On revisiting Gandhi

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Power should be based only on people’s unity, which in turn should be based on justice on the one hand and people’s dignity and rights on the other, writes Asghar Ali Engineer.

Recently I saw Attenborough’s film on Gandhi. I had seen an earlier documentary film in 1969, made on the occasion of Gandhiji’s birth centenary. Then I was 29-years-old and today 72 and I believe I have gathered much more experience and understanding about Gandhiji’s role in the freedom struggle, his charismatic figure and his magical appeal to the masses than I could when I was just 29.

Yes, in between, Prof Akbar Ahmad of Pakistan, who teaches in Washington University, had invited me to discuss Gandhiji’s theory of non-violence in his class and had shown some excerpts of the film. But then they were just a few excerpts and not the whole film, which I saw yesterday. I gained many insights about our freedom struggle while seeing the film. Gandhiji was the tallest of all other leaders of the freedom struggle.

Of course, due to limited time, the film hardly does full justice to Gandhiji’s entire struggle. It gives short shrift to many aspects of his struggle. But then one could hardly do anything better. One gains insight into Gandhiji’s mind about India when he delivers a speech on home rule in a Congress session. All other leaders – Nehru, Jinnah, Sardar Patel and others – demand home rule emphatically but Gandhiji says unless we improve the conditions of the poorest of the poor in India, home rule would just replace the British rulers with Indian ones.

How true Gandhiji’s statement was. This is what Communists also said at the time of independence. It is even more true today than it was then. One cannot become non-violent just by theorising about non-violence. Otherwise many of us would have been Gandhi. One must have deep insight into the causes of violence and the nature of vested interests. Also, Gandhiji was not only theorist but also practitioner of non-violence.

And for practising non-violence there are some necessary conditions which must be fulfilled – truthfulness and simple living; truthfulness without simple living is not possible. Gandhiji totally gave up the western style of living and adopted the Indian poor peasant’s style. A leader of millions of poor and starving people cannot have a high style of living and yet be their leader. By the way, that was great difference between Gandhi and Jinnah. Jinnah remained elitist throughout his life. Obviously he could never became a mass leader like Gandhi and could not acquire Gandhi’s magic and attraction. Let alone entire masses, he could not appeal to even Muslim masses who were as much poverty-ridden as the Hindu masses.

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Values over rituals

Another thing which made Gandhi much more acceptable to the masses was his deep understanding of both the Indian cultural and spiritual ethos and the idiom of his politics. The most interesting aspect of Gandhian philosophy was that he was deeply religious and spiritual and was yet secular. Jinnah and Nehru, on the other hand, were secular but not religious and spiritual. Gandhi was secular in an Indian sense and Jinnah and Nehru in a western sense. The Communists also did the same i.e. they became secular in a western sense and despite working for the poor masses, yet they alienated themselves from them.

Yes, there is contradiction here but Gandhi resolved this contradiction in a creative way and his theory and practice of non-violence also endeared him to the masses. It is also important although again an apparent contradiction that though himself deeply spiritual (and he even used religious idiom for his politics), he chose Nehru to be the Prime Minister of India – Nehru who was so modern and even indifferent to religion, if not anti-religion.

He knew India needed both. While its civilisational aspect was deeply spiritual, its future required modernity, science and technology and both should be creatively fused together. And he could do it with great ease.

Our politicians hypocritically exploit people’s religious sentiments today but Gandhi had deep insight into the religiosity of the people and he used it in a non-exploitative way. Unfortunately we have hordes of political leaders who use religion most cynically for their political ends but we do not have a single leader like Gandhi who can creatively identify with the Indian masses and their religious and spiritual needs.

Gandhi could do it without patronising a single religious leader or participating in any religious festival as our politicians do today. He did not participate in any public performance of pooja or any other manifestation of public religiosity as our politicians do today. It was because Gandhi was truly religious and hence did not allow religion to be politically exploited. It was because his religiosity was not ritual but value-oriented. And he derived values from all religions unhesitatingly.

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Our politicians go for rituals and not values. Rituals are harmless as far as vested interests are concerned – but values directly conflict with interests and hence values terrify our politicians. Gandhi practised values, but then he was not a politician. And it is interesting to note that as freedom became a possibility, Gandhi became more and more irrelevant, more so when he advised the Congressman to wind up Congress as a political party and make it a social service organisation.

Public service rather than power

Politicians pursue power and Gandhi pursued values. He was more interested in public service than power. Power is the root of all conflict and our country got divided because politicians from both sides fought for power. How much for whom? Power to the people and accountability for politicians should be the real aim in democracy – but then our democracy means power to the politicians and the people become powerless, at the mercy of politicians.

The more powerful politicians become, the more helpless people are rendered – but in Gandhian democracy people are most powerful and the politicians are merely their servants. But for that to happen, another condition is necessary i.e. the economy they develop should be needs-based, not greed-based. Gandhi always talked of the last man – development not for the most powerful and rich but for the least powerful and the poorest.

However, in Gujarat today Modi is found to be the most ‘suitable prime ministerial material’ precisely because he is developing a greed-based economy – an economy for the most powerful and the greedy rich, which is least accountable to the people.

Today in India with its globalised economy, Gandhi has become most irrelevant. Gandhi could talk and practice non-violence because he believed in needs-based development – an utterly simple way of life strictly based on elementary needs. For a comprehensive theory of non-violence, one must factor in (political) power and the acquisition of riches, besides other factors. Narendra Modi’s Government needed communal violence on an unprecedented scale to win elections through polarization along religious lines.

Unity and non-violence

Another of Gandhiji’s most powerful mantras was Hindu-Muslim unity i.e. the unity of people – for without unity of people, non-violence is not possible at all. Throughout his career, Gandhiji, beginning from his South African days, based his political discourse on Hindu-Muslim unity. He readily responded to Muslim requests for the Khilafat issue to consolidate Hindu-Muslim unity, though even Jinnah found it unacceptable,

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All the communal violence occurred in India because communalists were against Hindu-Muslim unity and their political discourse comprised a Hindu nation and a Muslim nation and not a people’s nation or people’s power. Even today in India communal forces use the religious temple as a symbol of power and the result is communal carnage like Gujarat.

Gandhiji, though a Hindu – Sanatani Hindu – never used any Hindu symbol for his political symbol. Some may point out his use of Ramrajya but those who know Gandhi would agree that Ramrajya was not a Hindu symbol but a rajya which is freed of exploitation and where people could live fearlessly fulfilling all their basic needs. And anyway he compensated for it by his frequent use of Hindu-Muslim unity, whereas communalists use the temple as an exclusive Hindu space that symbolizes Hindu power.

Let me reiterate that Gandhian politics requires mass-based politics and democracy is also all about that. Identity-based politics can never be non-violent politics and it is this sort of politics that our politicians resort to. Today there is not a single politician who can command a mass following. There are politicians who command a caste and communal following, of this or that caste and this or that community. Such politicians can never practise non-violence though they may talk of it.

Caste and communal unity is the very basis of non-violence, and non-violence is the very basis of democracy. Unfortunately, 62 years after our independence, we still do not have an ideal democracy – a democracy in which religion is profusely important but certainly not the basis of power. Power should instead be based only on people’s unity and people’s unity should be based on justice on the one hand, and, people’s dignity and rights on the other. Our democracy has not taken even a first step in that direction.

Gandhiji rightly pointed out in the discussion on home rule that without people-oriented politics we would be simply replacing the British with Indian rulers. Gandhiji could not be more correct.

Asghar Ali Engineer is Chair of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai

Source: Secular Perspective, February 16-29, 2012)

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Prem Das
Prem Das
14 Nov 2012 8.27am

We have a modern term for the Gandhian ideology. Its called ‘passive aggression’.

Its a form of violence.

As for everything else, like his astuteness, his honesty, his commitment to justice, I would tend to agree with you even though I believe his services were needed more in South Africa than in India.