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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 41, October 1, 2011

The Legacy of Mahatma Gandhi

Wednesday 5 October 2011, by P R Dubhashi


Mahatma’s Causes

The Mahatma stood for causes for which he struggled throughout his working life. They were—Freedom, Unity, Equality, Self-Reliance and Decentralisation. They were related to each other. Though these causes were ‘ends’, he was equally concerned with ‘means’ to achieve those ends. The means had to based on the principles of ‘Truth’ and ‘Non-violence’.

Such was the magnetic influence of his personality, his thoughts and actions that he was able to attract the support and cooperation of a galaxy of towering personalities of his time —Rabindranath Tagore, Motilal Nehru and his son Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari, Subhash Chandra Bose and many others from different parts of the country, despite the fact that they differed in many ways from him on various occasions and for various reasons. Equally, he was able to inspire the masses of people in India to participate in his struggles.

Struggle for Freedom, Non-Violent Non-Cooperation

FREEDOM meant first political freedom, emancipation of India from the British colonial rule. His struggle for freedom stemmed from his sense of self-respect and dignity not only of himself but of every individual. This assertion of self-respect began in South Africa where as a young lawyer he was thrown out of the train on a cold platform of Pietermaritzburg station, despite the fact that he had a valid First Class ticket, on the ground that the First Class was reserved only for the Whites. Gandhi would not accept this tyranny and injustice even though Indians in South Africa had meekly succumbed to these since they did not have the courage to oppose the powerful racist government of the White people. But young Gandhi mobilised the Indian people, gave them courage and deter-mination to assert their self-respect, and join his struggle against the racist rule over the next twenty years. He was not able to see the end of the racist rule but a beginning was made which ultimately culminated in the end of ‘apartheid’. Nelson Mandela, who spent a long period of more than twenty years in jail, drew his inspiration from Gandhi who became a Mahatma. Indeed Gandhiji became an inspiration to all the oppressed people of the world. Martin Luther King, the leader of the African-Americans, was also his follower, and carried on his struggle in America for ending racial discrimination there; that culminated in the election of Obama, an Afro-American, as the President of that country.

Gandhiji assumed the leadership of the Congress party after the demise of Lokmanya Tilak; he launched three mass movements—the Non-Cooperation Movement in the twenties, the Civil Disobedience Movement of the thirties, and the ‘Quit India’ Movement of the forties which ultimately culminated in India’s freedom although this was accompanied by the tragic partition of the country.

Lord Meghnad Desai, in his book Rediscovery of India, has criticised Mahatma Gandhi for his agitationist approach, for launching the Non-Cooperation Movement spurning the offer of Morley-Minto Reforms aimed at “progressive realisation of self-government”. He feels that cooperation with the first government led by Ramsey Macdonald of the Labour Party of England would have been to the advantage of the Indian people. Gandhiji and Nehru wanted ‘Sampoorna Swaraj’ which, as declared by Tilak, was ‘the birthright of the Indian people”. A clarion call for Sampoorna Swaraj was given at the Lahore Congress in 1929 by the young President, Jawaharlal Nehru. The Indian people led by the Congress could hardly have accepted limited freedom under the tutelage of the British Government. The ‘Quit India’ Movement became inevitable when Viceroy Linlithgo unilaterally decided that India would join the British Government in its war against Germany without consulting the Indian people. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, contemptuously dismissed India’s claim for freedom saying that the charter of freedom after World War II would not hold food for India. It was US President Franklin Roosevelt who supported India’s right for freedom.

Gandhiji used the techniques of non-cooperation, non-obedience, ‘Satyagraha’ and mass movement to fight the colonial rule. Were these techniques relevant in independent India? Dr B.R. Ambedkar in his address to the Constituent Assembly categorically stated that neither coercion through non-violence nor a violent movement would be alright when the Indian Constitution has provided constitutional means available to every citizen for safeguarding his or her fundamental rights. But despite Dr Ambedkar’s warnings, the legacy of the Gandhian technique of opposing the government by ‘fasting’ continued. Potti Sriramalu carried on fast unto death for the birth of a separate State for the Andhra (Telugu) people. When Sriramalu sacrificed his life, Nehru had to concede the demand leading to the coming into existence of Andhra Pradesh out of the erstwhile Madras province. This started the process of reorgani-sation of States in India on a linguist basis. Recently Anna Hazare successfully used the Gandhian technique of fasting for compelling the government to concede his demand for forming a joint committee of civil society and the govern-ment to formulate a revised Lokpal Bill.

Unity and Communal Harmony

GANDHIJI realised that unity of the Indian people was a precondition for a successful national movement against the powerful British rule. He realised that the religious divide, especially among Hindus and Muslims, and divisions within the the Hindu society on grounds of caste and outcast made the Indian people incapable of a united struggle and a national effort. He, therefore, gave importance to bridging the communal and caste divides. Gandhiji was prepared to go to any length to achieve this. He supported the retrograde Khilafat Movement to get Muslim participation in the freedom movement. He did succeed in this with the support of Muslim leaders like Moulanas Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali but once he suddenly wound up the movement after the Chaurichaura Police Station was burnt, the Muslims deserted the Congress. Another nationalist Muslim leader was Mohammad Ali Jinnah; Sarojini Naidu once called him the symbol of Hindu-Muslim Unity. He was the lawyer of Lokmanya Tilak when the British charged the latter with sedition. But the same Jinnah parted ways with the Congress after the Nagpur session where he was hooted out, blaming Gandhi for introducing religion in politics. The allegations were not incorrect, witness his support to the Khilafat Movement against Jinnah’s advice and his concept of ‘Ramraj’ as the ideal of independent India and all-religion prayers sung at his Prarthana Sabhas in the evening. However, the real reason for Jinnah leaving the Congress was that he was a lawyer who spoke in conferences and did not like mass movements. He ate beef, did not perform Namaz five times a day and had a Parsee wife—hardly an example of a devout Muslim; and yet he had the Muslims desert the Congress to join the Muslim League which was recognised by the British as representative of the Muslim community. Gandhiji claimed that the Congress represented the entire people of India including Muslims. Jinnah made the claim for a separate nation that the Muslims called Pakistan. The last-minute effort of Mahatma Gandhi to persuade Jinnah to give up his demand for partition, by offering him Prime Ministership of united India failed when he (Jinnah) contemptuously spurned the offer. Gandhiji had made a public statement that the vivisection of India would be over his dead body but he could not keep his word and partition did become a reality with the formation of two independent nations.

Behind the coming into existence of Pakistan as an Islamic nation was the pernicious two-nation theory advocated by Jinnah that was accepted by a majority of the Muslim people. The Congress often blamed the British for deliberately creating the divide between Hindus and Muslims. But the fact remains that such a feeling of separate identity did exist amongst the Muslims. Though Muslims and Hindus joined together in the revolt of 1857, the Muslim modernist, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1894), the founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, clearly stated in a speech delivered at Patna: “In India there are two prominent nations which are distinguished by the names of the Hindus and Mussulmans. At the same time as common inhabitants of India, the two should have mutual cooperation, sympathy and love.” On the other hand if we show “mutual disunity, animosity and illwill for each other, we would only destroy ourselves”. However, Jinnah, who become an undisputed leader of the Muslims in the 1940s, took an extreme approach.

Rational Jinnah chose to give a strident expression to Muslim separatism. ‘Hinduism and Islam,’ he told the British, ‘represent two distinct and separate civilisations and are as distant from one another in origin and manner of life as are nations of Europe.’ The concept of a one-Indian nation is a ‘misconception’. The hope that Hindus and Muslims can evolve a ‘common nationality’ is an empty dream. However, a large population of Muslims, almost as many as in Pakistan formed as a separate Muslim nation, continued to live in India as equal citizens of the Indian Republic and Indian nation. Jinnah spurned the approach of the Congress to present a united front of the people of India. He dubbed the Congress as essentially a Hindu party. This approach and mindset inevitably led to the partition of India. Future events like the end of East Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh, the internecine conflicts in Pakistan and rise of Islamic terrorism not only falsified Jinnah’s formulations but brought immense grief to the Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Mahatma Gandhi’s view was that of an advocate of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’. He asserted that millions of Hindus have sought after and striven for such unity. Members of each community vied with each other in accommo-dating members of the sister community. They respected each other’s religious feelings. No trace of suspicion lurked in anybody’s heart.

Even after partition Mahatma Gandhi continued to struggle for Hindi-Muslim unity. While India was celebrating the birth of freedom in the nation’s Capital, the Mahatma was moving barefoot in Noakhali in Bengal dousing the flames of arson and violence let loose by the communal orgy. He wanted India and Pakistan to live in harmony and went on fast for making India give Pakistan its due share of assets, after it was withheld by Nehru and Patel (Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister) on the ground that these resources would be used for military attacks on Kashmir and elsewhere. The Government of India had to succumb to Gandhiji’s insistence but such was the anger of Hindu extremism that Nathuram Godse, who was its embodiment, shot at the Mahatma at a prayer meeting in New Delhi’s Birla House. The Mahatma died for the cause of communal harmony with the name of ‘Shri Ram’ on his lips.

Caste Cleavages in Hindu Society

ANOTHER great hindrance to the unity of India was the existence of castes and sub-castes amongst Hindus arranged in a hierachial order with the outcasts or untouchables denied even basic human dignity and access to drinking water from common wells and lakes. Dr Ambedkar, with his higher education in American and British universities, took the leadership of the untouchables particularly the Mahars—the subcaste to which he belonged. He stridently demanded a separate electorate for the outcasts (Scheduled Castes) at the Round Table Conference convened by the British who, ever ready to ‘divide and rule’, readily conceded the demand. Gandhiji was determined to retain the untouchables whom he called ‘Harijans’ within the Hindu fold. He went on an indefinite fast. After 21 days of fasting, Gandhiji’s health became critical and such was the pressure on Dr Ambedkar that he had to agree to the compromise formula, namely, though there would be no separate electorate for the Scheduled Castes, they would have reserved seats, a practice that went on even after India become a free democratic Republic having its own Constitution. Reservations were to last for 15 years but continued indefinitely through constitutional amendments.

Against this background it will be interesting to understand the outlook of these tall leaders. In his address at the conference on ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Dr Ambedkar made a frontal attack on that institution of ‘Caste’. It is a hierarchy, he said, in which divisions of labourers are graded one above the other. This prevents individuals to take positions on the basis of ‘trained capacities’. In the existing social order of Hindus, they are compelled to stick to the social status of their parents. This results in frustration and unemployment and comes in the way of social efficiency. Caste is a harmful institution inasmuch as it involves the subordination of man’s natural powers and inclination to the exigencies of social rules. Hindu society has become only ‘a collection of castes’. Dr Ambedkar felt that the remedy is not just ‘inter-caste dining’ but ‘inter-caste marriages’ as well. He cited Buddha to vindicate his stand that the authority of the ‘Sastras should be rejected’.

Gandhi took serious note of Dr Ambedkar’s views. But he asserted that ‘caste has nothing to do with religion’. He admitted that caste comes in the way of spiritual and national growth. He was a favour of inter-caste marriages. But he uttered a word of caution: “Old prejudices have to be overcome with patience.”

After the attainment of independence, an interim government was formed. A new Consti-tution had to be framed. Gandhiji prevailed on the Congress to invite Dr Ambedkar to be the Chairman of the Drafting Committee. Dr Ambedkar performed this task with distinction which elicited the admiration of the entire Indian nation. He spoke like ‘a wise democrat’ (the term used by Ramchandra Guha in his Makers of Modern India) when he addressed the Constituent Assembly. He commended the Constitution as placed before the Assembly as workable, flexible and strong enough to hold the country together both in peacetime and wartime.

Policies of Independent India

MAHATMA GANDHI had definite ideas regarding the economic, political and social system in free India. Every citizen and family, every community must feel free and not in anybody’s bondage. This meant maximum decentralisation, not concentration of power in those who run the governments at the Centre and in the States. In his words, “Independence must mean indepen-dence of the people of India and not those who are ruling over them. The rulers of India would have to be servants of the people ready to do their will. Independence must begin at the bottom. Every village must be a Republic or Panchayat having full powers. Every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world. In the structure composed of innumerable village communities, there will be ever widening and never ascending circles. The outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.”

When the Indian Constitution was being framed Gandhiji was not there to guide the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly. He was snatched away by the bullet of an assassin less then six months after the attainment of independence. However, some members did ask for the Gandhian model for our Constitution instead of the Westminster model. But this was not acepted. The Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, Dr Ambedkar, was totally opposed to the concept of village as a self-governing republic. ‘What is the village,’ he said in course of address to the Constituent Assembly, ‘but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism? I am glad that the draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted individual as the unit.’ All that was conceded was a Directive Principle of the Constitution laying down that ‘village panchayats shall be promoted as units of self-government’.

That provided the basis for the establishment of three-tier Panchayat Raj instituons as recommended by the Balwantrai Mehta Committee appointed by the then Ministry of Community Development and enthusiastically supported by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister. He wanted the panchayat, the cooperative and the school to be the basic institu-tions in every village. The three-tier Panchayat Raj institutions, namely, Panchayat at the village level, Panchayat Samiti at the Block level and Zilla Parishad at the District level were established in diferent States of India through Acts possed by their Legislative Assemblies.

Rajiv Gandhi wanted to go further and introduce an amendment to the Constituion to make the Panchayati Raj institutions the third tier of parliamentary democracy. He did not succeed in this but his successor Narasimha Rao succeded in getting the 73rd Amendment passed to provide a constitutional base to the Panchayati Raj institutions.

An articulate advocate of the Gandhian model was Jayaprakash Narayan, one of the ardent followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. In 1959 he published a tract, ‘A plea for restruc-turing of Indian polity’, in which he advocated an alternative political system for India based on the revival of village panchayats and replacement of the top-down model of parlia-mentary democracy by one working from village panchayats upwards—an elaboration of Gandhiji’s idea of ‘oceanic circles’. ‘The foundation of our polity should be self-governing, self-sufficient, urban-rural local communities. The highest political institution of the local community should be the Gram Sabha of which all adults should be members. The selection of the Panchayat should be by general consensus of opinion in the Sabha. The Sabha and Panchayat should see that the village becomes self-sufficient in matters of food and clothing as soon as possible. They should so plan that there was no umemployment in the village and every family reached a minimum level of living. Self-government to be real should be about essential problems of life.’ The Gram Panchayats would be integrated into the Panchayat Samiti. It would be elected by the Gram Panchayats, not by their members. ‘The District Council will be formed by integration of Panchayat Samitis, and District Councils should come together to create the State Assembly. The State Assemblies in a like manner would bring into being the Lok Sabha.’ These should be the underlying principles of our Constitution. All this remained a utopia!

Jawaharlal Nehru, the Chosen Heir

WITH the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of free India. The Mahatma preferred him to his elders—Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a fellow Gujarati, and C. Rajagopalachari, whom he had described as his ‘conscience-keeper’. Ramchandra Guha has succinctly given the reasons why Gandhiji chose Nehru despite profound differences in their outlook—‘Nehru venerated Gandhi’, the older man in turn showered more affection on his disciple than on his four biological sons. The two men differed in temperament and attitudes to modernity. Nehru was indifferent to religion. Gandhi believed deeply in his own version of god (his ‘inner voice’—P.R.D.) Nehru thought that industrlisation was the only solution to endemic poverty. Gandhi called instead for the renewal of the village economy. Nehru believed in mass production in modern factories, Gandhi believed in production by masses engaged in village industries—Charkha being the symbol. Nehru had great faith in the powers of the modern state to uplift and reform society. Gandhi was sceptical of state power, trusting instead in the conscience and will of individuals and communities. Hence his concept of ‘trusteeship’.

Beyond these differences were fundamental similarities. Both were patriots in the most inclusive sense who identified with all of India rather than with a particular caste, language, region and religion. Both abhorred violence and preferred the democratic government to dictatorship. All this and his own independent appeal to the young led Gandhi to anoint Nehru as his political successor. Neither Patel nor Rajaji challenged Gandhiji’s choice. Patel worked as the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister and within a short period till his death in 1950 he made an enduring contribution to India’s unity by integration of all the princely states including Hyderabad but not Kashmir which Nehru kept to himself with tragic consequences. Kashmir remains to this day a festering sore. Many believe that had Nehru left Kashmir to be dealt with by Patel like all other princely states, the result would have been different.

Rajaji had great affection for Nehru though he become an inveterate critic of Nehru’s economic policy and founded a new party – the Swatantra Party, which opposed Nehru’s statism that gave rise to the licence-permit raj. Despite his trenchant criticism of Nehru’s policies, he paid a moving tribute to Nehru on his death in 1964. “I have been fighting Nehru all these years over what I consider faults in public policies. But I knew all along that he alone could get them corrected. A beloved friend has gone, the most civilised person amongst us all.”

Nehru’s Economic Policies

NEHRU tried to find a via media between totalitarianism in the communist countries and unbridled capitalism in Western countries. He evolved the concept of planning in a mixed economy. The economy should be self-sufficient. Economic development cannot be left to the vicissitudes of the market forces but needs to be deliberately planned with optimum use of the natural and human resources based on science and technology. The mixed economy should consist of three sectors—public, private and cooperative. The public sector should hold the commanding heights of the economy in defence industries, heavy industries like steel, coal and heavy engineering, and new technological industries like electronics. Planning should give a sense of direction to the entire economy. The Industrial Policy Resolutions of 1948 and 1956 reflected this.

Rajaji felt that the planned economoc approach had given rise to the ‘licence-permit raj’. In making his case for the Swatantra Party, he said: “The Swatantra Party stands for minimum government and minimum state interference, for minimum taxation, for minimum interference in private and profesional affairs of the citizens and for minimum regulation in industry and trade.” As against this was Nehru’s socialism which led to central state planning of everything. The ‘licence-permit raj’ has stifled entrepreneurship and private initiative He wanted corruption and inefficiency of the permit-licence raj to go. Gandhiji would have approved of Rajaji’s approach.

It required two decades after Nehru’s death for a realisation that what Rajaji had asked of Nehru, deserved to be recognised. It needed the Congress Government of Narasimha Rao, who appointed Dr Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister, to quietly wind up the Nehruvian model and introduce ‘economic reforms’ to dismantle the licence-permit raj and go in for marketisation, privatisation, liberatlisation and globalisation.

Non-Violence and World Peace

LIKE his mentor, Nehru stood for non-violence and world peace. But when Jinnah sent tribal marauders to invade Kashmir and take it by force, Nehru had to send the Army to drive out the invaders. Gandhiji approved of this action. Gandhi wanted India to have the smallest possible Army. Nehru also concentrated on development than on defence. But when China invaded India’s northern boundaries in 1962, Nehru had to go in for strengthening the armed forces and the process has continued till today. Gandhiji would have been distressed by the violence and arms race in the subcontinent. But would he have found out a non-violent, peaceful alternative?

After World War II, no Third World War has taken place. But innumerable bloody conflicts do take place all over the world. This subcontinent is no exception. The strife-torn world has started looking at the life, work and thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi to usher in an era of world peace.

[The quotations in this article are from Makers of Modern India, a compilation by Ramchandra Guha with excellent biographical and background notes—P.R.D.]

Dr P.R. Dubhashi, IAS (Retd.) and formerly Secretary to the Government of India and Vice Chancellor, Goa University, is currently the Chairman, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Pune Kendra. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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