Abiding relevance of Mahatma Gandhi

Print edition : June 21, 2019

DECEMBER 3, 1931: Mahatma Gandhi leaving St James’ Palace on the conclusion of the India Round-Table Conference. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

JANUARY 1939: Gandhi on his way to a Congress Working Committee meeting at the Bardoli ashram accompanied by his son Devdas Gandhi and Mahadev Desai (right). Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A timely book on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi that holds valuable lessons for the country today and shows why Gandhi remains important.

Ambassador Alan Nazareth, the author, needs no introduction to the reading public in India or abroad. Retiring in 1994 after a distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service that started in 1959, the author has emerged as a globally recognised scholar on Mahatma Gandhi. His book Gandhi’s Outstanding Leadership, published in 2016, has been translated into 32 languages, including 12 Indian ones.

Let us reflect briefly on the current state of India to which this book holds a mirror. Imagine a set of class 12 students going to the Central Hall of Parliament; they see a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi and opposite that a bigger portrait of another leader. Will the guide from the Parliament Secretariat tell them that Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, whose portrait it is, “blessed” Nathuram Godse as he left Pune for Delhi in January 1948 with the ignoble goal of assassinating Gandhi? We doubt it. If the guide did tell that story, what would the students think about a parliament that honours in equal measure the Father of the Nation and the man who conspired to get him killed?

Let us take another look at contemporary India engaged in the grand “festival of democracy” as the general election has been described by some. In the 2014 general election, 185 of the 542 winning candidates had declared that they had criminal cases against them. In 2019, 213 candidates have criminal cases against them, and there are 401 crorepatis contesting the election.

The ruling party is openly campaigning on a communal platform and advocating a Hindu Rashtra propounded by Savarkar as early as 1921 while in jail in the Andamans, from where he wrote an abject letter of apology to the British government seeking an early release.

If our set of class 12 students is told all this, they will correctly conclude that independent India has been in the past three or four years moving away from Gandhi and closer to Savarkar.

The relevance and timeliness of Nazareth’s book should be appreciated against this background. He reasons out the relevance of Gandhi to our troubled times. His style is pellucid, his logic flawless, and his approach holistic, taking in the views of scholars across continents and centuries.

The author demolishes the common error that all that Gandhi did was to preach and practise non-violence by turning the other cheek as Christ said in the famous Sermon on the Mount. Let us look at the last line in the title, Revolutionised Revolution and Spiritualised It. Nazareth has delivered what he promised in the title.

In his foreword, the Dalai Lama says: “Non-violence means more than the mere absence of violence. It is something more positive, more meaningful; for the true expression of non-violence is compassion.” Nazareth expands on this idea in his preface. “Gandhi is most often lauded as an ‘Apostle of Non-violence’. Though heartwarming, it is inaccurate as it fails to indicate his far greater commitment to truth and attenuates the revolutionary nature of his ideology and praxis, and his remarkable achievements in diverse fields.” This slim volume of 135 pages is a commendable exercise in brevity and reasoned argument as the author draws attention to Gandhi’s many-splendoured personality.

The first chapter, “Revolutions: Their Progenitors and Diverse Forms”, examines briefly what Aristotle, Machiavelli, Copernicus, Toffler, Gene Sharp, Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Arendt and a few others have said or done in the matter. We have listed the names only to give an idea of the author’s ability to see the big picture in history, an ability that is rare in our times, when we know more and more of the less and less, as Toffler put it in the early 1970s.

The second chapter, “Gandhi’s Revolutionary Vision, Ideology and Praxis”, explains the linkages between truth, love and non-violence by quoting Gandhi and explaining where necessary. In Gandhi’s “historical perspective, he saw dictators and tyrants maintaining their fearful sway, but temporarily. All empires built by the sword end up in the dustbin of history...”

A quotation from Gandhi is painfully pertinent: “It has been said Swaraj will be the rule of the majority community, i.e., the Hindus. There could be no greater mistake than that. If it were to be true, I for one would refuse to call it swaraj and would fight it with all the strength at my command. For me Hind Swaraj is the rule of all people and the rule of justice.”

The reader will wonder how many candidates in the 2019 Lok Sabha election will agree with Gandhi, though some may pretend to do so. Many of them openly disagreed with Gandhi and brazenly campaigned for a Hindu Rashtra in gross violation of the Constitution, while a timid Election Commission abandoned its primary responsibility to enforce the Model Code of Conduct it had proclaimed with much fanfare.

The third chapter explores the influences on Gandhi, the scriptures and thinkers. As a student in London, Gandhi read the Bhagavad Gita first in English, Edwin Arnold’s The Song Celestial. The author has given an analytic account of Gandhi’s reading ranging across Christianity, Islam, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Ruskin. Some people have argued that Gandhi was no scholar. But Gandhi absorbed what the books had to convey, unlike most readers who rapidly forget what they read.

Nazareth’s exposition of Satyagraha is exceptional. Gandhi said: “There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves and recreates. That power is God.... It is the acid test of non-violent conflict resolution that there is no rancour left behind and in the end the opponents become friends.”

The author is not a totally uncritical worshipper of Gandhi. “He was undoubtedly unwise in making the sweeping affirmation that ‘the tendency of Indian civilisation is to elevate the moral being, that of Western civilisation is to propagate immorality’.”

The author has dealt at length and in depth on the influence of Christ on Gandhi who did not endorse the Old Testament. But the New Testament, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, “went straight to my heart”. On a visit to the Sistine Chapel, Gandhi wrote, “What would not I have given to be able to bow my head before the living image of Christ crucified. I saw there at once that nations like individuals could only be made through the agony of the cross and in no other way. Joy comes not out of infliction of pain on others but out of pain voluntarily borne by oneself.”

Less known is Gandhi’s “profound admiration” for Prophet Mohammad, about which C.F. Andrews has written. All told, Gandhi was a universal man whose search for truth took him beyond his country of birth and beyond the century of his birth. He knew more and more of the more and more. He was truly holistic.

In the fourth chapter, “The Global and Indian Scenarios in Which Gandhi Operated”, the author points out that Gandhi was a contemporary of Tsar Nicholas, Lenin, Stalin, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler, Wilson, Roosevelt, Sun Yat Sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and so on. The Indian National Congress did not accept Gandhi’s principles with alacrity. At the 1919 Amritsar Congress, when Gandhi spoke of truth and non-violence, Tilak retorted, “My friend, truth has no place in politics.” Alas, Tilak’s words apply to 2019 India.

After the 1938 Munich Agreement, Gandhi wrote with prophetic insight, “England and France quailed before the combined violence of Germany and Italy. The agreement that has been signed is a peace that is no peace. The war is only postponed.”

We are all familiar with the argument that Gandhi’s soul force would not have been of any avail to the Jews whom Hitler was murdering. It has been affirmed that the British were less inhuman than Hitler and hence Gandhi succeeded in India and a German Gandhi had no chance.

Nazareth has thrown fresh light on this debate. The Swedish philosopher Johan Galtung has written: “The major reason why non-violence did not work in Hitler’s Germany was that it was not tried.” There was at least one instance when it worked: In February 1943, the Gestapo arrested the approximately 10,000 Jews still in Berlin. Of these about 8,000 were sent to Auschwitz. As to the remaining 2,000, they had German wives and they were kept in a “collection centre”. The wives rushed in asking for their husbands. The number of wives increased day by day and the Gestapo resorted to violence, but the women stood their ground. On the eighth day, they got their husbands.

There is much more to say on this book. But we conclude with one or two observations. The author has listed many leaders who came under the influence of Gandhi. The list includes Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. In view of her treatment of the Rohingya, does she qualify to be on the list? She is not the only one listed whose credentials can be questioned. Politicians can be good wordsmiths, but we need to look at their deeds.

The book has come out in the year of the centenary of the massacre of innocent people at Jalianwala Bagh. Gandhi was fortified in his conviction that non-violence alone would take India to freedom. He saw with rare insight that there were enough Indians able and willing to shoot down their fellow Indians if ordered by their British masters.

This book should be compulsory reading for the candidates in the 2019 general election and for all politicians and bureaucrats. For the under 40s, this book is a revelation. In the context of all the pernicious rewriting of history that goes on in India, with or without official support, this book will stand out as an instance of calm reasoning with no partisan axe to grind. It is written with a sincere wish to see a better India and a better world for humanity.