Sunday, 6 October 2013

The relevance of Gandhi in the 21st Century

At the first glance, it appears to be an idle and, to some extent absurd, exercise to ask if
Gandhi has any relevance in the 21st century. Who would not agree with the preposition that the validity of Gandhi has no expiry date and that he is as important and relevant today as he was almost a hundred years ago! Some might argue that we need him more than ever and some would like to position him in the global context rather than confining to India. But the real answer to this question much depends upon how one sees & understands Gandhi. After all, his was a life shaped by self-discovered theories- extraordinary and unprecedented in many ways and filled with myriad experiences and actions based upon such theories. Little wonder that everyone has his or her own perspective on Gandhi.

To a vast majority in the sub-continent he was a Mahatma: a saint, a sage whose every word was a command and who was to be followed with no questions asked. Six and half decades later, he stands on an even higher pedestal, being treated almost like a god. Moving farther we note that in his life time, a large number of people in foreign countries were attracted to his words and deeds. The number seems to have grown exponentially in the present times, more so after the making of the film “Gandhi”. In fact, this was the very first glimpse of Gandhi to a whole new lot of people across the seven seas. It can be safely assumed that it has become almost impossible today to ignore Gandhi-the Mahatma. Take for instance the case of RSS- the Hindu right-wing outfit. The irony is hard to miss that Gandhi was assassinated by a volunteer of this so-called cultural organisation. Yet it has of late tried to appropriate Gandhi by including him to its pantheon. How it perceives Gandhi is any body’s guess, because it has never deviated from its ideological core in the following years.

Another aspect of Gandhi was that he was a great writer and a great journalist . He quite
regularly expressed his thoughts using various media on a whole range of subjects. It has
afforded an opportunity, an alibi and an excuse to many a writer/commentator to pick up
freely & selectively from his works and interpret it in a manner best suited to one’s own
purpose. There are social thinkers and commentators galore who would like us to believe
that “Hind Swaraj” published in 1909 is the ultimate in the Gandhian philosophy and thereafter he had nothing more to say or to revise his own views! As if this was not enough, in 1999 I was sent a booklet published by a so-called Gandhian activist that juxtaposed
Gandhi’s view on Christianity and in that light sought justification for the gruesome killing
of the Australian missionary Father Graham Staines in Odisha only few weeks ago. (I was
not only appalled to read the book, but also sent a strong rejoinder to the author & the
Gandhian society he was linked with).

Mahatma Gandhi was a mulch-faceted personality- lawyer, civil rights activist, author,
journalist, educationist, environmentalist, social worker, freedom fighter, political strategist and a political philosopher. He was also known for his austere life style that is eloquently depicted in a simple line sketch with the hint of a walking stick and specs. This larger than life personality of Gandhi opens an easy road for anyone who aspires to be labeled as a
Gandhian. A person may very well claim to be a true follower of Gandhi if he spends
some spare time with leprosy patients, becomes a member of the "Harijan Sevak Sangh"  wears Khadi or believes in naturopathy.  Moving to political landscape, you have the set
of people swearing by Gandhi who deeply yet naively believe that Sardar Patel and not
Pandit Nehru was the true heir of the Mahatma.

Meandering through such thoughts, it indeed becomes little fuzzy and problem-some to
understand the relevance of Gandhi in the 21st century. Therefore I propose that we turn
to his political philosophy. Only then we shall be able to find adequate answer to our
question. As a political thinker and activist Gandhi gave us two basic tenets- Ahimsa and
Satyagrah: non-violence and non-negotiability of truth. The tools he gave to fight for
these paramount ideals were- civil disobedience, fearlessness, self-denial of creature
comforts etc. Then he also gave us some mantras to judge our own actions .Here I would
mention only two. One- There is enough in this world for everyone’s needs but not
enough for a single man’s greed and two- in all your actions always think about the last
person down the line. My submission is that Gandhi will remain relevant for us, as long
as 1) we are willing to learn these mantras by heart and prepared to act upon them, 2) are ready to overcome our fears, sacrifice personal comforts and fight for the greater good ; and 3) are steadfastly committed to the twin principals of Ahimsa and Satyagrah.

I may perhaps illustrate my views by putting them in a specific perspective. Let us, for
example, take a quick look at the highly contentious issue of nuclear power. Almost
every nation on the earth wants to acquire or augment nuclear capability either to
strengthen its war machine or on the pretext of its peaceful use. But no one is willing to
talk about the horrendous consequences it presents. Now if a country truly believes in
non-violence, it must not only abhor war, but on the contrary make all possible efforts to
find peaceful solutions to its security issues. Similarly if a country that has faith in the
Gandhian ideals, it should adopt a strategy to reduce wasteful consumption and simultaneously make plans to use green technology to overcome energy crisis, rather than
resorting to generation of nuclear power. In both the cases, adherence to Gandhian
values would mean a win-win situation by considerable saving of precious national
resources, and creation of a safer and peaceful environment to live in.

Take another scenario. We are living in an era when so many conflicts, either internal or
external, are going on in several parts of the world. In the case of situations imposed from
the outside we find that the old ways of the empire have come back with vengeance to
torment us. We realise that the American dream of hegemony over the world knows no
limits. The point is do we have an answer in the Gandhian discourse to stop the US from
its onslaught on humanity? On the face of it seems improbable. But we should not overlook
the fact that Iraq could not match the military might of the US and its allies and thus failed to
save its sovereignty. So did Afghanistan and Libya. Likewise,The valiant Palestinians
in spite of countless sufferings have been fighting a long-drawn battle to get a country of their own,  but again they have not yet succeeded in thwarting Israel’s continued aggression. Therefore, I put it to you- is it not the time to think of some new approach in order to turn the
wheels! If yes, what it could be other than what Gandhi taught us. You may like to ponder
over it.

Talking about internal conflicts, mostly it appears to be the insensitivity of the ruling elite.
Even those who work in a democratic framework are prone to acquire this trait quickly. In
these situations, one can hardly miss the unbridled greed writ large on the face of those
who rule us.This pathetic situation could possibly be averted, if only one remembered the
mantra given by the Mahatma to not lose sight of the last man at the end of the line. There is also the question of communal or sectarian strife in many societies. Such clashes mainly
occur due to prejudice and ignorance about others and pride in one’s own customs, traditions and beliefs. The Mahatma all his life tried to build bridges between different communities & ultimately gave his life in the cause of bridging the gap between two communities. Across the oceans, he found worthy followers in Martin Luther King Jr. Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and many others.

I would like to emphasise that Ahimsa as taught by Gandhi is the highest form of courage and valour. It should not be misunderstood or equated, as many people tend to do, with passive kindness towards a fellow human being or an animal! Ahimsa and Satyagrah both are at the core of Gandhian thoughts. He brilliantly and successfully used them as political weapons and perhaps the time has come to re-engage with them.

Lalit Surjan
Vice President
All India Peace & Solidarity Organisation
New Delhi

Paper presented in International Conference On “Gandhi, Disarmament & Development”
held in Indore, India On 4,5,6 October 2013.