The “Father of our Nation” and his thoughts and words inspire us to this day. Probably one of his most famous quotes is, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” But with new documented information about Gandhi coming out to the young generation the question arises Is Gandhi relevant today?
By Abhijit Chanda
- In recent years, the darker sides of Gandhi’s life and thoughts have come to the fore, shaking his stand as the “Father of the Nation”
- Gandhi stated in a letter to the Natal parliament that the colony had a “general belief” that “Indians are a little better, than savages of Africa”
- He believed women should be able to work and sustain themselves, which was quite progressive at the time
- Gandhi famously said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”
This isn’t a history lesson. When it comes to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, we don’t need one since we, as Indians, have been taught about his importance, greatness and philosophies since we were children. He is now, and, I hope, forever will be, synonymous with non-violence. This lesson is about judging the past with the values of the present.
On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, we look back and remember the icon that set our nation free. The “Father of our Nation” and his thoughts and words inspire us to this day. Probably one of his most famous quotes is, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Personally, this is perhaps one of the philosophies I live by. And, as I shall talk about later in this article, I feel he spoke from experience.
The current generation of young Indians has had the luxury of time to view the Mahatma more as a person in a history book than the flesh and blood icon he was to their parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents. While Gandhi’s home, museums and site of his assassination are still frequented as a pilgrimage for many Indians from every corner of the country, I doubt many youths see him with the same reverence.
Pernika Sharma, a 26-year-old IT Professional, summarises the perspective quite well: “When I hear his name, the first few words that strike my mind are “Father of the nation” as I had repeatedly heard and read about him. He was the ultimate freedom fighter, one of the revolutionaries that freed India. I thought everyone would love him in this country. Growing up, I realised that this was not the case. A few who used to detest him were quite against his actions and saw ulterior motives in them. Others thought he was the reason for most of the atrocities India endured during the partition. I also read that the person who killed him is considered a hero and a martyr in many places. Cinema, too, shaped how I saw him. Lage Raho Munna Bhai showed him in great light and popularised the acts of being peaceful, loving and doing good in the term “Gandhigiri”. A movie like Gandhi: My Father showed him failing terribly as a family man.
“All in all, I do believe he did some good for the country. Probably from all I have read and seen as a young kid remains within me, but the belief is not as strong as it was when I was 7. I can also understand the other opinions and perspectives people have of him, which aren’t all good.”
Since I neither have the time nor the resources to run a complete survey, I can’t claim that Pernika’s perspective is shared by most youth, but it is certainly representative of a large number of views I have encountered of this great figure. In many ways, it’s a perspective I, too, share.
“BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD”
In recent years, the darker sides of Gandhi’s life and thoughts have come to the fore, shaking his stand as the “Father of the Nation” and the “Mahatma” as Rabindranath Tagore christened him. His racist youth, his strange practices with women later in his life, and his perspective of the partition have brought his greatness down several notches in the eyes of the youth.
Gandhi’s biographer and grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, says the younger Gandhi – he arrived in South Africa as a 24-year-old briefless lawyer – was undoubtedly “at times ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa’s blacks”
Mahatma Gandhi went to law school at University College London Faculty of Law, spent considerable time with well-to-do Londoners, and felt quite at home with Caucasians. When he moved to South Africa to practice law, he was in his 20s and made no secret of his preference for white people and considered them superior to the African natives.
It has been documented that he considered the white people in Africa were “the predominating race.” He also said black people “are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.” Even Ramachandra Guha, the author of Gandhi’s biography, confirmed that there was no doubt that the man later referred to as Mahatma was an outright racist. He told NPR news, “Gandhi as a young man went with the ideas of his culture and his time. He thought in his 20s that Europeans are the most civilised. Indians were almost as civilised, and Africans were uncivilised”.
Gandhi’s biographer and grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, says the younger Gandhi – he arrived in South Africa as a 24-year-old briefless lawyer – was undoubtedly “at times ignorant and prejudiced about South Africa’s blacks”. He believes Gandhi’s “struggle for Indian rights in South Africa paved the way for the struggle of black rights”.
Gandhi stated in a letter to the Natal parliament in 1893 that the colony had a “general belief” that “Indians are a little better, if at all than savages or the Natives of Africa.” The municipality “must withdraw Kaffirs” from the “Coolie Location,” a filthy slum where many Africans and Indians coexisted, he wrote to a health officer in Johannesburg in 1904. “About the mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.”
Gandhi predicted that the epidemic in Durban in 1905 would continue as long as Indians and Africans were “herded together indiscriminately at the hospital”.
Activists in Ghana and Malawi are all too aware of this side of the man. In 2018, his statue was taken down at the University of Ghana, and #GandhiMustFall was trending on Twitter. They rightly insisted they honoured their national heroes instead.
However, as Gandhiji was exposed to discrimination against his kind and joined India’s freedom struggle, he became the change he wanted to see in the world. Guha continues, “However, he outgrew his racism quite decisively, and for most of his life as a public figure, he was an anti-racist, talking for an end to discrimination of all kinds.” He even fought for the untouchables or depressed classes of India. Dr BR Ambedkar proposed that the depressed classes should be represented separately.
In August 1932, the British Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, accepted the proposal and brought forward the Communal Award, an attempt by Great Britain to settle the numerous conflicts between the various sectarian interests in India.
The award, which was later incorporated into the act of 1935, extended the Muslim-only separate-electorate formula to other minorities, including Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans, distinct regional groups (like the Marathas in the Bombay Presidency), and special interests (women, organised labour, business, landowners, and universities). The expansion of communal representation was met with the expected discontent from the Congress Party, but the British offer of separate-election seats for “depressed classes”, meaning the so-called “untouchables.”
Gandhi started a “fast unto death” against that offer, which he felt would lead to even more division among Indians. As his health waned, Dr Ambedkar finally agreed to find a solution with Gandhi.
They reached a compromise called the Poona Pact. The number of seats allotted to the depressed classes in the state legislature was increased from 78 to 148. It was called the Joint Reserved Electorate, which ensured that at least some of those standing for elections would be chosen representatives of the Dalit caste.
“MY LIFE IS MY MESSAGE”
Gandhi was a religious Hindu and a lifelong vegetarian. And yet, he remained staunchly secular and respected all religions without compromising his beliefs. His struggle for unity extended to the Indian Muslims, so much so it cost him his life. Gandhi said: “If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s concern!”
Garima Singh, a resident of Noida, is still inspired by his secular views: “I think it’s Mahatma Gandhi’s secularism which still resonates to me. To be tolerant of all religions. There is a big contradiction in terms of the era, so I am not sure how we can follow his ideologies in today’s time. As long as these problems continue, Gandhi’s relevance will be there. Hence, one can always follow what they believe in such as morals, cleanliness and respect which transforms not only a person’s character but also the society they live in.”
He went from being a privileged, racist lawyer to becoming a global symbol for peaceful protests and non-violence, inclusion, equality, perseverance and one of the most influential movements in the history of the planet that freed our country
Gandhi spent a lot of energy trying to convince Mohammad Ali Jinnah, an equal to him in many other ways, not to allow India to be broken in the partition. Jinnah stuck to his guns, leading to terrible violence between Hindus and Muslims across India. He started to “fast unto death” to protest the violence.
The Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS grew to prominence during this time. These Hindu outfits opposed not only Muslims but also the partition of India. As it turned out, partition was inevitable. Gandhi understood that but steadfastly remained opposed to it. Even as Pakistan separated from India and launched raids into the Kashmir region, he still advocated for the Indian government to respect the partition clauses and transfer the Rs. 55 crores India owed to Pakistan. For that, too, he fasted to ensure that Pakistan and its people were treated fairly.
This was all too much to bear for Nathuram Godse and his fellow conspirators, who succeeded in assassinating him on the 30th of January 1948.
Why do I rehash these well-known annals of history? To demonstrate that Gandhiji was an exemplar of perseverance, who never compromised on his beliefs, principles and ethics, regardless of what people thought. He famously said, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
And win he did as his legacy continues to be revered worldwide. However, there remain those who celebrate his death. Some still sow division and hate between religions and use it to gain political or personal power and wealth. I am sure if he had survived to see our country today, there would be many aspects that would bring him to tears.
GANDHI AND HIS WOMEN
Another aspect of Gandhi’s life brought to the fore recently is how he behaved with women.
One event that disturbed him for the rest of his life was that he was making love to his wife, Kasturba when his father was on his deathbed. It racked him with guilt to such an extent that he took a vow of celibacy, or Brahmacharya, at age 38.
“It is the duty of every thoughtful Indian not to marry. In case he is helpless regarding marriage, he should abstain from sexual intercourse with his wife,” he wrote in the Indian Opinion in 1907. He believed that sexual intercourse should only be had to procreate and for no other reasons.
And yet, stories of his strange experiments surfaced, talking about him challenging his resolve by always being surrounded by women, even bathing with them and sleeping with them. This is indeed strange behaviour, not just by today’s standards. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, one of his closest friends, considered some of his conduct “abnormal”.
Yet, he championed women and considered them not only equal to men but even superior. “Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacity…If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior…If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women.”
He believed women should be able to work and sustain themselves, which was quite progressive at the time, but still thought they should remain responsible for household work, which wasn’t. Once again, why do I bring this up again, after the controversies have died down and the hackles have been lowered? Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a man. His ideals, principles and perseverance were superhuman, but he was a flawed human being just like any of us.
DOES THAT MEAN HE WAS ANY LESS OF A MAHATMA?
Barish Raman, a student of psychology, feels: “Nowadays when we are always busy measuring every element’s relevancy and trend value, a figurehead like Gandhi shines differently since he is more than just a historical figure but rather represents a philosophy that is timeless and above things like trends and relevance. However, since we are so deeply invested in judging things, we have forgotten about his philosophy and negated its actual message. Ironically enough, that ends up making him ‘irrelevant’. At most, we remember him for a day annually but can’t practise what he preached.”
So this Gandhi Jayanti, we remember this great man, sing his praises, share his quotes on social media, and some of us may even hang a mala on his bust or picture and revere him as a deity. But are we living by his ideals?
We go about our days, swearing at rash drivers, picking fights with toll tax executives, forbidding your child to marry a person from another religion, judging people from other states or countries, or simply complaining about the world we live in, but not raising a finger to do anything about it other than arguing with people on the internet. But for a moment, do we wonder if there is a better way to not only change the world but change ourselves – our perspectives, prejudices and priorities?
He went from being a privileged, racist lawyer to becoming a global symbol for peaceful protests and non-violence, inclusion, equality, perseverance and one of the most influential movements in the history of the planet that freed our country from tyrannical colonialism. He spent his life changing the country and changing himself at the same time.
Instead of letting Mahatma Gandhi fade into just a name in a history class, let’s take this extraordinary person’s words to heart and embrace his most admired values as the ideals we should aspire to while remembering his flaws as the lessons he has taught us.