Exploring his idea on Power, Plurality and Sustainability
The political backdrop against which Gandhi evolved his character is what gets talked about constantly. The progressive mutation of a human spirit that took place in leaps and bounds is completely disregarded. In his 150th birth year, there is a systematic deconstruction of his image being mobilized. Fractional incidents and facts without proper context setting are blown out of proportion, and every misery of the country is credited to Gandhi.
But it does not matter! It will never matter!
For, Gandhi belongs to the future. A future in which his philosophies will not be limited to academic discussions or bigot debates. Instead, a future where his ideologies are the natural way of life. The essence of what he finally evolved into is what coming generations will relate to more intuitively.
In this essay, I deliberately try and keep away from quoting actual incidents. I try to focus on just the essence of Gandhi’s visionary belief system. His amalgamation of the three concepts – Power, Plurality and Sustainability along with the rational of Truth, were revolutionary in his day and age. It’s this facet that makes Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi into Mahatma Gandhi.
Power: Gandhi is known for his two big political movements in South Africa and India. Fundamentally, the fight was against the authorities who abused power. He knew that if his side were to win the case, disruption was the key. Hence, he looked more inwards into how an individual operates and then scale up that understanding. His “Experiments of Truth” in that sense was on the exploration of the primal concept of power.
The complexity of power lies in the fact that every victim also has a predator instinct. His endeavor was thus quite simple – to ensure that while displacing the predator, the victim himself does not become another predator. The relationship of the victim and predator has always been brutal and bloody with violence. Hence, Gandhi repeatedly knocks on the conscience of the victims to not irrationally react but to strategically respond. Thus, his non-violence movement was born. Passive-aggressive is a tool that he may not have invented. But he showed the world its true potential and the scale it can achieve when used with the right intent.
His other counter intuitive approach was on harnessing more energy by decentralizing power. Till his entry into the Indian freedom movement, there were different groups who organized themselves under different mottos to seek only freedom. But Gandhi truly made this a mass movement by uniting the common citizens, across different socio-economic strata. Authorities can punish one person, jail a few hundreds, deconstruct an organization. But when every voice that is affected by injustice rises, how can any authority, however powerful, curb that uprising? Hence, by making the common citizens the heart of his revolutions, he devised another tool of mass civil disobedience.
The insecurities that come with power, does not allow one to empower. But Gandhi was wise and knew better. He identified the temperaments of his comrades and harnessed them into leaders. For all the criticism that is thrown at him today, the fact remains that the world watched how India would survive freedom.
A nation divided on the basis of religion in its inception, had to also deal with the egos of princely states and human dignity of people on the lowest rung of caste hierarchy. Other issues of gender equality, citizen rights, economic stability, building national securities and forces, preparing a conducive soil for science and arts to thrive, mobilizing reforms etc. were huge, herculean tasks for a country that was so vast and diverse. Gandhi’s visionary skills lie in how he parallelly prepared leaders of varied thoughts and skills and enabled them to work together as the fight for Indian political independence was still underway. The strong foundation laid by the makers of Indian Democracy is what will see us through the storm we are in. If Gandhi had lacked this wisdom of working four steps ahead for the preparation of a free India, nothing would have been reduced from his persona and he would still be called Mahatma. Just like Ashoka, Alexander and Akbar still are referred to as “The Great”, while after their death their clans suffered as the successors lacked even a fraction of the administrative and leadership skills that these mavericks had.
It is also this exploration on power that led Gandhi into some of his more personal soul-searching quests. He put the body under test, to see how physical urges can be controlled. Choosing fasts as the main means of strike along with his other experiments of dietary which went well beyond vegetarianism. And then the much-debated experiments and conversations related to sex.
Plurality: To understand the true meaning of one thing, one must have experienced another thing with the same depth. And this truly sets Gandhi apart from the larger masses at the time. If he dined with the King, he also shared broth with a peasant at his house.
As Gandhi was anchored by some insignias that he inherited like his sex, nationality, religion, caste, language and education, he was never limited by them, nor thought them to be superior to any other. The fact that he spent a significant time of his formative adult life outside India, allowed him to have a better understanding of these “Indian sentiments” juxtaposed on the western world view.
From a personal front, his relationship with his wife Kasturba evolved from her being a dominated wife to becoming an integral part of the Indian Freedom movement. This understanding was broadened as Gandhi made women an equal part of all conversations. Long before India could boast about having a female Prime Minister, Gandhi sowed the seeds by making Sarojini Naidu one of the presidents of Indian National Congress. Another clear mandate by him was on the electoral and democratic rights that women have from day one of free India. Little is spoken about what Gandhi did for gender equality.
A staunch Hindu, he kept looking into its religious teachings to draw out new meaning and new strength. Hinduism was almost like a north star for him, guiding him through the many explorations. He truly accepted the religion he was born into, and in that acceptance, he was able to look at the vast inequalities of social order it had created over centuries. In his objective of decentralizing power, he was not just fighting the British but also the many high caste Hindus. He invested significant years, at times completely cutting himself off the freedom movement in order to get access to temples and wells to the Dalits. What Ambedkar did, he did as someone from within the community. He had suffered. But what Gandhi did, he did as someone from outside the community sitting quite high in the caste ladder.
On accepting other faiths to be as true as his own faith was probably one of the earliest beliefs he had. His friendships with people of diverse religions enabled him to explore those religious teachings and truly appreciate them. If one has the hunger to know, one would find out how he really tried to unite the Hindus and Muslims together under a single political objective Yet, Jinnah’s single-minded obsession and opportunistic tactics outweighed Gandhi’s multi-dimensional approach. Also, with no other Hindu leader showing even half the conviction towards resolving the growing animosity between these two religions, did not help the cause. Conveniently enough today, we blame Gandhi for allowing the nation of Pakistan to be created. Not for once even trying to assess the complexity that the long history between the two religions, much before Gandhi came into the picture existed.
Gandhi undoubtedly is one of the most skillful communicators of the times he lived in. Not because of his power of speaking but more so because of his power of listening. Listening, open mindedly to different, diverse opinions and points of views. The linguistic differences did not limit Gandhi from procreating his ideas. He was focused on spreading the message. Not a language.
He had a strong weapon of Satyagraha that he had successfully tested in South Africa. But he was in no hurry to use it. He spent significant time travelling the length and breadth of the country to understand the true scenario and not rely on relayed reports. His ability to engage in conversations with individuals whose ideologies were poles apart and willing to meet them halfway through, also shows his firm rootedness as he spreads his branches far and wide. He always kept the objective at the center of the conversation and not personal prejudices. Hence, when he even argued with the many Viceroys, it was hard for them to bog him down, as Gandhi was empathetic to the British sensibilities too.
The unification of the nation while maintaining the diversity and distinct nuances was only possible by the pluralistic character of Gandhi.
Sustainability: One of the other consistencies of Gandhi was that the “means” was far greater than the “end” to him. The “why” and “how” of what one did had a larger importance. Thus, leading him to the belief that if we did not have a sustainable way of life across all aspects, then we were headed towards doomsday. How prophetic!
Having travelled across the country and sharing the most frugal homes, he strongly felt the plight of the farmers. Agriculture being the dominant livelihood of the larger masses in rural areas and its full dependence on monsoon, Gandhi really pushed hard for the community to start developing a parallel skill set. He wanted them to de-risk their livelihood by having alternate careers in Indian artifacts and textiles like khadi. Him spinning the wheel everyday was a practical demonstration on this sustainable economic model.
Of course, a single farmer spinning khadi and not having a market to sell it was not going to help. Hence his idea of a free India really started with villages in focus. Having cooperative societies and empowering these larger masses sat in the center of a new India. Having seen the degenerating effect that linear hierarchy of caste system had on India, he was able to envision that if economic development was also to become linear it would be fatal to the nation. Then freedom would not really mean anything.
His other constant warning was on how India should approach industrialization. Having lived his adult life in a first world country, he had a first-hand experience on the boon and much bane that industrialization promised. His opposition to mass industrialization was on two accounts – first it displaces the need of manpower, replacing livelihood of men with machines. Second, he also did predict that unchecked adoption of the western economic world will have irrevocable impact on nature. Can anyone from today debate with Gandhi from some 70 odd years back on this subject?
His idea of sustainability rounds back to his idea of decentralizing power. Even before the word circular economy was coined, he championed it by providing a ready blueprint. He spoke not just about harmony between different castes and religions but also between man and nature, need and greed. But 70-80 years back, none were able to understand the gravitas of what he spoke. For one of the world’s most densely populated countries, the western economic model seemed the only vehicle of growth. And here we are!
I say Gandhi belongs to the future, as his ideas on power, plurality and sustainability are interwoven in the recent generations and the ones that are coming up. These generations do not shallowly revere Gandhi’s philosophy, but his way of thinking is their natural way and they appreciate and relate to it.
We entered the 21st century fueled by the internet revolution. We did so only because founders of these new economic growth vehicles made internet accessible to masses by making it FREE. This democratized technology and most importantly access to knowledge and information. From the advent of the IT revolution, one also sees the breakage of family run establishments. These new breed organizations have a clear succession plan based on merit and not bloodline.
In a more recent occurrence, the ongoing Honk Kong protests are so astonishing. The way they organize themselves in millions against the brute force of China does not work out in theory, but they are making it happen. The beauty of the HK demonstration is that there is no single individual who stands out as a leader. It really is a collective consciences and movement. The resilience that the citizens have maintained over these many months now, is a thing of admiration, motivation and hope.
And how could one not mention Greta Thunberg. She truly holds example to the cliché that age is just a number. What she is mobilizing as a global mass movement with #FridaysForStrike and #ClimateAction is disruptive and fully gestated with positive impact. How many details of Gandhi would she know? But the fact that she realizes a need for purposeful action makes her a modern maverick of revolution.
As the world leaders are curbing their severe temptations of nuclear warfare, as climate change is spelling a nearing doomsday, there is hope. Hope in a new generation that has had enough. A generation that is mobilizing change in their own eco systems. A generation that is talking to each other about solutions and not redundant ideas of ethnicities. A forward-looking generation that is not trying to dig history to find reason for today, but a reality for tomorrow.
Gandhi would be one with this coming generation. He would not stand out.
He was a future citizen.
A future common man!