9 January 2015 marked the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi's return to India after his 21 years sojourn in South Africa. The day is now celebrated as the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas under the auspices of the Ministry of External Affairs.
Thus 9 January came to assume special significance after 11 September 2006 when Satyagraha, the most potent weapon discovered by Mahatma Gandhi completed its hundredth anniversary. It is a tribute not only to Mahatma Gandhi's leadership in India's struggle for independence but also to the contributions made by immigrant Indian in the country of their adoption and helped built bridges between the country of their origin and the country of their adoption. 9 January 2015, therefore, calls for special commemorative programmes appropriate for the historic occasion.
Mahatma Gandhi's arrival at this critical juncture proved to be a turning point in India's struggle for Independence. Even before his return on 9 January 1915 his work in South Africa was widely known in India. Gandhi himself took pains in acquainting Indian leadership with the problems faced by the Indian indentured labourers and the peoples of the Asiatic origin in South Africa. He wrote pamphlets, columns in the newspapers and would be present in India during the annual meetings of the Indian National Congress. He would get special time to speak on South Africa question. It was primarily because of his efforts that prominent leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale visited South Africa in 1912, to see for themselves the situation obtaining there. On their return they shared their experiences and observations with other leaders.
Gokhale's visit to South Africa symbolized the deep interest of the Indian people in the struggle of their brethren in that land under Gandhi's leadership. The moral and material support extended by the Indian people was indeed one of the important contributory factors in the success of that struggle. Thus it can be safely said that “by the time Gandhi returned to India in 1915 there was already in existence here a powerful Gandhi legend” as Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the most prominent Congress leaders of those days, observed at a function held in Gandhi's honour in Bombay, on 12 January 1915 after his arrival on Indian soil.
During the preceding years the whole country had been resounding with the tale of his great deeds. It is equally remarkable that while eulogizing Gandhi, Pherozeshah Mehta did not refer to his preaching of non-violence, Satyagraha (this came to occupy center –stage in Indian politics only after the success of Champaran Satyagraha in 1917) but only to his role in enabling Indians in South Africa to maintain their self-respect and honour.
The same drive for leadership and determination marked Gandhi's steps in his work for the public cause, informed by the conviction that the technique of struggle he had developed in South Africa would be equally applicable to India. Although full of deep affection and reverence for Gokhale, whom he even described as his political guru, Gandhi did not identify himself with the Moderate line in Indian politics. On the other hand, he also kept aloof from the Extremists. In the words of his eminent biographer B. R. Nanda: “Gandhi made nonsense of Extremists and Moderate politics and forged his own path” His intention obviously was to project before the Indian people his own independent approach to India's problems as well as his distinctive style of leadership. There is also no doubt that he was able to do so in an admirable way, turning almost every major occasion that he got to work before the public eye into a step leading to India's Independence.
Thus in one of his first speeches in India, while replying to the address of welcome in Bombay on 12 January 1915 in a function presided over by Pherozeshah Mehta at which about six hundred distinguished citizens, including Europeans, were present. Gandhi declared, apparently with the opulence and luxury of the life of the Indian elite in Bombay in mind, that he and his wife had felt more at home with the poor, indentured Indians in South Africa than in their own motherland.
I say that I am not at war with my leaders I seemed to be at war with my leaders because many things I have heard seem to be inconsistent with my notions of self-respect and with self-respect to my motherland. I feel that they are probably not discharging the sacred trust they have taken upon their shoulders…. The major part of what they say does not seem to be appealing to me. I find here words of welcome in the English language. I find in the Congress programme a Resolution on Swadeshi. If you hold that you are Swadeshi and yet print these in English, then I am not Swadeshi."
It is significant to note that in his very first public address on the Indian soil Gandhi made it clear that for him adoption of Hindi is central to his concept of Swadeshi.
Leadership in a certain situation goes only to the person who meets the requirements of that situation. This is very well brought out by Hegel in his characterization of the attributes of great men: " They are great men, because they willed and accomplished something great; not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but that which met the case and fell in with the needs of the age."
Much before this Aurobindo Ghosh, a great intellectual and one of the most prominent Extremist leaders, who inspired and maintained links also with some of the revolutionaries, had understood the nature of the crisis faced by the nationalist.
"All great movements wait for their God-sent leader, the willing channel of force, and only when he comes, move forward triumphantly to their fulfillment. The men who have led hither to have been strong men of high gifts and commanding genius, great enough to be the protagonists of any other movement, but even they were not sufficient to fulfill one which is the chief current of a world-wide revolution. Therefore the nationalist party, custodians of the future, must wait for the man who is to come, calm in the midst of calamity, hopeful under defeat, sure of eventual emergence and triumph and always mindful of the responsibility which they owe not only to their Indian posterity but to the world."
It is not known whether Gandhi had read these lines. What is pertinent is that he had all the qualities which Aurobindo had by implication mentioned as essential for the future leader of Indian nationalism and, besides, had already begun treading the path which led to that position.
Jawaharlal Nehru celebrates the coming of Gandhi thus:
“And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes; like a whirlwind that upset may things, but most of all working of people's minds. He did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language, and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition. Get off the backs of these peasants and workers, he told us, all you who live by their exploitation; get rid of the system that produces this poverty and misery. Political freedom took new shape then and acquired a new content. Much that he said we only partially accepted or sometimes did not accept at all. But all this was secondary. The esse3nce of his teaching was fearlessness and truth, and action allied to these, always keeping the welfare of the masses in view. The greatest gift for an individual or a nation, so we had been told in our ancient books, was abhaya (fearlessness), not merely bodily courage but the absence of fear from the mind. Janaka and Yajanvalkya had said, at the dawn of our history, that it was the function of the leaders of a people to make them fearless. But the dominant impulse in India under British rule was that of fear –pervasive, oppressing, strangling fear; of the official class; fear of laws meant to suppress and of prison; fear of the moneylender; fear of unemployment and starvation, which were always on the threshold. It was against this all-pervading fear that Gandhi's quiet and determined voice was raised: Be not afraid. Was it so simple as all that? Not quite. And yet fear builds its phantoms which are more fearsome than reality itself, and reality, when calmly analysed and its consequences willingly accepted, loses much of its terror.
So, suddenly, as it were, that black pall of fear was lifted from the people's shoulders, not wholly of course, but to an amazing degree. As fear is close companion to falsehood, so truth follows fearlessness. The Indian people did not become much more truthful than they were, nor did they change their essential nature overnight; nevertheless a sea-change was visible as the need for falsehood and furtive behaviour lessened it was a psychological change, almost as if some expert in psycho-analytical methods had probed deep into the patient's past, found out the origins of his complexes, exposed them to his view, and thus rid him of that burden.
There was that psychological reaction also, a feeling of shame at our long submission to an alien rule that had degraded and humiliated us, and a desire to submit not longer whatever the consequences might be.
We did not grow much more truthful perhaps than we had been previously, but Gandhi was always there as a symbol of uncompromising truth to pull us up and shame us into truth. What is truth? I do not know for certain, and perhaps our truths are relative and absolute truth is beyond us. Different persons ma and do take different views of truth, and each individual is powerfully influenced by his own background, training, and impulses. So also Gandhi. But truth is at least for an individual what he himself feels and knows to be truth. According to this definition I do not know of any person who holds to the truth as Gandhi does.”
But the most prophetic thoughts so early in Gandhi's tryst with India's future were expressed by Rabindranath Tagore. Not surprising for soon after his arrival in India on 9 January 1915 Gandhi visited Shantiniketan to pay his respects to Tagore. Gandhi had heard about Tagore's experiments in education. A group of young boys from Gandhi's Phoenix Settlement in South Africa had preceded his arrival on 9 January 1915 and were put-up at Shantiniketan under Tagore's care. Gandhi met Tagore on 1 February, 1915.
Tagore wondered, “Perhaps he will not succeed. Perhaps he will fail as Buddha failed and a Christ failed to wean men from their iniquities, but he will always be remembered as one who made his life a lesson for all ages to come”.
While not joining any movement or agitation in which he would not have a decisive role, Gandhi was in his own way spreading his ideas and looking forward to opportunities for testing his method of struggle developed in South Africa. This was clear even from the choice of name –Satyagraha Ashram –which he gave to the place he selected in Ahmedabad in 1915 as the habitat for himself and some of his close companions and followers. As he himself puts it: “I wanted to acquaint India with the method I had tried in South Africa, and I desired to test in India the extent to which its application might be possible. So my companions and I selected the name ‘Satyagraha Ashram', as conveying both our goal and our method of service”.
Gandhi firmly believed that basic social changes leading to the establishment of a just society cannot be brought about merely by state action and that the people themselves will have to play the major role in this process. In Satyagraha Gandhi provided an ideal means to the people to perform such a role. If dictatorship by a party or a group, involving the suppression of all other parties or groups and the denial of certain vital human freedoms, like the freedom of speech or expression, has not to become an essential ingredient of an enlightened society, it is difficult to imagine a better means than Satyagraha for bringing it about.
1917 Champaran Satyagraha
The year, 2017 marks the centenary of the Champaran Satyagraha, the first nonviolent movement by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on the Indian soil, which drew the attention of an entire generation gone astray, towards the pitiable plight of our peasantry.
In spite of his random speeches, however, Gandhi for the next two years remained only on the periphery of the political circle in India and continued to be known primarily as a hero of the Indian struggle in South Africa and was percieved as a person without much interest in Indian politics. “All of us admired him for his heroic fight in South Africa”, writes Nehru while recalling his impression of Gandhi after meeting him at the time of the Lucknow session of the Congress held in the last week of December 1916, “but he seemed very distant and different and un-political to many of us young men. He refused to take part in Congress or national politics then and confined himself to the South African Indian question.
But in contrast to the views held by the urban, western educated middle class which still had reservations about Gandhi's leadership the poor and the deprived masses of people were convinced their Savior and their Messiah has arrived.
For in the same Lucknow Congress where Gandhi seemed ‘distant' to Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders belonging to his class, there was a poor peasant from Champaran named Raj Kumar Shukla. Sitting in a corner of the Pandal, he was oblivious of all that was transpiring in the Congress meet. His eyes were fixed on the lawyer M. K. Gandhi whom he had come to take to Champaran to fight for the rights of the poor peasants like him.
Gandhi always had in his heart the welfare of the farmers and nursed a desire to serve their cause. Fate appeared before him in the form of Rajkumar Shukla, a farmer from Champaran, who gave him an opportunity of fight for their cause in 1917.
Mahatma Gandhi writes, “The Champaran episode was a turning point in my life.” “What I did”, he explained, “Was a very ordinary thing. I declared that the British could not order me about in my own country”. He attached so much importance to the Champaran struggle that he once said “those who would know my method of organising kisans may profitably study the movement in Champaran where satyagraha was tried for the first time in India with the result all India knows.”
Young Jawaharlal Nehru echoes the aspirations of the entire nation, “ …Soon afterwards his adventures and victory in Champaran, on behalf of the tenants of the planters, filled us with enthusiasm. We saw that he was prepared to apply his methods in India also and they promised success.”
Independence for India, Gandhi often said, meant primarily independence for the villages, which required that “even the poorest Indian should get enough milk, vegetables and fruit. Today the villages of India are dung heaps. Tomorrow they will be like tiny gardens of Eden where dwell highly intelligent folk whom no one can deceive or exploit.” Rural regeneration forms the core of Swaraj of Gandhi's dream.
The corollary of Gandhi's critique of imperialism was a vision of a new India. Development to Gandhi was abolition of poverty, misery and fear. He said, “I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel it is their country, in whose working they have an effective voice, an India in which there is no high class or a low class of people, an India in which all communities will live in harmony. Women will enjoy the same rights as men. This is the India of my dreams.”
Translating this dream of the Mahatma is the biggest challenge before India in the 21st Century. More so in an era when the power of the modern state is being questioned and doubt is cast on its capacity to work real change. Gandhi's critique and vision take on new meaning, so does his vision of passionate and self-regulating communities as the true foundation of the New World Order in the third millennium.
It was a vision which reflects on industrialisation, mechanisation, economic growth, nai talim, about empowering the poor, of bringing women into the mainstream, the importance of constructive programme for social regeneration, and the need to take a holistic approach that includes the allied and spiritual dimensions for moving towards a good and a sustainable society. Education holds the key to Swaraj and therefore Gandhi's emphasis on Nai Talim. Not just Right to Education but right education.
Gandhi had the humility to acknowledge the truth that his advice may not be accepted at once by all, He said, “I may be taunted with the retort that this is all utopian and, therefore, not worth a single thought…. Let India live for this true picture, though never realisable in its completeness” was his fervent wish.
It is important to understand that the world does not revere Mahatma Gandhi because he led India to her freedom, for this freedom, anyway, does not measure upto his expectations. Gandhi is revered because he showed the path of freedom to the oppressed humanity.
Not many people are aware that Dr. Gene Sharp the eminent American scholar, and Director of Boston based Albert Einstein Institute of Nonviolence, who is now 85 years old had come to Champaran in 1949 and studied in-depth the import of the movement. He stayed there for nearly six months and interviewed thousands of peasants. He also tried to understand the other two major movements under Gandhi's leadership viz, the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930 and Quit India Movement of 1942 based on his studies he finally wrote his book entitled Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power. It has a foreword by Einstein. Why Einstein I asked him once his answer was “no one understood the significance of Gandhi's Satyagraha as he did. And he rightly described it as Peace Science.”
Ironically, in his Reflections on Gandhi which he, too, wrote in 1949 George Orwell who was born in Motihari, Champaran, in 1904, in the home of a civil Engineer just a few paces away from the place where Gandhi first challenged the British might has expressed serious doubts whether Gandhi will survive the onslaught of modernisation.
Dr. Sharp and I share a passion for Champaran. In 2006 I was part of the big initiative in launching nationwide programmes to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Satyagraha. My biggest achievement was the presence of Dr. Gene Sharp, who came on my request. He has played a major role in the Arab Spring by initiating a dialogue with the youth through internet across West Asia for more than a decade. He has come up with 198 new ways of offering nonviolent Satyagraha.
Satyagraha remains a much misunderstood and a vague concept. It is a pity that the significance of Champaran and other initial movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi in India is lost to the post-independence generation. It has to be interpreted in the right context to the successive generations. But no concrete effort, has ever been made to interpret the meaning and message of these Satyagrahas to the youth.
There is no befitting memorial dedicated to the Mahatma in this part of India which would help in generating awareness and understanding about the evolution of Gandhian philosophy and its practical application to our day-to-day life. This may explain the widespread misconceptions and misunderstandings about Mahatma Gandhi prevailing amongst the people. Satyagraha has been reduced to a farce. Dharna Pradarshan, damaging public property and thoughtless indefinite fasts, are held out as its vital components, made worse by the overnight mushrooming of half-baked, Mahatma Gandhis.
The year 2017 marks the centenary of another historic event, claimed to have far greater consequences for the world, V. I. Lenin's Experiments With Truth leading to the formation of the Soviet Union. Merely fourteen years later in 1931 in the course of a meeting with Romain Rolland Gandhi had shared his disenchantment with Lenin's experiments, “what is happening in Russia is an enigma. I have not discussed Russia very much, but I have a deep mistrust of the ultimate success of the experiment being carried out there. It seems to me that it is a challenge to non-violence. It appears to be succeeding, but behind its success lies force, violence.”
Interestingly, in 1927 Nehru visited Russia and came back all starry eyed with what he saw there, whereas Gandhi who never set foot on the Russian soil yet his understanding of history and the world around him seem far deep. The events after 1989 proved Gandhi's apprehensions right. As foreseen by him the Soviet Russia withered away even before the twentieth century, regarded as the bloodiest in human history, closed its account.
Ironically, in the year 2017 unlike Mahatma Gandhi's India, Russia will have nothing to commemorate. But it is also a fact that the Russian experiment impacted the whole world. After promising great hopes to humanity crushed for centuries under the oppressive feudal system, it promised to herald an era of equality and prosperity for all. Not only Russia the entire world must Introspect on What Went Wrong and Why.
The decline of the West
Lastly, the year 2017 marks the centenary of the path-breaking, work of history, Oswald Spengler's magnum opus The Decline of the West which reflects on the post-first world war western civilization.
The Decline of the West possesses a certain deeper significance as a commentary on the great epochal moment of which the portents were visible when the leading ideas were being formed. As Spengler says “The Title expresses quite literally the intention of the book, which was to describe, in the light of the decline of the Classical Age, one world-historical phase of several centuries upon which we ourselves are now entering.”
Spengler was right when he says in the preface of his book, “Events have justified much and refuted nothing. It became clear that these ideas must necessarily be brought forward at just this moment and in Germany, and, more, than the war itself was an element in the premises from which the new world-picture could be made precise.”
Spengler had decided on the title The Decline of the West for his book by 1912 as the dark clouds of war and destruction was becoming visible on the horizon. M.K. Gandhi was still in that theatre of action and he, too, could clearly analyse the ultimate fate of modern civilization.
Gandhi's prophetic warning in 1909 while spelling out the outlines of his seminal work The Hind Swaraj looks askance for a second relook. “This modern civilization (western) is such that one has only to be patient and it will be destroyed” comes close to what is happening today, we just have to glance around, the world we are living in and will see the answers staring in the face.
There is need to pay serious attention to Spengler when he says, “I have not written for people who imagine that delving for the springs of action is the same as action itself; those who make definitions do not know destiny.”
Champaran Satyagraha, Russian Revolution and the Decline of the West are not events to be seen in isolation. They are intertwined. These are events though unfolding on the vast global canvas at different points, but the underlying causes were the same everywhere and that is the emergence of a brutal “machine-age with iron in the soul.” (Romain Rolland)
We must also ponder over why extensive research on Gandhi is on in several western universities today. There is a believe that Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence humbles the arrogance of modern civilisation and values. Pioneering work to delineate non-violent ways of intervention for peace and human rights is gaining acceptance. The question what is the way to peace is sought to be answered in Gandhian dictum. “There is no way to peace, peace is the way”.(A.J. Muste) Getting this message across is not easy in a milieu where even peace-keeping is militarised and Gandhian social and political values are ignored as archaic. But that is precisely what the whole political revival and intellectual ferment is all about.
Mahatma Gandhi had a dream. He wanted to build India in accordance with this dream and present this India to the world as a blue-print of development which would be just and sustainable. Realising the unfinished task of the Mahatma alone will be a befitting memorial to the one whom we revere as the Father of the Nation.
Between 9 January 2015 and 2 October 2019 (150th birth anniversary of Gandhi) there are a series of events like the Centenary of 2016 of the Lucknow Conference where a number of future leader like Jawaharlal Nehru to the poor peasant called Rajkumar Shukla first met Gandhi. It was Rajkumar Shukla who persuaded Gandhi to take up their cause in Champaran. And 1917 is the centenary of the Champaran Satyagraha which brought Gandhi to the center-stage of Indian politics. 2018 will mark the centenary of the first nationwide Hartal under Gandhi's leadership 2019 is the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary 1920 was truly Gandhi's year when the reins of the Indian National Congress passed into his hands.
Mahatma Gandhi not merely tried to endow the Indian nationalist movement with an egalitarian social outlook, but also placed before it the vision of a new world free from international conflicts and based on mutual cooperation among nations.
“An India awakened and free” said Gandhi,” has a message of peace and goodwill to a groaning world. Non-cooperation is designed to supply her with a platform from which she will preach the message.” Indeed the dominant conscious urge of Indian nationalism under Gandhi's leadership was not isolation but international cooperation.
It is time, the academic, social scientists and political activists to be more proactive, and initiate a debate through different fora. Form a core group, a think tank and take a lead in drawing up an elaborate programme befitting the historical significance of the year 2017, Mere change in the composition of the polity will not suffice. The need of the hour is a change in our outlook a more concerned and awakened humanity.
“We await, to-day, the philosopher, a national leader who will tell us in what language history is written and how it is to be read”. (Oswald Spengler).
* Former Director, Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti.