How far have we moved away from the Mahatma?
It is the second of October again – the birth day of one of the greatest men who ever lived. The name of Mahatma Gandhi brings to our minds the image of a lean old man, walking with the support of a stick, half clad in a self-spun khadi cloth, laughing with his toothless mouth open, his round framed thick glasses sitting firmly on his crooked nose, his bald head and large ears. No wonder, Winston Churchill called him a ‘half naked fakir’. We generally tend to associate charisma with good looks. However, Gandhiji was perhaps one of those rare leaders whose looks can be called plain at the most, yet he was unparalleled in charisma.
Where did Gandhi get his strength from? What was that great force that moved even the toughest of the hearts to submission and love before Gandhi? We will only be partially correct when we say Gandhi’s personality was immensely impressionable because of his enormous spiritual power, his unimpeachable sincerity, his unswerving allegiance to truth and non-violence and his purity of character. It was all of that, but there was something more. The magnetism of Gandhi shall always intrigue us and shall always be an unsolved puzzle.
Gandhi remains a marvel to all of us, and for the generations to come because he achieved what most others could not even think of achieving – freeing India from the oppression of the colonial Britishers. What is more fascinating is that Gandhi not only achieved his ends, but met them by employing means that humanity till then believed was at best ‘an ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain’. To prove to the world a few universal truths of nature, the scientist Gandhi chose the world as his laboratory. It was because he dealt with problems that are timeless and universal, because he gave solutions based on eternal verities; his relevance is also timeless and universal.
A cursory look at the contemporaries of Gandhi will give us a new perspective about India, her people and Gandhi. The most influential leaders of that time were Hitler, who was ruling the roost in Europe with Mussolini, Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Mao in China – all of them who rose to prominence by brute force and sustained their power and dominance by more bloodshed and war. I won’t be wrong when I say that these leaders did enjoy a considerable degree of legitimacy and following by their people. Many were even looked up to with awe. Almost around the same time, Gandhi chose to win over his opponents – I will be wrong to use the word ‘opponents’, for Gandhi never thought of anyone to be his opponent – by means of non-violence and truth, which he called satyagraha. Sometimes, I question myself, whether Gandhi would have been as successful if he were in any other country and not in India? Could he have commanded such a following, as he did here – which used to walk miles to just catch his darshan (glimpse)? Would any other people, revere the ‘half naked fakir’ as a saint and worship him? Would Gandhi have become a Mahatma in any other country, but India?
I doubt it. It is true that Martin Luther King became the greatest leader for America and Nelson Mandela for South Africa by employing the same means as Gandhi, but the first experiment inevitably had to be in India. I say this because Gandhi, in my opinion, was nothing but a personification of all the great values that the Indian people had ingrained in their bloodstream from ages. All Gandhi did was to unfailingly practice the age-old Vedic proposition – “Na karmana, Na Prajaya, Na Dhanena, Tyagenaike Amrutatva Maanashuhu”; it is not only by work, by support of the people, by the power of money that one becomes immortal, but by the power of sacrifice and renunciation. It was only natural for Indians to follow Gandhi, as he espoused these ideals that they always held dear to their hearts.
Gandhi was seen not merely as a political leader; in fact, Gandhi was seen more as a spiritual guru, a deeply pious religious reformer and an itinerant karmayogi – concepts that Indians scrupulously cherished. Politics for Gandhi was a means towards a higher spiritual goal. “What I want to achieve – what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years”, he said “is self-realisation, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in political field, are directed to this same end”. This unique blend of spirituality and politics was a potent force, capable of electrifying even the most excluded sections of Indian society into the freedom struggle.
The intermingling of politics and religion that Gandhi practiced was completely different from what our political leaders of today are practicing -using a mandir or a masjid to further their political ends, by polarizing and dividing the people. Gandhi’s religion in politics, conversely, was of a different kind. He said, “Indeed religion should pervade every one of our actions. Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral government of the universe. It is not less real because it is unseen. This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc. It does not supersede them. It harmonises them and gives them reality.” Indeed, I feel, this divorce of politics from religion and spirituality is one the causes for the present decay in politics.
There was also another reason for Gandhi’s stupendous success in politics – Gandhi firmly had his hand on the pulse of the common people. Not many had understood India, as well as Gandhi did. He observed, “We must first come in living touch with them by working for them and in their midst. We must share their sorrows, understand their difficulties and anticipate their wants. With the pariahs we must be pariahs and see how we feel to clean the closets of the upper classes and have the remains of their table thrown at us. We must see how we like being in the boxes, miscalled houses, of the labourers of Bombay. We must identify ourselves with the villagers who toil under the hot sun beating on their bent backs and see how we would like to drink water from the pool in which the villagers bathe, wash their clothes and pots, and in which their cattle drink and roll. Then and not till then shall we truly represent the masses and they will, surely as I am writing this, respond to every call.” And they did respond to his call.
Though it was Bal Gangadhar Tilak who took the first steps towards making the freedom movement a mass movement, the credit for successfully mobilizing people from all strata of society, from even the remotest corners of the country should largely and rightly go to Mahatma Gandhi. It was this boundless love and endless empathy that made him the real leader of the common masses. It was for their emancipation that he worked and strove for. While writing on the India of his dreams, he unequivocally wrote in Young India – “I shall strive for a constitution, which will release India from all thralldom and patronage, and give her, if need be, the right to sin. I shall work for an India, in which the poorest shall feel it is their country in whose making they have an effective voice; an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. There can be no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability or the curse of the intoxicating drinks and drugs. Women will enjoy the same rights as men. This is the India of my dreams….I shall be satisfied with nothing less.” This exhortation of the Mahatma also found expression in the foundational values of our constitution. Nonetheless, if we question ourselves, whether we have built the India that Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of, we will be left with an answer that will leave us disappointed in a large measure.
Do the poorest of Indians ‘feel it is their country in whose making they have an effective voice’? Are their voices really heard? Have we built ‘an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people’? Isn’t the gulf between the poor and the rich increasingly widening? Are ‘all communities shall live in perfect harmony’? Haven’t we as a society got more polarized and divided along all possible lines than we were during the time of Gandhi? Is it not a paradox that in the land of Mahatma Gandhi – in which he wanted to end the ‘curse of the intoxicating drinks and drugs’ – one of the highest revenues grossed by the government is by the sale of liquor? Is it not a sadder irony that Jnanapeethas and litterateurs sit on the streets in protest demanding the extension of liquor shops late into the night? Or have our perceptions of morality and culture changed, as many of us today, I am told, see alcoholism as a symbol of elitism and a refined way of life?
What is the status of women in the country today? Has it bettered? It is true that girls are getting educated and employed, but are we treating our women with the respect that Mahatma Gandhi expected from us? What would mere economic empowerment of women result in, if women are treated as commodities of pleasure? It is a fact that we, as a country, have done a great deal for the upliftment of the poor and the downtrodden, but much more needs to be done.
And worryingly, the greatest impediment in fulfilling this dream is in the realm that the Mahatma worked all his life – politics. In Gandhi’s land, politics has got transformed from politics of service to politics for personal power. Brazen corruption, shameless aggrandizement of personal wealth, exploitation of people for short term political gains and politics of confrontation rather than cooperation has cost us dearly. Democracy, which was expected to be a great source of strength and voice for the weak and the poor, in some measures, has forlornly become a tool for the rich and the powerful to trample upon the poor.
Every year hundreds of programs are kick started for the welfare of the poor and millions of rupees are spent on them. And most of these schemes are christened after Gandhi – of late, more after Gandhis other than the Mahatma. Yet, more than 300 million Indians still do not have freedom from hunger, illiteracy and disease, more than 350 million Indians are illiterate, many more millions do not have access have access to sanitation facilities, basic health care and drinking water, due to the leakages in the system. The nexus between the power hungry politicians, apathetic bureaucrats and greedy corporations have seen to it that the fruits of the schemes never reach the intended beneficiaries.
Gandhiji foresaw these problems and had warned us, when he wrote –
“There is no human institution without its dangers. Greater the institution, greater the chances of abuse. Democracy is a great institution and therefore it is liable to be greatly abused. The remedy, therefore, is not avoidance of democracy but reduction of possibility of abuse to a minimum”. The quirk of fate is that any effort to ‘reduce the possibility of abuse to a minimum’ is thwarted and curbed by the political class.
At times, it feels as though we have restricted Gandhi just to a photograph on our currency notes. Post Independence, we dumped most of his ideas and values into the bins, and the ones we claimed to follow, we followed them more in breach.
For a long time, by wrongly branding Gandhi as a socialist and confusing his economic policies, we did enough damage to our economy, while he was a strong believer in reducing State controls on the economy. Gandhi had written, “I look upon an increase in the power of the State with the greatest fear because, though apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, it does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality which lies at the root of all progress.” It is important to note that Gandhi never called himself a Socialist, but called himself a believer in social justice.
We have also done considerable damage to the unity and harmony of our society by introducing legislation mandated representation/reservations for certain sections of our society. Way back in 1939, writing in Harijan, Gandhi had prophetically said that, “The very essence of democracy is that every person represents all the varied interests which compose the nation. It is true that it does not exclude and should not exclude special representation of special interests, but such representation is not its test. It is a sign of its imperfection.”
It is paradoxical and absurd that what the Father of our nation had explicitly stated as imperfection, we as a country, legitimized and institutionalized through caste and religion based reservations by miscalling it social inclusion and equal representation. The old exploitation of castes which the Mahatma strove to abolish, we have perpetuated for now and for the future by institutionalizing caste based reservations. As a consequence, our society is today dangerously – thinking in terms of caste and religion, voting in terms of caste and religion, demanding rights in terms of caste and religion and finally, identifying ourselves in terms of caste and religion.
What is equally worrying is that, we as a society have moved far away from the values that Gandhi attached to the purity of both the means and the ends. Today we tend to respect a person, if he is wealthy. It is immaterial to us whether the means the man adopted to gain that wealth was legal and moral. This has in a big way encouraged the corrupt. We are sorrowfully, getting thicker skinned to morality. There cannot be a bigger threat to the survival of a democracy than the apathy of the people who constitute it.
Gandhi had put this in his characteristic way when writing in Young India. He succinctly said,
“Democracy disciplined and enlightened is the finest thing in the world. A democracy prejudiced, ignorant, superstitious, will land itself in chaos and may be self-destroyed”.
The first step in building a stronger democracy is in creating a value based society. Depressingly, we are facing a moral and ethical recession in all walks of life– something that is harder to contain than economic recession. We should be worried today at the erosion of values, than the erosion of our currency. And, to contain this erosion and to replenish our value system, we need to seek guidance in the timeless teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. The Mahatma had exhorted us to refrain from committing – what he thought were seven deadly sins – “Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, Commerce without Morality, Science without Humanity, religion without sacrifice, Politics without Principles.” It is harder to find a simpler exposition of universally appreciated values.
And the spirit of the Mahatma will always be there with us in the journey of building a greater India. It is only significant to recollect Sarojini Naidu’s befitting tribute to Mahatma Gandhi.
“May the soul of my master, my leader, my father, rest not in peace! Not in peace – my father – do not rest! Keep us to our pledge! Give us strength to fulfill our promises – your heirs, your descendants, guardians of your dreams, fulfillers of India’s destiny.”