The Great Pertinence of Gandhi to India in the 75th Year of Its Independence
Gandhi’s Great Pertinence to India
A thesaurus would dwell on the difference between ‘relevance’ and ‘pertinence’ with the former implying a general and the latter suggesting a more specific impact. Thus while the progress of our freedom movement was part of a wider process, the impact of Gandhi’s personality was critical in imparting it shape and direction. The manner of its impact on the Indian mind is worthy of careful study.
So, who was Gandhi? Why was he relevant to his contemporaries? How do we evaluate his bequest to our times?
Allow me to recall a famous passage:
“This little man of poor physique had something of steel in him, something rock-like which did not yield to physical powers, however great they might be. And in spite of his unimpressive features, his loin cloth and bare body, there was a royalty and kingliness in him which compelled a willing obedience from others. Consciously and deliberately meek and humble, yet he was full of power and authority, and he knew it, and at times he was imperious enough, issuing commands which had to be obeyed…Whether his audience consisted of one person or a thousand, the charm and magnetism of the man passed on to it, and each one had a feeling of communion with the speaker…one of the most remarkable things about Gandhi ji was, and is, his capacity to win over, or at least, to disarm his opponents…Having found an inner peace, he radiated it to others and marched through life’s tortuous ways with firm and undaunted steps”
So described by Jawaharlal Nehru was the man who held India and Indians spell bound in his life time, and does so to this day.
A biography cannot be compressed in an essay and so my effort today would be to focus on the formative period of the Gandhian ideology and methodology and the final outcome, because these left an imprint on the Indian mind and shaped the approach of ordinary Indians.
After his studies in the UK and his sojourn in South Africa in the course of which some of his techniques of passive resistance were initiated Gandhi returned to India, ‘a mature idealist and political mobiliser.’ The political establishment in South Africa heaved a sigh of relief: The saint has left our shore’, wrote Smut,’ I sincerely hope for ever.’ He was, in some matters, influenced by both Gokhale and Tilak. These early years were critical to the shaping of his mind and of the principles and practice of Brahmachariya, Satyagraha, Ahimsa, He studied other religions, found virtues in all of them, and scrupulously adhered to his self-definition of a Sanatani Hindu (given later in Young India on October 12, 1921) Elsewhere, he described his language as ‘aphoristic; it lacks precision. It is therefore open to several interpretations.’ He wrote in Young India that ‘I am not anti-British…but I am anti-untruth, anti humbug and anti-injustice…No Indian has cooperated with the British Government more than I have…’
His political thoughts were first expressed in Hind Swaraj published in 1908. It asserted self rule; also a rejection of modernity. The book is fascinating to read, more difficult to implement as a guide to political action since, as Gandhi himself admitted, ‘politics encircles us today on the coil of a snake.’
Gandhi’s earliest involvement in India was in the Champaran Satyagraha of 1917 where he adopted the approach of civil disobedience movement resulting in a committee set up by the government and to proposals that were acceptable by the agitating cultivators. A second movement was the Kheda Satyagraha in 1917-18 in Kheda in Gujarat seeking remission of taxes due to crop failure. Here too a response was forthcoming from the Government.
Champaran and Kaira, and the industrial dispute in Ahmadabad, were first instances of Satyaraha in practice in India. Both hammered home the lesson that Satyaghaha ‘could be used ‘in virtually any situation of conflict, by literate and illiterate. It was a weapon for all seasons and, in Gandhi’s hands, directed by his personal ideology, it gave him the edge over conventional politicians with their techniques of petitions, public speeches and debates, which were more suitable for the educated.’ Equally critical was the Rowlatt Satyagraha that ‘radically altered Gandhi’s standing with the government…and showed Gandhi as an all-India leader of immense potential.’
His tactics were having an impact, and so was his general appearance. An intelligence report in May 1920 assessed that ‘the association of Gandhi with any movement is a great asset because his name is one to conjure with among the ignorant masses.’ A report by the Governor of Madras to the Viceroy in April 1921 said ‘it is amazing what an influence this man is gathering…There is no doubt that Gandhi has got a tremendous hold on the public imagination.’
Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat Movement was for multiple reasons: a demand for fulfillment of British pledges given to the Muslims, his own sense of moral responsibility, and to secure Hindu-Muslim friendship. He explained it in his own words in May1920: ‘If I had not joined the Khilafat movement, I think, I would have lost everything. In joining it I have followed what I especially regard as my dharma. I am trying to show through this movement the real nature of non-violence. I am uniting Hindus and Muslims. The Khilafat movement is a great churning of the sea of India. Why should we be concerned wih what it will produce? All that we should consider is whether the movement itself is pure and worthy.’
Gandhi considered his participation in the Amritsar session of the Indian National Congress (1919) as his ‘real entrance into Congress politics.’ After the Jaliawala Bagh Massacre, he took an active part in the collection of funds for the Memorial to that massacre and also for the redrafting of the Congress Rules that resulted in a unanimous report. It sought to make the Congress pyramidal in structure, more representative and more functional between annual sessions. This was a key innovation that allowed regional committees greater freedom to participate in proceedings.
Gradualism was the essence of his approach. ‘My life, through insistence on truth, has taught me the beauty of compromise.’ When, in 1921 session of the Indian National Congress, Maulana Hasrat Mohani (who coined the slogan Inqilab zindabad) proposed a resolution seeking ‘Swaraj or complete independence free from all foreign control’ to be the objective of Congress, Gandhi demurred: ‘let us not go into waters whose depth we do not know’ and suggested other priorities.
And yet, there was clarity of vision in perceptions. In a letter to Dr. B.C. Roy in May 1928 he said ‘I am bidding my time and you will find me leading the country in the field of politics when the country is ready. I have no false modesty about me. I am undoubtedly a politician in my own way, and I have a scheme for the country’s freedom. But my time is not yet and may never come to me in this life.’
Any study of the intrinsic principles of Gandhi’s thinking, and of his major political interventions, would show the extent to which the two were intertwined. His Autobiography records his reading of Ruskin’s Unto This Last and his own remark that it ‘captured me and made me transform my life.’
Gandhi’s elaboration of some of his practices was unique. He defined passive resistance as ‘a method of securing rights by personal suffering and the reverse of resistance by arms.’ It requires fearlessness. He chose themes for agitations that appealed to the poorest and the simplest. An Urdu poet summed up his style:
Lashkar-e-Gndhi ko hathyaron ki hajat kuch nahin
Han magar be-intiha sabr-o-qanaat chahiye
The army of Gandhi does not need any weapons
Yes, but it does need limitless contentment and patience.
His personality, life style and simplicity, and the idiom of his communication, caught the imagination of the public. His ashram in Ahmadabad added to the transmission of being regarded a Mahatma. ‘It is the fakir’s dress that has broken down all barriers’ wrote Abbas Tyabji, a former chief justice of Baroda. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that the movement absorbed him so wholly that he gave up all other associations and contacts.’ Through 1921 the tension between the Congress and the Government mounted; first the Ali Brothers and then many Congress leaders were arrested on charge of sedition.
The Turkish novelist and feminist Halide Adib spent the early months of 1935 in India, some of it with Gandhi ji, and recorded her impressions in Inside India first published in 1937. One chapter of the book recorded his ‘Eleven Vows’ and his manifold activities aimed ‘to build the Indian society from the bottom to the top and focuses on the abolition of Untouchability, the regeneration of the village as a unit of Indian society, and achievement of communal unity.
Gandhi major campaigns against the British rule were the Non Cooperation Movement of 1920s, the civil disobedience movements of 1930s of which the Salt Satyagraha was the highlight, and the Quit India Movement of the 1940s.
‘How did one coax an aggrieved yet disarmed, heterogeneous and divided populace to wage an assault on a powerful empire? Tagore posed the question to Gandhi on January 18, 1930 who said ‘I am furiously thinking night and day.’ In the middle of February ‘the intuition came to him like a flash: the assault should be over salt. Gandhi pictured a march to the sea by his ashramite army, with himself at the head. It had another virtue: all could jointly oppose it, Hindus and Muslims, peasants and the landless. Also known as the Dandi March, it attracted a great many people including Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu, resulted in violence by the police and the arrest of 60,000 people.
The non cooperation movement in 1920-1922 was organized to induce the British Government in India to grant self rule or swaraj to India. His speech in Madras on August 12, 1920 spelt out the essence of the doctrine on noncooperation. It was Gandhi first organized act of large scale civil disobedience. It gathered strength by joining forces with the Khilafat Movement launched by the Muslims of India against the British breach of promises made with regard to Ottoman Turkey. For a variety of reasons it had a limited life span and the violence in the village of Chauri Chaura made Gandhi call it off, much to the ‘disappointment and anger’ of Nehru.’ Nevertheless, it marked the transition from a middle class to a mass basis.
A spell of imprisonment followed by the Gandhi-Irwin Pact created space for political negotiations. Gandhi attended the Second Roundtable Conference in London but was imprisoned on return. The Gandhi-Ambedkar talks resolved the question of separate electorate for the Dalits. On the proposed negotiations leading to the Government of India Act 1935, Gandhi’s view was that it was an act of the sword not of goodwill. He had, earlier, resigned from the primary membership of the Congress and left the decision-making to the Congress leadership that accepted the clarifications given by the Viceroy. In the elections that followed, the Congress won overwhelmingly.
The Quit India Movement of August 1942 demanding an end to the British rule in India was launched by Gandhi with a speech whose focus was on Ahimsa; ‘the draft Resolution of the Working Committee is based on Ahimsa…Ours is not a drive for power, but purely a non-violent fight for India’s independence….The Congress is unconcerned as to who will rule when freedom is attained. The power when it comes will belong to the people of India…’
He called for an ’orderly British withdrawal’ from India and described the promised withdrawal after the war as ‘a post-dated cheque on a crashing bank.’ This was unacceptable to the British who imprisoned the entire Congress leadership. It is of course another matter that the Quit India Movement was opposed by segments of Indian opinion including the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha, the CPI and the Indian States who felt a fight against the Axis powers should take precedence.
The modest dwelling in Wardha to which Gandhi often withdrew had an aberration: a telephone. It was explained to me that this was at the insistence of the British authorities!
When political negotiations were resumed after the war and the Partition Plan was presented, Gandhi ji told Dr. Rajendra Presad ‘I can see only evil in the plan.’ This was expressed candidly in the latter’s Introduction to Pyare Lal Nayar’s book Gandhi: Going to Wipe their Tears:
‘Gandhiji was uncompromisingly opposed to the Partition of India, which he called her vivisection….Based on a wrong theory and brought about by such questionable means, it would do irretrievable harm to both Hindus and Muslims – in India and in Pakistan. But he left it to the Congress Ministers in the Central Government, who were in charge of running the administration, to act according to their judgment. Once they decided in favour of Partition, he did not oppose them, although he never concealed opinion.’
His virtual resignation from the decision-making process was also conveyed to Mountbatten in his letter of April 11, 1947.
Gandhi ji was not in Delhi on the Independence Day. On the eve of that day his mood was bleak. He marked the day with a twenty-four-hour fast, refused to record a message for the Hindustan Times and said ‘he had run dry.’ He also declined an interview to the BBC and told an emissary ‘I forgot English.’
A life spent in promoting fraternity was confronted once again by conflagration of violence that preceded and followed the vivisection of India. It was to be the last challenge of his life.
Gandhi ji died as he lived: dedicated to his principles, to his own version of modernity premised on Ahimsa. On his last birthday on October 2 1947 his request to visitors was ‘to pray either for present conflagration should end or he be taken away. I do not wish another birthday to overtake me in an India still in flames.’
To us, citizens of India, he was above all Father of the Nation. We should therefore turn to him for guidance. What would that be? There is a tablet at the Rajghat listing Seven Social Sins. These are simple yet candid and well worth recalling:
- Wealth without work.
- Pleasure without conscience.
- Knowledge without character.
- Commerce without morality.
- Science without humanity.
- Religion without sacrifice.
- Politics without principle.
Would this be a pertinent ingredient in our resolve of the day? It would please the spirit of Bapu.