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Why Gandhi Still Matters

By Ramachandra Guha
Livemint - Delhi, India

Why 61 years after his death, both left- and right-wing extremists feel the need to vilify him. Why answers to the world’s most pressing crises lie in his teachings
Since independence and Partition, no event has so divided the Indian people as the demolition of a mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya in December 1992. Hindu radicals claimed that the mosque, known as the Babri Masjid, was built on the ruins of a temple, and that the site itself was the birthplace of god Ram. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, bands of volunteers tried to storm the mosque, in the process provoking a series of bloody riots across northern India.
Shortly before the Babri Masjid was destroyed, a group of Gandhians visited Ayodhya. They were led by a woman named Sushila Nayar, an 80-year-old physician who had worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi. A prayer meeting conducted by Nayar ended in the singing of Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, a favourite hymn of the Mahatma. When they came to the line Ishwar Allah Tero Naam (God is named both Ishwar and Allah), the meeting was disrupted by shouts and slogans. A section of the crowd surged towards the stage. Nayar came down to explain to the protesters that the singers had come “on behalf” of Gandhi (“hum Gandhijiki taraf se aye hain”). “Aur hum Godse ki taraf se,” the disruptionists are said to have replied: we have come on behalf of (Gandhi’s assassin) Nathuram Godse, and like him, we think you Gandhians are too soft on the Muslims.
In contemporary India, it is not just the Hindu right that detests Gandhi. So does the Maoist left, which has recently been described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the “greatest internal security threat” facing the nation. As readers of this newspaper know, the Indian Maoists are known as Naxalites, after a village in north Bengal where their movement began in 1967. Two years after the birth of naxalism, the world celebrated the centenary of Gandhi’s birth. Through that year, 1969, the Naxalites brought down statues of the Mahatma in towns and villages across West Bengal. Occasionally, by way of variation, they entered a government office to vandalize his portrait.
The Maoists were vanquished in the 1970s by a combination of police action and killings by cadres of rival Communist groupings. But they later revived, and are especially powerful now in the states of central and eastern India. Now they have once more made their presence felt in West Bengal. They were blamed, probably accurately, for a recent attempt on the life of chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
The rise of the Maoists in the 1980s and beyond owes much to the work of a former schoolteacher named Kondapalli Seetaramaiah. He was the head of the Peoples War Group which, especially in Andhra Pradesh, mounted a series of daring attacks on railway stations and police camps. The police finally arrested KS (as he was known); but then he feigned illness and was admitted to hospital, from where he escaped.
It took the police two years to recapture Seetaramaiah. A journalist later asked him what he had done when on the run. KS replied that he went from the hospital in Hyderabad to Gandhi’s birthplace in Gujarat, some 900 miles (about 1448km) away. Here the revolutionary got off the train and took a rickshaw to the Mahatma’s parental home, now a museum dedicated to his memory. “I went there and spat on the maggu,” KS told the reporter, maggu being the Telugu word for the painted decorations placed outside most Indian shrines. Thus did this Maoist show his contempt for a man acknowledged to be the Father of the Indian Nation.
Extremists despise Gandhi—what, however, of the vital centre? For much of the time that India has been an independent nation, the government in New Delhi has been run by the Congress party, to which Gandhi himself belonged. On the day of independence, 15 August 1947, the Mahatma was striving for communal peace in Kolkata. When the new ministers of the Bengal government went to seek his blessings, Gandhi told them that they had been tested during the British regime: “But in a way it has been no test at all. But now there will be no end to your being tested. Do not fall prey to the lure of wealth. May God help you! You are there to serve the villages and the poor.”
To say that Indian politicians have since dishonoured Gandhi’s advice would be a colossal understatement. The first betrayal, perhaps, was the abandonment of the villages and the poor. Through the 1950s and the 1960s, the economic policy of the state focused on the urban-industrial sector. Agriculture and crafts were neglected; so, even more grievously, was primary education.
There still remained something “Gandhian” about the men in power; they were, on the whole, not personally corrupt. However, from the 1970s, politicians began abusing their position to enrich themselves and their families. A global survey carried out by Gallup in 2004 found that the lack of confidence in politicians was highest in India. As many as 91% of those polled felt that their elected representatives were not honest.
What remains of Gandhi and Gandhism in India today? Before answering this question, let me note that like the Buddha, Gandhi was born in the Indian subcontinent but does not belong to this land alone. Just as the Buddha found his most devoted adherents elsewhere, the legacy of Gandhi has been admirably taken over by Martin Luther King, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. It is a matter of shame that Gandhi was never awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; the shame is also felt by those who decide on the prize in Oslo, who have since made amends by awarding it to the four “Gandhians” mentioned above.
Within India, meanwhile, a Gandhian tradition exists outside politics. There is a vigorous environmental movement, which has campaigned against the excesses of industrial development and worked to promote renewable energy and small-scale irrigation systems. These Greens often begin or end their programmes on 2nd October, Gandhi’s birthday. The Gandhian influence is also present in the feminist and human rights movements, where it co-exists with tendencies drawing inspiration from other, more conventionally left-wing political traditions. Doctors and teachers inspired by Gandhi leave their city homes to run clinics and schools in the countryside. And at least a handful of India’s many millionaires are influenced by Gandhi. Where the majority hoard their wealth or spend it on jewellery and foreign holidays, there are some titans who have given away vast amounts of money to promote primary education and transparency in governance.
What should remain of Gandhi and Gandhism in the world today? Sixty-one years after his death, some of his teachings are plainly irrelevant. For example, his ideas on food (his diet consisted chiefly of nuts and fruits and boiled vegetables) and sex (he imposed a strict celibacy on his followers) can hardly find favour with the majority of humans. That said, there are at least four areas in which Gandhi’s ideas remain of interest and importance.
The first is the environment. The economic rise of China and India has brought a long suppressed, and quintessentially Gandhian, question to the fore: How much should a person consume? So long as the West had a monopoly on modern lifestyles, the question simply did not arise. But if most Chinese and most Indians come, like most Americans and most Englishmen, to own and drive a car, this will place unbearable burdens on the earth. Back in 1928, Gandhi had warned about the unsustainability, on the global scale, of Western patterns of production and consumption. “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West,” he said. “The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”
The second area is faith. Gandhi was at odds both with secularists who confidently looked forward to God’s funeral, and with monotheists who insisted that theirs was the one and true God. Gandhi believed that no religion had a monopoly on the truth. He argued that one should accept the faith into which one was born (hence his opposition to conversion), but seek always to interpret it in the most broad-minded and nonviolent way. And he actively encouraged friendships across religions. His own best friend was a Christian priest, C.F. Andrews. In his ashram he held a daily prayer meeting at which texts from different religions were read or sung. At the time, his position appeared eccentric; in retrospect, it seems to be precocious. In a world driven by religious misunderstanding, it can help cultivate mutual respect and recognition.
The third (and perhaps most obvious) area is nonviolent resistance. That social change is both less harmful and more sustainable when achieved by nonviolent means is now widely recognized. A study of some 60 transitions to democratic rule since World War II, by the think tank Freedom House, found that “far more often than is generally understood, the change agent is broad-based, nonviolent civic resistance—which employs tactics such as boycotts, mass protests, blockades, strikes and civil disobedience to de-legitimate authoritarian rulers and erode their sources of support, including the loyalty of their armed defenders.” These, of course, were all methods of protest pioneered by Gandhi.
The fourth area is public life. In his Reflections on Gandhi, George Orwell wrote that “regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!” In an age of terror, politicians may not be able to live as open a life as Gandhi. There were no security-men posted outside his ashram; visitors of any creed and nationality would walk in when they chose. Still, the politicians (and activists) of today might at least emulate his lack of dissembling and his utter lack of reliance on “spin”. His campaigns of civil disobedience were always announced in advance. His social experiments were minutely dissected in the pages of his newspapers, the comments of his critics placed alongside his own.
Gandhi was a Hindu; but his Hinduism was altogether less dogmatic than that of the fundamentalists of today. Gandhi fought against injustice; but without recourse to the gun and without demonizing his adversary. That, six decades after his death, the extremists of left and right still need to vilify him is in itself a considerable tribute to the relevance of his thought. So, in a somewhat different way, is the need for mainstream politicians to garland portraits of Gandhi even as their practice is at odds with the man they profess to honour.
Gandhi was a prophet of sorts, but by no means a joyless one. On a visit to London in 1931 he met a British monarch for the first and last time. When he came out of Buckingham Palace after speaking with George VI, a reporter asked whether he had not felt cold in his loin-cloth. Gandhi answered, “The King had enough on for both of us.” Another version has Gandhi saying, “The King wears plus-fours; I wear minus-fours.” In those self-deprecatory jokes lies a good deal of (still enduring) wisdom.