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Gandhi on our minds

The main reason for the world’s continuing love affair with the extraordinary Gandhi was his seeming ordinariness, writes Abhishek Singhvi.
None | By Abhishek Singhvi
UPDATED ON OCT 03, 2007 04:58 AM IST

So much has been written on M.K. Gandhi that it would be presumptuous to attempt to contribute any insight into this complex personality. But each time he recedes into the recesses of history and we begin to think of him merely as a historical icon, Gandhi surprises everyone by bouncing back with ever-increasing relevance.

The main reason for the world’s continuing love affair with the extraordinary Gandhi was his seeming ordinariness. Despite his inherent powers and potentialities, he has also been fallible and vulnerable. His Experiments with Truth is at least partially a confessional code, a saga of human frailties and inadequacies. The greatness of Gandhi lies in him having overcome these through sheer willpower and a constant urge to evolve to a higher level of existence. The ordinary man can relate to him immediately and take solace from the fact that with the three Ps — patience, persuasion and perseverance — almost everything can be conquered.

The second reason is his success in eliminating the hiatus between preaching and practice. Whether it be cleaning toilets in his South African ashram or walking amidst the mayhem of Noakhali, Gandhi enlightened, energised and educated through direct action.

The third was his ability to invent an operational concept and generate a mass movement from the simplest of things. He was a remarkable visionary, but unlike other such people, he could instantly provide the vehicle to operationalise his vision. The transformation of the railway platform episode into the atom bomb of ‘satyagraha’ or the expansion of a banal activity like salt production into the Dandi march (and into the epitome of non-cooperation) could only have been achieved by an extraordinary leap of the imagination.

The fourth was his ability to win over foes and adversaries as much as friends and followers by the sheer enveloping force of his love and compassion, his refusal to be provoked and his innate humility. I can only attribute Gandhi’s grit and determination to the years he spent in self-denial. His velvet glove won admirers and accolades, but it concealed an iron fist that came from a combination of the courage of his convictions and of subjecting his body to several hardships. His ability to withstand months of solitary confinement, weeks without food, the rigours of long marches and the pain of British batons came from a physical frame honed by years of training to become no less resilient than the muscular frame of marathon runners, boxers and weightlifters.

Gandhi also intuitively practised what President Roosevelt said was the “chief lesson of his life” — the “only way one can make a man trustworthy is to trust him and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show one’s distrust”.

The operational relevance of Gandhi and his ideas is huge. Non-violence has been a philosophical foundation of Jainism and Buddhism, but Gandhi fashioned it into an unprecedented political and social tool. It continues to be a real-life concept, used by disparate leaders, regimes, religions and cultures.

In leading India’s independence movement for over 30 years, Gandhi has been the world’s greatest anti-imperialist. His emphasis on the Ds — devolution and decentralisation — has inspired movements of self-reliance. It was his dream to achieve the Ds through the three Fs — devolution of functions, functionaries and finances. He has been an environmentalist par excellence and practised sustainable development and inter-generational environmental equity at least 50 years before they became buzzwords.

His highlighting of the plight of Dalits — even if one may quibble over his somewhat patronising approach to Harijans — generated the world’s biggest movement for empowerment and affirmative action. His approach to democracy is what has made India, at least in principle, an inclusive democracy, encapsulating its diversities of race, ethnicity, identity, caste, religion, sex and language in the crucial words ‘humanistic pluralism’ or, if you like, ‘pluralistic humanism’. His fearless and forthright plunge into national reconciliation between India’s majority and its minorities — which cost him his life — was not limited to religion, but was designed to win over the hearts and minds of people.

One finds echoes of the same ethics in South Africa’s ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ and Nelson Mandela’s healing touch, which alone has prevented the eruption of the politics of vendetta in the country and preserved it as a united nation. In all this, Gandhi exemplified, lived and exuded the three Es — empowerment, enrichment and entitlement.

Sixth, the universality of Gandhi’s message proves its validity. The Gandhian footprint has enveloped leaders and cultures astonishingly diverse. From Martin Luther King Jr to the Dalai Lama, from an oppressed Mandela (in his ANC days) to his oppressor F.W. de Klerk, who publicly acknowledged Gandhi’s influence, from Myanmar’s Aung San Sui Kyi to Al Gore, the list is endless and growing.

One can understand how omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent Gandhi is by noting that currently, the Brazilian police in Sao Paolo is undertaking a project to study Gandhian methods of non-violence and the use of pacifist techniques to achieve justice.

Abhishek Singhvi is MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and Senior Advocate.

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