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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 41 New Delhi September 29, 2018

Relevance of Gandhiji’s Message Today

Saturday 29 September 2018, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

On October 2 this year India is celebrating the hundred and twentyfifth birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. The Government of India has set up a special committee studded with VIPs of different denominations and is chalking out an extensive programme of functions which will spread over a whole year.

The Congress party is holding a meeting of its highest organ, the Working Committee, the very same week at Belgaum, at the border of Karnataka and Maharashtra—this again to mark the Gandhi homage festival as it was at this very city that the Congress session was held in 1922 over which Gandhiji had presided. No doubt there will be functions galore in the months ahead which will pay fulsome allegiance to the memory of the one who had steered the freedom struggle to victory and thereby rightfully earned the love and gratitude of his countrymen for which they called him the Father of the Nation.

Leaving aside all the glittering functions to mark the sacred occasion, this is the time for reflections—to ponder over in our mind how relevant is Gandhi today for our country beset as it is with a thousand problems—some of them are intractable and almost seem to defy any solution while others are formidable enough to baffle even the tallest of our national leadership, not to speak of the hollow men who strut about today claiming to be his political heirs.

To begin with, Gandhiji had strong objections to the partition of India. Although he had never sharply criticised the decision of the Congress High Command of those days to accept the Mountbatten Plan of partitioning India as a concomitant condition to the transfer of power from the British to Indian hands, he had no doubt that the partitioning of India would create more problems than solving any. In fact, two days before the announcement of the Mountbatten Plan in June 1947, Gandhiji noted in his own diary that both Sardar Patel and Pandit Nehru were unhappy that he had gone and told the Viceroy that he was opposed to the partition, particularly under the aegis and control of a third party (that is, the British). He noted that he could foresee dark forbidding clouds gathering, but both Patel and Nehru thought that the partition would bring peace, tranquillity and well-being of all. As it turned out, Gandhiji was proved right when the blood-soaked victims of the partition crossed the border on both sides. While he could not avert the partition, Gandhiji tried to minimise its fall-out as far as he could by undertaking that hazardous crusade for communal amity into the distant corners of Noakhali and was planning to do the same in Pakistan. But his life was cut short in a fit of anger by a fellow-countryman who did not spare Gandhiji.

What is important to bear in mind is the fact that Gandhiji understood the real implications of the partition—that it could perpetuate mutual hostility between the Hindus and Muslims as the gift of the partition. Because, the minority community in both the neighbouring countries—the Hindus in Pakistan and the Muslims in India—became suspect in the eyes of their respective majority communities—the Muslims in Pakistan and the Hindus in India. It is this factor which has kept up the accursed communal divide even to this day. Fortyseven long years after Mountbatten’s partition was accepted by the national leaders, the question of repudiating it does not arise, but that communal antipathy could be brought down by fostering good and friendly relations between India and Pakistan. In the brief few weeks that he survived after independence, he devoted himself to this question. It is worth recalling in this context that one of his last political acts was to direct Nehru and Patel not to withhold the financial dues of Pakistan even though the Pak-sponsored tribal invaders were devastating the Kashmir Valley.

Today when communal hatred between Hindus and Muslims has been widely conceded even by the ruling establishment, it would certainly be wise to pay heed to Gandhiji’s prophetic warning—that the Hindu-Muslim problem would always beset us so long as we do not trace its origin to the partition, and find its solution by cementing Indo-Pak goodwill.

In many other spheres of our national life, Gandhiji’s relevance abides even today. He understood the baneful impact of the caste system on our social life. Although he did not denounce the caste system as such in the style of a modern-day rationalist, he took up the most inequitable feature of the caste system—oppression of the untouchables—and carried on a tireless campaign to rectify such vicious aspects as the ban on temple entry. He understood the inequity and suppression in public life of the so-called backward communities. Hence came the provision for reservation in our Constitution.

Gandhiji seriously believed that it would not be correct to whip up caste antipathy as that would destablise the entire social structure, but was concerned how to rouse the whole society and act as a trust for a better deal for the underpriviliged. Here lies the difference between Gandhi’s line and that of other leaders who have been campaigning for the promotion of the backward castes and the untouchables. Gandhiji did not live to see his endeavours come true, while the others who have taken up the cause of the underpriviliged castes and communities are realising today the dangerously sensitive nature of the problem which threatens to create bitter antipathy and virtual anarchy in the social and political set-up.

In the sphere of economic rebuilding, Gandhiji’s views were widely known. His insistence was on expanding the domestic market by large-scale promotion of khadi and village industries to meet the demands of the huge rural market. He then did not really oppose the introduction of heavy machine and heavy engineering based industries, but stood for the harmonious blending of the two streams of economic thinking. However, in our enthusiasm to build a strong economy befitting a powerful country, Gandhiji’s mandate of strengthening and expanding the village industries was nearly forgotten with emphasis on giant machines both for the production of heavy industries and the major consumer goods.

As this approach of a mixed economy is today nearly forgotten, the country is in the excitement of a free-market dispensation reducing the role of the state in economic activity to the minimum. Gandhiji’s prescription for the vast rural economy becomes all the more valid for a country like ours. With the introduction of new technology and the enthronement of the ideology of the market, our country faces the prospect of an affluent elite at the top and a vast ocean of the underprivileged at the base. This will increase disparities—social and economic—and that in turn will accentuate social tension which is likely to threaten the very foundations of political stability. It is in this context that one has to take into account the validity of Gandhiji’s economics for the vast rural hinterland. It is not that Gandhiji glorified poverty and condemned the rich. He himself used to camp in Birla’s mansions and had no hesitation in persuading the rich to donate openly for the causes he espoused. The culture that he promoted upheld the self-respect of the humblest citizen of independent India.

In Gandhiji’s design for a good society, the poor are to inherit the earth and the rich to hold their affluence as a trust to society. In the culture shock that the so-called globalisation is bringing to our society, the need for Gandhiji’s message has become all the more relevant and imperative if India has to retain its identity as a great country with a rich culture. If anything, Gandhiji is remembered today by his countrymen more insistently than at any time since his final departure fortysix years ago.

(Mainstream, October 1, 1994)

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