Saturday, June 24, 2006

The tragedy of being Mahatma Gandhi

I stumbled upon BB, an online Indian network, which is part of the Ryze Business Network, where one or two members were taking serious potshots at Mahatma Gandhi. They felt he didn't deserve the title 'mahatma' or great soul and felt he deserved to be cast into the rubbish heap of history. And then, there were those that felt otherwise and provided compelling arguments to justify Mahatma Gandhi's position amongst the great. I provided my own views on the matter and I'm reproducing it here.

It's so ironic that Indians are saying such things about a man like Mahatma Gandhi. Let me explain why I'm amazed by these litany of anti-Gandhi posts.

I am a non-resident Indian, and have been one since I was four years old. Apart from my college years, my brothers' families and close relatives (most of whom are dead anyway), I have experienced hardly any emotional or any other connection to India.

However, since childhood, Mahatma Gandhi has been a hero and he has been one person who gave me a sense of pride about my Indian-ness. In fact, all my non-Indian friends consider Mahatma Gandhi as someone worth emulating and envy me for having such a leader who gave my country its freedom.

And yes, when they say that it makes me rather proud of being an Indian. In a strange sort of way, Mahatma Gandhi is that curious umbilical cord that links me emotionally to India because, to me, he embodies what India is, what India ought to be and what India could become -- a moral core residing within a flawed humanity.

Yes, he was a human being and, hence, quite prone to various flaws that come pre-packaged with our human race. But it is these flaws that make him an attractive person because he didn't allow these to overwhelm him and make him lose his objectivity. He remained faithful to his goals and inspired others to join him in the struggle (in days before satellite tv, mind you) and eventually secured India's freedom.

There are some who say that he did all this mainly because he was upset at being thrown out of a railway coach in South Africa. Well, why not? He turned an embarassing moment into something positive and didnt wallow in self pity and remorse. Most of us hardly see 'potential' in moments of embarassment, but Mahatma Gandhi did, and began a process that culminated in freedom for millions of people.

Long before terms like 'affirmative action' and 'political correction' were fashionable, Mahatma Gandhi chose to address people of lower castes as "harijans' or 'people of god'. Whether or not, it achieved any purpose is immaterial because history has shown that nothing much has happened to them anyway. I don't want to talk about the 'reservations' issue because that's politics and the architects of the reservation policy haven't, obviously, looked at the larger picture or the greater good.

Mahatma Gandhi was, probably, one of the earliest upper castes who stuck his neck out and declared that the lower castes were people worthy of respect and honour. The failure of any success as far as this goal was concerned can be attributed to successive governments of India who chose to see lower castes as a vote bank and not as people who need to be integrated into the mainstream.

And what about Khadi? It wasn't a fashion statement back then, it was a serious effort to make people self sufficient in everything, including, weaving cloth and wearing what one has produced. Indian economy was enslaved to the British, and when he asked every freedom fighter to pick up a spinning wheel and spin khadi, he was essentially attacking the domineering imperial super-structure that had destroyed traditional Indian handlooms and handicraft industry. And he was asking the freedom fighters to be economically and, yes, even sartorially, independent.

Today, we are slaves to designer labels -- including, myself -- and we don't like to step outdoors without our favourite label and in clothes that are, at least, fashionably current. Mahatma Gandhi's approach may seem rather idealistic and far fetched in these 'fashion tv' days but let's not ignore the bigger picture here. His objectives were very clear and that's something we cannot ignore.

He was, also, perhaps, the only one -- or one of the few -- who knew that the real India lay in the villages. To him, it was essential that the revolution should begin from there because only then would it succeed in affecting the rest of the country. His idea was to make villages -- and thereby Indians, at large -- self sufficient, and not dependent on anyone else. If this idea was seriously implemented, it would have had positive impact even today.

Take for example, slums and road-side dwellers who crowd all the big Indian cities and create urban squalor. They come to cities because of bread and butter issues because their villages have ceased to provide them with livelihood. And why is that so? Many reasons can be assigned ranging from weather patterns, floods, droughts, economic policies but at the heart of all is an undeniable fact that villages are no longer self sustaining. Some would argue, why should they be in these days of globalisation? And to that, one can also ask, does that still make the situation acceptable?

It is easy for urban dwellers and tourists like me who visit India occasionally to be disgusted by poverty on city streets. But it needn't be that way. Governments and economic planners must find a way to create economic opportunities in the rural belt so that these people do not have to crowd cities and have to live in filth.

Mahatma Gandhi's peaceful resistance has been discussed ad infinitum and I do not have anything new to add on the subject. But let's consider the possibility of Mahatma Gandhi having used violent means to secure freedom. It would have robbed the freedom struggle of its moral core, and would have justified any violent reaction on the part of the British government.

And let's not forget that violent struggle is, also, synonymous with terrorism. And before we go all la-di-da about terrorism and say 'today's terrorist is tomorrow's statesman', let's remember the root word of terrorism is 'terror'. It is not a positive or even an uplifting word. It is not even an inspiring word. Terror is meant to terrorise, and that act is, essentially, immoral. It does not make one's hands clean, in fact, it does the exact opposite. It makes the victim and the oppressor one and the same. It creates a vicious cycle of revenge in which everyone ends up perishing.

Violent resistance has hardly worked anywhere, and we don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out why. Besides, Mahatma Gandhi knew that a violent struggle against the mighty British empire would end up a dismal failure because none of the Indian fighters would be a match against the mighty imperial fighting machinery. A different approach had to be chosen, and he chose 'non-violence'... and it worked. And not only did it work, but it inspired others like Martin Luther King and others to adopt in their struggle.

This does not mean that one should devalue the role of those Indians who used violence in their struggle. But we need to ask, did they inspire? Did they lead? Did they have a vision? Or were they merely responding to a situation?

Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, had a vision for India and he worked with that big picture in mind. He was disappointed that freedom, also, resulted in partition despite his efforts to stop it. But then, when partition became inevitable, he played a fundamental role in stopping the orgy of violence that followed.

In my opinion, he deserves to be called "Mahatma" or a 'great soul' because there has been no other Indian in the political stage who has come anywhere close to his moral stature and visionary leadership.

And to people like me who are non-resident Indians, he is -- and will remain -- a hero.

5 comments:

Angelo Embuldeniya (Strav) said...

Some Indians poking fun at their own? which is why I never got to liking Ryze... even though i got an account on there before LinkedIn ;-)

Ashish Gorde said...

Well, there are a few right-wingers who hate Mahatma Gandhi... but for that matter, they hate so many other things as well.

Pragya said...

Loved this Ashish. Gandhi is someone for whom my family has immense affection and something close to real anger rises up whenever I hear people disrespecting Gandhi. No Gandhi, no independent India...nothing changes that!

Alankrita said...

Since i grew up in India, i grew up on a diet of the deification off Gandhi. As reaction to that perhaps I have always been leery of a lot of gandhi-praise. But your piece is a very balanced, very nice look at him.
thank you for making me take a mature view once again.

gautami tripathy said...

I have seen it around me, The so-called educated youngster hating Gandhi. They do even bother to know about him, read about him but say nasty stuff about him from hearsay.

Gandhi might have had his minus points but the pluses are too many.

He is what he is...a hero for me and most of my generation.