The Greatest Indian Ever
Today is Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. As Albert Einstein said of him, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” Over the past three weeks, Hindustan Times has looked back at Gandhi’s life, beliefs, contribution to nation-building, family and associates, the places which punctuated his journey, and what he continues to mean to us, and to the world.
What made Gandhi so remarkable? The first was the sheer longevity of his public life. From the mid-1890s, when he decided to struggle for the rights of Indians in South Africa, till he drew his last breath in January 1948, Gandhi’s political life spanned more than half a century. But it was not just the duration. It was also the breadth of his public engagements. Each year, each month, each day was spent in either thinking, writing, or mobilising people, in the quest for truth. His life was an open book. There has never been a leader as transparent about his private life down to the minutest personal detail, his public activities, and methods and objectives as the Mahatma was.
The second was the quality of this public life. Gandhi dealt with every big question of his time: Colonialism and the battle against it; the meaning of being an Indian; the diversity of India’s social landscape; caste and religion; war and peace; the value of labour; economic organisation of society; and the most meaningful way to live one’s life. Gandhi wrote extensively on each theme, but did not merely deal with it at an abstract level. He translated it into reality. From living the ashram life to focusing on constructive work, from mobilising masses to gently arguing with his critics, Gandhi lived out his beliefs.
Gandhi also brought a set of values which changed the complexion of Indian public life. Democracy — for it was the Mahatma who, driven by his deep faith in human wisdom, deepened the roots of the Indian freedom struggle and took it beyond elite confines. Non-violence — for this was both an article of faith for Gandhi since he could see the ethical corrosion that came with violence, as well as a shrewd tactical ploy because he realised that the adversary had a more violent apparatus to quell a violent, even if just, movement. And, Satyagraha — for Gandhi realised that, while sticking to non-violence, there was no substitute for political struggle and came up with an innovative method to resist colonialism.
And finally, Gandhi brought a staggering degree of empathy and understanding for everyone — those who opposed him, those who came from different religious backgrounds, and those whose concerns were distinct from his. It was this understanding that allowed him to construct an umbrella coalition that took the form of the Indian National Congress. It was this understanding which enabled him to construct a coalition of individuals within his team — from a Jawaharlal Nehru to a Vallabhbhai Patel to a Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to a Rajendra Prasad — who may all have come from different political persuasions but were united in their devotion to him and the common goal of freedom. It was this understanding of the “other” that made him a truly secular hero, who was rooted in his own Hindu traditional idiom but could see the indispensability of Hindu-Muslim unity for India to flourish. It was also this understanding that made him recognise the struggles of the “untouchables” and the need for radical reform in Hindu society.
This does not mean that Gandhi was infallible. He made errors, most acutely on the question of race and caste. In his early years in South Africa, Gandhi was swayed by the times and saw Africans as an inferior race, although his views evolved over time. In India, Gandhi took a long time to move from a defence of the caste system to recognising its oppressive features — and, even then, did not see it as a key political question which required an overhaul in the entire system of representation. His outlook and prescription on the economy had a certain romantic allure that did not take into account both the exploitative characteristics of the typical Indian village and what was needed to lift millions out of poverty.
But the Mahatma’s public life; his engagements; his transparency; his values; his response to themes that continue to animate the world today; his compassion; and his belief in pluralism, truth and peace made India what it is. He remains the conscience of the nation, and the greatest moral figure of modern history. The best tribute today would be to safeguard his vision.