Gandhi did not claim to be a prophet or even a philosopher. “There is no such thing as Gandhism,” he warned, “and I do not want to leave any sect after me.” There was only one Gandhian, he said, an imperfect one at that : himself.
The real significance of the Indian freedom movement in Gandhi’s eyes was that it was waged non-violently. He would have had no interest in it if the Indian National Congress had not adopted Satyagraha and subscribed to non-violence. He objected to violence not only because an unarmed people had little chance of success in an armed rebellion, but because he considered violence a clumsy weapon which created more problems than it solved, and left a trail of hatred and bitterness in which genuine reconciliation was almost impossible.
This emphasis on non-violence jarred alike on Gandhi’s British and Indian critics, though for different reasons. To the former, non-violence was a camouflage: to the latter, it was sheer sentimentalism. To the British who tended to see the Indian struggle through the prism of European history, the profession of non-violence seemed too good to be true; their eyes were riveted on the stray acts of violence rather than on the remarkably peaceful nature of Gandhi’s campaigns. To the radical Indian politicians, who had browsed on the history of the French and Russian revolutions or the Italian and Irish nationalist struggles, it was patent that force would only yield to force, and that it was foolish to miss opportunities and sacrifice tactical gains for reasons more relevant to ethics than to politics.
Gandhi’s total allegiance to non-violence created a gulf between him and the educated elite in India which was temporarily bridged only during periods of intense political excitement. Even among his closest colleagues there were few who were prepared to follow his doctrine of non-violence to its logical conclusion: the adoption of unilateral disarmament in a world armed to the teeth, the scrapping of the police and the armed forces, and the decentralization of administration to the point where the state would “wither away”. Nehru, Patel and others on whom fell the task of organizing the administration of independent India did not question the superiority of the principle of non-violence as enunciated by their leader, but they did not consider it practical politics. The Indian Constituent Assembly included a majority of members owing allegiance to Gandhi or at least holding him in high esteem., but the constitution which emerged from their labours in 1949 was based more on the Western parliamentary than on the Gandhian model. The development of the Indian economy during the last four decades can not be said to have conformed to Gandhi’s conception of “self-reliant village republics”. On the other hand, it bears the marks of a conscious effort to launch an Indian industrial revolution.
Jawaharlal Nehru—Gandhi’s “political heir”—was thoroughly imbued with the humane values inculcate by the Mahatma. But the man who spoke Gandhi’s language, after his death, was Vinoba Bhave, the “Walking Saint”, who kept out of politics and government. Bhave’s Bhoodan (land gift) Movement was designed as much as a measure of land reform as that of a spiritual renewal. Though more than five million acres of land were distributed to the landless, the movement, despite its early promise, never really spiralled into a social revolution by consent. This was partly because Vinoba Bhave did not command Gandhi’s extraordinary genius for organizing the masses for a national crusade, and partly because in independent India the tendency grew for the people to look up to the government rather than to rely on voluntary and cooperative effort for effecting reforms in society.
Soon after Gandhi’s death in 1948, a delegate speaking at the United Nations predicted that “the greatest achievements of the Indian sage were yet to come”. “Gandhi’s times,” said Vinoba Bhave, “were the first pale dawn of the sun of Satyagraha.” Twenty-three years after Gandhi’s death, this optimism would seem to have been too high-pitched. The manner in which Gandhi’s techniques have sometimes been invoked even in the land of his birth in recent years would appear to be a travesty of his principles. And the world has been in the grip of a series of crises in Korea, the Congo, the Vietnam, and the Middle East, with a never-ending trail of blood and bitterness. The shadow of a thermo-nuclear war with its incalculable hazards continues to hang over mankind. From this predicament, Gandhi’s ideas and techniques may suggest a way out. Unfortunately, his motives and methods are often misunderstood, and not only by mobs in the street. Not long ago, an eminent writer described Gandhi’s attitude as one “of passive submission to bayoneting and raping, to villages without sewage, septic childhoods and trachoma.” Such a judgment is of course completely wide of the mark, Gandhi fought the evils which corroded the Indian society with the same tenacity with which he battled with the British Raj. He advocated non-violence not because it offered an easy way out, but because he considered violence a crude and in the long run, an ineffective weapon. His rejection of violence stemmed from choice, not from necessity.
Horace Alexander, who knew Gandhi and saw him in action, graphically describes the attitude of the non-violent resister to his opponent: “On your side you have al the mighty forces of the modern State, arms, money, a controlled press, and all the rest. On my side, I have nothing but my conviction of right and truth, the unquenchable spirit of man, who is prepared to die for his convictions than submit to your brute force. I have my comrades in armlessness. Here we stand; and here if need be, we fall.” Far from being a craven retreat from difficulty and danger, non-violent resistance demands courage of a high order, the courage to resist injustice without rancour, to unite the utmost firmness with the utmost gentleness, to invite suffering but not to inflict it, to die but not to kill.
Gandhi did not make the facile division of mankind into “good” and “bad”. He was convinced that every human being—even the “enemy”—had a kernel of decency: there were only evil acts, no wholly evil men. His technique of Satyagraha was designed not to coerce the opponent, but to set into motion forces which could lead to his conversion. Relying as it did on persuasion and compromise, Gandhi’s method was not always quick in producing results, but the results were likely to be the more durable for having been brought about peacefully. “It is my firm conviction,” Gandhi affirmed, “that nothing enduring can be built upon violence.” The rate of social change through the non-violent technique was not in fact likely to be much slower than that achieved by violent methods; it was definitely faster that that expected from the normal functioning of institutions which tended to fossilize and preserve the status quo.
Gandhi did not think it possible to bring about radical change in the structure of society overnight. Nor did he succumb to the illusion that the road to a new order could be paved merely with pious wishes and fine words. It was not enough to blame the opponent or bewail the times in which one’s lot was cast. However heavy the odds, it was the Satyagrahi’s duty never to feel helpless. The least he could do was to make a beginning with himself. If he was crusading for a new deal for peasantry, he could go to a village and live there. If he wanted to bring peace to a disturbed district, he could walk through it, entering into the minds and hearts of those who were going through the ordeal. If an age-old evil like untouchability was to be fought, what could be a more effective symbol of defiance for a reformer than to adopt an untouchable child? If the object was to challenge foreign rule, why not act on the assumption that the country was already free, ignore the alien government and build alternative institutions to harness the spontaneous, constructive and cooperative effort of the people? If the goal was world peace, why not begin today by acting peacefully towards the immediate neighbour, going more than half way to understand and win him over?
Though he may have appeared a starry-eyed idealist to some, Gandhi’s attitude to social and political problems was severely practical. There was a deep mystical streak in him, but even his mysticism seemed to have little of the ethereal about it. He did not dream heavenly dreams nor see things unutterable in trance; when “the still small voice’ spoke to him, it was often to tell how he could fight a social evil or heal a rift between two warring communities. Far from distracting him from his role in public affairs, Gandhi’s religious quest gave him the stamina to play it more effectively. To him true religion was not merely the reading of scriptures, the dissection of ancient texts, or even the practice of cloistered virtue: it had to be lived in the challenging context of political and social life.
Gandhi used his non-violent technique on behalf of his fellow-countrymen in South Africa and India, but he did not conceive it only as a weapon in the armoury of Indian nationalism. On the other hand, he fashioned it as an instrument for righting of wrongs and resolving of conflicts between opposing groups, races and nations. It is a strange paradox that though the stoutest and perhaps the most successful champion of the revolt against colonialism in our time, Gandhi was free from the taint of narrow nationalism. As early as 1924, he had declared that “the better mind of the world desires today, not absolutely independent states, warring one against another, but a federation of independent, of friendly interdependent states”. Even before the first world war had revealed the disastrous results of the combination of industrialism and nationalism, he had become a convert to the idea that violence between nation-states must be completely abjured.
In 1931, during his visit to England, a cartoon in the Star depicted him in a loin cloth beside Mussolini, Hitler, de Valera and Stalin, who were clad is black, brown, green and red shirts respectively. The caption, “And he ain’t wearin’ any bloomin’ shirt at all” was not only literally but figuratively true. For a man of non-violence, who believed in the brotherhood of man, there was no superficial division of nations into good and bad, allies and adversaries. This did not, however, mean that Gandhi did not distinguish between the countries which inflicted and the countries which feared violence. His own life had been one long struggle the countries which suffered violence. His on life had been one long struggle against the forces of violence, and Satyagraha was designed at once to eschew violence and to fight injustice.
In the years immediately preceding the Second World War, when the tide of Nazi and Fascist aggression was relentlessly rolling forward, Gandhi had reasserted his faith in non-violence and commended it to the smaller nations which were living in daily dread of being overwhelmed by superior force. Thought the pages of his weekly paper the Harijan, he expounded the non-violent approach to military aggression and political tyranny. He advised the weaker nations to defend themselves not by increasing their fighting potential, but by non-violent resistance to the aggressor. When Czechoslovakia was black-mailed into submission in September 1938, Gandhi suggested to the unfortunate Czechs: “There is no bravery greater that a resolute refusal to bend the knee to an earthly power, no matter how great, and that without bitterness of spirit, and in the fullness of faith that the spirit alone lives, nothing else does.”
Seven years later when the first atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Negasaki, Gandhi’s reaction was characteristic: “I did not move a muscle. On the contrary, I said to myself that unless now the world adopts non-violence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind.” The irony of the very perfection of the weapons of war rendering them useless as arbiters between nations has become increasingly clear during the last twenty years. The atomic stockpiles which the major nuclear powers have already built up are capable of destroying civilization, as we know it, several times over, and peace has been precariously preserved by, what has been grimly termed, “the balance of atomic terror.” The fact is that with the weapons of mass destruction, which are at hand now, to attack another nation is tantamount to attacking oneself. This is a bitter truth which old habits of thought have prevented from going home. “The splitting of the atom has changed everything” bewailed Einstein, “save our modes of thinking and thus we drift towards unparalleled catastrophe.”
Non-violence, as Gandhi expounded it, has ceased to be a pious exhortation, and become a necessity. The advice he gave to the unfortunate Abyssinians and Czechs during the twilight years before the Second World War, may have seemed utopian thirty years ago. Today, it sounds commonsense. Even such hard-headed strategists such as Sir Stephen King-Hall have begun to see in Gandhi’s method a possible alternative to suicidal violence.
Gandhi would have been the first to deny that his method offered an instant or universal panacea for world peace. His method is capable of almost infinite evolution to suit new situations in a changing world. Joan Bondurant, a student of Gandhi’s techniques has suggested that applied non-violence is at present at the same stage of development “as the invention of electricity was in the days of Edison and Marconi.” The lives—and deaths—of Chief Lithuli and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have recently reminded us that there is nothing esoteric about non-violence, limiting it to a particular country or period. Indeed Tagore, the great contemporary and friend of Gandhi, prophesied that the West would accept Gandhi before the East, “for the West has gone through the cycle of dependence on force and material things of life and has become disillusioned. They want a return to the spirit. The East has not yet gone through materialism and hence has not become so disillusioned.”