So clever, so simple, so approachable: Why India still needs Gandhi

Topics Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Wardha. This was the village in northeastern Maharashtra, and around the centre of India, where Gandhi set up the ashram he called Sevagram. He lived there for about a decade, from his mid-60s till his death in 1948 at the age of 78. It was not a place I was familiar with, except by way of its name – through references in school textbooks. And it certainly was not a place for regular visits, either as a pilgrimage or what we Indians refer to as “sight-seeing”. I know nobody else who has been to Sevagram and had it not been for the kind invitation of an acquaintance, I would not have visited either.

But I think it is an important place, one that is worth taking schoolchildren to, as well as for adults to go and reflect on their lives in a country like ours and at a moment in time likes ours. The place has repose – a state of tranquility – and it seems, even to unromantic eyes like mine, to retain something of the presence of that old man.

On that visit, there was a gathering of the people who ran the place and a few community elders, and we had a discussion about the meaning of Gandhi in the context of what was happening around us. This was in the late afternoon, and by the time we finished it was dusk, when the chanting of prayers was scheduled. It was clear that many of those gathered were anxious that the prayers commence on time. There seemed to me too much concern about ritual, but it was apparent that this ritual held deep meaning for many of them (they had, for instance, memorised the prayer sheets, including one written in Japanese). It was, I later realised, a means for them to connect at some level with Gandhi and his ideals. 

Mahatma Gandhi. Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
What can the rest of us pick up from Gandhi, a man who is idolised, or at least was till recent years, so much that the actual individual is in many ways lost? A lot, which is remarkable because in one sense his time was so different from ours. Gandhi was born the year Ghalib died (1869) and for his entire life, except for the last seven months, lived as a subject of European empire. But this is a reference only to chronological time. In another sense, his time and his life and the India he knew are actually not different. And they retain deep meaning for the rest of us. Much of this is apparent when one steps into Sevagram.

The first is his recognition that Indians have a problem with hygiene. This manifests in the dirt of our surroundings as well as in the aesthetics of our homes. Sevagram and its little buildings are almost alien in that sense. They are clean and have been designed and constructed in a way that is ideal for the Indian climate, particularly for the high-heat, heavy-rain periods of those parts. The slight elevation of the plinth, the size and placing of the windows, the materials used and the design of the roof — all of these speak to a deep understanding of how to engage with the elements at different times of the year.

We have no real contact with this manner of architecture in the mainstream in Indian cities, and that is a shame. Gandhi's aesthetic was spartan and while the place is elegant, there is not a thing in the little cottage that was unnecessary or even ornamental. There is an Indian-style toilet and his attitude to defecation is not fully understood even today. He had recognised that caste had introduced an element of ritual pollution towards a natural process and that had to be corrected. Part of that he did with his insistence that everyone who visited him clean the latrines (including GD Birla, to his horror).

But there is another way in which Gandhi addressed it. I read to my amusement a passage in the work and His Apostles by Ved Mehta. It revealed that Gandhi left the door of his toilet open and people were free to come in while he was occupying it, to have a conversation with him while he was defecating! He regularly suffered from constipation (no doubt linked to his diet) and therefore spent long periods squatting on the potty.

The second lesson is his activism. Gandhi did not accept the status quo and wanted to be an agent of change. He spent his entire life as an activist making demands of an imperial government that had absolute power. His strategy was to make the most reasonable demand possible (beginning with the Satyagraha in Champaran for justice for the indigo farmers), which made it difficult for the state to refuse. This was a strategy of genius, because when one has mass following and street power -- both of which Gandhi had -- it is easy to make maximum demands of the state and end up only with a stalemate.

Salt Satyagraha: His strategy was to make the most reasonable demand possible, which made it difficult for the state to refuse. This was a strategy of genius, because when one has mass following and street power — both of which Gandhi had — it is easy to make maximum demands of the state and end up only with a stalemate
The third lesson is that of action. It is easier for many of us to accept the way things are and then look away from reality because things are too messed up and too difficult to change. Gandhi, from beginning to end, threw himself into his work even where it may have been obvious that there may not be an effect. V S Naipaul wrote about an episode in the last part of Gandhi’s life that illustrated this. In late 1946, as Partition fever was picking up, there was a riot in East Bengal’s Noakhali. Thousands of people were affected by the violence. Gandhi went there to try and calm things down. It became apparent that there was great passion in the air and that Gandhi was unsuccessful in getting people to back off. Naipaul writes, admiringly, that Gandhi was seen walking up and down, asking himself “Kya karoon? Kya karoon? (What should I do? What should I do?)”, never entertaining thoughts of despair and being focused on what could be done.

His fourth lesson to us is that of tolerance. This is not something that we should ever forget. For the same things that were spoken about and felt in his time are felt in ours.

His assassin Nathuram Godse contended that Gandhi helped create Pakistan and this was the reason that he shot him. Godse’s exact words were: "When top leaders of Congress, with the consent of Gandhi, divided and tore the country – which we consider a deity of worship – my mind was filled with direful anger. I bear no ill will towards anyone individually but I do say that I had no respect for the present government owing to their policy which was unfairly favourable towards the Muslims. But at the same time, I could clearly see that the policy was entirely due to the presence of Gandhi."

This could well be said in one of our current news shows on television and certainly it is the sort of thing that is said all the time by the political leaders today. An India that is tolerant to all things, including Pakistan, is an India that Gandhi would have approved of.

Gandhi had an openness to language that many of us could benefit from. He felt that all Indians should learn the Hindustani language in both the Nagari and Urdu scripts. Nobody accused him then, or can now, of being a language chauvinist. It is for this reason that he is an acceptable figure even to those who we think might see him as an enemy.

I read a column in the Pakistani newspaper ji kaho.” It is a fact that the deliberate dislike produced in most Indians for Jinnah in our schools is not reflected in Pakistan’s feelings towards Gandhi. It is not easy to engage with a Pakistani (I have been to that country many times) and receive a nasty or negative opinion about Gandhi.

This is also true so far as the rest of the world sees Gandhi. His image is intact even in Europe and particularly in England. This is remarkable given that he was so stringent a critic of the Empire and the West. Writing on Gandhi in 1949, George Orwell said: "One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi's basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!"

The last thing that we can learn from him is his modesty, and his humour. In that same book by Mehta referred to above is a passage in which Gandhi the companion is revealed. A young woman comes to him on the day when Gandhi is practising maun vrat (vow of silence). Gandhi cannot speak but likes to have people visit him. The young woman, who is returning from a trip, tells Gandhi, “I think I saw the ugliest man in the world.” Gandhi disapproves and frowns at her. She said: “Oh sorry, I meant the second ugliest man in the world.” At this Gandhi loses his control and starts to laugh loudly.

I find it hard to imagine the leaders of our time being genuinely self-effacing and natural. And it is wonderful to think that such a man, so great and yet so approachable, existed and was one of us.


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