The Globalism That Gandhi Believed In

For Gandhi, real globalism lay in sacrificing oneself for anyone in distress anywhere, not in the notion that the world was one’s oyster for economic reward and exploitation.

The following is an excerpt from Reading Gandhi in the Twenty-First Century, by Niranjan Ramakrishnan (Palgrave PivotPalgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Gandhi believed in globalisation. Looked at one way, this was one of the strongest accusations levelled against him. He thought that human beings everywhere were the same in that they had a heart and a conscience. His precept of Antyodaya, or concern for the welfare of the “last man”, was rooted in this idea.

Equally strongly was he opposed to the idea of globalisation as an economic mantra. His opposition was a natural outgrowth of his paramount preoccupation: the liberty of the individual. When an individual’s livelihood or even life depended on what was happening thousands of miles away, clearly that individual had, to that extent, forfeited freedom of action. 

Gandhi’s globalism shines even brighter when he makes clear that this is no parochial or nationalistic instinct; he is willing to say that even within the same country, he would prefer everything an individual consumed to be locally obtained, perhaps within a five-mile radius. In one place Gandhi writes that if one is dissatisfied with the services of one’s barber, rather than go to some faraway city to get a good haircut, one should bring someone from there to one’s own neighbourhood and get the local barber trained. The “Vow of Swadeshi” says exactly this:

“All well and good,” you say, but what about things that cannot be obtained locally? Say, petroleum – or uranium? Gandhi anticipates this question:

So, when we find that there are many things that we cannot get in India, we must try to do without them. We may have to do without many things which we may consider necessary, but believe me, when you have that frame of mind, you will find a great burden taken off your shoulders, even as the Pilgrim did in that inimitable book, Pilgrim’s Progress: ‘There came a time when the mighty burden the Pilgrim was carrying on his shoulders unconsciously dropped from him, and he felt a freer man than he was when he started on the journey. So will you fee freer men than you are now, immediately you adopt this swadeshi life.’

It is interesting to note how Gandhi rejects globalisation on the basis of Swadeshi. The word Swadeshi is traditionally associated with choosing to buy Indian products over foreign. But Gandhi’s interpretation, as evident from the quotation above, is deeper and wider. It is entirely of a piece with his view that the individual’s freedom (Gandhi might have called it “liberation” or moksha) is always the ultimate goal. This is but one example of his instinct for genuine globalism that he demonstrated many times over. He had no desire for India to colonise other lands as Britain had colonised India. He did not see an India that exploited other countries as any part of his economic outlook….

Gandhi would not be fooled for an instant by the clamour about the planet being bound together by globalisation. Shunning the rose-tinted glasses, he might note that globalisation has created a new nation. It is the first truly diverse, multicultural, multinational, multiethnic nation in the world. Call it Elitia. Its citizens have transcended the bonds of birth, nation, culture, ethnicity, and so on, swearing allegiance to none but the One true God of Universal Consumption, heads bowed daily at the Diocese of Technology, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Church of Globalisation. Gandhi was too alive to the mischief of every single one of these sirens to be taken in by shibboleths.

As well versed in the Bible as in the Gita, the Mahatma might have suggested that a truer test of globalisation lay in a Solomonic proposition: the real globalism lay in sacrificing oneself for anyone in distress anywhere, not in the notion that the world was one’s oyster for economic reward and exploitation. “There is no limit to extending our service to our neighbours across our State-made frontiers. God never made those frontiers.” He might have noted too that many impulses that are noble when they arise in individual hearts become sullied when mummified into permanent institutions for assured gain. Thus the difference between the freedom brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Lafayette fighting by Washington’s side, or Pearson and Andrews coming over to help Gandhi, on the one hand, and World Bank consultants and WTO administrators paving the way for the unfettered flow of goods and capital, on the other.

For Gandhi, the simple question would be: “What are you in it for? Are you in it to sacrifice, or to profit?” This is an idea expressed in Gandhi’s favourite hymn, Vaishnava jana to tene kahiye, peerha parayi jane je: “Call them alone people of God who know the woes of others as their own.” And when we ask ourselves what the motive is for globalisation in our time, the question resolves itself on its own.

Niranjan Ramakrishnan was a long-time contributor to Counterpunch and Countercurrents and his work has been carried by Z-Mag, Common Dreams and Dissident Voice. Among the print outlets that have featured his writings are The Oregonian, the Indian Express, The Hindu, India Today and the Economic Times. His first book, Bantaism – The Philosophy of Sardar Jokes (2011), was hailed for its audacity by noted author and historian Khushwant Singh.