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Mohandas Gandhi
1869 - 1948

 

 

His philosophy of nonviolence and his passion for independence began a drive for freedom that doomed colonialism
By SALMAN RUSHDIE for Time Magazine
 

 

A thin Indian man with not much hair sits alone on a bare floor, wearing nothing but a loincloth and a pair of cheap spectacles, studying the clutch of handwritten notes in his hand. The black-and-white photograph takes up a full page in the newspaper. In the top left-hand corner of the page, in full color, is a small rainbow-striped apple. Below this, there's a slangily American injunction to "Think Different." Such is the present-day power of international Big Business. Even the greatest of the dead may summarily be drafted into its image ad campaigns. Once, a half-century ago, this bony man shaped a nation's struggle for freedom. But that, as they say, is history. Now Gandhi is modeling for Apple. His thoughts don't really count in this new incarnation. What counts is that he is considered to be "on message," in line with the corporate philosophy of Apple.

The advertisement is odd enough to be worth dissecting a little. Obviously it is rich in unintentional comedy. M.K. Gandhi, as the photograph itself demonstrates, was a passionate opponent of modernity and technology, preferring the pencil to the typewriter, the loincloth to the business suit, the plowed field to the belching manufactory. Had the word processor been invented in his lifetime, he would almost certainly have found it abhorrent. The very term word processor, with its overly technological ring, is unlikely to have found favor.

"Think Different." Gandhi, in his younger days a sophisticated and Westernized lawyer, did indeed change his thinking more radically than most people do. Ghanshyam Das Birla, one of the merchant princes who backed him, once said, "He was more modern than I. But he made a conscious decision to go back to the Middle Ages." This is not, presumably, the revolutionary new direction in thought that the good folks at Apple are seeking to encourage.

Gandhi today is up for grabs. He has become abstract, ahistorical, postmodern, no longer a man in and of his time but a freeloading concept, a part of the available stock of cultural symbols, an image that can be borrowed, used, distorted, reinvented to fit many different purposes, and to the devil with historicity or truth. Richard Attenborough's much-Oscared movie Gandhi struck me, when it was first released, as an example of this type of unhistorical Western saintmaking. Here was Gandhi-as-guru, purveying that fashionable product, the Wisdom of the East; and Gandhi-as-Christ, dying (and, before that, frequently going on hunger strike) so that others might live. His philosophy of nonviolence seemed to work by embarrassing the British into leaving; freedom could be won, the film appeared to suggest, by being more moral than your oppressor, whose moral code could then oblige him to withdraw.

But such is the efficacy of this symbolic Gandhi that the film, for all its simplifications and Hollywoodizations, had a powerful and positive effect on many contemporary freedom struggles. South African antiapartheid campaigners and democratic voices all over South America have enthused to me about the film's galvanizing effects. This posthumous, exalted "international Gandhi" has apparently become a totem of real inspirational force.

The trouble with the idealized Gandhi is that he's so darned dull, little more than a dispenser of homilies and nostrums ("An eye for an eye will make the whole world go blind") with just the odd flash of wit (asked what he thought of Western civilization, he gave the celebrated reply, "I think it would be a great idea"). The real man, if it is still possible to use such a term after the generations of hagiography and reinvention, was infinitely more interesting, one of the most complex and contradictory personalities of the century. His full name, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was memorably — and literally — translated into English by the novelist G.V. Desani as "Action-Slave Fascination-Moon Grocer," and he was as rich and devious a figure as that glorious name suggests.

Entirely unafraid of the British, he was nevertheless afraid of the dark, and always slept with a light burning by his bedside. He believed passionately in the unity of all the peoples of India, yet his failure to keep the Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah within the Indian National Congress's fold led to the partition of the country. (For all his vaunted selflessness and modesty, he made no move to object when Jinnah was attacked during a Congress session for calling him "Mr. Gandhi" instead of "Mahatma," and booed off the stage by Gandhi's supporters. Later, his withdrawal, under pressure from Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, of a last-ditch offer to Jinnah of the prime ministership itself, ended the last faint chance of avoiding partition.)

He was determined to live his life as an ascetic, but, as the poet Sarojini Naidu joked, it cost the nation a fortune to keep Gandhi living in poverty. His entire philosophy privileged the village way over that of the city, yet he was always financially dependent on the support of industrial billionaires like Birla. His hunger strikes could stop riots and massacres, but he also once went on a hunger strike to force one of his capitalist patrons' employees to break their strike against the harsh conditions of employment. He sought to improve the conditions of the untouchables, yet in today's India, these peoples, now calling themselves Dalits and forming an increasingly well-organized and effective political grouping, have rallied around the memory of their own leader, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an old rival of Gandhi's. As Ambedkar's star has risen among the Dalits, so Gandhi's stature has been reduced. The creator of the political philosophies of passive resistance and constructive nonviolence, he spent much of his life far from the political arena, refining his more eccentric theories of vegetarianism, bowel movements and the beneficial properties of human excrement.

Forever scarred by the knowledge that, as a 16-year-old youth, he'd been making love to his wife Kasturba at the moment of his father's death, Gandhi later forswore sexual relations but went on into his old age with what he called his "brahmacharya experiments," during which naked young women would be asked to lie with him all night so that he could prove that he had mastered his physical urges. (He believed that total control over his "vital fluids" would enhance his spiritual powers.)

He, and he alone, was responsible for the transformation of the demand for independence into a nationwide mass movement that mobilized every class of society against the imperialist, yet the free India that came into being, divided and committed to a program of modernization and industrialization, was not the India of his dreams. His sometime disciple, Nehru, was the archproponent of modernization, and it was Nehru's vision, not Gandhi's, that was eventually-- and perhaps inevitably — preferred.

Gandhi began by believing that the politics of passive resistance and nonviolence should be effective in any situation, at any time, even against a force as malign as Nazi Germany. Later, he was obliged to revise his opinion, and concluded that while the British had responded to such techniques because of their own nature, other oppressors might not.

Gandhian nonviolence is widely believed to be the method by which India gained independence. (The view is assiduously fostered inside India as well as outside it.) Yet the Indian revolution did indeed become violent, and this violence so disappointed Gandhi that he stayed away from the independence celebrations in protest. Moreover, the ruinous economic impact of World War II on Britain, and — as British writer Patrick French says in his book Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division — the gradual collapse of the Raj's bureaucratic hold over India from the mid-'30s onward did as much to bring about freedom as any action of Gandhi's. It is probable, in fact, that Gandhian techniques were not the key determinants of India's arrival at freedom. They gave independence its outward character and were its apparent cause, but darker and deeper historical forces produced the desired effect.

These days, few people pause to consider the complex character of Gandhi's personality, the ambiguous nature of his achievement and legacy, or even the real causes of Indian independence. These are hurried, sloganizing times, and we don't have the time or, worse, the inclination to assimilate many-sided truths. The harshest truth of all is that Gandhi is increasingly irrelevant in the country whose "little father" — Bapu — he was. As the analyst Sunil Khilnani has pointed out, India came into being as a secularized state, but Gandhi's vision was essentially religious. However, he "recoiled" from Hindu nationalism. His solution was to forge an Indian identity out of the shared body of ancient narratives. "He turned to the legends and stories from India's popular religious traditions, preferring their lessons to the supposed ones of history."

It didn't work. In today's India, Hindu nationalism is rampant in the form of Bharatiya Janata Party. During the recent elections, Gandhi and his ideas have scarcely been mentioned. Twenty-one years ago, the writer Ved Mehta spoke to one of Gandhi's leading political associates, a former Governor-General of independent India, C. Rajagopalachari. His verdict on Gandhi's legacy is disenchanted, but in today's India, on the fast track to free-market capitalism, it still rings true: "The glamour of modern technology, money and power is so seductive that no one — I mean no one — can resist it. The handful of Gandhians who still believe in his philosophy of a simple life in a simple society are mostly cranks."

What, then, is greatness? In what does it reside? If a man's project fails, or survives only in irredeemably tarnished form, can the force of his example still merit the extreme accolade? For Jawaharlal Nehru, the defining image of Gandhi was "as I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dandi on the Salt March in 1930. Here was the pilgrim on his quest of Truth, quiet, peaceful, determined and fearless, who would continue that quest and pilgrimage, regardless of consequences." Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi later said, "More than his words, his life was his message." These days, that message is better heeded outside India. Albert Einstein was one of many to praise Gandhi's achievement; Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama and all the world's peace movements have followed in his footsteps. Gandhi, who gave up cosmopolitanism to gain a country, has become, in his strange afterlife, a citizen of the world: his spirit may yet prove resilient, smart, tough, sneaky and, yes, ethical enough to avoid assimilation by global McCulture (and Mac culture too). Against this new empire, Gandhian intelligence is a better weapon than Gandhian piety. And passive resistance? We'll see.
 


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Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was an Indian revolutionary religious leader who used his religious power for political and social reform. Although he held no governmental office, he was the prime mover in the struggle for independence of the world's second-largest nation.

Mohandas Gandhi was born on Oct. 2, 1869, in Porbandar, a seacoast town in the Kathiawar Peninsula north of Bombay. His wealthy family was of a Modh Bania subcaste of the Vaisya, or merchant, caste. He was the fourth child of Karamchand Gandhi, prime minister to the raja of three small city-states. Gandhi described his mother as a deeply religious woman who attended temple service daily. Mohandas was a small, quiet boy who disliked sports and was only an average student. At the age of 13 he was married without foreknowledge of the event to a girl of his own age, Kasturbai. The childhood ambition of Mohandas was to study medicine, but as this was considered defiling to his caste, his father prevailed on him to study law instead.

Gandhi went to England to study in September 1888. Before leaving India, he promised his mother he would abstain from eating meat, and he became a more zealous vegetarian abroad than he had been at home. In England he studied law but never became completely adjusted to the English way of life. He was called to the bar on June 10, 1891, and sailed for Bombay. He attempted unsuccessfully to practice law in Rajkot and Bombay, then for a brief period served as lawyer for the prince of Porbandar.


South Africa: The Beginning

In 1893 Gandhi accepted an offer from a firm of Moslems to represent them legally in Pretoria, capital of Transvaal in the Union of South Africa. While traveling in a first-class train compartment in Natal, Gandhi was asked by a white man to leave. He got off the train and spent the night in a train station meditating. He decided then to work to eradicate race prejudice. This cause kept him in South Africa not a year as he had anticipated but until 1914. Shortly after the train incident he called his first meeting of Indians in Pretoria and attacked racial discrimination by whites. This launched his campaign for improved legal status for Indians in South Africa, who at that time suffered the same discrimination as blacks.

In 1896 Gandhi returned to India to take his wife and sons to Africa. While in India he informed his countrymen of the plight of Indians in Africa. News of his speeches filtered back to Africa, and when Gandhi reached South Africa, an angry mob stoned and attempted to lynch him.


Spiritual Development

Gandhi began to do menial chores for unpaid boarders of the exterior castes and to encourage his wife to do the same. He decided to buy a farm in Natal and return to a simpler way of life. He began to fast. In 1906 he became celibate after having fathered four sons, and he extolled Brahmacharya (vow of celibacy) as a means of birth control and spiritual purity. He also began to live a life of voluntary poverty.

During this period Gandhi developed the concept of Satyagraha, or soul force. Gandhi wrote: "Satyagraha is not predominantly civil disobedience, but a quiet and irresistible pursuit of truth." Truth was throughout his life Gandhi's chief concern, as reflected in the subtitle of his Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Truth for Gandhi was not an abstract absolute but a principle which had to be discovered experimentally in each situation. Gandhi also developed a basic concern for the means used to achieve a goal, for he felt the means necessarily shaped the ends.

In 1907 Gandhi urged all Indians in South Africa to defy a law requiring registration and fingerprinting of all Indians. For this activity Gandhi was imprisoned for 2 months but released when he agreed to voluntary registration. During Gandhi's second stay in jail he read Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience," which left a deep impression on him. He was influenced also by his correspondence with Leo Tolstoy in 1909-1910 and by John Ruskin's Unto This Last.

Gandhi decided to create a cooperative commonwealth for civil resisters. He called it the Tolstoy Farm. By this time Gandhi had abandoned Western dress for Indian garb. Two of his final legal achievements in Africa were a law declaring Indian marriages (rather than only Christian) valid, and abolition of a tax on former indentured Indian labor. Gandhi regarded his work in South Africa as completed.

By the time Gandhi returned to India, in January 1915, he had become known as "Mahatmaji," or Mahatma. Some believe this title, often translated as "great soul," was given him by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. Others believe the prominent Indian activist Nautamlal Bhagvanji Mehta first gave him this honorific title. Gandhi knew how to reach the masses and insisted on their resistance and spiritual regeneration. He spoke of a new, free Indian individual. He told Indians that India's shackles were self-made. In 1914 Gandhi raised an ambulance corps of Indian students to help the British army, as he had done during the Boer War.


Disobedience and Return to Old Values

The repressive Rowlatt Acts of 1919 caused Gandhi to call a general hartal, or strike, throughout the country, but he called it off when violence occurred against Englishmen. Following the Amritsar Massacre of some 400 Indians, Gandhi responded with noncooperation with British courts, stores, and schools. The government followed with the announcement of the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms.

Another issue for Gandhi was man versus machine. This was the principle behind the Khadi movement, behind Gandhi's urging that Indians spin their own clothing rather than buy British goods. Spinning would create employment during the many annual idle months for millions of Indian peasants. He cherished the ideal of economic independence for the village. He identified industrialization with materialism and felt it was a dehumanizing menace to man's growth. The individual, not economic productivity, was the central concern. Gandhi never lost his faith in the inherent goodness of human nature.

In 1921 the Congress party, a coalition of various nationalist groups, again voted for a nonviolent disobedience campaign. Gandhi had come "reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and economically." But freedom for India was not simply a political matter, for "the instant India is purified India becomes free, and not a moment earlier." In 1922 Gandhi was tried and sentenced to 6 years in prison, but he was released 2 years later for an emergency appendectomy. This was the last time the British government tried Gandhi.


Fasting and the Protest March

Another technique Gandhi used increasingly was the fast. He firmly believed that Hindu-Moslem unity was natural and undertook a 21-day fast to bring the two communities together. He also fasted in a strike of mill workers in Ahmedabad.

Gandhi also developed the protest march. A British law taxed all salt used by Indians, a severe hardship on the peasant. In 1930 Gandhi began a famous 24-day "salt march" to the sea. Several thousand marchers walked 241 miles to the coast, where Gandhi picked up a handful of salt in defiance of the government. This signaled a nationwide movement in which peasants produced salt illegally and Congress volunteers sold contraband salt in the cities. Nationalists gained faith that they could shrug off foreign rule. The march also made the British more aware that they were subjugating India.

Gandhi was not opposed to compromise. In 1931 he negotiated with the viceroy, Lord Irwin, a pact whereby civil disobedience was to be canceled, prisoners released, salt manufacture permitted on the coast, and Congress would attend the Second Round Table Conference in London. Gandhi attended as the only Congress representative, but Churchill refused to see him, referring to Gandhi as a "half-naked fakir."

Another cause Gandhi espoused was improving the status of "untouchables," members of the exterior castes. Gandhi called them Harijans, or children of God. On Sept. 20, 1932, Gandhi began a fast to the death for the Harijans, opposing a British plan for a separate electorate for them. In this action Gandhi confronted Harijan leader Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who favored separate electorates as a political guarantee of improved status. As a result of Gandhi's fast, some temples were opened to exterior castes for the first time in history. Following the marriage of one of Gandhi's sons to a woman of another caste, Gandhi came to approve only intercaste marriages.

Gandhi devoted the years 1934 through 1939 to promotion of spinning, basic education, and Hindi as the national language. During these years Gandhi worked closely with Jawaharlal Nehru in the Congress Working Committee, but there were also differences between the two. Nehru and others came to view the Mahatma's ideas on economics as anachronistic. Nevertheless, Gandhi designated Nehru his successor, saying, "I know this, that when I am gone he will speak my language."

England's entry into World War II brought India in without consultation. Because Britain had made no political concessions satisfactory to nationalist leaders, Gandhi in August 1942 proposed noncooperation, and Congress passed the "Quit India" resolution. Gandhi, Nehru, and other Congress leaders were imprisoned, touching off violence throughout India. When the British attempted to place the blame on Gandhi, he fasted 3 weeks in jail. He contracted malaria in prison and was released on May 6, 1944. He had spent a total of nearly 6 years in jail.

When Gandhi emerged from prison, he sought to avert creation of a separate Moslem state of Pakistan which Muhammad Ali Jinnah was demanding. A British Cabinet mission to India in March 1946 advised against partition and proposed instead a united India with a federal parliament. In August, Viceroy Wavell authorized Nehru to form a Cabinet. Gandhi suggested that Jinnah be offered the post of prime minister or defense minister. Jinnah refused and instead declared August 16 "Direct Action Day." On that day and several days following, communal killings left 5,000 dead and 15,000 wounded in Calcutta alone. Violence spread through the country.

Aggrieved, Gandhi went to Bengal, saying, "I am not going to leave Bengal until the last embers of trouble are stamped out," but while he was in Calcutta 4,500 more were killed in Bihar. Gandhi, now 77, warned that he would fast to death unless Biharis reformed. He went to Noakhali, a heavily Moslem city in Bengal, where he said "Do or die" would be put to the test. Either Hindus and Moslems would learn to live together or he would die in the attempt. The situation there calmed, but rioting continued elsewhere.


Drive for Independence

In March 1947 the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, arrived in India charged with taking Britain out of India by June 1948. The Congress party by this time had agreed to partition, since the only alternative appeared to be continuation of British rule.

Gandhi, despairing because his nation was not responding to his plea for peace and brotherhood, refused to participate in the independence celebrations on Aug. 15, 1947. On Sept. 1, 1947, after an angry Hindu mob broke into the home where he was staying in Calcutta, Gandhi began to fast, "to end only if and when sanity returns to Calcutta." Both Hindu and Moslem leaders promised that there would be no more killings, and Gandhi ended his fast.

On Jan. 13, 1948, Gandhi began his last fast in Delhi, praying for Indian unity. On January 30, as he was attending prayers, he was shot and killed by Nathuram Godse, a 35-year old editor of a Hindu Mahasabha extremist weekly in Poona.

 

 

 

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