Remembering Mahatma Gandhi on his 75th death anniversary

Gandhi became the role model for the most successful political movement leaders of the 20th century – from Martin Luther King to Lech Walesa, Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela

Sonia Gandhi paying tribute to Mahatma Gandhi in Rajghat in January, 2022.
Sonia Gandhi paying tribute to Mahatma Gandhi in Rajghat in January, 2022.

Rajdeep Pathak

January 30, 2023 marks the 75th death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. 75 years ago, three bullets pierced into the flesh of a fragile 79-year-old disillusioned 'Father of the Nation" on his way to the daily evening prayer at erst while Birla House, today Gandhi Smriti, which left the world stunned and speechless.

It was here in Birla House Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru climbed up the gates to announce to the world "The Light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere", which he corrected in his radio broadcast later in the evening of January 30, 1948 to the nation, when he said:

The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later, that light will be seen in this country and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate past, it represented the living, the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom.

Around the world, Gandhi’s legacy of non-violence and as the father of India’s Independence Movement is being commemorated and analyzed for relevance in our increasingly turbulent times. Each nation facing this turmoil of violence is yearning for peace. Leaders, social thinkers, political scientists across the world are acknowledging the significance of peace and nonviolence for the present as well as the future generation.

Gandhi became the role model for the most successful political movement leaders of the 20th century – from Martin Luther King to Lech Walesa, Cesar Chavez and Nelson Mandela.

As we explore the leadership dimension of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in his 75th year of Martyrdom, one trait of Mahatma Gandhi – a lean and thin figure in the Indian panorama with an equally shrilled voice – was his approach to miniscule issues that affected the day-to-day life of people, which brought the entire nation together against the authoritarianism of the British Raj. If Gandhi were to be living today, Gandhi might have branded himself as a “social entrepreneur”.  In reality, few social entrepreneurs have achieved anywhere near the scale of impact that Gandhi was able to.

If one closely observes Mahatma Gandhi’s life, one could easily notice that Gandhi did not become a leader overnight. His journey from South Africa – after the September 11, 1906 win of the first nonviolent battle of Satyagraha – to India was not easy. He had faced rigorous imprisonment in the foreign land, where he fell with a ticket, but rose with a testament, the world could not ignore.

One must understand the strategy of leadership of Mahatma Gandhi in that he led first and foremost by understanding the diversity of India and its people – economically, culturally, religiously, and deeply integrating that diversity into the Independence movement and thereafter, underlined the essence of ‘sacrifice’ by inflicting pain in himself through constant risks, which Gandhi undertook in his nonviolent fight for freedom.

It was Mahatma Gandhi, who integrated himself into the movement by dedicating his life to the cause, living as much among the people as possible, and actually risking death many times for the cause. 

Arguably, Gandhi’s greatest leadership trait was his ability to visualize the qualities of a successful, post-Independence Indian nation, which was equally posed with greater intertwined challenges. Ramchandra Guha in his book, “Gandhi, The Years That Changed The World” had dealt with these four challenges very articulately, such as: to free India from British occupation, to end untouchability, to improve relations between Hindus and Muslims, and to make India into a self-reliant nation – economically and socially.

Observe the Mahatma carefully, and one could see Gandhi aligned most of the social movements he led around these four goals - starting with his work in South Africa and continuing until his death.  He believed firmly that without addressing all four challenges simultaneously, India could not acquire independence and become a successful nation. Without harmony between religions, and caste and creed, Gandhi did not believe – or even hoped – that India would ever achieve its potential.

When Gandhi arrived on the political scene in India in 1915, his non-violent and pluralistic approach to religion and politics brought him into direct conflict with the issues of communalism and religious fanaticism. Gandhi believed the power of the nation was vested with the people, rather than religion. His equal respect for all cultures and religions implied the idea of mutual learning and inter-faith dialogue. Gandhi said that “I do not want my house to be walled on all sides and my windows be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible”, but without being uprooted himself.

Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership style is complex because he was not a typical leader. Gandhi was not authoritarian, but he was strong in a different way where he ‘led by example’; ‘treated others well’ – and his nonviolent fight was against those who forgot to treat men as men. Gandhi further believed and practiced ‘being a lifelong learner’. He ‘showcased emotional, spiritual, and mental strength’; was ‘persistent’; ‘had incredible discipline’. He worked relentlessly for ‘being the change he wanted to see in the world’ and above all, ‘had a ‘master strategy’ to feel the pulse of the people.

Mahatma Gandhi was a strategist - always thinking and analyzing a strategy for his peaceful methods of politics. He utilized a public relations network and also worked closely with the media, himself being the greatest communicator and journalist of his time.

Because of his background in law, Mahatma Gandhi had a deep understanding of human psychology and worked with that to affect people even more. When he had peaceful protests, he knew that he needed to create a presence so that people would notice. He was businesslike.

Swaroop Sinha in her study on “Significance and Relevance of the Leadership Qualities, Ideals and Values of Mahatma Gandhi, in Sustaining Successful Businesses in Today’s World” says that Mahatma Gandhi was a man who believed in action with ideas stemming from his value system. He applied his values of 4 E's: Envision, Enable, Empower, and Energize to make his life great. Mahatma Gandhi had a rock-solid value system which led to the inception of his ideas. He said: “To believe in something and not live it is dishonest”. He aspired to make positive and productive changes in his life at every turn and had a completely interdependent relationship with his followers.

As Nish Acharya in his article on “Mahatma Gandhi At 150: Lessons On Leadership” puts it, Gandhi’s most well-known, and most-studied, leadership trait was his willingness to live like the majority of Indians that he sought to help, and his exhortation that all Indians “be the change they wish to see in this world”. “His ability to live comfortably among villagers and the urban poor – to be the change he wished to see, brought him the credibility, trust and intellectual understanding needed to lead India’s independence movement.  

Pascal Alan Nazareth in his book, “Gandhi’s Outstanding Leadership” makes a pertinent point. He says

“In a century that has the awesome distinction of being the most violent in history he confronted, non-violently, the largest, most powerful empire and secured freedom for India, which then had a fifth of the world’s population, and induced broad spectrum political, economic and social change within it. He subsequently inspired non-violent people’s struggles which achieved decolonization worldwide, ended racial oppression in USA and South Africa and terminated dictatorships in Poland, Rumania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, German Democratic Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Phillipines, Soviet Union, Chile, Serbia, Georgia Ukraine and Uzbekistan”

Leaders who inspire, and command universal respect are those who espoused Right rather than Might, and truth, justice and non-violent conflict resolution rather than hate, violence and war. Abraham Lincoln’s words “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith let us to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it”.

American political scientist, founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, Professor Gene Sharp says: “Gandhi was an experimenter in the development of “war without violence’. His work was pioneering and not always adequate, but it represents a major development of historic significance both in ethics and in politics….. Many problems in its further development and application remain. But in words and action Gandhi pointed toward what may be the key to the resolution of the dilemma of how one can behave peacefully and at the same time actively, and effectively oppose oppression and injustice.”

A Leader must have the ability to move the masses; it's not just true for political leaders, but also organizational leaders. Simply lead with your heart and show that you actually believe in the purpose of what you stand for. Gandhi's greatest ability was to walk his talk at every level and in every way. Mahatma Gandhi’s entire life story is about action, to bring about positive change. He both succeeded and failed in what he sought to do, but he always moved forward and he never gave up the quest for improvement, both social and spiritual, and both for individuals and for the Nation as a whole. He gave Indians a new spirit, a sense of self-respect and a feeling of pride in their civilization, transforming the thought process of fellow Indians.

Because of his visionary approach and ideas of empowering people, Mahatma Gandhi is also regarded as a ‘transformational leader’. He always empowered his followers towards success. He gave them hope where there may be none. One of the most outstanding qualities of Mahatma Gandhi which makes him a great transformational leader of modern history was his long term vision, self confidence – often perceived as someone who was stubborn – yet one with as strong principle of righteousness.

Transformational leaders speak to people’s emotions and values. Mahatma Gandhi encouraged open revolt but wanted no bloodshed. With the British levy on salt, he began his journey to the Dandi with only 80 followers. In no time, over the 24 days that took him to get there, hundreds of thousands Indians were with him when he reached the sea.  This encouraged others to make and sell salt and to show courage as their oppressors clubbed them and threw them in prison. The Indian people felt empowered through the words and actions of Mahatma Gandhi. This empowerment of followers is a characteristic of transformational leadership. There was so much attention brought to the plight of these people that eventually the British released the Mahatma to negotiate the levy, for Gandhi had asked the world community to join him in the ‘battle of right against might’.

In conclusion, it can be said that today, Mahatma Gandhi is remembered not only as a political leader, but as a moralist who appealed to the universal conscience of mankind. Gilbert Murray (1939), Emeritus Professor, University of Oxford, testified about Gandhi: “In a world where the rulers of nations are relying more and more upon brute force and the nations trusting their lives and hopes to systems which represent the very denial of law and brotherhood, Mr. Gandhi stands out as an isolated and most impressive figure. He is a ruler obeyed by millions, not because they fear him but because they love him”.

Rajdeep Pathak is the Programme Executive of Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti.

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