Gandhi- Relevant or redundant today?
(Secular Perspective October 1-15, 2016)
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi known popularly as Mahatma Gandhi is remembered and spoken for a number of reasons. He is celebrated not just in India but the world over for his ideas of satyagraha and ahimsa (non-violence) which inspired oppressed and subjugated people to fight for their rights and emancipation. In a society where violence is normalized and internalized partly due its high occurrence, non violence as an ideal sounds simplistic, naïve and redundant. However Gandhi still has a lot to offer to the world. With his steely conviction and lofty morals he could inspire courage in the marginalized. His contribution to the freedom of India is central. He had multiple sides to him. He was an astute politician and at the same time a man of religion. He was a social reformer and revolutionary. He could reconcile as these seeming contradictions to lead the world on the path of compassion. This doesn’t place him out of the realm of criticism or contestation of his actions/ views. For instance he never questioned the inherent hierarchy and social order established by the caste system. He wanted to build moral pressure on the Hindu community to treat the “harijans” more humanely and cease the practice of untouchability. He was not as radical as Ambedkar and for this he is always derided. He called upon women to participate in the freedom struggle to strengthen it but never questioned patriarchy or their social position. Similarly his other views can also be questioned. This doesn’t take away the brilliance of his ideas or his commitment to a peaceful society. Though Gandhi left behind a splendid mosaic of thoughts and deeds, some of his ideas hold profound significance and relevance today. This article attempts to revisit Gandhi and his thoughts on some of the issues that threaten to destroy the fabric of a democratic and plural society envisaged by our Constitution.
Today the public discourse in India is replete with intolerance and dogmatism. This intolerance which insists that only one view or narrative is right and dismisses the existence of multiple truths and narratives, is the biggest concern challenging liberal ethos of our society. The ambit of intolerance ranges from upholding and enforcing food habits (banning of beef etc), narrow ideas of nationalism to hatred towards other religions and labeling particular communities in a derogatory manner. The claim of the Hindutva ideology and Hindu nationalists that only Hindu religion (their own narrow version) is superior and holds answers to all woes underlines the atmosphere of intolerance in the country. That explains their practices which aim at homogenization and thrusting a common identity on all communities and groups. For example ghar wapasi using force. Their supremacist attitude connotes that there can be only one truth. Gandhi on the other hand has a different view. Gandhi though a devout Hindu himself was influenced by other religions. He was proud to be a Hindu. He was influenced by the New Testament, Sermon of the Mount, Tolstoy’s The Kingdom Of God Is Within You and Koran. He elaborates “In spite of being a staunch Hindu, I find room in my faith for Christian, Islamic and Zoroastrian teaching…mine is a broad faith that does not oppose Christians- not even a Plymouth brother- not even the most fanatical Mussalman. It is a faith based on broadest possible toleration. I refuse to abuse a man for his fanatical deeds because I try to see them from his point of view.It is a somewhat embarrassing position, I know- but to others, not to me!” (mkgandhi.org). In his seminal work Hind Swaraj, he says, “Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter if we take different roads as long as we reach the same goal? In reality, there are as many religions as there are individuals” (mkgandhi.org). For Gandhi religion was truth. And this truth can be found in different religions. No one religion had the monopoly of truth.
One of the raging debates today having brutal consequences is about the cow. The cow has become a political tool in the hands of the Hindu nationalists to indulge in mindless violence against the Dalits as demonstrated in Una and against the Muslims, the case in point being the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri. There have been increasing conflicts over killing of cows. All these conflicts and bloodletting are justified by claiming that cow is sacred to the Hindus and cow slaughter amounts to disrespect to the Hindus. Gandhi though a strict vegetarian and ardent advocate of cow protection condemns violence against a human being in order to save a cow. “Though I regard cow protection as the central fact of Hinduism, central because it is common to the classes as well as the masses, I have never been able to understand the antipathy towards the Musalmans on that score. All the riots that have taken place in the name of cow have been an insane waste of effort”. (Gandhi M. K., Young India, 1924). For him cow symbolized “worship of the innocence and protection of the weak and the helpless” (Gandhi, Young India, 1921). He thus widely defines cow protection which leaves no scope for violence or dogmatism. He writes, “to attempt cow protection by violence is to reduce Hinduism to Satanism”(Gandhi, Young India, 1921). He clearly states that upholding Hindu religion doesn’t mean killing a human being to protect a cow, a disturbing phenomenon which is rampantly witnessed. “I make bold to assert without fear of contradiction, that it is not Hinduism to kill a fellowman even to save the cow” (Gandhi, Young India, 1921). A number of states in India are enforcing laws prohibiting beef consumption which is objected to by different groups as violation of their freedom to food. But the states still uphold the law citing the “interests” of the majority. Gandhi views such laws as a way to enforce coercion. He thinks it is wrong to impose religious belief of one community on the others by force. Instead one can morally appeal to the other community to voluntarily give up cow slaughter. “.. a large number of vocal Hindus have begun to believe the superstition that the Union belongs to the Hindus and that, therefore, they should enforce their belief by law even among the non-Hindu”(Gandhi, Harijan, 1947). He vehemently states, “it is obviously wrong legally to enforce one’s religious practices on those who do not share that religion” (Gandhi, Harijan, 1947).
Cow slaughter as seen above has been historically exploited as a fault line between communities. Even today it is effectively used to polarize communities. Mostly the aim behind is to alienate the Muslim community by portraying them as beef eaters. Apart from this one myth, the prejudices and biases against the Muslim community has strengthened to such an extent that it compels one to think it is impossible for the Muslims and Hindus to coexist in harmony. Muslims are stigmatized as anti- national and treated as second class citizens. To support this erroneous notion, history is selectively culled out and distorted. The differences are portrayed as irreconcilable. Gandhi who was steadfastly dedicated his life towards communal harmony clarifies that many Hindus embraced Islam in India even before the advent of Muslim rulers as is the case of Christians before the advent of the British. Thus it is plain vilification of the Muslim rulers who are said to have converted Hindus into Islam by threat of the sword. While recounting the contribution of Muslims to the freedom struggle who tirelessly worked with him, he avers that Hindu Muslim unity is imperative for swaraj and even after attainment of independence the two communities can and must live together in harmony. His solution to communal problem addresses the heart of the ideology which cites religious differences as the reason of discord. He states, “ The key to the solution of the [communal] tangle lies in every one following the best in this own religion and entertaining equal regard for the other religions and their followers (Gandhi M. K., Harijan, 1948).
One area today in which Gandhi’s ideals and message are much needed is on the question of Kashmir. Subsequent to the killing of Burhan Wani, protests in Kashmir have intensified. The State policy of brutal suppression through the medium of excessive force by the Army has led to massive loss of lives and human rights violation. Instead of political dialogue and looking for peaceful solution to the problem, there is indiscriminately firing of pellets by the Army to bully the people into submission. The need for ahimsa or nonviolence has never been so acutely felt. Ahimsa is a tool of the strong Gandhi pointed out. Gandhi’s message of compassion and forgiveness if reverberates will help the State find a solution to the incessant cycle of violence that has gripped Kashmir.
The problem of Kashmir is not limited to the region alone. The violence that nationalism feeds into has transcended the boundaries of the country. And this holds true internationally. Gandhi’s nationalism wasn’t parochial. He was an internationalist. He was against imperialism, hegemony and domination of one country over the other. He believed that the whole world is one family. Though avers that to be internationalist one needs to be nationalist first, he urges one to look beyond narrow boundaries. The golden way is to be friends with the world and to regard the whole human family like members of one family. He who distinguishes between one’s own family and another’s, mis-educates the members of his own family and opens the way for discord and irreligion (Harijan, 1947).A man whose spirit of sacrifice does not go beyond his own community becomes selfish himself and also makes his community selfish. In my opinion, the logical conclusion of self-sacrifice is that the individual sacrifices himself for the community; the community sacrifices itself for the district; the district for the province; the province for the nation and the nation for the world. A drop from the ocean perishes without doing any good. If it remains a part of the ocean, it shares the glory of carrying on its boson a fleet of mighty ships (Harijan, 1947). The politics of IS and the prevalent Islamophobia witnessed globally are phenomena of massive proportions. So far the response to them has been violence which is in turn breeding more violence. Maybe Gandhi’s wisdom and approach of love and non violence offers a lasting panacea to this inhumanity.
Gandhi was the tallest figure in the 20th century that the world witnessed. But his ideas are timeless. It’s saddening to hear critiques despising Gandhi for his equal and humane treatment of Muslims and his approach towards Pakistan though he was not in favor of partition. This aspect of his personality overshadows his sheer strength of character, his foresight and his charisma which made him a leader of the masses. Like mentioned above, Gandhi is not beyond reproach, one must bear in mind that he was also a product of his time. He came from a location shaped by his time, class, caste and upbringing. And yet he could transcend the contours defined by them. Unfortunately today, the government and the opposition both are appropriating him for their own political ends. However none follow his ideals and philosophy. And worse in their own insidious ways they invisibilize and distort the image and message of Gandhi. We are made to believe that Gandhi came from another era and conjured utopian ideals which have no relevance in these times. It would hold us in good stead to remember that with these very “utopian” ideals Gandhi played an instrumental role in achieving independence for a large colony like India, doused the flames of communal tensions with his own life and inspired a non-violent struggle against apartheid the world over. Sixty odd years after his death, his beloved country is shaken by intolerance where scores of children and youth with injured eyes and swollen faces due to pellet wounds are haunting the public conscience and Dalits are still stripped naked and flogged publicly for skinning a dead cow. The world overall is gripped with wars, violence and increasing arsenal of nuclear weapons. The worst is the glaring inequality and poverty the world witnesses. This is adequate to reinforce the need and relevance of Gandhi’s ideas.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism