The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 30, 2000
Lead Article

Now we need him more than ever before

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948. More than half-a-century after his death, Gandhism still rings true. Bharat Dogra delves into the spirit and meaning of his message.

IN these fast changing times, it is by itself a mark of greatness if what a person says retains its relevance more than five to ten decades later. But if this relevance appears to increase further with each passing year, we can be sure that this person had that rare foresight to capture the basic issue behind the veil of fast moving events and technology. Mahatma Gandhi was that rare leader who emphasised problems and evolved strategies to counter them. These would become increasingly relevant even after his death.

One of the basic and enduring causes of distress is that human relationships (as well as other relationships, such as the relationship between human beings and nature) are based on dominance. Wealth, income, use of natural resources etc. are all heavily concentrated in a few hands, and despite the formal spread of democracy, there is a strong effort to keep a matching balance of political power in favour of a few privileged people or groups. These inequalities and dominance create a lot of distress and provide the basic cause of conflict.

In Gandhi’s time, colonial rule was the most obvious and blatant manifestation of this dominance. After a lot of thought and experimentation, Gandhi evolved his method of peaceful resistance. This method was based on a determined resistance of injustice but only by peaceful methods. The activist who uses this method is expected to acquire a higher moral standing which increases his or her real strength even though he or she is weak and without weapons. In the process of preparing for and enduring this hardship, the volunteer -activist experiences spiritual development. This spiritual strength spreads to other members of the community. On the other hand, the moral weakness of the opponent is exposed. Gradually within the opponent’s camp there is a grudging but growing opposition to the use of brute force against the peaceful movement.

  It is unlikely that things will always work along this pattern. Gandhi himself was not always satisfied with the way the movements launched by him and his colleagues progressed. Nevertheless, even with its weaknesses, this method of peaceful resistance provides a wonderful new tool in the hands of the oppressed, giving them new strength and opening new possibilities before them.

This was recently (1999) confirmed by no less a person than Nelson Mandela when he wrote, "The Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged among the apparently powerless. Non-violence was the official stance of all major African coalitions, and the South African A.N.C. remained implacably opposed to violence for most of its existence".

Even though Mandela went on to explain why A.N.C. later had to use some violence, that too as a last resort, his statement above is a tribute to the usefulness of Gandhian methods for many anti-colonialism struggles other than India. Later, the civil rights movement in the USA under the leadership of Martin Luther King also benefited from Gandhian methods.

As the destructive power of modern weapons grows and they become increasingly accessible to terrorists, the relevance of Gandhiji’s message increases. The Gandhian message — that peaceful, spiritually uplifting methods of opposing injustice are available —has the additional advantage of giving ample opportunity and time to know and discuss each other’s point of view.

In the area of economics, it may appear at first glance that with increasing globalisation the Gandhian emphasis on self-reliance of the village is losing its relevance. The reality is that the significance of the self-reliance of village communities has actually increased. Globalisation has brought increasing uncertainty and the threat of instability to many developing countries. In such a situation, if the community in a village is self-reliant and the economy is rural based, then we can further ensure the resilience and stability of a nation and its people even in the face of destabilising globalisation trends.

Similarly, self-reliance of the village can provide livelihood and basic needs of all the people. Thus, this shields them from the disturbing impact of foreign debts, structural adjustments and volatile movements of global capital.

As Nelson Mandela says, "A great measure of world poverty today, and African poverty in particular, is due to the continuing dependence on foreign markets for manufactured goods, which undermines domestic production and dams up domestic skills, apart from piling up unmanageable foreign debts. Gandhi’s insistence on self-sufficiency is a basic economic principle that, if followed today, could contribute significantly to alleviating Third World poverty and stimulating development." (Time Magazine).

Another great virtue, perhaps the greatest virtue of Gandhian economics, is that it is in complete harmony with the needs for environmental protection. Today there is frequent talk of conflict between the compulsions of economic development and environment protection, but there is no such conflict in Gandhian economics.

In this context, two key statements of Gandhi need to be stressed. The first statement provides a guideline on how development choices should be made. The Mahatma told policy-makers and others that whenever you are in doubt "recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him? Will it restore him to control over his own life and destiny?"

In other words, the needs of the poorest people should receive the top-most priority in development planning.

The second key statement of Mahatma Gandhi tells us that while the basic needs of all people should be met, there should also be consciousness regarding placing a limit on consumption. Although the pressures on nature had not become so acute in Gandhi’s lifetime and there were no scares either of ozone depletion or climatic change, this wise man had the foresight to see that our planet’s capacity is not infinite and some restraint will have to be placed on how much pressure we can place on its air, water, forests and minerals.

Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Nature has enough to satisfy the needs of everyone but nothing to satisfy the greed of even a few". Due to the unequal distribution of power, it is possible for a relatively small number of people to corner an extremely large share of the earth’s resources. According to recent data, (United Nations Development Programme, 1996), the net worth of 358 richest people of the world is equal to the combined income of the poorest 45 per cent of the world’s population or 2.3 billion people. The richest 20 per cent of the world’s people corner 85 per cent of the world’s income. People in industrial countries consume nearly nine times as much commercial energy per capita as people in developing countries.

Gandhi stated quite clearly that the greed of even a few people, their tendency to pursue a highly affluent and wasteful lifestyle, can prove very destructive to nature. This is evident today in the global warming crisis, very high levels of air and water pollution and various other alarming aspects of ecological ruin. The Gandhian solution to the environment crisis is to clearly curb this greed of the few.

If we can convince the richest people of the desirability of not increasing their consumption and accumulation beyond a point, it will reduce the pressure on nature and help us to protect environment. In addition, it will become easier to meet the needs of the poor.

In view of the enormity of the environment crisis, it is important today to speak of an "environment space" within which economic and industrial activity should be contained if it is not to become destructive. When the richest people vacate some of this space by reducing their consumption, it becomes easier to meet the basic needs of poorest people.

The two most important challenges of our time are protecting environment and meeting the basic needs of all. The Gandhian response to both challenges is simple and similar — release resources from the grip of the very rich people so that the needs of the poor can be met.

The lifestyle of the richest people is attractive and so it soon becomes a model for others. Mahatma Gandhi said clearly that this is a model not worth emulating because it is destructive to nature. Instead, he tried throughout his life to experiment with low-cost food, farming, education and medicare which could meet the needs of all people.

Mahatma Gandhi did not have access to the extensive data on ozone depletion, acid rain, biodiversity loss and climate change which is available to scientists and scholars today. But his quest for deeper truth of life had taken him to a higher state of understanding from where he could anticipate some of the greatest threats that could be faced by humanity. His understanding of the ecological crisis was much ahead of his times and is still of great relevance today in solving some of humankind’s most pressing problems.Top


Thus spake Bapu

Ahimsa and truth are as my two lungs. I cannot live without them.

Action for one’s own self binds, action for the sake of others delivers from bondage.

The best way of losing a cause is to abuse your opponent and to trade upon his weakness.

My Gita tells me that evil can never result from good actions.

To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.

For India to enter into the race for armaments is to court suicide.

Purity of life is the highest and truest art.

Brahmacharya means control of the senses in thought, word and deed.

I do not regard capital to be the enemy of labour.

The charkha in the hands of a poor widow brings a paltry price to her, in the hand of a Jawaharlal, it is an instrument of India’s freedom.

Civilisation is not an incurable disease, but it should never be forgotten that the English people are at present afflicted by it.

Corruption and hypocrisy ought not to be inevitable products of democracy, as they undoubtedly are today.

The truest test of civilisation, culture and dignity is character and not clothing.

Terrorism and deception are weapons not of the strong but of the weak.

Remember that no political programme can stand without the constructive programme.

I would dance with joy if I had to give up politics.