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Gandhi in Sharper Focus

By B. R. Nanda

“I am not built for academic writings,” Gandhi wrote, “action is my domain.” He was constantly trying to understand the world around him, but he was not content with interpreting it; he wanted to transform it. His “mission” was to “convert every Indian, whether he is a Hindu, Muslim or any other, even Englishman, and finally the world, to non-violence for regulating mutual relations.”

The vast corpus of Gandhian thought, recording as it does the day-to-day, and indeed hour-to-hour, response of the Mahatma to men and events over half a century, lacks the architectural symmetry of the philosophical edifices built in the privacy of the study by such men as Karl Marx, Weber and Freud.

That Gandhi’s idea did not fit into neat categories was not the only barrier between him and his Western critics. To the British, he remained an enigma till the end. They were unable to appreciate the cultural context of his ideas and he touched them on a tender spot: the racial prejudices and vested interest of their empire. A few exceptional individuals such as Romain Rolland, Albert Einstein and C.F. Andrews could recognize Gandhi’s stature, but the common image of the Mahatma in Europe and America oscillated between that of whimsical saint and that of wily politician. Stanley Jones has recorded how in the 1930s, Gandhi was a “semi-joke with the people of the West”. An English Quaker, John S. Hoyland, noted in 1931 that satyagraha was “looked upon in the West… as ridiculous and undignified. Working class audiences when told about it characterised as “grown-up sulks”. More educated audiences regard it with cold disfavour. It is too exotic, too unconventional, in a word, too Christian for us”.

Of the Indian leaders of the time, none was closer to Gandhi than Gokhale, but even Gokhale laughed at the opinions expressed in Hind Swaraj and told Gandhi: “After you have stayed in India, your views will correct themselves.”

Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State in the British Cabinet, who visited India in 1917, noted in his diary that Gandhi was a “pure visionary”. This verdict would have been endorsed by most Indian politicians of the day. Gandhi’s criticisms of industrialism and Western civilization grated on their ears. The English-educated class in India, since the days of Raja Rammohun Roy, had sought re-make itself in the Western image. That Western education was the open sesame to modernisation, that India must tread, however slowly, the salvation lay in industrialisation on the European model-all these were self-evident propositions to the educated elite. If the Government of India had not banned Hind Swaraj in 1910, it is not unlikely that it would have been ignored or laughed out of court in India.

Scepticism about Gandhi’s philosophy of life continued to be voiced long after he became a dominant figure on the Indian political stage. In 1921 Rabindranath Tagore deplored the “Chinese wall” being built by the non-cooperation between India and the West, and called it “spiritual suicide”.  About the same time, Sir Sankaran Nair, a former Congress President, who had been a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, wrote a book with the startling title, Gandhi and Anarchy, in which he accused Gandhi of undermining the foundations of society and the State. Some of the closest colleagues of the Mahatma were troubled by doubts even while they followed his lead. Jawaharlal Nehru voiced some of these doubts in his autobiography, and quoted Verrier Elwin’s description of the Mahatma as “a medieval Catholic saint”. “We cannot stop the river of change”, Nehru wrote, “or cut ourselves adrift from it, and psychologically, we who have eaten the apple of Eden cannot forget the taste and go back to primitiveness”. In the thirties Gandhi was the chosen target of Indian radicals. Socialists and Communists, who talked of the inevitability of class-war, questioned the efficacy of non-violence in solving India’s social and political problems. Among his sharpest critics were M. N. Roy and Jayaprakash Narayan, who considered Gandhi an evangelist of a reactionary philosophy.

True spirituality, he averred, was not a speculation on the Absolute, however profound and philosophical; nor was it a quest for personal salvation. His favourite hymn began with the line:- “He alone is a true devotee of God who understands the pains and sufferings of others.” “The divinity of man,” he affirmed, “manifests itself according to the extent he realises his humanity, i.e. his oneness with this country men”.

The fact is that Gandhi’s religion was indistinguishable from humanism. He creatively re-interpreted age-old concepts. Of maya (the world being an illusion), he said, that “we cannot dismiss the suffering of our fellow creatures and therefore provide a moral alibi for ourselves.” Dharma was the performance of duty not only by the citizens, but by the rulers as well. Fasting had long been part of a spiritual regimen; Gandhi made it a part of the armoury of satyaraha. An Ashram was commonly considered a haven from the hurly-burly of life for personal salvation; Gandhi’s ashrams were, however, not merely places for spiritual seeking, but offered training in social service, rural uplift, elementary education, removal of untouchability and the practice of non-violence.

He did not make a frontal attack on the caste system but he did more to undermine it than anyone else. He rejected stratification of society based on birth and denounced untouchability. His view on the case system became progressively more radical; the climax was reached when he insisted that for a marriage to be celebrated in his ashram, one of the partners had to be Harijan.

Though most of the leaders of the Congress, and indeed the rank and file, accepted non-violence as a political tactic in the  struggle against the British Raj, they never really subscribed to it as a way of life. When Gandhi filled the pages of Young India, and the “Harijan” with homilies on non-violence, they were taken as doctrines too lofty for ordinary mortals. During the years immediately preceding the Second World War, when the Congress was in office in eight provinces, his opposition to the use of the police to quell communal riots seemed odd to Congress ministers. And during the Second World War, when he discussed the possibilities of a non-violent defense of India against external aggression, he could not carry the majority in the Congress Working Committee with him. The Congress leaders were willing to join in the war against the Axis Powers, provided a national government with real power could be formed in India.

Thus it was that in the last phase of the transfer of power, Gandhi found himself ploughing a lonely furrow. The very violence which in the opinion of his Congress colleagues and that of the British Government provided a compelling motive for the partition of the country was, for him, an irresistible argument against it; to accept partition because of the fear of civil war was to acknowledge that “everything was to be got if violence was perpetrated in sufficient measure.”

Strangely enough, when it came to framing the Constitution, the Constituent Assembly took little notice of Gandhi’s views. Gandhi had written extensively on the rights and duties of the citizens and the State, but had never prepared a blueprint for the governance of independent India. Still, it is clear from the foreword he wrote in S. M. Aggarwal’s A Gandhian Constitution for Free India, published in 1946, that in Gandhi’s concept of decentralization, the primary political unit was to be the village panchayat elected by the adults of the village. It was to assess and collect revenue, supervise co-operative farming, irrigation, village industries and manage the schools and the police. Above the village panchayats was to be a hierarchy of panchayats-indirectly elected-at the taluka, district and provincial levels, and at the apex the all-India panchayat.

These ideas do not seem to have made much impression on the framers of the Indian Constitution. The Experts Committee formed by the Congress Working Committee in July 1946 recommended a federal and parliamentary form of government. A number of committees of the Constituent Assembly, deliberated on various aspects of the constitution, but do not seem to have given much thought to the Gandhian approach. The Drafting Committee, which was in session for four months from October 1947 to February 1948, borrowed freely from American and British Constitution, and from the Government of India Act of 1935, but it did not even mention the word “Panchayat”. Not until November 1948, and almost as a second thought, was a clause added on panchayats; it became Article 40 of the Constitution.

Gandhi’s ideas were ignored by the framers of the Constitution for the simple reason that the politically conscious class in India had always admired the British parliamentary system. The Commonwealth of India Bill, drafted on the initiative of Mrs. Annie Besant, the Nehru Report prepared by a committee headed by Motilal Nehru, and the Sapru Committee Report produced by a group of Liberal leaders, all took the parliamentary system of government for granted. To most Indian politicians, whether of the right or the left, the Gandhian model seemed neither practical politics nor practical economics. And more so in 1947, when the edifice of Indian politics and society had been severely shaken by communal turmoil and the secession of the Pakistan provinces.

To Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad and other national leaders, the critical question in1947-49 was how to repair the damage inflicted by partition, and to hold the country together. They did not think Gandhi’s village-based economy could generate enough resources to end poverty, and make up the backlog of lost centuries. They felt that a strong central government and a highly industrialized economy were essential to safeguard national independence and to rid the country of poverty and backwardness. They knew that Western political and economic models were not perfect, but they hoped to improve upon them.

Further, some of the complacency and even arrogance, which unlimited vistas of progress had inspired in the developed countries earlier in his century, have worn off. It is becoming clear that while science and technology have rendered tremendous services to mankind, they are likely before long (to use the words of Andre Malraux) to present their bill and the bill is going to be heavy.

The looming threat of a nuclear holocaust and ecological disaster has had a chastening effect. Grave social stresses, the by-products of a runaway technology and unbridled economic growth, are casting a shadow on the viability and even wisdom of the Western economic model. Even in advanced “Third World” countries, the great majority of the population has not been lifted out of the mire of poverty. Indeed, the gap between the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural, the educated and the illiterate has widened.

It is a curious fact that with the passage of time, the initial scepticism of some eminent colleagues and contemporaries gave way to better understanding and finally to conversion to Gandhi’s views. Jawaharlal Nehru felt closer to Gandhi, when he wrote the Discovery of India than when he penned his Autobiography; in his last year he was speaking almost in Gandhian accents, pleading he linking of ‘scientific and spiritual approaches’. M. N. Roy, once sharply critical of Gandhi’s ‘religious approach to politics’, confessed that he had failed to detect the secular approach beneath the religious idiom, and the essentially ‘moral, humanist and cosmopolitan’ character of Gandhi’s message. As for Jayprakash Narayan, he made a rapid transition from a rebel to a devotee of the Mahatma, and spent the rest of his life in expounding his thought and methods.

Some Western thinkers seem to have passed through a similar process. In his Jesting Pilate, Aldous Huxley had asserted that “to one fresh from India and Indian spirituality, Henry Ford seemed a greater man than the Buddha.” In a letter to his brother Julian Huxley, he ridiculed Gandhi as one “who plays the ascetic in his loin cloth”. However in his Science, Liberty and Peace, published in 1945, Huxley argued that the record of Gandhi’s achievement was not irrelevant to the historical and psychological situation of the industrial West. He echoed the Gandhian doubts on industrialism, which made life fundamentally unliveable for all, and suggested that scientists should work on small scale machinery, co-operatives and natural sources of energy like the sun and the wind. And finally, in the “Gandhi Memorial Number” of Visva Bharati Quarterly, Huxley wrote:

“Gandhi’s social and economic ideas are based upon a realistic appraisal of man’s nature and the nature of his position in the universe….He knew, on the one hand, that the cumulative triumphs of advancing organization and progressive technology cannot alter the basic fact that man is an animal of no great size and in most cases, of very modest abilities…. Men, he said, should do their actual living and working in communities of a size commensurate with their bodily and moral stature, communities small enough to permit genuine self-government and assumption of personal responsibilities, federated into large units in such a way that the temptation to abuse great power should not arise.”

In India, the Mahatma’s name commands much reverence, but little real interest and less understanding. In the universities the dice is loaded against him. Political parties often use his name and the term “Satyagraha” indiscriminately for forms of protest, which are a travesty of Gandhi’s methods. Politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen pay ritual homage to the “Father of the Nation”, without realizing that their lives could be enriched and their capacity for public good enhanced by the insights which Gandhi has left us.

One wonders whether Tagore’s prophecy would come true. “The West”, Tagore wrote, “will accept Gandhi before the East. For the West has gone through the cycle of dependence on force and material things of life and has become disillusioned… The East has not gone through materialism and hence, hasn’t become disillusioned yet.”

Courtesy: The National Herald. B. R. Nanda is former Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library New Delhi.
Among his books are: Mahatma Gandhi - a biography, the Nehrus & Gokhale, and Gandhi & His Critics.