3 October 2010

Gandhi & his Relevance

The recent (It’s actually not so recent but in the body clock of this blog, it is.) ‘Bharat Bandh’ in response to the hike in fuel prices has caused more damage than good. As most of the ‘aam aadmi’ (in whose name bandhs are called) acknowledge, far from trying to make a point in a democratic fashion, these bandhs have become an instrument for hooligans to indulge in unrestricted vandalism under political patronage.

Gandhi had very effectively used civil disobedience as a means of protest. And as with all his protests, non-violence was the keystone behind civil disobedience. Destruction of public property, mob violence, imposing strikes by means of terror & coercion are not only undemocratic but detrimental to individual freedom as well. Unfortunately, the little men who rule India today have distorted Gandhi’s non-cooperation & civil disobedience to derive political mileage from them.

Growing up in Gujarat, I had more than my share of chance encounters with hard-line Hindutva. For quite a few of my engineering college batch mates, visiting RSS Shakhas for physical drills was a natural part of growing up. The covert influence of stories of centuries of persecution of Hindus along with the kind of half baked stories which try to discredit great men by focusing on uncomfortable aspects of their personality, made me hate Gandhi and all that he stood for.

Then, sometime in my 3rd year, post-Godhra riots happened. Watching shops, people’s only source of livelihood, being selectively burned because of their faith, listening to a local VHP goon admonishing the Deputy Superintendent of Police for “throwing tear gas shells on Hindu boys”, made quite an impact on my impressionable, twenty year old mind. As I grew & read more liberal stuff, somewhere my ideas changed.

I think Gandhi’s broad philosophies & teachings are as relevant in these insane times as they are every time the world is plunged into the abyss of violence and hatred.

I, for one, also believe that Gandhi is one of the least understood political & spiritual leaders of the world. His own country & countrymen have failed to grasp the meaning of ‘Swaraj’ in the way he meant it.

At the time of independence, the Hindutva right interpreted his message of universal brotherhood as appeasement of minorities & weakening of Hindus while his closest followers & disciples chose to go on a path which he had never approved of. In the words of Stanley Wopart, “Their plan to carve up British India was never approved of or accepted by Gandhi, however, who realised too late that his closest comrades and disciples were more interested in power than principle, and that his own vision had long been clouded by the illusion that the struggle he led for India's freedom was a nonviolent one”.

Gandhi’s ahimsa continues to be one of the most complex philosophies to understand and even more difficult to internalize. For him non-violence didn’t just mean absence of physical violence but absolute purity & sanctity in thought, actions & deeds. And to practice his creed of non-violence required no less courage, faith & conviction than making & throwing bombs. As far his legacy in post independent India is concerned, terms like pseudo-secularism have entered the political lexicon while the true blue blood Gandhians have been marginalized by the mainstream to the point where they are close to being extinct.

Like all great men, he had his own share of flaws. Personally, I don’t agree with many of his theories on celibacy and the consequent experiments he carried out. Probably, someday I will understand those as well. :) And he also took non-violence a bit too far, more than once, like when he asked the Brits to vacate their homeland for Hitler and visualized an independent India without any armed force to defend its territories.

His vision for independent India – disbanding of Congress as a political institution, all Congress leaders to dedicate themselves to social service, a country of self-sufficient village republics – was idealistic & picturesque in theory. The model of cottage industries like khadi envisaged by Gandhi, aimed at small scale production using techniques which were non-polluting. His ideas involved maintaining the harmony with nature and preserving our environment.

But he missed the point that the average Indian, who his more concerned about his next meal, cannot have the maturity to understand that decentralized model of development is probably more sustainable in long run than the centralized one. Simply put, his countrymen were not ready to put his theories into fruition.

Whether the theories themselves were flawed or not, people immensely more qualified than me on this topic have debated endlessly & continue to do so to the point where the conclusion depends on which side of the table you are. Theories are validated against historical instances & not ‘What ifs’ of historical conjectures. And when subjected to such validations, Gandhi’s vision of independent India fails.

Most of his ideas & theories had a strong undercurrent of spiritualism because religion was such an integral part of his life. Being a public figure, I feel that he had the enhanced responsibility to keep religion absolutely separate from politics, which he didn’t. I know that for him religion was not what we understand in the conventional sense but had a deeper spiritual meaning, but how many people, even today, can distinguish religion from spirituality. (He had once famously said that “God has no religion”). Many of his political decisions were not driven by the rationale of cold logic but what his inner voice said when he sought guidance from a higher power.

A contrarian view can be that he understood the vice like grip which religion had on the day to day lives of the people of the subcontinent & having a spiritual tone made his teachings more palatable to the masses. This view sounds particularly true considering his crusade for women’s emancipation & fight against social evils like caste system & untouchability which were offshoots of religious dogma resulting from centuries of distortion of spirituality.

All said and done, Gandhi’s biggest achievement was his intimate understanding of the pulse of the masses of this complex, bewildering maze called India. He had travelled across the length & breadth of the country and came closer to common Indians cutting across religions, lingual ethnicities, castes, classes, creeds, than any other leader – political, spiritual or social – has. The only exception is probably Swami Vivekananda.

Undoubtedly, his mass appeal was unprecedented & unsurpassed and probably doesn’t have a parallel in this world.

In the final analysis, it will be prudent for all of us to step back and reflect on what Gandhi preached and how his teachings can be applied to prevent us from getting into the abyss of destruction and disaster, towards which we are headed.
This post was not meant to be a didactic appraisal of Gandhi’s philosophies but now when I read it, it sounds like one. :) This was written around a couple of weeks back and was lying in one of the folders but then Gandhi Jayanti seemed to be an opportune time to post it. Yesterday, hearing a 94 year old Gandhian, who resigned his government job during Quit India Movement on exhortation of the Mahatma, recounting the story of India’s degradation after Lal Bahadur Shastri made me wonder whether today’s post liberalization yuppies will quit their cushy, contributing-to-8%-GDP-growth-rate jobs on the call of a single leader to bring about a positive change in the system. That will probably be another long drawn freedom struggle – freedom from hunger, corruption, lawlessness and excesses, struggle for basic human dignity, struggle to create a more equitable society.
By the way, this 94 year old gentleman is planning to go on a fast unto death in early 2011, as a protest against the institutionalization of corruption in our system. Makes me ashamed of myself.

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