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Gandhi and Globalisation
By Aruni Mukherjee
University of Warwick
It seems ironic that world wide anti-globalisation movements often portray Gandhi as someone who shared the same side of the ideological spectrum, when Gandhi himself was clearly a product of globalisation. He was educated in London, started his political activities in South Africa before he even joined the political arena in India and was greatly influenced by western figures such as Jesus, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Ruskin. Gandhi himself identifies globalisation as an ancient phenomenon, whereby he claimed that it was not a bigger threat to India as various races starting from the Greeks and Huns to the British had invaded India but ended up being a part of the nation. He believed that the mingling of cultures in India would not be a threat to India’s own customs and culture. However, he did identify that the establishment of a global society would carry certain dangers for the sovereign nations such as colonialism, both cultural and political, industrialisation and commercialisation of the economy leading to class antagonism and environmental hazards. Today, we see many of those problems emerge clearly in our lives and hence, Gandhi’s relationship with globalisation remains extremely important and his ideas valid even today.
Gandhi himself was a great believer in the preservation of the ancient Indian culture and norms of society. However, with India’s integration in the world community, especially during the last decade of the 20th century, it could be argued that western cultural hegemony has affected India and most other developing countries. Urban India today seems very much in an age of ‘diet Coke, flat screen televisions and super express highways’. It is not this that Gandhi would have been against, but it is the automatic assumption of the superiority of anything originating from the west that Gandhi would be dissatisfied with. These problems are very much real in today’s India―crash diet courses and anti-wrinkle treatment creams have been a fad in urban India, yet Gandhi would argue that the Indian alternatives are in no way, inferior. Consumerism is another western attitude that Gandhi would be against, a phenomenon which is rapidly engulfing urban India’s middle classes. However, this is not to say that cultural globalisation is something which we should vehemently oppose. In the latter half of the 1990s and in the early years of the new millennium, we clearly notice a reversal of trends in some ways. It is increasingly seen that Indian culture, along with ones like Chinese, have influenced the west in many ways. Oriental restaurants are on every major street of most of the famous western cities, there is a considerable Oriental diaspora among the top professionals and academics in the west, Indian music, films, Oriental clothes are getting a global fame. This is something Gandhi would have highly appreciated―a true global culture without a hegemonistic impact which was witnessed in the first phase of globalisation and undisputed western dominance.
Since the Russian revolution, the world has been broadly divided into the socialist and capitalist sphere. However, with the demise of the USSR, the communist ideology has been thrown in the ‘dustbin of history’ by many theorists―Francis Fukayama being the most prominent. However, evils of liberal hegemony are also coming to the forefront―increasing inequality in countries embracing capitalism, huge balance of trade deficits tying up developing countries to western corporations and WTO/IMF norms leading to crisis and bankruptcy in many countries. In such a scenario, Gandhi and his ideas on the economy are being hailed by many as the ‘Third Way’―a suitable compromise between the leftists and free marketeers that ought to suit all classes. However, if we scrutinise Gandhian attitudes towards economics, we find a lot of similarities with both liberalism and communism. For instance, through the Swadeshi Movement, Gandhi advocated rejection of western textile and home spinning of cotton for Indians―this amounts to very much left wing protectionism which Nehruvian India adopted for over 35 years until under Dr. Manmohan Singh, India began its journey to free market economics. On the other hand, Gandhi backed small and decentralised form of government which sided very much with liberal views. This, however, was rejected by India ever since independence and a huge bureaucracy was established under Nehru, the brunt of which is still borne by India. Thus, Gandhi held a very idealist view of economic globalisation where states would be self sufficient on most accounts but mutually dependent on some. His view negated the cornerstone of the principle of succeeding in modern economics―rapid industrialisation. Self sufficiency can only be maintained by maintaining a competitive edge in today’s world of free market. Without unique selling points, domestic industries are bound to be overrun by a foreign competitor. Gandhi’s views rested on the principles of co-operation and understanding―today it’s more about competition and profit making. However, Gandhi’s desire to safeguard peasants' rights seems valid even today, where one of the most heated debates on the WTO is between the US, EU and G20 led by India and Brazil about agricultural subsidies.
Gandhi’s movements to earn rights for Indians through strictly non-violent movements both in South Africa and India have been an invaluable component of the globalisation of the civil rights movement. There is little doubt that the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1960s led by ‘one of the greatest American leaders of our time’ was the echo of ‘the forces unleashed by Gandhi in 1930s’. The strict adherence to non-violent means by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., despite various provocations, portrays the depth of Gandhian beliefs in the American Negroes’ civil rights movement. At the risk of oversimplification, we can claim that it was Gandhian ideology that prevented this movement to turn into another West Bank. The Gandhian satyagraha was also adopted in South Africa firstly by the Natal Indian Congress and later personified by Nelson Mandela. In this age of violence, many of the most important civil rights movements throughout the world have been remarkably Gandhian in practice. The most notable ones include the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9, overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and pro-democracy movements in Nepal, Indonesia, Burma, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea. The recent revolution in Georgia is another example of non-violent populist powers prevailing over a minority elite. These movements have often met with violent resistance, as in Tiananmen Square, yet haven’t changed their own nature.
A major part of Gandhi’s criticisms towards industrialisation was geared towards preserving India’s rich natural resources. As globalisation has progressed, so has the tendency to try and exploit every possible resource in the country to increase the GDP. Rapid deforestation has occurred throughout the developing world and serious environmental hazards are faced by most developing countries today. Moreover, corporate power has undermined governmental efforts at curbing environmental loss, as the American withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol vividly depicted. However, conservation processes led by the UN and also at the national and even local level, are gradually gathering speed in the second phase of globalisation, i.e., whereby most of the evils of globalisation are now being questioned and checked. Gandhi is the precursor of the modern Green Movement. As early as 1970s, the Chipko Movement in northern India was a Gandhian movement aimed at stopping the mindless felling of trees for industrial purposes. Related to this movement, is the issue of women’s role in society and Gandhian perspectives on this issue. Interestingly, women like Gauri and Ganga Devi were at the forefront of the Chipko Movement. Globally, women have come to the forefront of developments in a much greater proportion, although they remain highly under-represented in the legislatures of most democracies, despite now having universal suffrage and rights as men. In India itself, the Women’s Bill remains stuck in parliament to this day. Gandhi clearly defined the roles of men and women and defined women to be the dictator of domestic affairs while the man being the one to go out into the public sphere. This view has not only been overturned in the west, but also in India, whereby women are increasingly coming forward as equals of men in every sphere of life.
One of the fields where Gandhian philosophy has been totally rejected is that of global spread of violence. Throughout the post WWII period when globalisation was maturing, numerous conflicts outline the Cold War. To this day, bitter conflicts exist in numerous parts of the world, notable ones being in Africa, Middle East, Chechnya and Kashmir. Post 9/11 has also seen international terrorism coming to the global arena with new and hideous dedication towards violent means. This spread of violence can be directly linked to the globalisation process. The only consolation remains that non-violence in anti-globalisation movements remains alive as can be seen in any protests outside a WTO convention.
Thus, the crucial question facing us surely is―Are the notions of Gandhi and Globalisation contradictory? Not necessarily, it seems. Some of his ideas may seem utopian and unrealistic in the global society today, while others may seem in direct opposition to everything globalisation and liberalisation stands for. However, many of his principles remain valid even today and applied worldwide, the most notable being the principle of satyagraha. He brought forward practical issues facing the globalisation process today―that of environmental concerns, equality of rights for all, rural development and evils of violence. However, to sum up Gandhian attitudes towards globalisation as it stands today, it seems apt to conclude by quoting Kaviguru Ravindranath Tagore -
"We have for over a century been dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot, choked by the dust, deafened by the noise, humbled by our own helplessness and overwhelmed by the speed. We agreed to acknowledge that this chariot-drive was progress, and the progress was civilisation. If we ever ventured to ask, `progress towards what, and progress for whom', it was considered to be peculiarly and ridiculously oriental to entertain such ideas about the absoluteness of progress. Of late, a voice (Gandhi) has come to us to take count not only of the scientific perfection of the chariot but of the depth of the ditches lying in its path."
 Quoted in Jan Oberg, In Birla House with Gandhi
 Jan Oberg, In Birla House with Gandhi
 Sunit Bezbaroowa, The Ascetic Journey
 BBC News Online, Keeping up with the Jones
 Niranjan Ramakrishnan, What’s so great about Gandhi anyway?
 James Morrison, Legacy of Gandhi- King
 Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p. 147
 Richard Falk, Gandhi, Non-Violence and the Struggle Against War
 R Sudarshan, Globalisation and Gandhi at the Dawn of the New Millennium
 Subhashini Sundararajan, The Chipko Movement
 Subhashini Sundararajan, Role of Women in The Chipko Movement
 Quoted in R Sudarshan, Globalisation and Gandhi at the Dawn of the New Millennium