A LASTING LEGACY
There was no aspect of life Gandhian thought didn’t touch. We should embrace those that are most relevant to us
As we celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, it is worth recalling the frequently ignored scale of his achievements. He was the first Indian to put India on a global map and the only one to be known throughout the world. He was the first Indian to make his political mark outside the country before doing so in India. He has been the greatest mass mobiliser in Indian history, having brought millions of men, and especially women, into public life. He so dominated Indian politics for a quarter of a century that anyone incurring his wrath invited political suicide. He is the only Indian, indeed world, leader to touch life at many different levels and have something to say about each of them, whether it was hygiene, sanitation, bringing up children, morality, sexuality, religion, the economy or high politics.
At India’s independence, for which he had striven so hard, Gandhi felt so tormented by the pervasive violence that he declined to unfurl the national flag and even to send a message. He refused to accept a political position for himself, and devoted the final two years of his life to healing the wounds of intercommunal violence. He undertook fasts even when his body could no longer tolerate them, walked alone through the thorny streets of Noakhali villages, and urged the victims to show forgiveness. Although repeatedly threatened with violence, he dismissed all offers of security, and dared, even invited, his detractors to do their worst, which one of them did.
Although Gandhi had his limitations, there are several areas where he is enormously instructive and which mark him out as one of the greatest men of the 20th century. Gandhi suffered from oppression and injustice most of his adult life. In South Africa, he was thrown out of a train on a cold night for daring to travel first-class, was dragged down from a coach by a swearing conductor and only just saved by his fellow passengers, and kicked into the gutter by a sentry for daring to walk past President Kruger’s house in Pretoria. In Transvaal, he was arrested for protesting against the Registration Act of 1900 and kept in a cell with common criminals who made sexual overtures and carried on indecent activities in his presence. He was stoned and kicked by a racist white mob in Durban, and escaped lynching only because of the sanctuary of a nearby police station, which he was later able to leave disguised as a policeman.
Gandhi reflected deeply on these and other experiences and asked why oppression occurred, how, and what the role of the victim was. He concluded that the victims of oppression were never innocent. In fact, they were complicit in their own oppression. The British ruled India with the help of Indians. In the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, it was Indian soldiers who fired on their fellow Indians. Gandhi went further and argued that all power ultimately came from the victim’s cooperation without which it remains hollow.
Since ordinary men and women enjoyed this kind of power, what they needed for their liberation was the courage to assert it and deny their masters their cooperation. Most of them were too nervous or afraid to do this. Rebuking Indians in South Africa, Gandhi said that those who behave like worms should not blame others for trampling on them. And again, in another context, he asked Indians to learn to ‘rebel against themselves’. Courage, for Gandhi, was bound up with self-respect and a great human virtue. His concern all his life was to appeal to the self-respect of the victims of injustice. As Nehru said, his greatest contribution was to remove the pall of fear that had gripped India and empower its frightened and diffident people.
Another area where Gandhi had profound things to say relates to his practice of ahimsa. For him, it was wrongly understood as not causing harm. If an animal was dying of an interminable disease and had only a few hours left to live, it was an act of love to end its life with a fatal injection. It involved violence, but was not a violent act. As Gandhi once said, not ‘nonviolence’ but ‘compassion’ or ‘love’ was the correct English translation of ahimsa.
There are also several other respects in which Gandhi stretched and deepened the concept of ahimsa. In the Indian traditions, harm is defined widely to include not only physical but also psychological, moral and other forms of pida or klesa (pain). Gandhi not only accepted this broad definition, but stretched it further. In his view, one might harm or
GANDHI BELIEVED VICTIMS WERE COMPLICIT IN THEIR OPPRESSION AND NEEDED TO REBEL AGAINST THEMSELVES