Gandhian nonviolence is widely believed to be the method by which India gained independence. (The view is assiduously fostered inside India as well as outside it.) Yet the Indian revolution did indeed become violence, and this violence so disappointed Mahatma Gandhi that he stayed away from the Independence celebrations in protest. Moreover, the ruinous economic impact of World War II on Britain and – as British writer Patrick French says in his book Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division – the gradual collapse of the Raj’s bureaucratic hold over India from the mid ’30’s onward did as much to bring about freedom as any action of Gandhi’s. It is probable, in fact, that Gandhian techniques were not the key determinants of India’s arrival at freedom. They gave independence its outward character and were its apparent cause, but darker and deeper historical forces produced the desired effect.
These days few people pause to consider the complex character of Mahatma Gandhi’s personality, the ambiguous nature of his achievement and legacy, or even the real cause of Indian independence. These are hurried, sloganizing times, and we don’t have the time or, worse, the inclination to assimilate many-sided truths. The harshest truth of all is that Mahatma Gandhi is increasingly irrelevant in the country whose “little father” – Bapu – he was. As the analyst Sunil Khilnani has pointed out, India came into being a secularized state, but Gandhi’s vision was essentially religious. However, he “recoiled” from Hindu nationalism. His solution was to forge an Indian identity out of the shared body of ancient narratives. “He turned to the legends and stories from the India’s popular religious traditions, preferring their lessons to the supposed ones of the history”.
It didn’t work. In today’s India, Hindu nationalism is rampant in the form of the Bhartiya Janta Party. During the recent elections, Gandhi and his ideas have scarcely been mentioned.
In the early 1970s the writer Ved Mehta spoke to one of Gandhi’s leading political associates, a former Governor-General of independent India, C. Rajagopalachari. His verdict on Gandhi’s legacy is disenchanted, but in today’s India, on the fast track to free-market capitalism, it still rings true: “The glamour of modern technology, money, and power is to seductive that no one – I mean no one – can resist it. The handful of Gandhian who still believe in his philosophy of a simple life in a simple society are mostly cranks”.
What, then is greatness? In what does it reside? If a man’s project fails, or survives only in irredeemably tarnished form, can the force of his example still merit the extreme accolade? For Jawaharlal Nehru, the defining image of Gandhi was “as I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dandi on the Salt March in 1930. Here was the pilgrim on his quest of truth, quite, peaceful, determined, and fearless, who would continue that quest and pilgrimage, regardless of consequences”. Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi later said, “More than his words, his life was his message”. These days, that message is better heeded outside India. Albert Einstein was one of many to praise Gandhi’s achievement; Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, and all the world’s peace movement have followed in his footsteps. Mahatma Gandhi, who gave up cosmopolitanism to gain a prove resilient, smart, tough, sneaky and, yes, ethical enough to avoid assimilation by global Mc Culture (Mac culture too). Against this new empire, Gandhian intelligence is a better weapon than Gandhian piety. And passive resistance? We’ll see.