Mahatma Gandhi remembered
Mahatma Gandhi : It is sixty sevan years since Gandhi was assassinated and the man is still alive in the Indian psyche. No other man commands as much respect and, in certain quarters, no other man is hated as much. This could be a good time to revisit Gandhi.
I was born in independent India and therefore have no recollection of Gandhi alive. Since early childhood, I was impinged with opinions which ridiculed Gandhi. This, despite the fact that both my parents had participated in the Quit India Movement and respected Gandhi deeply. It took some time and conscious efforts to repair my mindset and then to come to terms with the phenomenon called Gandhi. I would like to share here what I have learnt.
Gandhi has always been a favourite subject for discussions and debates. ‘How relevant are Gandhian ideas in today’s world?’ or ‘What would Gandhi do if he were to be present today?’ is how questions are posed and are answered according to the inclinations of the individual.
There are some who enjoy abusing Gandhi in foul language and I think it is no use wasting one’s time refuting their allegations and claims because their primary aim is to malign Gandhi. They certainly are not stupid but it would be stupid to be bogged down countering their baseless, contrived, but always malicious arguments.
The term ‘Gandhism’ is still in vogue, mainly because there were, and still are – people who took pride in being called ‘Gandhians’. Gandhi exerted a powerful influence on those who came in his contact. As they perceived a halo of moral purity around his head, they had a sense of pride in being the inheritors of his legacy.
And though Gandhism is not exactly a dogma, Gandhi has expressed himself on so many issues and has lived in consonance with his expressed views that quite a variety of people are able to lay claim to be Gandhians. That of course does not mean that they exhibit some agreement among themselves. The fact however remains that no other Indian leader or thinker has approached issues from an indigenous perspective the way Gandhi has.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when someone takes his name in your hearing? There is no single answer to that. It could be anything from Ahimsa and Satyagrahto Nayi Talim, Charakha, cleanliness, piety, time management, Experiments in Truth, Hind Swaraj, loin cloth, fasting, Desi values, Partition and so on. It would be difficult to find another character who evokes such varied response.
But something vital is missing: art. Even though excellent compilations of Gandhi’s utterances and writings on various subjects are available; it is very difficult to find what he thought about cinema, music, literature, painting, etc. His comments on art have a social, righteous bearing; they do not penetrate the art form. Therefore it would be equally difficult to fathom what a ‘Gandhian artist’ could be.
However, there is plenty of Gandhi beyond art, like non-violence. Can it be said that Gandhi taught this nation non-violence? That would be quite a tall statement in the land of Buddha and Mahavir. Gandhi himself got his non-violence from Tolstoy. And his Ahimsawas never a mute acceptance of violence. On the other hand Gandhi has categorically stated that he would prefer a violent resistance to injustice to no resistance at all. The concept of civil disobedience stems from Ahimsa.
Gandhi’s views on civil disobedience goes as follows: ‘I find this particular law unjust and therefore it is my duty to break it. However, in a civil society breaking law is an offence and I must receive punishment if I commit that offence. Further, since I am going to commit it intentionally, while being in full control of my faculties; I must receive the maximum punishment denoted for the offence.’ Making this declaration and conveying it to the authorities before committing the so-called crime, is civil disobedience in its essence.
One can imagine how helpless the regime which prided in administering ‘justice according to a codified statute’ must have felt before this kind of a stand. It was the concept of civil disobedience that enabled Gandhi to raise a formidable challenge from the poor and essentially unarmed multitudes in the subcontinent to the Imperial rule.
Will the same kind of Ahimsa be as effective today? Obviously not if the confrontation is with a regime of ruthless terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaida or Prabhakaran and his LTTE. Nearer home, things are not much better either. Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) ranks as the biggest non-violent protest of independent India. And what happened to it? One noteworthy success attributable to NBA is that post NBA, the rehabilitation of the people who are going to be displaced because of a development project is now considered essential the world over.
Has it been done to those displaced by Sardar Sarovar project in the true sense? Now things are getting worse. Let the tribals be displaced, let them be denied life as they have lived for generations; but the non-tribals must flourish. The tribals should see what an honour it is to make a sacrifice for the sake of the welfare of the nation because the welfare of the non-tribals is the welfare of the nation.
Mahatma Gandhi However, the term coined by Arundhati Roy to describe Naxalites in Bastar- Gandhians with arms – is meaningless. Gandhi would most certainly have abhorred the Naxalite path. Nayi Talim is learning with hands. Sevagram Ashram provided the kind of education Gandhi had in mind.
No one but the Gandhians will insist that the identical system be adopted for schools today. But it makes sense to have an education system which is attuned to the needs of the country, which the children here find ‘user friendly’. We have Montessori schools and Kinder Garten classes but we have no use for Gandhi’s ideas.
Economics is essentially about the needs of the people and the resources of their country. Obviously borrowing economic ideas from elsewhere is not necessarily a good idea. Yet only Gandhi seems to have tried to make positive interventions with the two parameters in mind.
Gandhian economics had the village at its centre: it envisaged a self-reliant village. The very idea of a village as an independent, self-reliant unit sounds ridiculous in today’s environment of globalisation and the so called Global Village. But it must be remembered that governments everywhere are finding it difficult to provide employment to able hands.
Those who automatically pair Gandhi with Charakha would perhaps find it interesting to know that charakha was not an appendage of Gandhi from the beginning; that was his conscious choice. Gandhi knew (he certainly had his finger on the pulse of the people) that the average Indian farmer is idle once he has harvested his crop. He has no productive work at hand but he continues to consume.
Was there anything which could provide employment to the rural populace without displacing them from their homes and without requiring substantial investment and which would also have its raw material available easily in the country? Among the many answers presented, Gandhi chose the spinning wheel.
People in villages could spin the wheel to produce yarn from which cloth could be made and sold so as to give the villager some additional income. Bania that he was, Gandhi knew well that the cloth made from the charakha yarn would be coarse and had no chance of competing with the cloth available in the market. So he provided buyers by making it compulsory for the Congress workers to wear khadi.
He further made khadi a symbol of nationalism and directed that Khadi be promoted among the city people so that it attained glamour in their eyes and they would come forward to buy it thus providing a much needed helping hand to the village folk. Go see the black and white films before 1960; if the hero is an idealist, you will find him invariably clad in khadi.
It is so easy to ridicule the spinning wheel and khadi; but how many leaders have tried to use their populist clout to raise the purchasing power of the hapless Indian farmer? Post globalisation a section of the middle class got a taste of affluence and it changed their perception of the world; but globalisation also slowed down employment generation, it did increase inequality.
With newspapers reporting farmers’ suicides every day, isn’t it the need of the hour today to think of something like charakha? Gandhi was an activist leader; it is a shame to remember him just as a symbol on some special days or for some special campaign.
That brings us to Prime Minister’s cleanliness drive started in Gandhi’s name and which had film stars and cricket icons photograph themselves holding a broom. What was it that connected Gandhi to cleanliness? Cleanliness was certainly a thing with Gandhi but what he did went far ahead. Mahatma Gandhihad already earned renown when he founded Sabarmati Ashram and there were many who wanted to make the Ashram their abode.
One condition to be a resident of the Ashram was it was mandatory to clean toilets. With the advent of ownership apartments, the middle class in Mumbai learned to clean toilets. Before that the toilet in their tenements were being cleaned by the sweepers only. And this is still the practise among upper classes where ownership apartments are not so prevalent. No caste Hindu does this ‘filthy’ work. No one among the public figures who so enthusiastically joined Prime Minister’s cleanliness campaign cleaned a toilet.
In one single stroke Gandhi had obliterated the sinister discrimination between upper castes and lower castes. Between ‘clean’ work and ‘filthy’ work. When his wife refused to clean a toilet, he simply told her to leave the Ashram and live elsewhere. She had to clean toilets if she wanted to be with him.
Is the discrimination gone today? Is the Prime Minister going to go this far to make the drive more meaningful? Reference to any caste-based discrimination in Indian society brings forth another thorny issue in Gandhi’s public life. He named the erstwhile untouchables as Harijans and the tribals as Girijans. As was his wont, he did not stop at making symbolic gestures.
Social workers like Thakkar Bappa commenced working with tribals at his instance. This was an attempt to bridge the gap between tribals and the mainstream communities. Same thing happened in the case of the untouchables. Naming his periodical as Harijan too was aimed at granting dignity to them.
But Dalits, as they preferred to call themselves, had Ambedkar who gave them a sense of dignity and a great deal of self-confidence. When he was convinced that Hinduism would not grant them social equality, he converted to Buddhism and millions of his followers followed suit.
They stopped performing lowly chores imposed upon them as ‘duty’ by the society. And then they had no use for upper caste compassion including that from Gandhi. History will repeat itself if an Ambedkar is born among the tribals too and the futility of Gandhi’s attempts will stand exposed.
When I use the words ‘futility of Mahatma Gandhi attempts’, I do not mean to imply that Gandhi was doing lip service to the cause of eradication of untouchability. Ambedkar was unfortunate to be born in an untouchable community. In spite of his colossal scholarship, he was constantly denied his rightful place everywhere. Circumstance forced him to take up the cause of his brethren. Gandhi had no such handicap.
While Ambedkar stood as the leader of a section of the Indian population, Gandhi was trying to carry the whole nation with him and he was perfectly aware that, however wrong and sinful it may sound, the Indian upper castes would not let go of their higher status in the caste hierarchy, even at his insistence. It would not be wrong to say that though Gandhi held eradication of untouchability of paramount importance, he was not prepared to jeopardise the cohesion in the Indian society for the sake of eradication of untouchability.
How do things stand today? The question who was right, Gandhi or Ambedkar; has become redundant. It is now imperative to ask how long is one’s social status going to be decided on the basis of one’s accident of birth. How long is my caste going to determine the options before me regarding my livelihood? The recent survey on observation of untouchability in India is quite eloquent in this context.
So is the unequivocal declaration that those who reconvert to Hindu fold, who ‘return home’; will be placed in the same caste they originally belonged to. There is no need to defend Gandhi; such occurrences today bear ample testimony to the limitations Gandhi faced then.
Hind Swaraj- by far the most unpalatable part of Gandhi’s preaching for a metro-born-and-brought-up person like me. In this book written in 1908, Gandhi has not just condemned modernity; he has been scathing in his remarks on the Western concept of progress and on technology as a whole.
In 1938 he reiterated that he continued to hold the same views even then. In Hind Swaraj, he has really let himself loose and has questioned the necessity of the railways, of modern medicine. He challenges the idea of progress as a journey towards more comfort and better living conditions. In his opinion, the purpose of human life is to attain peace of mind, to attain unity with the Creator.
Among the many respect worthy attributes of Gandhi is his pragmatism. Which may lead one to find some sagacious pragmatism in Hind Swaraj. Thus it is very tempting to lean towards his line of thinking by citing the mostly unhappy populace in the purportedly progressed countries.
The rising inequality, and therefore rising unhappiness in the world today also seem to suggest that Gandhi could be right. I disagree. On the contrary, I would question why this man, who went to ridiculous lengths in using exclusively nature remedies, wore spectacles at all. Spectacles are the outcome of modern quest for knowledge and of putting that knowledge to betterment of human condition. It is not possible to have the spectacles and not have the rest.
But there is no doubt that he was the most desi character among the whole lot of them. His personality itself makes the point. Let’s look at an incident – not an anecdote, but a real incident which took place. He was invited to inaugurate an ayurvedic medical college in Kolkata.
In his speech he said, “Before coming here I sent letters to fifty medical practitioners I know, asking them to tell me the chemical composition of gud (jaggery). It was indeed gratifying that all fifty replied. And it was saddening that all of them said they didn’t know. I find it unbelievable that nobody has thought it fit to find out the composition of a substance all of us put in our daily meals.”
Just as education must cater to the needs of native life; medicine must focus on the native lifestyle. So obvious. So mundane. And yet we are not so sure if the doctors today are any wiser. One can go on and on with Gandhi. It was entirely thanks to Gandhi that women participated in large numbers in the freedom struggle and the Indian society came to accept women in public life.
At the age of seventy nine, this man who called himself a devout Hindu was perceived as the impregnable obstacle to the spread of Hindutva and so he was assassinated. His time management was something extraordinary. When he sat to talk, he spun his charakha. When he met people seeking his company, he did it in the early morning hours when he went for a brisk walk and his secretary gave appointments as ‘from that stone to that tree’.
He is arguably the most transparent leader known. When he had gone to Britain for the round table conference, every day in the evening he came out and narrated to the crowd that had gathered the gist of the proceedings and where matters stood as of that moment. His Swadeshi movement hit the business of the cotton mills in England and the mill workers suffered.
The first thing this man did when he went to England was to visit those mill workers and explain to them the Indian circumstances which compelled him to take the step. And they bore no grudge towards him. He opposed partition till the very end and when the whole nation was celebrating the newly won independence, he stayed away. He named his autobiography ‘Experiments in Truth’ and narrated all his mistakes.
People called him Mahatma. You only have to read his autobiography to realise that the man was not born a Mahatma. His mistakes were many and he did not hide them. He learnt from his mistakes and rose in stature till he became a Mahatma. In a way he demonstrated that it takes determination and clarity of aim to reach that stage.
If you cannot become Mahatma, you lack one of the two qualities. Or may be you lack both; you never want to be a Mahatma in the first place. Mahatma is too big an ambition for me. I shall be happy if I keep learning from my mistakes and make myself a better person as I grow in years. I shall then consider myself eligible to be called a Gandhian.