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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

One man had the answer for today’s troubles: Gandhi | Opinion

His humanism, blend of tradition and modernity, concern for the weakest are needed to deal with challenges

analysis Updated: Oct 23, 2019 18:57 IST
Renata Dessallien
Renata Dessallien
The injustices Gandhi fought against are still creating disparities in income, wealth, education, health, personal safety
The injustices Gandhi fought against are still creating disparities in income, wealth, education, health, personal safety(REUTERS)

In his recent remarks on Mahatma Gandhi and the contemporary world, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres said, “Part of his genius lay in his ability to see the interconnectedness and the unity between all things. His political achievements included leading the movement that ended colonial rule in India, using peace, love and integrity to prevail. But his vision went far beyond politics to encompass human rights and sustainable development.”

Today, I see how far we have come in the past century. After two terrible world wars, countries across Asia and Africa declared their independence. India won its freedom. And the India of today can be proud of its record of 17 successive free elections; of universal adult suffrage; of the abolition of untouchability; of the verve, passion and creativity that propel its young people towards enterprise and service, and much more.

Much of this was inspired by Gandhi and the moral authority of his philosophy of satyagraha. Because, while Gandhi fought for India’s Independence, for the rights of his disenfranchised compatriots, he stood, through the sheer moral force of his example, for a hope shared by those weary of war — a hope of a better life. In his person and methods, India’s nationalism was, in effect, universalism.

In over a century since Gandhi returned to India, a billion people have been lifted out of poverty, more babies are surviving to become adolescents, more children are going to school, fewer have to live in fear of being targeted because of their race or sexuality.

But we cannot fail, in our appreciation for what has gone right, to recognise the ways in which we continue to fall short and, in some instances, have even reversed prior gains. Today, consensus enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is fraying, even as the politics of fear and resentment takes root. Our world teeters on the brink of disaster brought on by anthropogenic climate change and unsustainable practices. Too many continue to go without, while too much is owned by too few. Privilege still determines opportunity. The structures of power and injustice Gandhi fought against mutated, but they are still there, creating yawning disparities in income, wealth, education, health, personal safety, access to finance and opportunity. And to set off once again on the path to greater prosperity and freedom for all, to leave no one behind, we must turn, once again, to Gandhi.

If the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that all nations are committed to achieving by 2030, are the world’s toughest to-do list, it is Gandhi who provides us with the tools to check the list off. These 17 SDGs mark a recognition of the interconnectedness of the challenges we face today — and we can only solve them together.

Our old lenses do not quite fit — we need multifocals, perhaps, to look into the future, informed by the past, and grounded in the present. Gandhi’s endless innovation and tinkering, his reconciliation of tradition and a deeply egalitarian modernity, signpost the paths not yet taken — the ones we must now take.

We’re already seeing how his ideas today, in the 21st century, effect massive change. India has channelled his image and emphasis on cleanliness to implement one of the largest sanitation drives in the world. Gandhi’s innovations in staging non-violent protest today inform social movements, from “Occupy” to “Fridays for Future”, in New Delhi and New York and everywhere in between. His concept of trusteeship finds echoes in our concerns about economic inequality — and of leaving no one behind. And his determination that the land we live off is not an inheritance from our forefathers, but in fact a loan from our children that we hold in trust for them, forms the core of modern ecological thought.

In his profoundly holistic vision of life is the blueprint for sustainable development — a radical humanism that rejects untamed consumption and production and embraces needs over wants. Gandhi’s life and his prolific work touch on every aspect of human life — caste, gender, religion, technology, the economy, literature, nationalism and colonialism — and in his ruminations and experiments, we can find a greater truth: The personal is political, each individual has inherent dignity and worth, and, in these universal imperatives, is our path to a better future in which there is no politics without principles, commerce without morality, or science without humanity.

Today, on this UN Day, we recommit ourselves to those same ideals, which resonate so well with those enshrined in our United Nations Charter.

Renata Dessallien is the UN resident coordinator in India
The views expressed are personal