We Can Still Learn A Lesson Or Two From Gandhi In These Conflict-Ridden Times

Unravelling Gandhi

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, popularly known by many monikers, nicknames, and honorifics like ‘Bapu’ and ‘Mahatma’ (accorded by Rabindranath Tagore) pursued and mastered a distinct ideology throughout his life, engaging with law, politics and society.

Sarojini Naidu, an eminent freedom fighter, used to call him ‘Mickey Mouse‘. Trained as a lawyer, Gandhi quarrelled and quibbled with his innate beliefs and morals. He interrogated the moral belief system to its  foundation at every step of his life, and sought to seek solutions to macro-political challenges through a disciplined and rigorous political movement. He constructed the edifice of his political ideology around symbols and motifs easily identifiable with the lives of farmers, small entrepreneurs and workers of every hue and character. 

Gandhi was of a very shy nature, but was able to strike a connection with everyone, whether rich or poor. He never stopped surprising his critics in his life and always came up with disarming weapons in the form of ‘Ahimsa‘ and ‘Hriday-Parivartan‘ (transformation of the heart and soul). He withdrew his civil protest movement in the wake of the Chauri-Chaura episode, even though it had fused well with the Khilafat movement. To everyone’s astonishment, he put himself through penance and held himself accountable for violence against  police personnel. On another occasion, while on a trip to London to participate in the proceedings of the Round Table Conference, he chose to stay in a workers’ colony instead of the swanky West End Hotel. 

Headstrong Beliefs

Gandhi held the belief that only the courageous lot can practice ‘Ahimsa‘ as a creed. Truth and non-violence were inseparable in his estimation. This understanding led him to negotiate, parley and discuss matters of the state, people’s rights, civil liberties and governance on more than one occasion with the imperial power peddlers.

He was always aware of the brutal might of the British rule.  Therefore, he chose to put his supreme faith in the faceless masses of India. He realised early on that this collective force could really free India from the yolk of colonialism if given a working talisman to reckon with. He gave it to them through the precept of  non-violence and experimented with it throughout his life.

Gandhi was acutely aware of the fact that colonial rule couldn’t be challenged with the might of physical and brute force. He, therefore, emphasised on harmony between zamindars and tenants, and insisted on class harmony. 

“Look workers, you need to obey the factory owners as you obey your parents,” Gandhi believed in developing the consciousness of common trusteeship.

Another of his political experiments that blunted the military might of Britishers was the concept of trusteeship. A.R. Desai, an acclaimed sociologist, noted that Gandhi used to cajole industrial workers to obey factory owners and maintain peace and tranquility. He used to say:

Look workers, you need to obey the factory owners as you obey your parents. It is your imperative responsibility to develop the consciousness of common trusteeship by joining the hands of the factory-owners to ensure higher yield of your toil”. 

Gandhi was quite self-aware of his image and the effect it had on masses. He evoked unique imagination in the minds of the illiterate masses who wanted to come out of their drudgery. He followed the philosophy of  “Daridra Narayan“, or service to the poor is equivalent to the service of God, through his peasant movements such as the Champaran Satyagraha and the immensely audacious Salt Satyagraha, in which women played a crucial role. He may also be recalled for  his connect with the ‘subaltern’(a term coined by Antonio Gramsci, meaning displaced social groups from socio-political institutions).

Gandhi For Tumult-Ridden Times

India and the world of the 21st  century seems to be in a perpetual state of tumult. The forces that are giving birth to newer conflicts and dissension in society are yet inscrutable. However, the rise of a naked capitalist regime has ushered in a new set of values, and India is caught in a mesh wire of old traditions on one hand, and the onset of panoramic notions of lifestyles, commerce and technology on the hand. 

A new era dawned upon us long back, and we are struggling to keep pace with the vagaries of our times. A new subset of political undercurrent dismisses peaceful negotiations in social and political engagement at the drop of the hat. Dialogue doesn’t receive much favour these days, and diplomacy at the global stage is also by and large bereft of a humane quality.

Gandhi used to strike at the heart of the colonial arrogance with his wry smile, and yet, could pass off as a messiah among British officials. It can be discerned that in recent times, the moral compass of our society gives two hoots about  the Gandhian precepts of ‘truth’ and ‘non-violence’. Without a doubt, these precepts helped him to master his anxieties, which he then turned into the veritable ‘soul force’ by practising the ethic of ‘Ahimsa’. 

With truth combined with ahimsa, “Gandhi wrote, “you can bring the world to your feet.” He also reportedly observed: “Truth is my religion and ahimsa is the only way of its realisation. The realisation of the truth which is the realisation of the oneness with all that is created as an extension of oneself portrays ahimsa. Whereas ahimsa when adopted as means to realize the absolute truth becomes an effective spiritual practice. Truth and nonviolence are no cloistered virtues but are applicable as much in the forum and the legislatures as in the market-place.”

Once, on a road trip to  Chandigarh, I happened to stop by a dhaba (eatery joint) for a cup of tea and overheard an animated conversation underway between a motley band of collegiates, comprising  20-something -year-olds, girls and boys. 

The conversation swerved towards the attitude and behaviour of relatives, neighbours, lovers, and the  sundry. A boy among them vouched for peaceful resolution to disputes as a possible solution. The whole lot laughed at him with condescension and observed: “Yeh toh Gandhi ki tarah baat karta hai (He talks like Gandhi).” Now this is a conversation one can just overlook, but such reactions tell us a lot about the way Gandhi is perceived in different quarters of the society today. It is noteworthy to recall that Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Gandhi, reportedly considered him to be an effete. 

“This is an age of quick fix solutions, so his ideas are easily junked and branded as ‘obsolete’, ‘non-workable’, and as one promoting ‘weakness’. “

The restlessness of our times manifests itself in shocking incidents of violence and abuse, both at the domestic front and in public spaces. It leads to stunting of our economy too. It also seeps into the mental firmament of the electorate at times. A vast body of people doesn’t really approve of long-drawn political projects, something which Gandhi mooted in order to achieve ‘Swaraj‘ or ‘self-rule’ against the imperial might. 

Wielding the weapon of ‘Ahimsa’, he non-violently weaponised his unique technique of statecraft. Gandhi has furnished a testament of non-violence for generations to come. Love him. Hate him. But he remains a vantage point for any viable academic, political, non-political, or any esoteric intellectual indulgence. 

We tend to forget that Gandhi was no votary of cowardice. As they say, this is an age of quick fix solutions, so his ideas are easily junked and branded as ‘obsolete’, ‘non-workable’, and as one promoting ‘weakness’. 

However, Gandhi needs to be understood through an ‘objective’ high tower. It might be the case that we have lost the certitude of patience and persistent behaviour to resolve disputes. It suddenly occurred to me that we often encounter conversations in our daily lives wherein we discover that participants are either criticising another person’s behaviour or justifying their own in a given situation. At times, they take pride in their ‘Give a Damn’ attitude and on other occasions, they are simply nonchalant to the rising trend of violence and strife in the society.

Trite to say, individualised ‘wants’ have replaced the  larger social connexion, and, I feel that the political engagement of the young and old lacks maturity, grace and a dignified stance. Societal interactions are fast dwindling into deceit and shallow, one-upmanship battles. 

The recent gun-firing incident by a young man in  a group of protesting students in front of Jamia University paints a picture of misplaced bravado and misdirected thought process. The incident starkly pointed towards deep-seated insecurity and fear that the gun-wielding man was carrying inside him, as he attacked an unarmed and peaceful group of student protestors. The sit-ins and the civil mode of protests certainly leaves the status quoists unnerved and makes them. Who knew about this better than Gandhi?

Time goes on, but Gandhi remains relevant for igniting a mass movement through ideals and precepts that he practised to a stretch. He was not a man without contradictions. A quick reading of his acclaimed autobiography, “My Experiments with Truth” will tell us that he kept questioning his morals and wallowed in guilt and remorse at times. It cannot still be denied that he splendidly met the military might through the quiet force of his ‘Ahimsa‘ ideology. Gandhi may still have a lesson or two for India and the world in these conflict-ridden times.

Featured image provided by the author.

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