Remembering Gandhi

by Satish Tandon, September 2006

Today we celebrate the 137th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. This year the Mahatma, after almost half a century of exile from our collective memories, has staged a triumphant comeback thanks to the phenomenal success of a new Bollywood film, ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’. The success of this film also demonstrates the power of media to bring about change, to make something that is out-of-fashion fashionable, to influence and shape public opinion, and to rally the entire nation. This is immense power, and it bestows on the media a corresponding obligation to act responsibly and in the larger public interest.

Why did we throw Gandhi out of our lives? My mother tells me that before partition we Indians used to be a simple people living our lives in a way that Gandhi would have no hesitation in approving. Much of what he taught was already embodied in our lifestyles. Most people were simple, honest, decent, truthful, humble, and god-fearing. They had limited ambitions and even fewer needs. She speaks from her experience derived from living in, and interacting with the other members of, a large joint family and the extended family of relatives and close friends. There was hardly ever any conflict, and if ever there was one it was settled quickly and peacefully.

So how did we become the exact opposites of ourselves?My own thinking is that ‘simplicity’ went out of fashion. I remember my own childhood days in the early sixties when to me conformism was a big No No. I was a rebel against the system, parents, school, the gods, and everything else they stood for. Being simple was not good enough. One had to be different, one had to be noticed. When everybody around you is simple you feel the urge to show you are sophisticated, when everyone else is plain and bland, you want to show you are colourful and attractive, and in the process if you need to become a little bit dishonest, not straight, manipulative, so what. Machiavelli is easier to accept than Gandhi and starting with “end justifies the means” we rapidly graduate to “the end justifies any means”. We grew up thinking that Gandhi was irrelevant to our times and age. We thought his philosophy of non-violence prevented us from taking revenge against the British for the murder of Bhagat Singh and the Jalianwala Bagh massacre.

The decline of Gandhi as discussed above can be, ironically, also explained in Marxist terms. One can consider his philosophy as representing the ‘thesis’ in Marxist theory. Thus the ‘thesis’ over time gives rise to its ‘anti-thesis’, whose overwhelming presence and ascendancy during the last several decades we have been experiencing painfully. But Marx also said that the conflict between the ‘thesis’ and the ‘anti-thesis’ represents a dialectical transformation in society generating a synthesis. Could it be that the enthusiasm created by ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’ represents the evolution of synthesis from the present state of materialism, corruption and violence?

Gandhi was as much a politician as he was a humanist. He clearly understood that to gain independence from the mighty British, Indians would have to deploy weapons of truth, non-cooperation and non-violence. If only ten percent of our politicians had even ten percent of his political acumen and wisdom, we would not be the sick and corrupt nation that we now are, the recent economic growth notwithstanding. Our politicians, barring a handful of exceptions, have turned Gandhi’s political philosophy on its head. They have conveniently forgotten its central concept that the aim of politics is the advancement of society and the country. The field of Indian politics now is the sole domain of the rich, corrupt and powerful. It is a space where the simple and honest fear to tread.

The absence of Gandhi from our lives in the recent past contrasts sharply with the situation in Japan where the lives of ordinary Japanese represent more than in India the embodiment of Gandhi’s ideals of simplicity, humility and frugality. This is not to say that the Japanese live completely by Gandhi’s ideals but most of them are simple, humble, polite, decent, disciplined, peace-loving, and live in harmony with their neighbours, surroundings or environment. Is it not great if you are strong but never bully, intelligent and accomplished but never brag about it, have lot of money but never make a vulgar display of it? If this is how you live, it is the strongest fashion statement you can make.

To be fashionable is to be different. The young are more prone to make a fashion statement than the old. Fortunately for us, we are a young country with two-thirds of our population below the age of 30. If this group wants to be different, they now have the opportunity. They can show that they are different by embracing Gandhi’s philosophy of humanism and politics, and by rejecting materialism, consumer culture, violence, and the divisive politics of our professional politicians.