The sun blazed down on the parched fields of Rajkot while two brothers scrounged around for the poisonous seeds of dhatura. Monia, the younger of the two, was frustrated with their inability to find enough bidis to smoke and had decided that the only way out of the misery was to commit suicide by swallowing seeds of the flowering plant commonly called devil’s trumpets.
The devil’s help, as it turned out, was not enough. With a stash of seeds tucked in the folds of their dhotis, the boys walked up to a temple to seek divine blessings for their enterprise. But, alas, their courage deserted them, and throwing the seeds away they scampered back home with hopes of finding a cigarette stump on the way.
Imagine for a moment Monia, the boy who was to later earn several appellations including that of a Mahatma (great soul), was actually able to commit suicide that day. Or, since we are playing this game of ‘what if’, fancy three more scenarios that would have removed Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from the scene—one, his death because of a prolonged bout of dysentery soon after he returned to India from South Africa; two, his deportation to Uganda in accordance with Winston Churchill’s wish; and three, his execution on Adolph Hitler’s advice—“just shoot him”, the Fuhrer had told his British interlocutor Lord Halifax.
With Gandhi’s premature departure would Indian history have been any different?
To assess Gandhi’s legacy, it is important to recall what he once wrote to his friend Charlie Andrews: “…my life is one indivisible whole…I can’t devote myself to untouchability and say, ‘neglect Hindu-Muslim unity or swaraj…” So, Swaraj, Hindu-Muslim unity and abolition of untouchability were, by his own admission, the KRAs Gandhi had set for himself, apart from the pursuit of his own brand of village-centric economy and some personal idiosyncrasies.
If you were to look at the end result, the outcome was mixed. Such was the arc of evolving history that India would have ultimately been able to send the British back home, especially after the financial strain on the Empire after the second Great War, in spite of Churchill’s refusal to preside over the demise of the Raj. But, would the British have left in 1947 if Gandhi had not stirred the Indians towards Swaraj? As Lord Wavell, one of the Viceroys who fought bitterly with Gandhi, said: “(he) certainly hastened the departure of the British, which was his life’s aim.”
Gandhi’s critics argue that his efforts to unite the Hindus and the Muslims proved counterproductive. His insistence on supporting the Khilafat Movement and public embrace of Hindu rituals and religious symbolism made Hindu hardliners and the Muslim League wary of him. In the end, they argue, it started a process that culminated in India’s partition.
Gandhi’s record on his third self-avowed aim—fighting with the menace of untouchability—is the subject of fierce criticism. It verges on his rejection by them as a hypocrite and a caste Hindu whose patronising attitude towards the depressed classes, whom he called Harijans, contributed to their suppression and isolation.
The irony of Gandhi’s life is summed up by his death: He was killed by a Hindu hardliner for being “soft” towards Muslims; the Muslims sought a separate country because they were wary of being ruled by a Congress helmed by “Brahmins and Banias (Gandhi’s caste)”. And, after his death, fire-brand dalit leader BR Ambedkar all but rejected his legacy when he wrote to his future upper-caste wife that “Gandhi had become a positive danger to his country. He had choked all the thoughts.” (He later told Sardar Patel that Gandhi would have approved of the inter-caste marriage.)
So, all his life, Gandhi tried to belong with all. In death, he was disowned by everyone.
Or so his critics would argue, inspired by their various -isms.
But, for thousands of people around the world Gandhi is an inspiration, a moral beacon cast in the mould of Jesus and Gautam Buddha. His ideas have inspired hundreds of movements, their leaders with the underlying philosophy of ahimsa (a state of mind where thoughts of violence do not exist), compassion, forgiveness and the principles of moral and physical courage, sacrifice and patent leadership style underlined by the motto of being the change you want. For his admirers and followers, Gandhi is a paragon of ethics, a model of humanity and its ideals.
Over the past few decades, dozens of revolutionaries—Martin Luther King Jr, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, the unknown protesters at Tian Men Square, the multitudes on the roads of India in the wake of Anna Hazare’s fast and the disciplined yet persistent masses in Hong Kong’s streets recently, have followed his mantra of Satyagraha and persisted in the belief that non-violence is the biggest weapon in the battle of, in Gandhi’s words, “right against might.” This faith in the Gandhian ideal of peaceful resistance has been remarkably effective when compared to movements that have turned violent and, thus, given their adversaries valid reasons to strike them down with force. Today, like never before, proponents of peace believe the only road against injustice is the way of Gandhi.
In a world being torn apart by bigotry, injustice, violence and divisive leaders, if the Gandhian ideals of ahimsa, compassion and peaceful resolution of conflicts had been considered—as Martin Luther King Jr said—“inescapable” for the progress of humanity, especially after the ravages of the two Great Wars, the history of the 21st Century would certainly have been different. That’s the dream a Gandhian follows, lives.
If the purpose of life is to end it on a high note, be remembered for its denouement, Gandhi is a sure-shot winner. His efforts to keep Hindus and Muslims united may have failed in the subcontinent (and there are many reasons for it). But, with his courage, the desire to sacrifice his own life in the pursuit of peace, Gandhi achieved the “miracle of Calcutta” and saved hundreds of lives that would have been obliterated in the revenge loop of Partition—Calcutta avenged in Noakhali, Noakhali avenged in Patna, Patna avenged in Lahore, Lahore avenged in Amritsar… As a Madras Muslim quoted by historian Ramchandra Guha in his book Gandhi: The Years That Changed India says, “He was Jesus who died fighting for Muslims.”
For much of his life, Gandhi was called weird because of his experiments, obsession with celibacy and tests of Brahmcharya with his grand-niece, focus on manual labour, hygiene and village co-operatives. Many of these dogmas—especially about sexual abstinence—still remain subjects of consternation and criticism. But, ironically, there has been a revival of interest in his avante garde theories on dietary controls, salt-free food, hygiene; on cleanliness being next to “godliness”, insistence on environmental preservation—the earth has enough for everybody’s needs but not greed, he argued—and the idea that economy should evolve from the grassroots, instead of being centred around big cities.
Gandhi is, of course, a complex mix of politics, conservatism, liberal ethos, religion, economics, and personal quirks, some of them amplified by his ambivalence, flip-flops—he told Brigadier LP Sen, the Indian army officer tasked with the responsibility of driving out invaders from Kashmir in 1947 that war is inhuman but he should do everything to drive out the Pakis—and impractical, romantic ideas. Yet, he looms larger than any Indian, like a gigantic Banyan tree over the shoots of history.
At the turn of the century, Time Magazine named Gandhi the second most important person of the past 100 years. (Albert Einstein, who emerged ahead of him, incidentally, was a big fan of Gandhi and scarcely believed such a person was flesh and blood). The magazine argued, “The Mahatma, the Great Soul, endures in the best parts of our minds, where our ideals are kept: the embodiment of human rights and the creed of non-violence…It is fashionable at this fin de siècle to use the man to tear down the hero, to expose human pathologies at the expense of larger-than-life achievements.”
The debate continues. If only Monia had consumed those seeds, we’d be decoding something that was within our ken.
Over the next few days, through a series of articles and reports, we would revisit Gandhi’s legacy and find answers to two questions that have survived him. One, what made him a global icon? Two, is Gandhi still relevant?
Readers are requested to send their comments, feedback, and contributions to email@example.com.