Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the early nationalist leader whom Gandhiji called his political guru, hailed him as being “without doubt made of the stuff of which heroes and martyrs are made”.
What is it about brand Gandhi that casts its spell on all, high and low? Government advertisements are incomplete without his glasses; Bharat cannot be made swachh (clean) without his help. Arundhati Roy complains that dalit activists spent more words on him than on Ambedkar while introducing a book written by the latter. He surfaced in popular cinema as a friendly adviser to Munnabhai, and in serious biopics by Shyam Benegal and Richard Attenborough. Tracts by Gene Sharp—an American scholar who has spent a lifetime analysing and propagating Gandhian methods of nonviolent struggle—were distributed in thousands and read avidly at the barricades of the Arab Spring in Cairo.
Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the early nationalist leader whom Gandhiji called his political guru, hailed him as being “without doubt made of the stuff of which heroes and martyrs are made”. More importantly, he noted: “He has in him the marvellous spiritual power to turn ordinary men around him into heroes and martyrs.” It was his success in devising satyagraha, a method of turning ordinary people into heroes and martyrs, that gave him the ability to influence decisively the history of India and of the world. For Gandhiji, the heart and soul of satyagraha was resistance, resistance against injustice, against discrimination, against oppression. It encompasses a vast array of forms of struggle, ranging from noncooperation, such as by returning titles and awards, boycotting schools and colleges, picketing foreign cloth and liquor shops, to civil disobedience in the form of nonpayment of taxes, breaking oppressive laws by selling banned literature, making salt, defying Section 144.
Gandhiji’s basic weapon for the empowerment of the people, the masses, was the participation of the people, in millions, in nonviolent political action. For him, nonviolence was important not only as a moral value, but because it enabled and necessitated the participation of the people. A nonviolent movement could only be successful if it had mass participation, and mass participation could only be secured if the movement was nonviolent, thus ran the Gandhian dialectic. To a crowd which came to the ashram on March 10, a day before the beginning of the Dandi March in 1930, he explained the power of nonviolent mass civil disobedience thus: “Supposing ten persons in each of the 7,00,000 villages in India came forward to manufacture salt and to disobey the Salt Act, what do you think this government can do? Even the worst autocrat you can imagine would not dare to blow regiments of peaceful civil resisters out of a cannon’s mouth. If only you will bestir yourself just a little, I assure you we should be able to tire this government out in a very short time.”
Gandhiji demonstrated in movement after movement how nonviolent satyagraha worked by placing the government in a no-win situation. If it did not suppress a movement that brazenly defied its laws, its authority would be undermined and, if it suppressed it, it would be seen as a brutal, anti-people administration that used violence on nonviolent agitators. In either case, it was the government that suffered a blow to its prestige.
“If we do too much, Congress will cry ‘repression’ … if we do too little, Congress will cry ‘victory’,” is how C.F.V. Williams, a British civil servant based in Madras, expressed the dilemma in early 1930.
Gandhiji himself pointed out how nonviolent struggle was the choice of the brave, not of the weak. In his Hind Swaraj, Gandhiji wrote: “What do you think? Wherein is courage required—in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon, or with a smiling face to approach a cannon and be blown to pieces?”
That the path of nonviolent struggle charted out by Gandhiji was taken by countless other movements after his death shows the enormous influence wielded by his work. The civil rights movement in the US led by Martin Luther King Jr was the first and most well known of these. In western Europe, the peace movement and the green movement, and in eastern Europe, the Polish Solidarity movement led by Lech Walesa, are other examples. Also of note are the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up after the end of apartheid, which evolved as a truly Gandhian institution to promote reconciliation rather than revenge, but on the basis of truth. Other movements for democracy such as in South Korea, the Philippines, the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and, most recently the Arab Spring, were cast in a similar mould. In India, as well, grassroots movements such as Chipko and Narmada Bachao for saving the environment, movements for right to information, food, education, for child rights and for land rights continue to be guided by the same principles.
We can also never forget that he was martyred for his cause of secularism. The hindutva brigade which planned the conspiracy and the assassin who gunned him down believed that he was the chief obstacle to the setting up of a Hindu rashtra after partition. And they were right. From October 1946, when communal violence began to spread, Gandhiji devoted all his energies to the taming of the communal monster. In Noakhali, where he spent four months in remote villages, in Bihar, in Calcutta, in Delhi, he was on call as the ‘one man boundary force’. His commitment to secularism was absolute. The call for Quit India in 1942 was accompanied by his unequivocal declaration: “Free India will be no Hindu Raj, it will be Indian Raj based not on the majority of any religious sect or community but on the representatives of the whole people without distinction of religion.” (Harijan, August 1942.) In November 1947, when the clamour for Hindu rashtra was very loud, he said: “The state was bound to be wholly secular” and the “state of our conception must be a secular, democratic state.” (Harijan, 31 November 1947.) In August 1947, he had already made it clear, “If a minority in India, minority on the score of its religious profession, was made to feel small on that account, he could only say that this India was not the India of his dreams.” (D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, p.56.) His life and martyrdom continue to inspire and empower those who are striving towards the India (and the world) of his dreams.
Mridula Mukherjee was professor of history at JNU and director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.