11 of Osama bin Laden for the survival of mankind. Two. Gandhi loved his country and its culture immensely but it was not a bigoted love. He was very much alive to what was deficient in the Indian society and worked relentlessly with reformist zeal to remove the evils that bedevilled it. His fight was directed not only against the British rule but was also directed within. As the French sociologist Louis Dumont demonstrated in his seminal work Homo Hierarchicus Indian society has been characterised by rigid hierarchies, Gandhi sought to dismantle them. He was particularly distressed by the treatment of women and dalits in the Hindu society. The offshoot of the caste system was the practice of untouchability. In 1933 and 1934 Gandhi undertook extensive padyatras in the western and southern India to arouse public opinion against this heinous practice even in the face of stiff opposition from the orthodox Hindus. He was shown black flags and there were attacks on his life by the members of Hindu Mahasabha. Gandhi remained undeterred. Three. Though a devout and practicing Hindu, Gandhi refused to give primacy to religion in defining citizenship. Religion, he said, was not the defining marker of citizenship. His caution became the basis for the secular ethos that prevails in India today. Gandhi’s worldview was also shaped by Europe’s fin-de-siècle culture with Thoreau, Ruskin, and Tolstoy making as much impact on him as did his Hindu background. Four. Gandhi valued cultural and linguistic diversity and even though he was a strong advocate of Hindi/ Hindustani as the national language, he was against language hegemony. He himself wrote widely in Hindi, Gujarti and English. When he was in South Africa he had started a paper in 1903 called Indian Opinion, which was printed simultaneously in four languages- Guajarati, Hindi, Tamil and English. It was the first multi-lingual paper in the history of the world. Five. Gandhi was both a patriot and an internationalist. He believed that one could not afford to remain a frog in the well in today’s world. He was open to all cultures. Six. Guha, himself a keen environmentalist, takes note of the fact that Gandhi was an early environmentalist. He argued that unbridled growth and consumerism which depleted the limited resources of the world without replenishing them would only bring about planetary disaster. He wrote in Young India in December 1928 that God forbid that India should take to industrialization after the manner of the West whose economic imperialism and resultant exploitation was keeping several countries in chains. The European powers had colonized the world by capturing and exploiting the resources of the world. India had to find its own sustainable ways to develop without following the western model, without destroying the natural resource base. Seven. Gandhi had the unique ability to grow and evolve and did not shy away from reversing an earlier stand. The Gandhi bashers on the left and the right try to quote him selectively to prove how inconsistent he was in his views but Gandhi nonchalantly followed the Emersonian dictum that ‘foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ While still a young man in South Africa he showed racist tendencies but soon outgrew his racism to empathise with all those who were oppressed. Even in India Gandhi initially hoped to work for political reform as a loyal subject of the British Empire. But once he was exposed to the brutal facts of British rule he turned resolutely anti-imperialist. So with his attitude towards caste. In the beginning he endorsed the varnashram dharma as he was hesitant to disturb the Hindu social fabric. But soon he saw the oppressions of caste system and found it insupportable. So his approach to women. It was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who persuaded him to enlist the participation of women in public life. Gandhi was constantly evolving with the times and social imperatives, unlike many leaders who never accept their mistakes and never change. Eight. He had a rare knack for making leaders out of his followers. Guha names three most powerful political leaders since independence – Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi – all of them prime ministers who have been remiss in this respect. Gandhi’s followers never remained mere followers but were set free to play important leadership roles. Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, Kamaladevi, Zakir Hussain, J.B. Kriplani. Sarojini Naidu and many others groomed by him strengthened the democratic foundations of this country. Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi have been powerful in terms of authority and charisma and pan India appeal, but they have these things in common – the morbid and narcissistic obsession with oneself, conviction of one’s supremacy and revelling in one’s larger than life profile. Quite unlike Gandhi. Nine. Gandhi could see his opponents’ point of view and reach out to them in good faith. He had no personal dislikes, only political and intellectual differences. He differed with Jinnah on the issues of communal harmony and with Ambedkar on the issues of untouchability within an inclusive framework for all classes, but harboured no rancour towards them. Ten. Gandhi’s life was characterized by utmost transparency. He was easily accessible and was open with everyone. People joined him in his walks and could discuss with him anything. One could add several other reasons why Gandhi matters to us and we will keep confronting the question of Gandhi’s relevance to our times. He is a universal figure and cannot be provincialised. His ideas resonate in today’s world where he has to say much about the issues of inequality, resentment, rise of populism and breakdown of democratic governance that have made our times so volatile. The hyper-masculine nationalism flaunted by some of our top leaders recklessly sanctifies promotes xenophobia and institutionalized violence. There is a gradual retreat from the ideals of moral persuasion, sacrifice and self-transformation. For all our professed faith in Gandhi the reality is that our age is an age of anger and violence. It is easy to deliver homilies from the pulpit but that can hardly help us resolve the complex issue we face today. There is a growing hiatus between idea and praxis. We need to think through and beyond Gandhi to grapple with the complexities of the world we live in. It is too simplistic to assume that a Gandhian approach will solve all our problems. We should not forget that Gandhi was all too human and therefore not devoid of human failings. With his fads, follies and eccentricities he was surely not a paragon of virtue. But what was unique about him was that he was constantly working at himself and never lost his capacity to learn from his mistakes, at times admitting to having made ‘Himalayan blunders.’ When in 1963 Richard Attenborough approached Nehru with the proposal to make a film on Gandhi, Nehru told him, ‘Whatever you do, do not deify him – he was too great a man to be deified.’ But the polar opposite of deification is also happening today in the brazen celebrations of the Mahatma’s assassination. Why is it that there is a plethora of Gandhi scholars around the world but hardly any Gandhians?
(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University)