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Who was Gandhi?

Former Vice President of India Hamid Ansari attempts to answer the question

M Hamid Ansari

It was Albert Einstein who observed on the occasion of Mahatma’s 70th birthday that future generations will scarcely believe that, such a man ‘ever walked in flesh and blood upon this earth.’ ‘As-salaam ai Hind ke shah-e-shaheedan as-salaam’ was the title of a long elegy or marsiya on the Mahatma written by the Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi. I will cite a few of its couplets reflecting the rage and bitterness over the heinous act resulting in the loss of someone so near and dear to the masses:

Dehr per teri shahadat ne ye sabit kar diya Had se barh kar naik hona kis qadar hai na rawa

(Your martyrdom proves to the world that excess of goodness is impermissible)

Qatilon main qatl-e-insaani pe rona jurm hai Tukhm-e-neki sar zameen-e dil main bona jurm hai

(Lamenting human killing in the midst of killers is a crime as is sowing of seeds of goodness in the heart)

Jazba-e-khidmat se raaton ko na sona jurm hai Mujrimon ke darmiyan maasoom hona jurm hai

(Losing a night’s sleep for the passion of service is a crime as is being innocent amongst killers)

When the film Gandhi was shown to western audiences in 1982, hundreds of young people in distant lands were motivated to study modern Indian history. And yet today, in our own land, enough attention is not given to educate our children about the man and his teachings; instead, some even go so far as to be dismissive of him.

So, who was Gandhi?

He candidly admitted that he was not a saint and held that ‘the golden rule of conduct is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never think alike, and we shall always see truth in fragments and from different angles of vision.’ His practice was grounded in realism. He said ‘outwardly we follow truth and non-violence. But inwardly there is violence within us. We practiced hypocrisy and as a result we have to suffer the pain of mutual strife.’

His last days were spent in preventing communal hatred and in devising a strategy against it. The challenge remains with us to this day because his teaching of humaneness, toleration and inclusiveness has not been imbibed by us in sufficient measure. Visitors to the Raj Ghat today, as in previous years, would have passed by a stone tablet with an inscription a little away from the Samadhi. It bears the title: Seven Social Sins. Written in October 1925, the Mahatma considered them spiritually most perilous for humanity. I have read the inscription often and consider it the gist of Gandhiji’s teachings.

  • Politics without principle
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Wealth without work
  • Knowledge without character
  • Commerce without morality
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice
The idea of non-violence developed a global following. It was invoked with much success in South Africa and in the United States and inspired movements and leaders in many other countries like the Philippines, Poland, Czechoslovakia.

Each of these is a statement of principle that can be comprehended and implemented individually and collectively. There is in fact a pattern in the last words of each dictum: principle, conscience, work, character, morality, humanity sacrifice. When the first words of each principle are put together, they sum up different forms of human activity. For us, the concept of DUTY is spelt out in Article 5I A of the Constitution. It lists eleven fundamental duties; each imparts a duty of importance on citizens; some have generated law suits and case law in higher courts; many are observed in tacit or express violation in ignorance or with impunity. I will mention four of the latter that were particularly close to Bapu’s life and teaching:

  • Preserve harmony and brotherhood
  • Value and preserve heritage of composite culture
  • Protect and improve environment
  • Develop scientific temper and spirit of reform

Each of these is obvious, even taken for granted. To comprehend them better, I would suggest that we look at their converse and contemplate the following: Promote disharmony and discord in society, devalue and abandon ingredients of our composite culture, do not protect environment, and allow prejudice and superstition to prevail. A cursory glance at the national scene gives us answers that are disheartening. There is a perceptible decline in the level of harmony in society with points of discord being manufactured in disregard to the age-old practices of toleration and accommodation. Furthermore, respect for traditions of composite culture seems to give way to imagined monoculture that is not reflective of the experience of many segments of our people.

The same holds for protection of environment where disregard for rules and court injunctions in our own city has caused irreparable damage. Lastly, in an age of science, our patronage of superstition and disregard for scientific temper invites derision from the outside world where we propagate our scientific achievements. Would any of this receive Bapu’s blessing? The idea of non-violence developed a global following. It was invoked with much success in South Africa and in the United States and inspired movements and leaders in many other countries like the Philippines, Poland, Czechoslovakia. It has been used, sporadically by Palestinians against Israel in Occupation Territories and was the theme of a 2009 award-winning and much acclaimed documentary, Budrus, whose script included a statement from a soldier that ‘nothing scares the army more than non-violent opposition.’

(This extract has been taken with permission from Har-Anand Publications)

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