On Gandhi – Part 1

Written by  //  August 24, 2010  //  National Politics  //  10 Comments

This is my first article on the series on Gandhi, which I will continue in the subsequent times.

Any discussion on any topic on contemporary India is incomplete without getting at least some thorough understanding of the role that Gandhi, probably the most creative, brilliant and pioneering Indian of the 20th Century played in the history of the nation.

Honored as the father of the nation and revered for the depth of his insights into the fundamental problems of the nation during the most difficult and tumultuous times when the very idea of India was still being debated, Gandhi rightly deserves his status as the founding father, because of the sheer depth of his accomplishments, range of his achievements and the qualities of great ardor, impeccable courage and unflinching convictions that would lend shape to the idea of India, as the people were emerging from a traumatic colonial history, that had rendered them toothless, disillusioned, vanquished and set in a cycle of defeat, rejection and a sense of loss at all levels.

In such a depressing, harrowing and difficult time, Gandhi would return to India to lead the nation to full independence. During his journey that roughly lasted forty years, he would lead three of the greatest movements of Indian Independence

(1) The Non-Cooperation Movement in the 1920s   (2) The Salt Satyagraha in the 1930s and (3) The Quit India movement in the 1940s.

Along the way he created his pioneering ideas of civil disobedience, non-violent protest and socio-economic reform from large scale participation, that has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest political thinkers of all time.

The testimony to the great originality and force of his ideas is provided by the fact, that they were used in two other movements in the globe in the later part of the century (1) South African Struggle against Apartheid (2) The American Civil Right Movements in the 1960s led by the formidable Martin Luther King. Apart from that, countless other smaller movements both in India and elsewhere have built upon his political philosophies to enable other struggles for human freedom, liberty and expansion of fundamental human rights.

It is ironic, that history has relegated Gandhi to the status of a saint, and in India, he is revered not as a great thinker, reformer and a leader, but as a ‘spiritual being’ or a ‘saint’ or a Mahatma, going completely against his radical and revolutionary political ideas that were the cornerstone of his thinking! Gandhi was neither a saint, nor a messiah, but a very hard working political thinker who brought revolutionary changes into the fabric of the Indian society, single handedly transformed a tottering geography of a broken, divided and bickering ethnic communities into a united nation fighting for the cause of independence, and lead programs of economic expansion, emancipation of women and uplift of the weaker sections of the society. To do this, he had to fight orthodox relgious leaders and political leaders of his own country on one hand, and the overbearing oppressive British empire on the other.

What were his essential ideas? How did he come to conceive them? How did they shape his own philosophy and the future and destiny of the entire nation. These are very important historical questions, and an accurate understanding of these can help modern Indians draw more understanding of the basis of their society as they move into their respective paths and shape the future in their own unique ways. We also need to understand how India has changed in the past 50 years, and how the ideas of Gandhi need to be integrated into the fabric of the contemporary society, and what new methodologies we need to evoke to interpret them in contemporary socio-political, economic and political contexts.

The later part of the series will cover these topics in some detail.

10 Comments on "On Gandhi – Part 1"

  1. Vipul August 24, 2010 at 3:08 pm ·

    My understanding is that the reason Gandhi is treated as a saint rather than a relevant contemporary thinker is that that’s the best way of not following his recipes while continuing to shower respect on him. It would be better to engage in constructive criticism of Gandhi’s ideas, but our Constitution prohibits criticism of the Freedom Fighters, so respect at a distance seems to be the best approach.

    Gandhi was certainly brilliant but his legacy to the nation is (in my view) a very mixed bag. His most dangerous idea was that of self-sufficiency (read: resistance to most productivity-enhancing technologies — with the exception of toilets). While I’m not sure exactly what he personally had in mind, the idea as it got implemented in post-independence India consigned India to a long period of economic devastation. Another of his legacies is his so-called “non-violent” forms of struggle such as fasting, dharnas, and protests — which have been employed by law-breaking interest groups across the world for their personal agendas. While this may be marginally more civilised than its violent counterpart, the line between “non-violent” “struggle” and its violent counterpart is decidedly thin, even if Gandhi personally was able to straddle this line. See this, for instance.

    Also, it is very much possible, and likely, that the British would have left India around the time that they did with or without the Mahatma. The British left India primarily because they figured out that India was bleeding them financially — as it had been for some time — they had not been making a profit out of India for quite some time. (In fact, the British economy enjoyed significant growth shortly after divesting itself of its former colonies). Absent Gandhi, the specifics would have played out differently — better or worse? That’s a counterfactual to which we will not know the answer.

  2. Sumeet Khullar August 25, 2010 at 6:13 am ·

    (1) The neo-Gandhians are obviously both ignorant in their applications and completely misunderstand the purpose of a non-violent protest.

    Non-violent protest was necessary at a time when there was an overbearing empire. It is neither necessary, nor needed at this point of time, since there are more direct constitutional democratic methods in a functional state that can be employed as a form of political protest effectively.

    So civil disobedience which as a great tool during the time to drive the empire out, is not longer needed.

    (2) Economic devastation due to Gandhian methods:

    I think the slow economic rates in post independent India were a result of a large number of factors. Gandhi never fashioned himself as a pioneering economist, so it is the mistake of people who misguidedly used his philosophy in the field of economic policies that rendered India an economic dwarf in the earlier years.

    Having said that, nobody can deny Gandhi’s status as a leader who led India to independence. The questions that India would have got free nevertheless etc. are largely ignorant and lacking in substance in my opinion, since had India gotten free without a leader of conviction at helm of affairs it could have disintegrated into a bunch of bickering territories continuously at war.

    Infact, Gandhi in my opinion, gets the most credit for coming up with the idea of India in the first place, rather than a federation of assorted states, and gave this idea a concrete shape through his nationalistic movements, for which he deserves his fame and accolades.

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  1. On Gandhi – Part 2 | Critical Twenties
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