October 2019 marked the 150th birth anniversary of one of 20th century’s greatest leaders and visionaries – the Father of the Indian nation – Mahatma Gandhi. Many things have changed over the last 150 years. India is no longer - and hasn’t been for the last 73 years – a British colony. Independent India has grown, achieved much accolades and has remained the world’s largest democracy. What relevance does then the ideals of Gandhi, or what is known as ‘Gandhism’ hold in the world modern, both for India and elsewhere? Ideals that form the core of Gandhism include ahimsa or ‘non-violence’, secular unity and elimination of caste discrimination. Today Gandhi is remembered in India mostly on his birthday which is celebrated as a national holiday. The question however is to analyse and evaluate the relevance, importance and scope of Gandhism and its legacy, today.
In a polarised nation and a violent world, with each country having its armed forces, how relevant is the idea of non-violence? For a post-truth society, what relevance can compassion have? Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi continues to be such a figure to people across the globe even after nearly seven decades of his assassination. Gandhian philosophy has always been a topic of discussion especially in this contemporary world where his ideas appear redundant amidst the pragmatism and materialism which prevail. But is it advisable to discard the relevance of his thought, which include philosophies like satya and ahimsa, the basic human principles of love, compassion and tolerance?
Truth, the core value of Gandhi’s philosophy, is the underlining theme of Gandhi’s autobiography, ‘My experiments with Truth’. In Gandhi’s words “truth and untruth often co-exist, good and evil are often found together.” His philosophy of satyagrah which according to him meant ‘the force which is born of truth or violence’ is required ever more in the contemporary world where accumulation of nuclear weapon has become the means to attain supremacy. Despite the efforts of various peace keeping forces and organisations, like the United Nations, the threat of nuclear war looms large and the only method which has the potential to remove this fear is satyagrah. This was also perhaps why in the middle of Non-Cooperation movement in 1930s, Gandhi staled the movement after the satyagrahis deviated from the path of truth and resorted to violence in Chaurichaura. Ahimsa developed as ‘an explosive yet constructive force’ in Gandhi’s hands. Other than driving the British out, removal of caste hierarchy and untouchability, and Hindu-Muslim unity were also major driving forces for Gandhi, which he strived to achieve through these ideals.
Gandhi believed that truth empowers an individual whereas lies weaken a person from within. This principle of truthfulness to self and to the world is essential for everyone to excel in future life.
Recently, the UN Secretary-General in his speech at a ‘Leadership Conference’ spoke of how Gandhi’s genius lay in his ability to see the inter-connectedness and the unity between all things. His political achievements included leading the movement that ended colonial rule in India, using peace, love and integrity to prevail. But his vision went far beyond politics to encompass human rights and sustainable development. He stressed on how Gandhi promoted non-violence not just as a philosophy and a political strategy, but as a means to achieve justice and change. Secretary General António Guterres even pointed out that many of Gandhi’s ideas foreshadow the holistic thinking behind the ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’.
Another issue that was of utmost importance for Gandhi during his lifetime was the taboo of caste system in India. Gandhi was of the opinion to create a casteless society where everyone is treated equally irrespective of their caste. Gandhi’s efforts on behalf of people of lower caste and those considered ‘untouchables’, whom he renamed harijan or ‘children of god’, should inspire us in our efforts to leave no one behind, and to help those farthest behind first. Gandhi in 1947 urged women of India to invite a harijan everyday to dine with them, or at least ask the harijan to touch the food or the water before they consumed it themselves. Apart from these, compassion for others, sanitation and punctuality also were Gandhi’s lifelong passions.
Gandhi’s concept of decentralisation of means and resources and his model of economic development which talked of developing villages as an independent production and administrative unit has also become more relevant today in the face of various economic, social, ethical and emotional hazards which are the consequence of large scale industrialisation and global capitalism. His concept of swadeshi which talks of ‘production for neighbours’ is now being applied in India. His theory of antyodaya or ‘the last man’ which speaks of providing every individual with the basic necessities can negate the effects of globalisation by ensuring everyone fruits of developmental process. Decentralisation of power can be implemented in democracies through empowered local self-governments at grass root level. Indian government, for instance, has implemented local self-governments by adopting the Panchayati Raj and Municipality system in rural and urban areas respectively.
Gandhi was also an advocate of cleanliness or swacchta. The recent ‘Swaccha Bharat Abhiyaan’, the biggest cleanliness drive of India, is to fulfill the dream of Gandhi by making India clean. This cleanliness drive for Gandhi was more than just physical cleanliness as he used to emphasise upon the internal cleanliness of an individual as well. Thus, along with clean roads and toilets we must establish a corruption free society with greater level of transparency and accountability.
As is evident, relevance of Gandhi in modern times is far from being redundant. Infact, Gandhi’s enduring legacy is his continued relevance to our thinking and action on a broad sweep of issues, from protecting the environment to promoting justice, from education to inequality. His ideals are thought-provoking, including his emphasis on the importance of facing up to the truth with courage. Perhaps Gandhi’s most important legacy was in creating a culture of peace, in proving the effectiveness of non-violent ‘non-cooperation’. His relevance is brought to life by the fact that many modern day leaders, including ex-American President Barack Obama and Myanmar’s Aung San Su Kyi are ardent Gandhians.