The Relevance of Gandhi in Contemporary Times

In Why Gandhi Still Matters, Rajmohan Gandhi helps us understand the Mahatma’s legacy and analyses his ideas of ahimsa, Hindu-Muslim unity as well as his changing stand on the issue of caste.

<em>Why Gandhi Still Matters</em> expands our understanding of Mahatma Gandhi and captures his far-sightedness. Credit: paulisson miura/(CC BY 2.0)

Why Gandhi Still Matters expands our understanding of Mahatma Gandhi and captures his far-sightedness. Credit: paulisson miura/(CC BY 2.0)

In ‘a polarised nation and a violent world’, how relevant is the idea of non-violence? For a post-truth society, what relevance can compassion have? These questions lead us on a search for an ideal that can show us the path towards a better society. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi continues to be such a figure to people across the globe even after nearly seven decades of his assassination. What makes Gandhi an interesting figure?

Rajmohan Gandhi’s book Why Gandhi Still Matters seems to suggest the framework for understanding the relevance of Gandhi in contemporary times, particularly during the year that marks the 100th anniversary of Gandhi-led Champaran Satyagraha and ahead of his 150th birth anniversary in 2019.

Structurally divided into nine chapters, the book captures several interesting and less discussed aspects of Gandhi’s life. Being a collection of revised versions of the author’s lectures on Gandhi, the book is different from any other existing work on him, as it provides the formula for understanding his legacy. The author states that Gandhi’s legacy has various constituents, including non-violence as a weapon of struggle and the independent nation of India.

In examining Gandhi’s weapon of non-violence, the author discusses the struggle of five individuals who successfully used it with ‘compelling powers’: Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. For instance, the author traces the anti-racism movement in the US in brief and highlights the impact of Gandhi on Martin Luther King Jr.

Rajmohan Gandhi
Why Gandhi Still Matters: An Appraisal of the Mahatma’s Legacy
Aleph Book Company, 2017

On March 22, 1959, King had read a sermon about Gandhi: “[He] was able to achieve for his people from the domination of the British Empire without lifting one gun or uttering one curse word.” Four years later, in 1963, King delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Subsequently, because of the movement, the blacks in the US won two battles – the Civil Rights Act came into existence in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act came into being in 1965.

For King, to quote the author, “Gandhi had shown a way both moral and practical for oppressed people to fight injustice”. For the African-Americans, it was a historic win when the US got its first black president in 2009, and one who takes inspiration from Gandhi. Regarding the other constituents of Gandhi’s legacy, the author aptly invokes Gandhi’s following words from January 12, 1948: “The loss of her soul (Hindu-Muslim unity) by India will mean the loss of the hope of the aching, storm-tossed and hungry world.”

This work on Gandhi also answers several interesting questions – What was Gandhi’s dominant passion? How did Gandhi hit upon satyagraha or non-violent resistance, which was his gift to the world? Who or what was Gandhi’s god? According to the author, ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) became ‘an explosive yet constructive force’ in Gandhi’s hands. While highlighting that “driving the British out was Gandhi’s primary if not sole goal”, the author presents that removal of caste hierarchy and untouchability, and Hindu-Muslim unity were also major driving forces for him.

The author quotes Gandhi’s radical proposal to Hindu women on January 3, 1947: “Invite a Harijan every day to dine with you. Or at least ask the Harijan to touch the food or the water before you consume it. Do penance for your sins”. The author calls this a ‘bold suggestion’. Apart from these, compassion for others, sanitation and punctuality also were Gandhi’s lifelong passions. The book also traces and discusses, in detail, Gandhi’s relations with Winston Churchill and Muhammad Ali Jinnah respectively. The author also compares Gandhi’s ‘ahimsa’ with Western pacifism.

Further, the book expands our understanding of Gandhi and captures his far-sightedness. Gandhi was the first one, as evident in the book, to propose to independent India to appoint a Dalit/tribal president as a ‘strong symbolic move’ towards eradication of caste differences.

The book also breaks myths around Gandhi. The author suggests that Gandhi’s famous work Hind Swaraj was a ‘challenge above all to [British] Empire, rather than to modernity’.

Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I found the most interesting aspect to be the author’s analysis of Gandhi’s changing stand on the issue of caste and his relationship with a powerful figure of contemporary India, Bhimrao Ambedkar. The author calls the question of caste ‘the most discussed Gandhi-related’ issue in present India. Many proponents of social justice convey that we must choose between Gandhi and Ambedkar. However, I consider that to be a false debate. Even though they had differences on some issues, their goal was the same. A combined reading of Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s ideas is the need of the hour. The critics of Gandhian philosophy often invoke the famous Poona Pact (1932). Interestingly, shortly after signing the pact, Ambedkar had said that he had been ‘surprised, immensely surprised’ to find ‘so much in common’ between Gandhi and himself. Rajmohan has punctured the myth of the rivalry between Gandhi and Ambedkar and has aptly summarised the relation between the two in the following words:

“[History] shows that Gandhi and Ambedkar had much in common. Both understood the inevitability of conflict between sections of a diverse and at times sharply divided people. Both agreed, however, that struggle had to be resolute, fearless, passionate but also peaceful, for killing damaged a struggle’s goal.”

“For Ambedkar, and also for Gandhi, Dalit solidarity, Dalit education and the Dalit vote were weapons far superior to the lathi or the gun; when used by a vulnerable Dalit, the latter only played into the hands of the better armed enemy.”

“Both realized that the culmination of a struggle for justice was usually negotiation and settlement rather than surrender by the foe and complete triumph for one’s side. Despite harsh experiences, both knew that the adversary in a struggle, the Other, was a human being too, and that justice seldom endured with reconciliation.”

The book also contains an interesting exchange:

“When two months after Gandhi’s death, Ambedkar married Sharada Kabir, a Brahmin doctor, (his first wife, Ramabai, had died in 1935), Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to him, ‘I am sure if Bapu were alive he would have given you his blessings’’ Ambedkar replied, ‘I agree that Bapu, if he had been alive, would have blessed it’.”

It is true that though Gandhi was always against untouchability, he had some reservation about the annihilation of the caste system. However, his ideas on caste evolved with time and as independence neared, he became more critical of the caste system.

Quite often, the critics of Gandhi have often pointed out his inconsistent stand on a number of issues. In this regard, it would be apt to quote one of his greatest and closest disciples, Ram Manohar Lohia, who stated that:

“A great man, if he is connected for half a century or more with public life, must have made contradictory statements. Mahatma Gandhi, with his rare insight, made nevertheless certain conflicting assertions on the British Empire, the caste system and capital and labour relationships. From his belief that the caste system was a part of religion, he went on to say that it was a sin.”

I, therefore, have a small suggestion for the author. I believe that in the future, he should also present a work on the undiscussed relationship between Gandhi and Lohia. This is because despite being a Gandhi loyalist, Lohia was always getting Gandhi to reflect on his thoughts and views.

Rajmohan Gandhi. Credit: Twitter/@RajMohan_Gandhi

Rajmohan Gandhi. Credit: Twitter/@RajMohan_Gandhi

At a time when extremism is on the rise and so are the number of hate crimes against India’s minorities and depressed classes, Gandhi’s ideas are more relevant than ever. As mentioned earlier, Hindu-Muslim friendship was Gandhi’s lifelong passion. Two incidents from Gandhi’s life, as can be read in the book, underline contemporary India’s obligation to stand and fight for its freedom fighters’ ideals.

First, while others were celebrating independence, Gandhi was trying to bring peace in riot-hit areas after the Partition. Second, during post-independence riots in Delhi, Gandhi openly confronted the then Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief M.S. Golwalkar regarding the reports that RSS was involved in the Delhi violence. In reply to a question by Gandhi, Golwalkar denied the allegations and had said that RSS did not stand for killing of Muslims. Thereafter, Gandhi had asked him to state so publicly.

Rajmohan’s book has been brought at the right time. It is a small but complete package about Mahatma Gandhi for anyone who has not read him yet. The book comprehensively covers the key issues around Gandhi and presents a number of not-so-popular facts and incidents related to him. I would say that this is a must-read book not only for all admirers of Gandhi, but also for those who seem to have formed prejudices against him.

Anurag Bhaskar is law clerk-cum-research assistant to Justice D.Y. Chandrachud at the Supreme Court of India. He tweets @anuragbhaskar_. 

  • windwheel

    Well written. However, the erudite author misses the fundamental difference between non-violence under the Rule of Law and non-violence in its absence. Consider the following list- Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. Badshah Khan, the Dalai Lama and now Aung San’s daughter are known to have failed. Why? The Rule of Law was missing. Mandela abandoned violence once it became clear that an equitable Rule of Law would be established, and such was his aura, he succeeded in delivering a peaceful transition. Martin Luther King was a great intellectual in his own right and was supported by great African American legal minds. He too succeeded because a more equitable Rule of Law was being devised.

    Gandhian non-violence meant not breaking the Law and co-operating with it by pleading guilty to sedition if required to do so. Though this is not immediately apparent, the fact is Gandhi was strengthening the Rule of Law, not sapping its foundations. No doubt, as Ambedkar wrote to the lady who would become his wife, Gandhi’s death was opportune for India. Still, the fact remains that Gandhi had remained all through his working life an officer of the Court in the true sense of the term.

    One final point. Caste has no place for any save reparative action in the Indian Constitution. The people of India are welcome to change the Constitution by voting for a Legislature with a different cast of mind than that which now obtains. Till they do so it behooves us to acknowledge that Indian Law forbids Casteism. There is no question of choosing between Gandhi and Ambedkar or having to find some way of reconciling them. Ambedkar’s view is enshrined in Law. Nothing else is relevant.