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Think Gandhi’s Politics Is Outdated? You Couldn’t Be More Wrong

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By Priyamvada Asthana:

The year 2015 marks hundred years of Gandhi’s return to India and his invaluable participation in and conduction of India’s ongoing freedom struggle. Sixty-eight years have passed since India achieved Independence. During these seven decades, several other countries have attained Independence, but there have been many changes in means and manner of conducting political movements and in the thought process of political leaders. However, Gandhian thoughts, his philosophy, his strategy and his work ethic still remain relevant. Against this backdrop, it becomes important to ask why and what makes Gandhi special and relevant to Indian history and politics and why his methods have proved effective and fail-proof.

Gandhi satyagraha
Salt March, 1930. Image source: Wikipedia

Gandhi’s policies were not formulated in isolation. At the time of his return to India, he was not fully familiar with the social pattern prevalent in India, and his own lifestyle was different from the majority of Indians. At this juncture, a friendly advice from G.K. Gokhale, whom Gandhi later acknowledged as his mentor and political guru, to undertake a journey across India to understand the people and politics, changed Gandhi’s outlook towards the Indian freedom struggle and transformed his personality, lifestyle and thought process. It brought to the forefront of Gandhi’s mind, the realities of India’s caste system and the divisions created by it in society. He realised that a large portion of India’s population had been excluded from the freedom struggle on parochial issues and on the basis of their socio-economic background.

Gandhi’s movement was one in a long line of movements in Colonial India. The Sepoy Mutiny/First War of Indian Independence, the Mopla Revolution, the Munda Uprising, the Ghadar Movement, the Moderates and Extremists had all failed before Gandhi took centre stage. All these movements had been restricted to certain sections of society. The elite fought at their own level, the peasants at their own and frequently, the two were at odds with one another. 1857 had largely been restricted to the upper castes and landlords, both, Hindu and Muslim. The peasant uprisings had been targeted against the zamindars of rural India, largely unconcerned with the colonial state. Within the Congress, the Moderates and Extremists faced off against each other. Gandhi found a social fabric weakened by a history of caste and religious discord and further damaged by colonial policies. Attempts made by social reformers had succeeded, to an extent, but again, they did not unite the various classes and castes of India. A sizable population lacked the sheer physical resilience to take part in armed rebellion and movements. Gandhi’s Satyagraha, derived from the ancient philosophy of truth and ahimsa, had universal appeal and even the not so able bodied and unarmed could actively participate. Its impact was felt across boundaries of religion, caste and creed, emphasising, as it did, truth and non-violence, basic to any religion.

Gandhi’s strength lies in that he was able to envisage a movement that would unite the various factions of Indian society against a common enemy and also be powerful against a hegemonic state. He united the demands of the Extremists with the methods of the Moderates and yet, did not identify with either. His analytical mind realised that violence was futile against the power of the State, which would only respond with greater violence and crush any threat to its power, as exemplified in 1857. Satyagraha was a novel form. It was non-violent, yet, it threatened the State. By taking up the causes of the peasantry, Gandhi irrevocably linked them to the movement and made them stakeholders in its success.

The British Empire acted on the policy of divide and rule, through their actions and symbols. In 1911, the seat of the British Empire in India was shifted to Delhi, long recognised as the seat of power. This sent a very powerful message across the nation. Gandhi chose to fight this symbolism inherent in the Colonial State by using symbols as a weapon in his rhetoric against the State. Gandhi’s dhoti and lathi was chosen after much introspection, which identified him with the poorest of the poor and village elders, who used it as a means of support. Khadi became a symbol of Swadeshi, easily accessible to anyone with a charkha. To the young, he said, ahimsa required courage. He identified himself with the untouchables by cleaning toilets. Thus, in one stroke, Gandhi brought a large population, excluded for a millennia, on par with the rest of the populace. The coinage of the term, ‘Harijan’, described the untouchables as people of God. His favourite hymn, ‘Vaishnava jan to tene kahiye je, peer paraai jaane re’ proclaimed those as true worshippers of Vishnu, who felt the agony of the other. The other, in this case, was quite glaringly the downtrodden peasantry of rural India. He touched the untouched issue of the untouchable. The Harijan, untouchable and the Vaishnava jan, the upper caste, were projected as synonymous, Hari being another name for Vishnu. This sent ripples across the upper-castes and staunch Brahmin, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya cleaned the utensils of an untouchable student in BHU, when the cleaning staff refused to do so.

His pet goat was another clear symbol reaching out to the Muslim community, especially in the countryside. The combining of the Khilafat Movement with the Non-Cooperation Movement and beginning the Dandi March with seventy-two followers, reminiscent of the battle of Karbala was also an attempt to unite the Hindus and the Muslims. His means of communication were both, verbal and non-verbal. He bridged the gaping divide between the rural and the urban and between religious communities that had existed before his arrival.

Image source: Wikipedia

Gandhi’s symbolism was not for mere rhetorics sake. It was a well thought out strategy. All movements before Gandhi clearly fell into two categories. One, of the educated, urban elite, which was not in conversation with the rural masses and the other, of the peasant’s struggle against his zamindar, where the Colonial State did not enter the picture. Gandhi united both these movements. He recognised that both movements worked against each other, detrimental to both. The elite was a minuscule section of society and did not possess the numbers to make a change. The peasant, in his opinion, was focusing on entirely the wrong enemy. By bringing both movements together, Gandhi created a new movement. One, in which, the peasant was exhorted to work with his zamindar to help overthrow the colonial ruler. Rhetoric was generated at every level. At the level of the All India Congress Committee lay the recognition that Gandhi was providing the force that would carry the flag to its final destination. At the provincial level, Gandhi was deified and miracles were attributed to him. Rumour played a significant role in boosting his popularity and gave him a Godly aura. Gandhi Baba, the Fakir, Gandhiji, the Mahatma, these were characters easy for the ordinary peasant to identify with in a society where godmen were more powerful than political leaders. He managed in uniting the zamindar and the ryot, even if it wasn’t always to the ryot’s benefit. His name was invoked even when he was unconnected to the movement. He became a national symbol.

Gandhi picked up symbols that resonated with the common man and woman. Salt, an item of everyday consumption became his symbol of British oppression. Clothing became the identifier of a nationalist. Small, everyday things that were easy for the man or woman on the streets to do, no grand gestures. Yet, the small everyday things transformed and gained massive proportions. He did not talk of Independence, but of Freedom for every individual, Swaraj and Suraaj. The choice of words made a tremendous difference to the way the movement was perceived. Freedom could mean freedom from oppression, from hunger, from bondage, from anything one wished to be free from. Swadheen was the term. Reliant only on the self.

Gandhi’s importance and relevance lies in that he created a common agenda for India and played an important role in the freedom struggle. He brought together various factions and provided a united front. His use of non-violent means gave him the moral authority to challenge the violence of a hegemonic state. And therein lies his relevance for the modern world.

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