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ARTICLES > RELEVANCE OF GANDHI > The Gandhian alternatives and the Challenges of the New Millennium

 

The Gandhian Alternatives and the Challenges of the New Millennium

Dr. N. Radhakrishnan

In a few months from now humanity would be entering a new century  which also incidentally heralds a new millennium. A century is a period of one hundred years and a millennium, a thousand years. Does a period of a hundred years signify events and developments that alter irrevocably the course of human history? In varying degrees it does. The manner in which the century which we are pushing back down memory lane witnessed developments, which in a big way altered even the thinking processes of those 'few' or 'many' who are credited with original ideas and whose work affected substantial changes, both in the life style and material health of almost a substantial part of humanity. It is also indicated that humanity is poised for changes which most of us are incapable of comprehending at this stage, notwithstanding the futuristic projections that are being made everywhere.

This century witnessed two world wars and several hundred wars between countries which brought in untold misery. Science and Technology illustrated boundless possibilities in combating some of the dreaded diseases; also it developed nuclear arsenal with deadly ramifications. The world is shrunk in size and is fast emerging as a global village. Colonialism is dead and buried. Marx and Freud who offered new visions have also become just historic milestones. Materialism and temptations of consumerism seem to be the controlling factors of the emerging culture. The voices of those like Gandhi who strove for alternative models get drowned in the din and glare of an all-enticing globalism in whose grip the entire humanity finds itself now. To add to the misery and  helplessness, we are caught in the web of a unipolar world. What guides the emerging culture is the MTV music, computer boys, cloning and vulgar display of the wealth of the industrialized west and the neo-rich while more than half of humanity struggles in subhuman situations.

Talk about culture, ethics, spirituality etc. have become things of the past and there is genuine fear and trepidation in the minds of a large number of people all over the world; they are really concerned. What kind of century would the 21st century be and would the new millennium be a coming time of happiness on earth, as the compilers of dictionaries would have us to believe?

The 20th century was a crucial period in India's history. The first half witnessed the nonviolent national movement under Gandhi for political freedom from an unwilling and deeply entrenched British regime while the second half was marked by heroic efforts by the post-independence leadership to rebuild the Indian nation which was divided, poverty-stricken, traditional and essentially agrarian. The problems they inherited were stupendous and bewildering.

Many of the prophets of doom were disappointed when the country registered impressive gain. Within fifty years, it has enriched itself in all fields of economic progress and has become competitive at an international level. It was in agricultural and food front that India attained spectacular success. Fifty years ago, India imported food. Much land remained untilled. The silent but nonviolent revolution affected by Acharya Vinoba Bhave through his unique Bhoodan movement brought about a much needed climate for realizing "Land to the tiller". Without bloodshed, "the Gentle Anarchist" and "walking saint" amazed everyone by his 13 year long trek to the remotest village and in the process checked the violent spirit generated by the extreme groups. The improvements on the agricultural front were spectacular. A country that was begging for food in the fifties of the century became not only self-sufficient in food but also emerged as a surplus nation, not withstanding the phenomenal population explosion.

Taking advantage of this spectacular achievement, the government supplemented these efforts by providing water and power through big irrigation projects. Indian scientists, engineers and technicians, took pride in contribution their mite. Together, everyone contributed to make India economically advance, though the benefits accruing from these could not be commensurate due to the population explosion. Still there has been stupendous progress, which has covered the backward areas too. The process of planning led to economic centralization of power. The imbalance between the urban industrialized rich has yet to be matched by the backward rural poor.

Poverty still stalks despite all the earnest and honest efforts to keep wealth distributed. The alarming gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the high rate of unemployment, the urban and rural divide are issues that will continue to haunt the administrators and planners in the new century.

What would have Gandhi done had he been alive today? It is certainly a hypothetical question. Still if one ventures for an answer it can be seen in the very life of the Mahatma; but if the people of India could not maintain the standards Gandhi prescribed, why blame Gandhi? Despite all this, a fact which many may not dispute is that Gandhi continues to be a living presence in varying degrees, and one could confidently say that the Mahatma's presence and the impact of his gentle stride and admonition still have the power to put sanity in his countrymen whenever they get swayed by emotional issues. The near miracles he achieved in Noakhali and other places, where men became beasts, is part of history and his leadership inspires a considerable segment of Indian masses. The deep impression Gandhi was able to make on the Indian psyche is also unparalleled.

How does one explain the force which brings an estimated number of over 30000 people every day to Rajghat in Delhi where Gandhi was consigned to flames fifty one years ago? Among those who come there are men and women, children, youth, physically handicapped, from all religions and all walks of life. There is nothing imposing to see there either expect a slab and flame. The general feeling is that they don't come there like tourists but come like pilgrims of peace and harmony. The eyes of many, as they go round the marble slabs are found to be wet and once when this writer ventured to ask what their impressions were on visiting this final resting place of the Mahatma, two young men who came from the rural depths of Bihar said, "He died for us. This is a place of inspiration and introduction for us".

"I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice; an India in which there will be no high class and low class of people; an India in which all communities shall live in harmony. Women shall enjoy the same rights as men... All interests not in conflict with the interest of the mute millions will be scrupulously respected, whether foreign or indigenous. I hate distinction between foreign and indigenous. This is the India of my dreams", Gandhi wrote. With over forty percent of people living in subhuman conditions and women who constitute almost a half of the total population struggling for protection of basic human rights and gender equality, has the Gandhian strivings for equality and his dream of social justice become a cry in the wilderness or a distant dream? But then can we expect the Mahatma to live ever with us or to be reborn to solve all our problems? Prudence and sanity requires that we should emulate his life and work along the path he had shown us.

Never before has the country's sovereignty, integrity, institution and the values the country has been cherishing faced such a massive onslaught of sorts as it is of today. There seems to be no part in India left untouched by the growing tendency of terrorism, violence, caste conflicts, secessionism and the rising tide of fundamentalism. The number of innocents who are being killed, whole members of particular families done to death mercilessly is increasing. Respect for authority, unfortunately, seems to be collapsing and anarchy and lawlessness appear to have engulfed this country all of a sudden.

It is generally assumed that it is the growing consumerist culture, wrong development policies, lack of Governmental initiative bordering on apathy towards many of the current problems and the present education system which are responsible for pushing the society to the brink and the younger generation getting negative signals and inputs.

It is not that we as a nation have not developed appropriate instruments in our structures to deal with the various vexed issues that are confronting us today. Over the years the nation has thoughtfully deliberated and developed various measures to usher in a just, corrupt-free social order. But what happened over the years is that the same ingenuity with which these measures were developed, we were able to scuttle them and make them nonfunctional!

Gandhi anticipated such a situation as early as 1937 and clearly and steadily he was working towards launching the second stage of independence struggle when the assassin put an end to his life.

When Gandhi said what we have achieved is only political freedom he was not taken seriously. When he said a free nation should have its own national education programme he was not taken seriously. Far from it, his concept of education was never taken seriously by his countrymen. This is not to deny the half hearted attempts undertaken in the name of basic education. The reality is that at the earliest opportunity, in the face of some opposition mounted by groups with vested interests and western-educated intellectuals who always had difficulty in going along with the alternative visions and strategies Gandhi experimented, the Gandhian pattern of education was given up.

He wanted a National Language to be developed and the reality is that even after Fifty two Years the only language through which at least a considerable segment of Indians can communicate is English.

The 18 point Constructive Programme-the biggest gift of the Mahatma to the Nation besides winning freedom for the country has also been taken only casually by his countrymen. The passion with which Gandhi advocated these programmes had the familiar Gandhian stamp of holistic development and development with compassion and without destruction.

It took forty six years for the Nation to implement Panchayati Rajthat great blue print of the second stage of revolution which Gandhi was envisioning. That too, when it appeared, it was only in a mutilated form. Still what is important is that it is there even though not in the form it was expected. It was indeed a great leap and a sure step towards empowerment of people and decentralization. This might bail out the nation which has been remaining a silent witness to the appalling fall in values and all-round deterioration marked by a disgusting and suffocating atmosphere of self aggrandizement.

The manner in which the villages have been neglected and devastated since independence despite some cosmetic changes effected here and there, calls for immediate and sustained attention of all those who are involved in developmental activities. Planning from bottom, power to the people, involvement of people in the very process of development based on local needs will certainly take into account not only the needs of  each of the villages but also the realities of the situation. The Gandhian dream of development from bottom will give both, economic fibre to the society and spiritual strength to the individuals. The ever-widening circles which Gandhi spoke about will offer sustainable and progressive character to life itself. It is hoped that the villages, which during the last 50 years of our independence, remained the backyard of our comparatively prosperous and unclean cities and towns, will no longer be dependent on the cities and towns once local planning will offer the village youth, peasant, women, craftsmen and artisans gainful employment right in their own villages. Agriculture has to be given attention. By agriculture what is meant here is not commercial agriculture but that agriculture which will make the villagers self-sufficient in food. It should not be market oriented. Its primary objective should be to give food to the food growers. The example provided to us by Fukuoka in Japan should be a model. All small land holding farmers will have to be provided some farmland for 'natural farming'. This natural farming will not require chemical fertilizers, pesticides etc. which in the long run destroy the quality and fertility of the soil. By adopting natural farming, we will be giving, in the long run, both health and rest to the soil long enough to enable it to regain its fertility. The One Straw Revolution by Fukuoka offers immense possibilities for adoption.

Unless enough employment opportunities are created in each of the villages, we will soon face a situation which will not only create city life, which has already become miserable due to over-crowding, pollution, increasing crimes, over burgeoning of slums, but also the disguieting trend of unemployed youth falling into the hands of those who offer immediate 'Revolution' and other avenues bordering on terrorism and other escapades, is to be taken note of. We should learn enough lessons from three of the recent developments when the truck owners, milk suppliers and vegetable growers in the neighbouring states of Delhi went on strike pressing their demands on different occasions. Life almost came to a stand-still besides rising prices in these items which forced the common public to go without vegetables and milk, sending shock-waves all-round. It is a fact that the cities do not produce any of the essential items of food; they depend on villages and when those items produced in the villages do not reach the urban centres both the urban and the rural centers suffer. The situation in the villages is very alarming and there is no point in quarrelling with the observations made by some of the planners recently that during the last 50 years the face of rural India has not improved, it has only shrunk because of malnutrition and lack of attention. Unemployment and poverty stalk every village and stare menacingly at over 40 percent of the Indian population.

When Gandhi offered the Charkha, he did not consider it as a magic wand which would remove the poverty of India at one stroke nor did he view it essentially as something that would meet all the economic needs of those who take to spinning. It certainly had an economic content but its ability to reform individuals and shape national character is the key to radical transformation of society where exploitation still exits in some form or the other. Gandhi believed that the Charkha would restore our national vision which, for various reasons now has been distorted. Much more than any of these, he hoped, it would bring back the message of plain, simple and honest living. It would be an instrument for transforming our society into a nonviolent, classless and egalitarian one. It would also act as a self-dependent healthy social organism. How far are we today from this dream, is the question each one of us has to ask? Those  who scoff at the Charkha should be able to offer an alternative. It may be noted that until today, nobody has been able to offer a credible alternative to the Charkha. It is here that the relevance of the Charkha and much of what Gandhi propagated and lived for come in.

It may also be debated as to what is the relevance of Gandhi's insistence on simple living in the light of the growing consumeristic culture. Is Gandhi out of time with the changing times or is he not reminding us of the law of Nature?

''Indeed, I believe that independent India can only discharge her duty towards a groaning world by adopting a simple but ennobled life, by developing her thousands of cottage industries and living at peace with the world. High thinking is inconsistent with complicated material life based on high speed imposed on us by Mammon worship. All the graces of life are possible only when we learn the art of living nobly", Gandhi wrote in Harijan on September1, 1946.

Not that everybody is silent and nothing happens. All over India small and meaningful efforts are being undertaken by well-meaning and well intentioned institutions. Strengthening of Panchayati Raj institutions and empowering people to voice their grievances and involve them in developmental activities and in the planning process itself have been gaining ground. Proper support to those who are prepared to stand up and fight is also discernible in many parts of the country. This is a welcome development. What the nation needs is an honest introspection to find out where we have gone wrong and what could be done to stem the rot before it further eats into the vitals. Introspection is the need of the hour. We need to think seriously of the seven social sins which Gandhi highlighted:

Politics without principle

Pleasure without conscience

Wealth without work

Knowledge without character

Commerce without morality

Science without humanity

Worship without sacrifice

Gandhi stood like a sentinel between the warring communities and by shedding his blood at the alter of communal harmony. He effected a truce which acted like a cementing force until determined groups of politicians and self-styled religious leaders, who are motivated by political ambitions, have created unprecedented situations of suspicion and hatred leading to violence. It is our duty to continue the unfinished work of the Mahatma in the field of communal harmony, removal of untouchability, ensuring social justice and by launching a massive campaign to eliminate gender inequality.

The amazing manner in which social structures have been changing, particularly during the latter half of the 20th century, thanks to the breathtaking developments in the field of science and technology, have added, in the wake of these developments, new anxieties for the entire humanity. These winds have been sweeping across India as well in a big a way. In a sense, a new civilization, a new world order, a new style of living have almost set in, whether anyone likes it or not.

Gandhi's contribution  or relevance needs to be viewed in the light of these emerging scenarios as well as the basic rhythm of life. To some, Gandhi was a dreamer, utopian, pacifist whose formulations are impracticable. The number of those who believe that he was eminently practical is very large. His work in south Africa for 21 years and 32 years of work in India reveal unmistakably that what he said and did were complementary.

Gandhi knit the 'ethnic museum' of India into a modern nation from a motley crowd of ethnic and linguistic identities who had lost their courage to stand up and fight for justice. He infused courage into the people to discover themselves and shed fears. In this process he became the voice of the voiceless and a slave nation suddenly found its utterances and he thus molded a new generation of freedom loving people who were not afraid of torture, jails or death. He also offered a credible non-violent alternative and in a way he was challenging all those who scoffed at him and paved the way for a new civilization to emerge. It is for us to draw our lesson and shape our destiny. Do we have the courage? That is the big question staring at each of us as we enter the new millennium.

Source:  International Workshop on Nonviolence in the twentieth century and their lessons for the twenty first October 5-12,1999,  New Delhi