October the second, 1869. A red-letter day in the annals of our great country. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born to Karamchand Gandhi, the diwan (Prime Minister) of the princely state of Porbandar and Putlibai, his fourth wife (the previous three having died in childbirth). Over the course of the next 78 years, this man changed the course of history, not just of our country, but many others in the world. His mark on history is so indelible, that even today, more than 60 years after his death, his strong influence on the hearts and minds of men remains. The 'leader of the free world', Barack Obama hung his picture in his Senate office, before he became President. Nations as diverse as South Africa and the Phillipines owe their freedom from apartheid and dictatorship to the principles he espoused. Movers of men's hearts as different as Dr. Martin Luther King and John Lennon have acknowledged his influence in their lives. Even a Bollywood blockbuster sang a paean to him, making Gandhigiri the rallying cry for a new generation of protesters.
And yet, though we celebrate his birthday as one of the 3 National Holidays of India (the other 2 being Independence Day and Republic Day), his legacy among intellectuals in our country is still being debated. I will never forget the first time I realised that for some, Gandhi is not a hero. It was during a college debate where I quoted Gandhi and called him an example for us to follow. During the time for questions, I was bombarded with a series of criticisms about my choice of an example, with insinuations regarding his policies, teachings and personal life. And since then, through many other instances and conversations, I have come to understand the variety of perceptions of Gandhi and his life. Some people (I would hope, the majority) regard him as Bapu and Mahatma, the Father of the Nation. But for some, he was misguided, others call him dogmatic, and still other consider him a fraud. So on the anniversary of his birth, rather than add to the volumes of writing on his life and achievements, I thought I would consider what may have been the situation had he never been born. Would this land and the earth have been a different place and would that place have been better or worse than the one we live in. So, had he never lived, here are three questions for all the Gandhi-baiters and haters to chew on. There are more, but they will have to wait for another post as I will already be overshooting the strict length guidelines for blogs!! And being more aware of reality than when I was in college, I know there will be differences of opinion and I look forward to hearing some of them...
WOULD THERE BE A DEMOCRATIC, UNITED INDIA: For me, the years of British reign in India are too far gone to be realistically related to. My only first-hand accounts of them were from my maternal grandmother, who was one of the masses on the streets during the Quit India movement, when she was doing her medical studies in Delhi. But even for her, it was over all too quickly and hence, like most of my generation, the years of struggle can only be imagined from history books and biographies. And while there were many valuable inputs that the British made to our country, I do not agree with the growing number of people who seem to think it was the best thing that happened in our history!! But what I do know is that had it not been for the British, who united our whole country under one flag, there would probably still be a huge number of princely states occupying our country's land mass (by my count from the limited resources available, around 194!!), each vying with the other for territory and importance.
So where does Gandhi come in? The British were quite content (and successful) with their policy of divide and rule. And they were more than happy with the puppet rulers of the various princely states. These men, with some notable exceptions, were largely interested in furthering their own interests (and coffers), for the most part, at the expense of their subjects. The British dealt solely with the rulers and their (usually corrupt) ministers. Whenever there was a popular uprising, the ruler, with the help of British troops would quickly suppress it. In fact, during the First War of Indian Independence in 1857 (which I hope nobody still crudely calls the Sepoy Mutiny), many of these rulers helped the British to put down the uprising in their territories and betrayed other rulers who were leading the revolution, two of the main reasons for its failure. Now, it is possible that with modernisation and the changing public sentiment in Britain with regard to its foreign territories after World War II, the British would have decided to leave India on their own. But had it not been for the unifying voice of Gandhi, they would have surely left it in the hands of the (mostly) corrupt and inefficient princes, nawabs, nizams and rajas. And with it, would have died the dream of a united India. At the most, we would have been a commonwealth of independent nations, with little commonality except land borders.
The Indian ruler and leader has always tended to be corrupt and self-serving (for further clarification on this point, please contact one Mr. Suresh Kalmadi!!). It was Gandhi who brought all these conflicting forces together under one banner. And even he was unable to bring Mr. Mohammed Ali Jinnah into the fold, which was his biggest failure to his and our undying sorrow. When he removed himself from politics in the 1920s to concentrate on social justice and development (as well as spend time in jail!), the very party that was leading the cry for a united India splintered into two groups, one under Motilal Nehru and the other under Sardar Patel. It was also during this period that the Hindu-Muslim relationship worsened to the point of no return. Only when he reappeared on the political horizon did the two sides of the Congress party unite again, putting aside their differences. Of course, that did not happen with the Hindus and Muslims thanks to Jinnah and his vision of a separate state for Muslims. So my assumption is that without the stabilising and self-sacrificing influence of Gandhi, it is likely that our other political leaders, who were all of lesser stature and often carried vested interests, would have never managed to pull together for the common good. This would have played into the hands of the kings, who might even have asked the British to remain, ostensibly to prevent anarchy, but in reality, to protect their shaky positions. It was only the strong voice of Gandhi speaking with his hand on the pulse of the Indian people that gave us this great country as we enjoy it today.
WHAT WOULD BE OUR SOCIAL MILIEU: The greatness of Gandhi as a political leader, was that he was one of the few who understood that politics is actually about people and their needs and aspirations. He was ready to identify with the people he led to the utmost degree. His choice of lifestyle while extreme, made complete sense to the majority of Indians of the day, who actually lived like him. His readiness to identify with the Indian people, not just at a meeting or a rally, but in his everyday life gave him an authenticity akin to few other political leaders of that age or this one. And by this identification, he brought about a sea-change in the value system of an entire nation. Till he reached out to the untouchables and called them Harijans or children of God, the rest of society, while sometimes sympathising with their plight refused to acknowledge their existence as useful and important members of society. While leaders like B.R.Ambedkar attempted to bring the issues of dalits and untouchables to the forefront, there was always a bias as they were part of the community. It was the total identification of a caste Hindu like Gandhi with the Harijans that actually encouraged the other political leaders (who were mostly from the upper castes), to take the issue seriously. Thus today, while discrimination does exist in some places at a subliminal level, we have many legislations and reservations in place that have gone a long way towards integrating our society. Had it not been for Gandhi, this government sponsored policy of upliftment may have never become a reality and the militant section of the dalit community would have pursued an agenda that would have been, in the long run, detrimental to all.
AND WHAT ABOUT AHIMSA: For me, this was Gandhiji's greatest gift to the world. Till he came, the idea of non-violent protest was alien to the understanding of politics and revolution. The greater military force or the better organised one was always the victor in any conflict. While the principles of non-violence were part of many major Indian and Western religions, Gandhiji was the first one to apply them on such a huge scale. The picture of ahimsa that he painted on the canvas of the Indian freedom struggle revolutionised the approach to political and social protest and left a far-reaching impression on many world leaders and their politics. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, 'Christ gave us the goals, Gandhi gave us the tactics.' The philosophies of leaders like Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Benigno Aquino and many others were moulded by the influence of Gandhi. And with the popularity of the Bollywood blockbuster Lage Raho Munnabai, Gandhigiri (principles of Gandhi) is now a watchword for post-modern social protest and action. Had there been no Gandhi, there may still have been independence. But it would have come at the cost of many Indian martyrs like the beloved and heroic Bhagat Singh. And the proponents of equality, justice and freedom throughout the world would have had no example of non-violence to take courage from in the long hours of dark before the dawn.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was human. He may have had many faults, some of which are known to us. There may be many who question his ideologies and decisions. One of them even killed him. But had it not been for him, this country and the world may have been a very different place than the one we know. We would not have had his example of extreme simplicity, humility and high principles to admire and aspire to. There may have been no one whose life epitomised the values that our religions enshrine. And I may have been a citizen of the princely state of Cochin and Amy, of the state of Travancore! So on his birth anniversary, let us thank God that our country produced one of the world's greatest citizens whose gave his life for the freedom we enjoy. And hope that in some small way, we may be worthy of his heritage.
P.S. This post was supposed to go up on the 2nd, but internet problems caused a postponement. My apologies.