What’s So Great About Gandhi, Anyway?


“Mahatma Gandhi was OK, but he was no Manmohan Singh”, remarked a friend of mine. I laughed out loud at this deadpan humor, only to realize that my friend, a smart and successful high-tech baron in Silicon Valley, was entirely serious. He genuinely thought that Gandhi’s contribution was merely in freeing the country from the British, while Singh, the Indian finance minister who had ‘freed the Indian Economy from governmental shackles’ in the early 90s, thus ushering India into the global economy, was clearly the larger figure.

It is a notion shared by increasing numbers of the Indian intelligensia, both in India and abroad. To many, Gandhi is no more than a goody-goody icon, who talked about non-violence and held Luddite views on industry and trade. True, he was honest and upright, but then those were different times. Some (mistakenly, in my opinion) associate Gandhi with India’s path of economic protectionism after independence (a policy followed by his associate Jawaharlal Nehru) and hold Gandhi responsible for India’s perceived backwardness. Others consider his approach to Muslims and Pakistan naive and gullible. All in all, they conclude, the coward who shot him in 1948 did India a favor, for Gandhi would have been an albatross round our modern neck. In a world where terrorism lurks at every corner and computer screens blink on all sides, Gandhi is passe.

Is he?

As I watch world events, the more relevant his life appears. With each passing day, his words and methods seem uncannily prescient.

There are numerous personal characteristics of Gandhi–a prodigious courage both physical and political, enormous self-discipline, asceticism and industry (over a hundred volumes of writings and 20-hour days), a fine sense of humor and the ability to mock himself–all interesting and formidable qualities which must have played a major role in the making of the Mahatma. But if I were to condense his political philosophy into one phrase, it would be this–the freedom of the individual.

Complete liberty, for Gandhi, was the first and last goal. India’s freedom from Britain, to him, was only an objective along the path, and a rather insignificant one at that. Far more important was the ability of each individual to seek out his own freedom. “Real Swaraj (freedom) will come, not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when abused”, he wrote. I think of that statement every time I recall how mutely the public of the United States accepted the slap delivered full to its face by the Rehnquist Court after the 2000 elections.

It is also in the context of liberty that ahimsa, his creed of non-violence, must be understood. It was not out of some sense of piety that he espoused peaceful means. He held non-violence to be essential because it afforded the only democratic means of struggle. It was available to everyone–not only to those who owned weapons. Secondly, a violent victory, even a just one, would only prove that violence triumphed, not necessarily justice. A violent solution would mean that the fate of the unarmed many would be mortaged to the benevolence of the armed few. This was contrary to liberty as seen by Gandhi.

An extremely intelligent man, he had a knack of cutting right through the shibboleths to the heart of the matter. In an earlier echo of the American position on Iraq, the British kept telling India that they would leave India in a heartbeat–their only interest being to keep the country from falling into anarchy. This made some sense to many in view of the vicissitudes and general caprice of feudal rule in pre-British India, until Gandhi gently reminded us that good governance was no substitute for self governance. When hearing the cant that passes for political discussion on the various talk shows, how one longs for a similar voice!

Gandhi saw that millions had lost their livelihood because the British, in a former era of globalization (who says history doesn’t repeat itself!) systematically destroyed India’s cottage industries to create a market for the products of the industrial revolution. Gandhi was the chief architect of India’s revived cottage industry. A magnificent achievent by itself, even more telling was the way he brought it about. He did not run complaining to the British Government to reduce exports to India. Instead, he moblized the people to boycott foreign goods. Huge bonfires of foreign cloth resulted in the handspun Indian fabric, khadi replacing foreign mill cloth to become, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, “the livery of India’s freedom”. This too has to do with freedom. To demand something of the government would only increase its power. He chose instead to empower each individual to make a statement by wearing khadi and shedding foreign cloth. Today, a third rail of American politics is the word, ‘trade’. It is commonly accepted, often without challenge, that this is a deity to be propitiated at all costs–even if it means sacrificing jobs, families, homes, even towns or entire ecologies. Gandhi wrote that he would like to see all needs of a community met from within a reasonable radius. Recently, Vegetarian Times carried a mind-boggling statistic–the average item we consume in America travels 1200 miles! Is it any surprise we have to invade other countries for oil? As Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and others rail against NAFTA and WTO, one wonders why they haven’t thought of organizing a movement to buy American-made products and boycott NAFTA products.

Gandhi was an exponent of ‘demand-side economics’, to coin a phrase. This was a much longer and more arduous path than supply-side economics, but a more enduring one, and one with fewer deleterious side-effects. He believed that ultimately, the only guarantee of good society lay in the quality of the citizenry. Benjamin Franklin’s “A republic, if you can keep it” approximates Gandhi’s belief. A society with no demand for cigarettes, for instance, would soon stop manufacturing them. Gandhi believed the gift of liberty also carried with it the utmost moral responsiblity for its use. In a famous interview with Margaret Sanger, the noted birth-control proponent, he said flat out that he was against contraception, as it meant escaping the consequences of one’s action. He was no politically correct weathervane, preferring rather the liberty to say what he thought. He gave Margaret Sanger an analogy along these lines (not an exact quote), “I overeat, and instead of suffering the consequences of my indulgence, I go to the doctor and get some pills. To mitigate the side-effects of the pills, I then take some whiskey… Where does it end?” He would certainly be aghast at the blithe acceptance of abortion. He always made a connection with the individual morality and public policy. Consider the drug war for example. We do practically nothing to discourage the taking of drugs. Instead, we pour money, change foreign governments, destroy countrysides and fight endlessly (Panama, Columbia, Peru) because we don’t have the guts to demand the highest of our own citizenry. Gandhi was unafraid of public opprobrium, indeed even assassination. Every politician is willing to tell us what is wrong with someone else–Gandhi was different because he told us what was wrong with us. “Let us turn the searchlight inward”, he once said, to the astonishment of a crowd which had come expecting some rousing rhetoric condemning the British, only to find him spouting uncomfortable home truths about how Indians themselves enabled British rule in a hundred small ways. Likewise, if we turn the searchlight upon our own contradictions–we might wonder how, while complaining of our disappearing forests, we continue to build new housing developments (and prize this as an index of economic health!), or how, while complaining of rising medical costs, we cannot keep from our Big Macs.

Like Jefferson, Gandhi too believed in small government, writing that, “that government is best which governs least”. Once again, this is an offshoot of his ideal of least external control, maximum individual freedom, coupled with complete moral responsibility–making for an uncharacteristic meeting point between Karl Marx (state withering away) and Ayn Rand (individual freedom from the collective). As fear-stricken citizens throughout the world surrender their personal rights to their fear-stricken governments in the name of safeguarding their personal security, which in turn surrender their soverieignty to faceless agencies like the WTO in the name of economic security, we might recall Gandhi’s words, “Fearlessness is the first attribute of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral.”

The art of forging popular movements based on inveterate opposition to injustice, while always demanding the highest moral standards both of the individual and of the collective, is Gandhi’s enduring contribution to politics. It is almost certainly owing to Gandhi’s movement that India, for all its flaws, has remained a liberal democracy (no other country freed from the colonial yoke can make this claim). Without a Gandhi, India might well have ended up like Pakistan, a hotbed of intolerance and obscurantism (it may be pure coincidence that the more India rejects Gandhi, that’s exactly where it seems headed!). At the risk of oversimplification, we can note that Martin Luther King applied Gandhi’s means and managed to avoid a West Bank in America. The Palestinians did not–and did not.

Long ago, the Indian socialist Rammanohar Lohia wrote that the 20th Century had produced one innovation, the Atom Bomb, and one innovator, Mahatma Gandhi. As paranoia and insanity sweep our times, Lohia’s terms appear in sharper focus–fear vs. freedom. In this contest, Gandhi is not merely relevant–he is central.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His articles can be found on Indogram. He is currently working on a web site dedicated to Gandhi’s writings on industrialization and globalization, called www.hindswaraj.com. The site is scheduled to be launched on November 14, 2003, to commemorate the 80th birth anniversary of K. G. Ramakrishnan, Indian freedom fighter and Gandhian thinker. NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN can be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com


/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.