The Relevance of a Documentary on Gandhi's Non-Violence Today

Ramesh Sharma's film 'Ahimsa-Gandhi: The Power of the Powerless' has sought to capture the grip of Gandhian ideas on key movements worldwide, across time.

Film maker Ramesh Sharma has been carrying the weight of wanting to make a film on Mahatma Gandhi for years. His pulse truly quickened in 1982, after an encounter in a coffee shop in Los Angeles, to which he was a regular for eight months. When leaving town, the owner of the coffee shop presented him a book by William Shirer on Gandhi. The influence of Gandhi on the world was driven home to him like never before. 

In recent years, protests, discontent and the growing violence in the world, finally forced him to throw in everything and make Ahimsa- Gandhi: The Power of the Powerless. His wife Uma Gajapati Raju and daughter Sanchaita Raju, both public persons in their own right, stood by his desire and helped with all the resources they could bring to the table. The film is yet to secure a theatre release, but it has won the award for Best Documentary Feature at the 21st New York Indian Film Festival. 

The documentary sweeps through powerful instances of Gandhi’s influence.

A two member crew, his cameraperson Nitin Upadhyay and he, with some local help, traversed the world and sought to capture the grip of Gandhian ideas on the African-American protest that shook the USA, the dismantling of South African Apartheid and finally the Velvet revolution in East Europe and Lech Walesa’s Solidarity in Poland.

But why Gandhi when there is more scholarly interest now in others who made independence possible? The ideas of Bhagat Singh and the armoury raid by Master da in Chittagong have been revived over the years.

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“This is not a story of how India secured Independence,” says Sharma firmly. “It is not even a portrait of the man. Richard Attenborough has made the defining film on his person. Shyam Benegal has made one, The Making of the Mahatma, about his time in South Africa. I did not want to venture there. This is about the central idea that defined his actions, non-violence, or ‘love in action,’ as US Congressman John Lewis told me.”

John Lewis was the youngest person to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, and features in the film as one of the experts Sharma has sought out.

John Lewis. Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

Sharma says he was struck by the fact that resisting, not surrendering, is at the heart of Gandhi’s ahimsa. “It was not an anodyne Sunday sermon, but a technique. Before the Dandi march, at least 79 satyagrahis were trained in the Ashram and schooled properly on how to resist and not bend or hit back, even when provoked and attacked by lathis,” when Gandhi marched to make salt, in defiance of the Empire’s repressive tax law on India’s most essential of commodities. 

Political scientist and cultural historian Professor Tridip Suhrud, Director of CEPT Archives, says, the process of emptying out content from Gandhi’s philosophy began some time ago, “Shortly after Gandhi’s assassination, his message of collective non-violence failed to take root. The political content was emptied out of Ahimsa, it became devoid of its sharp political edge and non-violence became a homily. Ahimsa is powerful when it is a collective resolve, taking it beyond a personal virtue. All of us, Gandhians, social scientists and politicians are guilty of lack of creativity to make Ahimsa a political ethic or aspiration.” 

This chipping away of Gandhi’s world had started earlier, but what has been witnessed in the past seven years has been a more concerted drive to question what Gandhi stood for more fundamentally and brazenly. Gandhi is used to talk up India abroad, but inside India, the environment has been made most conducive to discuss his assassin Godse, and this is not hard to understand.

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The relationship of the RSS to Gandhi, which most of our elected representatives in the ruling party belong to or pay allegiance to, is complicated. The RSS was banned by Home Minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel, after the assassination of Gandhi by Nathu Ram Godse. The ban was lifted only on a guarantee that the RSS would not indulge in politics. The RSS remained on the backfoot till at least 1977, and the struggle for respectability for forces inspired by RSS has been clearly documented, by political scientists, commentators and historians like Professor Mridula Mukherjii in her address to the Indian History Congress in 2011.

As recently as a few weeks ago, when the Ram Temple Trust Chairperson, Champat Rai was asked about allegations of the land scam connected to building the temple of Lord Ram in Ayodhya, he reflexively evoked the Mahatma’s assassination: “We were accused of killing Gandhi, don’t care about allegations.”

The RSS and its followers still find it necessary to eulogise Gandhi and pay lip-service to him, even if parts of Gandhi are symbolically and literally being stripped away from the whole message and put to use cynically, like his glasses for Swachh Bharat, reducing a powerful call to equality, to one of constructing toilets. Is a film like Ahimsa relevant at all in an India today moving so far away from him?

An RSS conclave in Pune. Photo: Reuters

Says historian Professor Shahid Amin, who has studied Gandhi in great detail, “There has always been violence in the public sphere, and at a time of polarised politics, its ability to spawn violence is tremendous. Absorbing Ahimsa and ensuring that it transcends from being a slogan shouted in a political assembly to becoming more than a political observance is critical.” 

Sharma says even positing Gandhi and Godse as opposing sides of a story is wrong and does injustice to Gandhi. “Godse was nowhere in the league of Gandhi and was just a tool by those who hated Gandhi’s message of peace then, and wanted him killed and so out of the way. He was an admirer of Hitler, a peddler of hateful ideas and a fascist.” 

How does Sharma feel about the fact that all those talking of non-violence, whether Gandhi or Martin Luther King, eventually fell to violence, to bullets? “Not so”, says Sharma. “Killing MLK or Gandhi just cut short their days, it did not kill their ideas. Their ideology gained momentum. As in the film, Gandhi became “of the ages” even if his life was cut short.”

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The salience of Gandhi, says Amin, is because “nobody in the end wants to disown Gandhi, as doing that would amount to turning your back on civilisation. Those he rallied against, the British and others too have found it impossible to ignore him and his message. The one phase in his life, which exemplifies where he stood, against all odds, was when he went onto tread barefoot on the fields of Noakhali. The violence of 1947 was upon the sub-continent and consuming millions of lives. But Gandhi, in pursuance of his ideals, not caring that the whole of India almost was at odds with him, went and made his case alone, and he succeeded in making his point.”

Getting back to Ahimsa-Gandhi: The Power of the Powerless, Sharma has cut to the present in the US, by raising George Floyd and Black Lives Matter as the film ends. But why is there silence on the turmoil and dissent India has witnessed in the recent years?

“Yes, there is no contemporary India. I thought about it. I had some film and stills too. But India is still unfolding, it is yet to complete its story. I think it needs no less than a Gandhi to bring them together else it will remain a very fragmented agitation. With Gandhi, it will acquire a moral force – and that would make it unstoppable.” 

Seema Chishti is a journalist based in New Delhi.