Why Gandhi?


It has become most fashionable to pan Mahatma Gandhi today, whereas the truth is, his beliefs and values have never been more relevant in independent India, argues Dr. Rina Mukherji.

On October 2nd, we celebrate Gandhi Jayanti, the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, an ordinary person who became extraordinary enough to be termed the Mahatma, and, the Father of the Indian nation.

Born in Porbandar, Gujarat, on October 2, 1869, to a middle-class Gujarati family, the Mahatma, on his own admission, was an ordinary boy. Yet, he was highly principled and idealistic, with a strong set of values. He believed in honesty and truth, and stood by them, whatever the circumstances. This is what would set him apart, and help him walk tall in an age and time when India indeed could boast of very tall men. A qualified barrister trained in England, he refused to take on false cases, or even profit from legal suits that could be better solved through compromise, or understanding.

Today, a lot of criticism is directed at him, and especially his handling of the Indian Independence movement and India’s partition. Yet, no one can deny the redoubtable role played by Gandhiji in forging a new path through his belief in non-violence, and the role it played in our Independence movement. His thoughts assume greater significance today, given the divisive communal politics that is at play today.

Honesty, integrity and truth is what he believed in, and lived by, notwithstanding all criticism. This is what inspired, and impressed his contemporaries, and many votaries of Gandhism in later years. Lal Bahadur Shastri, who shares his birthday with Gandhi, was a living example of honesty and integrity, even as a Cabinet Minister in independent India, resigning from his ministerial position following a major accident, assuming moral responsibility as a Railway Minister.

The shaper of our psyche, a votary of khadi

A lot has been said and written on Gandhi’s politics. But rather than look at that, I would like to dwell on the role he played in shaping the Indian psyche, and laying the foundations of the Indian welfare state.

Of course, it could be well argued that his social reformistactions went on to strengthen his political agenda, which was basically aimed at building a mass movement to overthrow British rule from the Indian subcontinent. Thus, he went on to borrow the ideas of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak to shape a movement that would reach out to the hitherto never-reached to rural masses all over India. His idea of “satyagraha” was a unique form of civil disobedience, and so was the adoption of regional languages as the means of communication in the various regional Congress committees. In a way, Gandhi can be said to have laid the foundations of the world’s largest democracy in modern times.

However, there were some initiatives that outlasted Indian independence, and spawned the flowering of movements which define the India of today. Khadi and the movement of untouchability are two of these, that stand out.

Inspite of having received his higher education in the West, Gandhi was steeped in Indian traditions, and convinced of the superiority of the Indian way of life. These beliefs would be further honed in the years that followed, as he came in contact with the works of international and Indian thinkers. The writings of Dadabhai Naoroji made him aware of the great injustice done to Indian weavers by the British, and convinced him of the need to rebuild the Indian economy. But this could never be realised unless Indians took pride in themselves, and their rich heritage. Gandhi was equally convinced of the superiority of Indian Ayurveda and Siddha over modern allopathic medicines, and also saw how expensive modern medicines could milk patients dry. He believed in leading by example, and proceeded to lead a simple life in the Indian tradition in the ashrams he set up. He would partake of nutritionally-rich, simple Indian food, and advocated natural cures for illnesses.

He also felt deeply for the plight of the weavers, and along with his contemporaries, pushed for the use of Swadeshi ‘vastra’ in place of cheap machine-made imported cloth. At the same time, he promoted the ‘charkha’, and home-spun ‘khadi’. Under him, Congress workers took to khadi, with khadi vastra (cloth) becoming the clarion call for the Indian Independence movement. Much later, the Mahatma’s promotion of khadi inspired Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to lay the foundations of the Khadi Gramodyog, and various state-run handloom and handicraft boards, which rejuvenated the Indian crafts, and gave a new lease of life to our artisans and weavers. It also helped save our traditional handlooms and handicrafts from dying a natural death. Today, Khadi no longer stands for the simple hand-spun cloth that Gandhi talked of. We have high-quality khadi silk that connoisseurs look out for, and several varieties of khadi that are the toast of Fashion Weeks.

Even though Gandhi swore by Hinduism, and especially Vaishnava/Jain traditions that he had grown up with in Gujarat, he was outspoken against social ills. Untouchability and the caste system repelled him. To wipe out untouchability, he used his newspapers- Harijan and Young India, to enlighten and educate his readers on the social evil. Using actual instances, the newspapers would report on cases of caste discrimination, and comment on the injustice. Although untouchability and caste discrimination have not been totally wiped out in India, and gory murders continue to be reported from both southern and northern India, it is partly due to the efforts of the Mahatma that our Constitution recognises it as a social evil, punishable by law.

To make people conscious of the injustice meted out to the untouchable Dalits, he went on to uphold the dignity of labour, and the significance of those who cleaned toilets. A stickler for cleanliness, he had the inmates of his ashram clean the toilets, and maintain them. It is thanks to him that the rigidity of caste no longer shackles Dalits, as in the past. Quotas in institutions of learning, government jobs and the like have ensured that the so-called lower castes have moved up in the hierarchy, and occupy important positions in every field today. Quotas in panchayat bodies, and reserved seats have also ensured sizeable political representation. Uttar Pradesh, which was once a hotbed of caste-discrimination, has had the distinction of electing a well-educated Dalit Chief Minister, who is a woman. This is no small achievement in a state steeped in patriarchy.

A little -known aspect of Gandhian thought is the importance Gandhi gave to vocational education. To him, rather than stress on books, education needed to be practical, and helpful in equipping the individual to earn a living. Although India is yet to overcome its obsession with degrees, Gandhi’s ideas influenced the government to set up our Industrial Training Institutes ( ITIs) nationwide, which are acknowledged today as perhaps the best in the Third World. Although there are variations in quality region-wise, we boast an ITI in Katpadi, Tamil Nadu, that has the singular distinction of imparting the best industrial training to the differently-abled in the Third World, and has students from all over Asia and Africa being trained here. The Kothari Commission, which worked on bringing in a new education policy from 1964 to 1966, actually leant back on Gandhian thought to usher in an education policy which emphasised vocational education. If Indian skilled workers continue to be in great demand all over the Gulf and many Southeast Asian countries, we need to credit Gandhi for this.

In the same vein, Gandhian thought has spurred many to take to social entrepreneurship, and innovative methods to wipe out untouchability, combat poverty, and transform rural India. Take the case of Dr. Bindeshwari Pathak. Since untouchability owes its origins to the practice of manual scavenging and kaccha latrines, Dr. Bindeshwari Pathak pioneered the Sulabh Shauchalaya network of floor-flush public toilets, and bath/urinal complexes. These toilets, which have come up all over India, can be built and maintained even in places lacking in sewerage systems, or flush latrines. The Sarvodaya movement that Gandhi pioneered has also seen hundreds of social workers work in the remotest corners of India, and bring in positive changes in the lives of tribals, and the most underprivileged.

Gandhi always believed in the individual’s self-worth. He respected individual labour, be that of the Dalit sweeper, or that of the weaver, or the housewife. The skills involved in each case were worthy of respect. His thoughts gave people confidence; and restored the lost confidence of a once-great India. By unshackling the Dalits, and restoring their dignity, and elevating the work of the handloom weaver and craftsmen, he laid the foundations of a mature, modern India that was ready to take on the world, with or without a little help from friends.

Dr. Rina Mukherji

A senior journalist, Dr. Rina Mukherji specialises in all aspects of sustainable development, with special focus on the environment and climate change. She has been a UGC doctoral fellow, and holds a doctorate in African Studies, with specialisation in Third World conflict and developmental issues. She is currently an independent journalist based in Pune.