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29 Mar, 2009

Gandhi’s Message Remains Ahead of the Times

Originally Published: 29 Mar 2009

Inscribed on an ordinary slate hanging forlornly in an obscure corner of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha Ashram (Hermitage of Non-violent Resistance), a powerful message goes to the heart of Gandhi’s fervent belief that “one must entertain the same respect for the religious faiths of others as one accords to one’s own. Where such attitude becomes law of life, conflict between different faiths becomes impossible, and so does all effort to convert other people to one’s own faith.”

Gandhi’s portrait adorns many government offices but this, his real message, goes largely unheeded, as do many of his other values, philosophies and ideals. Indeed, the principles he espoused are in as dilapidated and forgotten a condition as the Ashram, which I visited in Ahmedabad last week.

For a place of such monumental historic proportions dedicated to the “Father of the Nation” to be in such a sorry condition is deeply disappointing. Apart from the actual house and two neighbouring buildings, the rest of the compound is in disarray. Kids play makeshift cricket in the yard, the pictures and portraits are gathering dust. It had no sense of place.

By contrast, in an Ahmedabad suburb known as Gandhinagar, a huge monument constructed in praise of a Bhagwan Swaminarayan was in immaculate condition. According to a biography, Swaminayaran (1781-1830) was “a torchbearer of Indian culture and worshipped as a God by the local people” – hence the name “Bhagwan”, meaning God. It was thronged by thousands of villagers who believe he possesses magical powers.

In the days when it was inhabited between 1915-1933, the Satyagraha Ashram was supposed to be a means of practically demonstrating Gandhian values of peace, non-violence, public service and “life without distinction of caste, colour or religion.” The famous picture of Gandhi sitting with his “chakra” (spinning wheel) was taken here. One room does contain that spinning wheel, with the mat on which Gandhi originally sat.

An unelected leader with a tremendous sense of social justice and uncanny foresight, Gandhi knew that India’s biggest asset – its amazing cultural, ethnic and social diversity — was also its biggest liability. He knew that if this power is not collectively harnessed, it could be used to indulge in the colonial politics of divide and rule in both the economic and political spectrums.

As I walked through the Ashram, I found many of his quotes to be uniquely applicable to the current status of global geopolitical domination and financial chaos. Here are a few:

<> I feel in the innermost recess of my heart that the world is sick unto death of blood spilling. It is seeking a way out, and I flatter myself with the belief that perhaps it will be the privilege of the ancient land of India to show that way out for the hungering world.

<> It is my firm opinion that no culture has treasures so rich as ours. We have not recognised its value….If we do not follow our culture, we would be committing suicide as a people.

<> I see no poverty in the world of tomorrow….No wars, no revolutions, no bloodsheds. And in that world, there will be a faith in God greater and deeper than ever in the past. The very existence of the world, in a broad sense, depends on religion. All attempts to root it out will fail. The structure of a world federation can be raised only on a foundation of non-violence. And violence will have to be totally given up in world affairs.

<> Non-cooperation is a matchless and powerful weapon. Non-cooperation is not a passive state. It does not proceed from ill-will or hatred. It is a form of jehad. Non-cooperation means training in self-defence….it is an end in itself.

<> I do not believe in the doctrine of the greatest good of the greatest number. It means in its nakedness that in order to achieve the supposed good of 51 per cent, the interest of 49 per cent may be, or rather should be, sacrificed. It is a heartless doctrine and has done harm to humanity. The only real, dignified, doctrine is the greatest good of all, and this can only be achieved by uttermost self-sacrifice.

<> My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest. No country in the world today shows any but patronising regard for the weak…. Western democracy as it functions today is diluted fascism. True democracy cannot be worked by 20 men sitting at the centre. It has to be worked from below by the people of every village.

And finally, an excerpt from Gandhi’s prayer: Let us be embodiments of self-sacrifice, embodiments of godliness, humility personified, that we may know the land better and love it more.

Last week, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote: “Right now, we have an absence of inspirational leadership.” He quoted a U.S. corporate guru as saying “Laws tell you what you can do. Values inspire in you what you should do. It’s a leader’s job to inspire in us those values.”

Gandhi did exactly that, long before the corporate guru came along. His philosophies were designed to free India from economic domination, geopolitical colonialism and internal divisiveness. Yet, although India’s hardware infrastructure is improving exponentially, the “software” of the Indian mind is lagging way behind.

With elections looming again, the political mud-slinging is well under way. Directly or indirectly, politicians play to their respective vote-bank galleries along communal and ethnic lines. The country’s economic development is on the same “get rich quick” trajectory that undid Thailand and much of ASEAN in 1997.

Gandhi fought off the British, but the United States is making India its deputy sheriff in South Asia. Militarily, the country is coming under the Israeli orbit.

As I walked around the Ashram, I wondered which of the aspirations of the Father of the Nation India could claim to have successfully implemented, 61 years after his violent assassination.

Ideally, that ought to be the real “indicator” of the country’s progress.

I am still looking. Perhaps my readers can offer some assistance.