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Looking back at the Mahatma

Publication Date : 30-01-2013


Sixty five years after his assassination, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi remains a pivotal figure in the history of the world.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, for all the differences he had with the Mahatma, called him the "father of our nation". Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, even when he took to giving shape to the Swarajya Party in the 1920s, knew that he could not afford to sever his links with the apostle of non-violence as India prepared itself for freedom.

Bangladesh’s independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, despite a youth characterised by active involvement in the idea of Pakistan in the 1940s, was by the late 1960s ready to borrow the idea of non-violent non-cooperation from Gandhi. It was an instrument he used to good effect in March 1971. Martin Luther King Jr, in his struggle for civil rights in the United States, made it clear that Gandhi was his inspiration.

And Nelson Mandela had this to say of India's paramount symbol of freedom: "He dared to exhort non-violence in a time when the violence of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had exploded on us; he exhorted morality when science, technology and the capitalist order had made it redundant; he replaced self-interest with group interest without minimising the importance of self."

It becomes important, all these years after the tragedy of January 1948, to re-examine the historical role Gandhi played during his lifetime, the ceaseless struggle he put up against British colonial rule. It was a role which in a number of instances has been criticised by those who have watched him in action, for the particular reason that some of his actions did not go down well with his fellow travelers on freedom road.

Note may be made here of his suspension of the non-cooperation movement in the early 1920s following the deaths of twenty two policemen in Chauri Chaura at the hands of a mob carried away by the urge for freedom. His inability to prevent the partition of India in 1947 and deliberate staying away from all celebrations of freedom have been painted by his detractors as escapism of a costly kind. And yet, in retrospective historical analysis, it becomes hard to see how Gandhi could have enthused over freedom that had dawned through death and destruction and the abandonment of ancestral homes in Bengal and the Punjab.

There were those who disagreed with Gandhi's methods, for they spotted mistakes in his strategy towards self-rule and eventual independence for India. Rabindranath Tagore, the man who had conferred on Gandhi the honorific of Mahatma, was under no illusion that the latter's call for a boycott of foreign goods would only hurt India's masses. And this was how he made his views known: "It is an outrage upon human nature to force it through a mill and reduce it to some standardised commodity of uniform size and shape and purpose."

For Gandhi, liberal enough to concede the thought that freedom was not worth having if it did not include the freedom to make mistakes, Tagore's argument nevertheless did not make him change course. His response to the Bard was simple: "It was our love of foreign cloth that ousted the wheel from its position of dignity…In burning my foreign clothes I burn my shame. I must refuse to insult the naked by giving them clothes they do not need instead of giving them work they sorely need." That was a principled stand. Or was it an ill-conceived sidelining of some far graver realities in British-ruled India?

In 1939, the reality in the Congress was that Subhas Chandra Bose had beaten Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the man Gandhi had hoped would defeat Bose in his bid for re-election. Gandhi, in one of those rare strange moments in his life, dropped his moral compass and publicly expressed his sadness at Bose's triumph. He did nothing to prevent the senior leaders of the party from deserting Bose, thereby compelling Bose to resign and eventually carve a new, necessarily radical path in his campaign for India's freedom. Earlier, in 1934, Bose had made it known in his work, The Indian Struggle, that Gandhi ought to have been more assertive at the Round Table conference in London. This is how he put it: "If the Mahatma had spoken in the language of dictator Stalin, Duce Mussolini or Fuhrer Hitler, John Bull would have understood and bowed his head in respect."

But, of course, Bose was wrong to think that men whose idea of leadership was a suppression of individual liberty could be an inspiration for Gandhi or India. Besides, Mussolini and Hitler were in the end put to flight by the likes of John Bull. Gandhi was aware of the risks with which passive resistance to the British were fraught. That bones would be broken and skulls would be cracked -- and they were -- was a possibility he acknowledged. But could India have taken any other road to freedom? It was the human will that mattered. Strength, Gandhi noted, did not come from physical capacity but from an indomitable will. It was just as well, for passive resistance, the strength to absorb the blow of the truncheon, could in time weaken the resolve of the arrogant coloniser. And it did, in the end.

Gandhi had his failings, but they were far outweighed by the qualities that have conferred greatness on him. He endured humiliation in South Africa. He found spiritual strength in incarceration. The result was satyagraha. He respected Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was the first person to call him Quaid-e-Azam. His presence restored confidence among Muslims in riot-torn Calcutta. He it was who waded into distant Noakhali to save Hindus from Muslim mobs.

The last word on Gandhi comes from Netaji. In a broadcast on Azad Hind Radio on July 6, 1944, the doomed Subhas Bose appealed to the Mahatma: "Father of our Nation, in this holy war of India's liberation, we ask you for your blessings and good wishes."

(Mahatma Gandhi, apostle of non-violence, was assassinated on Jan 30, 1948).

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.


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