The Relevance Of Gandhism In Today’s India
As the 66th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination approaches, the question arises-where is the Gandhian movement now? Many Western observers often ask if there was anything left of Gandhi in India. The few remaining Gandhians lament the fact that Gandhi is dead in India and now has to be imported from the West. It was only after Attenborough’s film, ‘Gandhi’, that there was a great revival of interest in the Mahatma worldwide, including India. Many of this generation of Indians got their first glimpse of the Mahatma from the film. However, Gandhism is a very confused ‘ism’ and is only used by politicians as a slogan.
The emergent India is certainly not following of the Gandhian ideals. As a regional super power in Asia, India’s military might is in sharp contrast with the teachings of Ahimsa, a necessity as it has hostile neighbors, be it Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or China. Even in the domestic scenario, there is a violent suppression of the numerous insurgencies from Kashmir to the North Eastern states of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland or Mizoram, the Maoists in Central and Eastern India. Since the Mahatma’s death, the country has witnessed many violent communal riots. Two of countries prime ministers, both Gandhis, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were brutally assassinated by our own countrymen.
Gandhi’s message of ‘swadeshi’, self-sufficiency with home spun ‘khadi’ cloth is now used only as a social slogan. Khadi is confined to the Government run emporia and a few upmarket fashion designers. The concept of ‘Sarvodaya’, a broad Gandhian term meaning ‘universal upliftment’ or ‘progress of all’ reaching the masses and the downtrodden has been forgotten. Rather, India today has the unique distinction of being the only country in the world which has 30 Forbes billionaires alongside 40 percent of its populace living in dire poverty.
What is the relevance of the Mahatma today? The general opinion would be that he is irrelevant, if so, then why is he not forgotten like many other twentieth century thinkers and leaders who remain buried in library books? Why does he still evoke strong emotions in those who criticize him? In an age when our bureaucracy crawls when asked to bend, one must remember that this half naked fakir stood up against the might of the British, and in spite of neither being a rajah, dictator or a politician, he shook the empire. Today, Gandhi is intellectual indulgence. Everybody pays lip service to his memory but we lack the courage to seek his ideals. He exists like a father figure whom everybody loves to can criticise, a punching bag which is regularly clobbered.
It would be wrong to premise that Gandhism is dead and forgotten. Like Buddhism, which is mostly prevalent outside India, the country of its birth, Gandhism today is very much alive and active outside India. There are very few countries in the world where something or the other is not being done, achieved or organized in the name of Gandhi. The name of Mahatma Gandhi transcends the bounds of race, religion and nation-states, and has emerged as the prophetic voice of the twenty-first century. Every nation in the world has issued Postage stamps in honour of him.
Post-Independence, many of Gandhi’s closest colleagues had become leading politicians and used their positions to establish well respected Gandhian institutions. The few who continued to work at the grass-roots were termed as “professional Gandhians”. They maintained the essential symbols of simplicity, spinning the charka, wearing khadi, strict dietary rules etc. There were many youth, who were born years after Gandhi’s death, into families that did not have any connection with Gandhi, who took the command in Gandhi’s “last will and testament” to heart. They dropped out of university or jobs with a materially secure future to work in out of the way villages.
However, there were Gandhians who were propagating the Sarvodaya Movement. Narayan Desai the Shanti Sena (Peace Army) leader, Chandi Prasad Bhatt of the tree-hugging Chipko movement, Harivallabh Parikh and his “People’s Courts”, Radhakrishna Menon and the village community of Danagram, Prem Bhai and his Agrindus project working among the tribal population of southeastern Uttar Pradesh, Baba Amte and Anna Hazare are a few examples.
Resurgent India, from Rajiv Gandhi onwards, found Gandhi’s legacy a destructive one, holding back development in the country. His followers were seen as eccentrics or dangerous fools, while at the same time the Mahatma was depicted as a saint.
If one traces the history of the Gandhian movement and examines its current position, an assessment can be made of the likely future of Indian Gandhism. How Gandhi had been used and misused over the years, by people and parties who do not “care a fig for any of his ideas and principles” is a matter of great shame.
Like Anna Hazare’s movement, today’s Gandhians appear to be powerless against the large negative forces that beset the country. They were fighting a corrupt political system, and then fought among themselves over whether they should field a political party, or endorse “people’s candidates”. The resultant birth of the Aam Admi Party and its maiden success is fresh in the minds of the people. In what way should the word “movement” be applied to the Indian Gandhian establishment? And in order to list other social activist groups under the rubric of the Gandhian movement, is it enough that they may have started due to Gandhian inspiration or that they do the type of work Gandhi advocated?
Rather than there being a powerful and united Indian Gandhian movement as there once was, there are now countless grass-roots social movements, often strongly influenced by Gandhi, even though Gandhi may not even be mentioned and things may not be done in his name. Is this still Gandhism? Is Gandhism dead, or merely transformed?
Gandhi believed and preached the picture of an ideal society, which he termed as Ramrajya or the Kingdom of God. There would be equal rights for princes and paupers, even the lowliest person could get swift justice, inequalities which allowed some to roll in riches while the masses did not have enough to eat would be nonexistent, and sovereignty of the people would be based on pure moral authority rather than on power.
Where do we find Gandhians in India today? Are they in the white khadi and now very occasionally the “Gandhi cap” genre a la Aam Admi Party that has moved into the political mainstream? Seekers will see them when they visit Gandhian institutions, possibly a few elderly figures would be plying the charkha and singing his favourite hymns. There are many those who serve as administrators at Gandhian ashrams and museums, others who teach Gandhi related courses at universities. The Sarvodaya bookshops at railway stations are located in one corner of the platform with dusty books.
The day before his death on 30 January 1948, Gandhi wrote, in what was to become known as his “last will and testament”, that the Indian National Congress (the main nationalist organisation whose office bearers were elected annually) in its present form had outlived its use. The Congress had been set up to achieve political independence; and that goal accomplished the emphasis had to shift to the social, moral and economic independence of the rural masses. With this in mind, Gandhi proposed that the Congress organisation be disbanded to allow Lok Seva Sanghs, organisations for the service of the people, to grow in its place. The Congress did not disband itself. Instead, it became the party of government and its main office bearers the leading politicians in the ruling party. The rest is modern Indian history.
If we forget history, we are forced to repeat it. India’s Generation X today is clueless and at loss to understand our freedom struggle. Gandhi is remembered only on Independence Day, Republic Day, and other national days. No elections since 1950 have ever been complete without Gandhi. It’s time we talk about Gandhi in a neutral and unbiased way. The emphasis of the freedom struggle in totality cannot be pushed down the throats of today’s youth, because the India today we are living is not just because of what happened up to 1947, but because of what happened after 1947. There is a growing dissent amongst the youth because they just cannot understand Gandhi and the hype around him. He is blamed him for everything from the partition to the Kashmir and Pakistan issues. Gandhi might never be understood by this generation. His contributions will never be glorious to this generation because of all the Gandhi-ism we have grown up on.
By Anil Dhir