OPINION | In Times of 'Us vs Them', What Would Gandhi Have Struggled Against Had He Been Alive
In India, we find bullock carts and space rockets at the same time. There are multiple layers and meanings of India. If the country has to grow and flourish, this is a lesson we cannot afford to forget.
News18 Creative by Mir Suhail.
On his 150th birth anniversary, we remember Mahatma Gandhi as – not only with the widely known descriptors – the father of the nation, a political leader and freedom fighter, but also as a great humanist and thought leader. It is only lately that we have started recognising him as a creative thinker. This was a person who thought out of the box and came up with the idea of a nonviolent struggle to combat British rule in India while, across the world, a violent fight was going on against imperialism and colonialism.
There are other aspects of his creative thinking which were far more subtle but powerful none the less. Creativity and liberal thinking go hand in hand. The openness to a multiplicity of ideas and diversity of thoughts is embedded in creativity. Gandhi exemplified this in his inclusive approach: his efforts to bring people from different religions, castes, the rich industrialists and the poor landless labourers together in the struggle for independence. The ability to string together a narrative which resonated with such diverse groups is indeed amazing. He could connect with rural women steeped in traditional customs as easily as intellectuals from across the world.
Even when he continued to agree to disagree with the thinking of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Bhim Rao Ambedkar, as well as other freedom fighters who believed in a violent struggle against the British, he kept engaging with them.
In fact, he continued to engage with the British as well, and with the same degree of dignity and humanity as he did with his countrymen. Even as he read the Ramayana, he never sought to make either the British or his own countrymen opposed to his views into evil Ravanas. He sought to bring together binary opposites rather than put them on a path of confrontation.
Throughout the freedom struggle, he made each person believe that however small and insignificant they may be in the social and economic structure, they had an important role to play in the fight for independence. “You don’t have to be rich, physically strong, knowledgeable, or skilled in weapons to fight – you only need to protest and resist all that is against humane values.” This ability to listen to opposing viewpoints, be open to criticism (in fact he was his own biggest critic), respect each human being and be firm on values is the foundation of democracy.
When India got freedom, few would have believed that with the challenges of such diversity, illiteracy and historical wrongs, it would survive as a democratic country. Perhaps the first seeds of democracy were sown by Gandhian thoughts and approaches.
In India, we find bullock carts and space rockets at the same time (in fact, in 1981, when Indian scientists were gearing up for the launch of the country’s first communication satellite APPLE from the Guiana Space Centre in France, they had loaded the satellite onto a bullock cart). There are multiple layers and meanings of India. If the country has to grow and flourish, this is a lesson we cannot afford to forget.
This openness to diverse thoughts went beyond India. Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa, his ability to connect closely with people as disparate as Leo Tolstoy and Albert Einstein, and most importantly his ability to be a globalist while being a nationalist at the forefront of our independence movement portrays him as an international thought leader more than a national leader.
He sought to dissuade Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini from war perhaps because he considered himself a humanist first and deemed it his duty to raise his voice against issues beyond his country’s interest. Years later, staunch nationalists protest against his liberal dealings with Pakistan during Partition. Maybe it came from the same belief that the best interest of a country and its people is not in narrow self-interest but global humane values of compassion, dignity and tolerance.
Today, we remember him with prayer meetings, songs, garlands and speeches. However, this brings us to an interesting question: if Gandhi were alive today, what would he have worked for, what would he have struggled against? Today, when people tend to look at things in terms of black and white, good and evil, us and them, would his message of tolerance and acceptance work?
How would he have looked at the growing disparity between the rich and the poor? How would he have viewed climate change? How would he have reacted to nations across the world becoming ultranationalists, concerned primarily with their self-interest leading to the exclusion of others? Perhaps on his anniversary, we should put ourselves in his shoes, or rather his chappals, and spend some time looking at the world through his eyes. It might just help us take some action, however small it may be, to stitch together this fractured world before it is too late.
(Gayatri Menon is a senior faculty with the National Institute of Design. Views expressed are personal.)
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