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The Gandhian Initiatives for Human Rights

By N. Radhakrishnan

Two incidents – one in 1893 in South Africa, the second in 1956 in USA – that changed the course history of civil rights movement for human rights in the world are, (1) the eviction of Mohandas Gandhi from the train at Petermaritzburg in South Africa for having dared to travel in a first-class compartment, and (2) Mrs. Rosa Parks’ stout refusal to vacate a seat she had occupied in a public bus in Montgomery in Alabama, USA and her readiness to be fined for this ‘crime’ she had committed.  Strangely, few human rights activists and champions of civil rights have cared to study the enormous impact of these two identical incidents during the course of humanity’s march to ensure equal civil rights to citizens and the strong urge of human spirit to rise in revolt when basic rights or freedom are violated or denied.  A quick glance at these two incidents will reveal amazing similarity of nonviolent assertion of the individual’s right to life and of equality and the inalienable right of human beings not to be segregated on the basis of one’s colour of race. 

Besides the train incident which offered Gandhi a fore-taste of what awaited him in South India, there were a series of incidents which unmasked the dehumanizing face of untouchability, as practiced by the white rulers in South Africa.  The first shock was in the court when he was asked to take off his turban.  Shortly thereafter he was sent out to work in a neighbouring area, the Transvaal.  A coloured man traveling first class in Transvaal in 1893 was a crime and Gandhi, the young barrister, was asked to move to lower class.  Gandhi said, “I was permitted to travel in this compartment at Durban, and I insist on going on in it.” 

“No, you won’t.  you must leave this compartment, else I shall have to call a police constable to push you out”, said the railway official. 

Gandhi remained firm, and said, “Yes, you may.  I refuse to get out voluntarily.” 

Gandhi was forced out from the train, and his baggage was thrown out on the platform.  He went to the waiting room, where he thought as to what he should do.  The night was cold and Gandhi’s overcoat was in his baggage, but he feared to ask for it lest he should be insulted again.  He considered whether he should throw up his work and go back to India.  But it came to his mind that the insult that had been done was only a thing of the surface, and that underneath there lay the deep disease of prejudice against colour; and he decided that he should not only go on with his work but make himself ready to suffer hardship so that the disease itself might be rooted out. 

Gandhi had been put off the train in the town of Maritzburg, and in the morning the Indian merchants of that place came to console him.  They consoled him with stories of their own hardship.  In the evening Gandhi took the train again and went on without trouble.  But he had to travel a distance by stage-coach, and the conductor of the coach would not let him sit inside.  After a time he would not even let him sit any longer on the coach box outside.  The conductor pointed to the dirty footboard of the coach and said: “Sammy, you sit on this: I want to sit near the driver.”  Gandhi trembled with shame and with fear, but he would not come down from the box.  The man swore and used his strength trying to pull Gandhi down, but Gandhi clung to the brass rails of the box and would not let go.  Then the people inside the coach cried out against the conductor and insisted the Gandhi be seated inside among them. 

The second incident that relates to Mrs. Rosa Parks, who is today hailed at the ‘Mother of Human Rights’, a Negro woman in her thirties boarded a city bus and sat on a seat and she had no intention to break the law of segregation which was in vogue in the state of Alabama.  She was promptly ordered to vacate the seat and move to the back of the bus.  She was neither a member of any group of civil rights activists nor was it a premeditated or political strategy.  She preferred to be arrested and fined for her defiance rather than meekly submitting to a revolting practice that perpetrated violation of basic human rights.  The now-famous Montgomery bus strike and the subsequent massive non-violent civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King opened up immense possibilities of the potential of every human being to stand up and fight for his or her freedom and rights.  

The city of Maritzburg, a hundred years later in 1994, posthumously conferred on Gandhi a Gold Medal and citation in recognition of Gandhi’s fight for human rights and freedom and Gandhi’s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi received the honour which was later handed over to the Indian Prime Minister Sri. I.K. Gujral at a special function held at the same railway station where Gandhi was thrown out of the compartment.  The High Commissioner of South Africa to India, Dr. Matsila speaking at a dedication ceremony later at the Gandhi Smriti, New Delhi, pointed out the immense significance of the incident in humanity’s ‘transition to just and human social and political order based on respect for individual freedom’. 

I remember with excitement a chance meeting I had with Mrs. Rosa Parks at Los Angeles in 1996 when both of us were to address a conference on Non-violent Strategies to a non-killing social order to a group of trainers of non-violence.  Reminiscing on the harrowing experience she as a young woman had to face in those days when she had no idea to foresee what her next day would be, Mrs. Parks said that the life of a Negro woman was anybody’s guess in those days.  Humiliation and denial of all basic freedoms and utter lack of direction made the life of every black American in those days to lose hope on life.  They felt they were in a tunnel land there was no hope of getting out of it and no ray of hope anywhere.  The thing that kept her going was her faith in God and courage of conviction that she would stand up declaring her identity.  She was not afraid though she was not ready for any show-down.  To a specific question whether what happened in the bus that day was premeditated, she replied that right from her childhood and in every second of her existence as a human being she was made to realize that to have been born a black American had been a mistake and curse.  Yet her sub-human existence did not make her hate her tormentors. 

The personality of a person, it is said, is shaped in the crucible of the various experiences he/she encounters.  After the various mortifying humiliations when Gandhi finally reached Transvaal he was the same Gandhi but yet a new Gandhi, for the idea of serving others had come into his mind.  Shortly after his arrival he called a meeting of Indians of all faiths – Hindus, Mussalmans, Parsis and Christians – to discuss ways by which they could better their lot.  He had then seen more closely into conditions of the countrymen, and he was moved by their hardships.  They had been brought into South Africa by Europeans under a system of indenture, whereby they slaved five years at the plantations and mines and then became free.  But the Europeans objected to free Indians and levied taxes and passed laws against them. 

In Natal, a charge was made against the Indians that they are slovenly in their habits and do not keep house and surroundings clean.  Gandhi tried to educate his countrymen.  He played an active role when plague was reported in Durban.  Just as untouchables are relegated to remote quarters of a town or a village in India, similarly, Indians were given coolie locations or ghettos.  There was a criminal negligence of the municipality. Plague broke out in one of the gold mines and not in the coolie locations.  Gandhi plunged in the relief work. Later, the municipality wanted to evict Indians and burn the ghettos.  Gandhi fought legal cases and got the municipality to pay compensations.  Thus, he fought for “untouchables”, both Indians and other blacks in Africa. 

Gandhi believed that untouchables and outcasts are in every society.  Hence the early days of his campaign for civil liberties and human rights are marked by a pronounced and committed yearning for solving the injustices affecting the untouchables, or pariahs, or outcasts who were and are starkly present in Indian society.  But they are also present with us. There are the political refugees, the minorities, and others who are poor and homeless in every major city.  There are blacks living in ghettos while whites live in a different kind of ghetto in another part of town.  By and large, Hispanics and other minorities do not intermingle with the mainstream of the population.  There are other categories of vulnerable ‘marginal’ human whom many of us tend to overlook or reject as the terminally ill, the retarded, the advanced in age who are no longer integrated in the mainstream of society.

There is an amazing confluence of views between Gandhi and King on the tendency of human nature to create outcasts.  What King said about the practice of racism is significant: 

“Racism is a philosophy based on a contempt for life.  It is the arrogant assertion that one race is the center of everything and object of devotion, before which other races must knee in submission.  It is an absurd dogma that one race is responsible for all the progress of the future.  Racism is total estrangement.  It separates not only bodies, but minds and spirits.  Inevitably it descends to inflicting spiritual or physical homicide upon the out groups.” 

Both Gandhi and King believed that Racism or the proneness to create outcasts, is contrary to the ethics of love.  Rejecting members of any human group is a form of violence.  Love requires that we do not practice such rejection, but rather reach out to members of other cultural, social and ethnic groups. 

The twenty-one years Gandhi spent in South Africa offered valuable insights to Gandhi in familiarizing himself with the inhuman and highly deplorable situations that existed outside, as well as helped him develop appropriate concepts and techniques of non-violent defence.  His decision to defy the most humiliating Asiatic Ordinance with nonviolent strategies included suffering and readiness to atone the mistakes committed by others.  Like a master craftsman he developed the various instruments of nonviolent resistance to evil.  The struggle initiated by Gandhi for human dignity and freedom had not only lasting impact on South Africa and India but it left its imprints on human psyche and influenced freedom fighters, human rights activists all over the world. 

The Gandhian initiative for human rights and justice stands out for the fresh set of strategies and attitudes which Gandhi brought in.  Many could not understand what he meant when he asserted: “A clear victory of satyagraha is impossible so long as there is ill will.  But those who believe themselves every morning in it have to make the following resolve for the day: I shall fear anyone on earth.  I shall fear God only: I shall not bear ill will towards anyone on earth.  I shall fear no injustice from anyone.  I shall conquer untruth by truth and in resisting untruth I shall put up with all suffering.”1 

Gandhi brought in a new era of nonviolent defence based on the ability of each human being to free himself from fear.  He believed that fearlessness becomes a major pillar on which to build together with love and the capacity to resist when necessary.  It is interesting t see that Gandhi conceives fearlessness as a condition for love.  He who is weak cannot love, probably because he or she is not free enough, does not have the surplus of warmth and energy from which love can come forth.

“My mission is to teach by example and percept under severe restraint the use of the matchless weapon of satyagraha, which is a direct corollary of nonviolence and truth.  I am anxious, indeed I am impatient, to demonstrate that there is no remedy for the many ills of life save that of nonviolence.  When I have become incapable of evil and when nothing harsh or naughty occupies, be it momentarily, my thought world, then, and not till then, my nonviolence will move all the nearest of the world.  I have placed before me and the reader no impossible ideal or ordeal.  It is a man’s prerogative and birthright.”2 

Rabindranath Tagore, who explained movingly how Gandhi identified himself with the poorest of the poor, wrote, “He stopped at the threshold of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own.  He spoke to them in their own language.  Here was living truth at last, and not only quotation from books.  For this reason the Mahatma, the name given to him by the people of India, is his real name, who have felt like him that all Indians are his own flesh and blood.  When love came to the door of India that door was opened wide.  At Gandhiji’s call India blossomed forth to new greatness, just as once, before, in earlier times; when the Buddha proclaimed the truth of fellow-feeling and compassion among all living creatures.” 

As Mathew Zachariah, argues the Gandhian respect for manual labourers is similar to the Marxian respect for the proletariat.  Both Sarvodaya and Marxism share a sense of outrage that a small group of individuals lives luxuriously off the backs of the large group of toilers.  Both Gandhiji and Marx envisioned the possibility of everyone participating in socially necessary productive labour thus ensuring for everyone leisure with which to enjoy life and develop oneself. 

Yet there are two crucial differences between the Gandhian and Marxian approaches.  In Gandhi’s vision of self-governing village republics there is an unmistakable yearning to recapture a “golden age,” a mythical past when Ram, a Hindu God, ruled and all was well with the world in Ramraj.  Marx, however, shared with his European contemporaries a belief I the inevitability of human progress.  Gandhi’s acceptance of karma and reincarnation is a fundamentally cyclical notion in contrast to the implication of linearity in theories of human progress.  (The Hindu cyclical view of life in the universe is represented by a symbol which, due to its misappropriation as the swastika by the Nazis in 1930, has become obvious to many people).  Second, Marx’s defence of the proletariat is grounded in a carefully constructed theoretical apparatus based on the generation of surplus value in production: hence his and Engel’s claim that they are scientific socialists.  Gandhiji’s love for the poor people, like that of the prophets of ancient Israel, is based on “moral and religious grounds,” Mathew Zachariah points out.  (Revolution Through Reform by Mathew Zachariah). 

The good of one and the good of all and vice versa as Gandhi advanced in his Sarvodaya is in essence the spirit of humanism recast and remodeled along the Indian saying: Vashudhaiva Kutumbakam.  It also echoes Ruskin’s Unto This Last from which Gandhi drew the humanistic spirit of Sarvodaya: 

1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.

2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s in as much as all have the same right of earning livelihood from their work.

3. That life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is the life worth living. 

Gandhi demonstrated all aspects of both individual and collective initiatives for the liberation of people from colonial rule through emphasis on the soul-force as against the brute force of violence.  The eternal warfare between truth and untruth, between good and evil in individuals, groups, communities and in nations is what Gandhiji’s life-long struggle symbolized.  Freedom to Gandhiji was a process of continuing quest rather than a final consumption.  Independence to him was not an end but a means to freedom and self-rule.  His concept of swaraj went far beyond mere political independence. 

In his struggle against colonial rule, Gandhi marshaled the allegiance of the hapless indentured and fear-stricken labourers in South Africa and the common people of India to a common cause: it was Swaraj, which meant “not the acquisition of authority by a few, but the acquisition of the capacity in the many to regulate authority when abused.”  Gandhiji was thus a living embodiment of democracy in action.  He knew more than anyone else living then or now, that political democracy is indivisible from economic and social democracy.  Thus followed the logical corollaries to his approach the struggle for the emancipation of the masses from the grind of hunger and unemployment and the tyrannies of castes and religions which made bond-slave of the oppressors and the oppressed alike.  He revolted against the pattern of technology that enslaved man and made him a helpless robot.  He crusaded against untouchability because it epitomized the cancer that ate into the social life of India.   

Even before the Karachi Congress, Gandhi wrote in Young India:  

The Swaraj of my dream recognizes no race or religious distinctions.  Nor is it to be the monopoly of lettered persons not yet of moneyed men.  Swaraj is to be for all, including the farmer, but emphatically including the maimed, the blind, the starving toiling millions”.  

This assertion was followed by an emphatic statement: 

“The Swaraj of my dream is the poor man’s Swaraj.  The necessities of life should be enjoyed by you in common with those enjoyed by the princes and the moneyed men.  But you ought to get all the ordinary amenities of life that a rich man enjoyed.  I have not the slightest doubt that Swaraj is not Poorna Swaraj until these amenities are guaranteed to you under it”.3 

a few days later he clarified his concept of “Poorna Swaraj” or complete independence at follows:

“Poorna Swaraj because it is as much for the prince as for the peasant, as much as for the rich land owners as for the landless tiller of the soil, as much for the Hindus as for the Mussalmans, as much for Paris and Christians as for the Jains, Jews and Sikhs, irrespective of any distinction of caste or creed or status in life.  The very connotation of the world and the means of its attainment to which we have pledged truth and nonviolence – precludes all possibility of that Swaraj being more for some one than for the other, being partial to some or prejudicial to others”.4 

There was no bigger concept against humanity and denial of human rights to fellow citizens than treating them as sub-human beings for whatever reasons.  Denial of reality itself was an act of violation of what constitutes the core and the mirror of universal life.  Gandhi was never tired repeating, “if the villages perish, India will perish”.  The three pillars of democracy implied in the philosophy of Gandhi were to subserve free life in the countryside.  He envisaged well-planned though modestly  built houses for the villagers by utilizing local resources to the fullest and through cooperative effort.  The villages according to him should have roads and streets kept scrupulously clean, drinking water and a high level of sanitation.  There should be a village school based on basic crafts with a garden for vegetables, poultry and horticulture.  He laid strong emphasis on agriculture and village industries to cater to the needs of food, clothing and shelter and employment to every able bodied person.  In his picture of the village community there were to be no social and religious barriers and each member of the community was to enjoy complete equality and equal opportunities for growth and advancement.  There was to be special care of the weak and the minorities.  Women were to be rid of their social and economic diabilities”.  There should be no room for concentration of wealth. 

In Gandhiji’s concept of democracy obligations took precedence over rights.  Rights according to him followed as a corollary to obligations properly discharged.  According to him every individual was to act as a trustee for himself and to his obligations to all around him whether in matters of political, economic or social rights in the community.  Gandhiji knew violence could lead to greater violence and therefore a poor remedy for the abuse of rights and obligation by individuals or groups in the community.  An enlightened, organized and determined public opinion was according to him the ultimate force to act as correctives to the maladjustment in the forces at play in a community and satyagraha was the strongest weapon.   

We claim Gandhiji as one of us.  Then can we allow Gandhiji to have been martyred for a fresh lease of life to the same ghosts of history which he had fought throughout? 

It is time, a comprehensive analysis be made of what is happening in India after fifty years of his martyrdom. We must discover for ourselves if we are proceeding in the direction charted by this martyred leader. We must make sure we re not receding far away from him, doing rituals to his ashes at Rajghat and elsewhere.  We must know it we are acting true to his thesis or are merely dissipating ourselves on what but peripherals to the core of his struggle. 

The Government of a country, more so an emerging one, is too deeply involved, in the day to day struggle for survival and in the labyrinth of administration, to have the originality or the objectivity desired.  It has been the historic prerogative of the elite to act as the enlightened watchdog of a nation’s pilgrimage through life.  When the elite fails, the nation fails, no matter how altruistic, in profession or practice the Government of the day may aspire to be. 

Independence must begin at the bottom. “Thus, every village will be a republic or panchayat having full powers.  It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.  It will be trained and prepared to perish in an attempt to defend itself against any onslaught from without.  Thus, ultimately, it is the individual who is the unit.  This does not exclude dependence on the willing help from neighbours or from the world.  It will be free and voluntary play of mutual forces.  Such a society is necessarily highly cultured in which every man and woman knows what he or she wants and, what is more, knows that noone should want anything that others cannot have with equal labour.” 

One can see considerable influence of Gandhi in the various articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  In its 30 Articles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines that those principles are intended to offer a common standard of achievement for all peoples’ and all nations. 

It could be thus that Mahatma Gandhi opened up a new chapter in human history by offering a new set of thoughts and strategies steeped in human dignity.  He also taught that any attempt to violate human rights is abominable and against natural justice, hence should be fought tooth and nail.  His life and work in South Africa for twenty-one years and thirty years in India championing the cause of the down- trodden and oppressed who were segregated and ill-treated in the name of the dreaded apartheid inspired millions of freedom-loving citizens all over the world including the poet and social reformer, Tolstoy.  Gandhi demonstrated the work through his novel methods that what the weak and the suppressed need is courage of conviction to stand up and fight any unjust system.  He clarified with telling effect that the weapon of the weak in this noble fight for social justice and equal rights is not any weapon but soul-force which is more powerful than even the atom bomb, and which in turn, will arm a nation or a person with the requisite courage to fight the forces which deny fellow human beings their right to live in dignity. 

In his fifty years of public life in three continents, Gandhi demonstrated the efficacy of the Buddhist teachings of respect for all living beings and human dignity which is impossible without compassion.  Gandhi emerged as the voice of the voiceless, the inspired social reformers, political thinkers and fighters for individual liberty all over the world. 

Among the notable streams of thought that influenced Gandhi are that of Thoreau and Emerson.  From Martin Luther King and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan to Julius Neyrere, Ho Chi Min, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Petra Kelley and Nelson Mandela, there is a galaxy of men and women in different parts of the world who took a leaf from Gandhi to fashion their initiative for ensuring justice and fight discrimination in the name of colour and race.  And with Gandhi the fight against Human Rights took a new turn.  From violent methods the movement turned to nonviolent tactics which Gandhi believed would be the weapon of the strong and not that of the weak.