Not one but two World Wars were fought in his lifetime. But even before the first world war began, Gandhi Ji was firmly wedded to principles of non-violence and morality in public life. Most of the modern world found it difficult to deal with the anti-imperialist ‘naked fakir’, whose ideas seemed an anachronism in a world in which violence and retaliatory violence were considered ‘normal’. It was an everyday fact of life.
Not surprisingly, his ideas were seen as impractical and contradictory. The primacy he gave to villages and labour appeared to fly against the surge of technology and the industrial revolution. But though he did a lot more than Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin or Mao-Ze-Dong from China to radically reform his society, Gandhi has often been reduced to a caricature of his true self by his admirers and critics alike.
Gandhi cannot be just seen as a leader who promoted the ‘Charkha’, Khadi, cleanliness and goat milk. His insistence on people cleaning toilets and his care for lepers were seen as part of his idiosyncracies.
People often tend to overlook his steadfast commitment to freedom and for civil liberties.
His affirmation of individual rights and civil liberty carries a clear message for our times. ‘Freedom of speech and civil liberty, are the very roots of Swaraj. Without these the foundations of Swaraj will remain weak,’ he said. This unequivocal position consistently guided his leadership of the nationalist movement as a champion of non-violent resistance.
In early 1922 he wrote an article with the title, ‘Liberty of the Press’, in Young India in which he declared, ‘Liberty of speech means that it is unassailed even when the speech hurts; liberty of the Press can be said to be truly respected only when the Press can comment in the severest terms upon and even misrepresent matters, protection against misrepresentation or violence being secured not by an administrative gagging order, not by closing down the Press but by punishing the real offender, leaving the Press itself unrestricted…”
“… Freedom of association is truly respected when assemblies of people can discuss even revolutionary projects, the State relying upon the force of public opinion and the civil police, not the savage military at its disposal, to crush any actual outbreak of revolution that is designed to confound public opinion and the state representing it.., The fight for Swaraj means a fight for this threefold freedom before all else.’
For Gandhi, such civil rights were the collective responsibility of a modern society and state and every stakeholder had to contribute in ensuring civil rights without just seeking rights or hurting other stakeholders.
Gandhi also set the tenor for religion’s role in public life. Gandhi believed that all people had a right to practice any religion they chose to identify with, and that forms of worship should not be dictated by the state. Although himself an orthodox Hindu, he carried on a sympathetic dialogue with those of other faiths, arguing that each represented a different path towards truth.
In fact, religious intolerance was Gandhi’s greatest enemy upon his return to India in 1915. His struggle to bring about Hindu-Muslim unity and his struggle to end the abhorrent practice of untouchability in orthodox Hinduism were his primary preoccupations as he saw India’s political subservience as only a symptom of the same spiritual disease that sustained the practice of untouchability and the enmity between Hindus and Muslims.
He was conscious of the fact that political enslavement under the British rule was not the only evil to be eradicated. India needed to be set free from many more constraints such as untouchability, poverty, communalism, lack of sanitation, selfishness and even religious hypocrisy.
Today, even as retrospective reading is making Gandhi and Ambedkar appear to have been poles apart, indubitably, previous generations of Dalits were direct beneficiaries of Gandhian struggles. Present-day scenarios certainly require Ambedkar to be venerated as an icon. Yet, Ambedkar always remained an ‘outsider’ to structures of Hinduism. History required Gandhi- an ‘insider’- to subvert the inequalities within the society. He was instrumental in promoting a kind of modernity that did not flower in urban centres or universities but among the poor, the illiterate and in villages through constant engagements and dialogues.
Here was a leader who was desperately trying to argue that freedom struggle must aspire to change social conditions and his political ‘satyagraha’ connoted a spiritual self-purification, which pragmatically involved constructive contribution to the modern capitalist society. Gandhi aspired for unity of nations and people under one philosophical understanding of humanity which is remarkable.
Gandhi, a Gujarati, picked up Hindi and spoke it. He tried to read and interact with each section of Indian people in their own language by picking up acquaintance of six-seven languages both vernacular and classical.
Gandhi had a cosmopolitan vision of Indian unity and sacrificed his life for the cause in the hands of his own co-religionists. He left behind a powerful legacy of secular India where banning of cow slaughter did not require slaughter of human beings.
Prohibition was through persuasion and constructive works required change of mentalities through Khadi which was not merely a dress but a way of life. These are the principles which continue to humanise politics during his life and our times.
(The author teaches History in Delhi University. His forthcoming book is Weaving Hierarchies: Handloom Weavers in Early Twentieth Century United Provinces)