Illustration: Rajesh KC /  January 2006, Himal Southasian
Illustration: Rajesh KC / January 2006, Himal Southasian

Relevance of the middle path: Rediscovering Gandhi for all Southasia

Attribute it to the power of the Empire, but Southasians have no hesitation in embracing Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, Marx or Mao as their own. In one country where the Turkish Ataturk is a role-model of "enlightened moderation", the proponent of real enlightened moderation is an 'Indian'. In the countryside of another Southasian nation where the guns rule, the epitome of courage with conscience is seldom remembered. Is it a deep-seated inferiority complex which makes Southasians oblivious of the legacy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi? From South Africa to the United States, proponents of peaceful protests draw their inspiration from the pioneer of ahimsa. But most Southasians look at him through the tinted glasses of bigoted nationalism and see a nationalist 'Indian'. Within India itself, Gandhi is consigned to history textbooks and his values dismissed as romanticism in the power corridors of Delhi and the state capitals. However, more than a concerted effort to rehabilitate his memory, it is the needs of the time that will establish the primacy of Gandhi as a Southasian ideal who foresaw the complexities of the region and devised a middle path to face the challenges of the future. His legacy is a shared Southasian heritage and the region will discover his relevance as it enters into yet another turbulent phase in its history.

These are sanguine times for some Southasians. Unocal alumnus Hamid Karzai has declared the dethroned King Zahir Shah the Father of the Afghanistan nation, once destroyed and then rebuilt to the specifications of US Pacific Command. Bangladesh is happy being at the centre of SAARC and BIMSTEC, two sets of idiosyncratic alphabet mixes that stand for largely ceremonial organisations. Bhutan is enthralled by the prospect of democracy which King Jigme Singye Wangchuk has promised to introduce by 2008. The Burmese junta has just shifted its capital to correct the feng shui and entrench itself further. India isn't exactly shining, but some Indians are certainly gloating over the prospect of becoming the back office of the world in the next one, two, or three decades depending upon whether you are talking to a free-market fundamentalist, a socialist planner or a self-proclaimed pragmatist; they all seem to share the same brahminical dream of making it big without getting their hands dirty.

Pakistan is content with a general-in-sherwani espousing enlightened moderation on the strength of a couple of F16s with nuclear capabilities. Nepal is rediscovering its golden days of "monarchical democracy" by importing Chinese arms. President Mahinda Rajapakse of Sri Lanka is proud to have ridden the wave of anti-LTTE sentiments in the South even though his victory has put the peace process of Serendib in peril. All in all, the power elite of Southasia is happy and content. Very few, too few it seems, have the time or inclination to remember the frail old man in dhoti striding the length and breadth of the Subcontinent with a toothless smile on his face. But just as these are the best of times for some, there are many others for whom these are the worst of times. In a region where paradoxes are the rule rather than the exception, the Dickensian metaphor of two cities is the most accurate description of everyday reality. Just below the shine of the thin silver lining, there is the reality of an unpredictable dark cloud hovering over Southasia.

The al-Qaeda organisation recently claimed, with some justification it seems, that it still holds large swaths of Afghan territory under its control. An Islamist upsurge threatens Bangladesh, a country that grew out of violent conflicts, first for religious homogeneity and then for independent cultural identity. The racial regime of the Drukpa in Bhutan has refused to mend fences with the Lhotsampa it forced to flee. The deepening grip of the Burmese junta is enticing its neighbouring countries into dealing with an abhorrent regime. The democratic decay in the biggest democracy of the world has become quite alarming: members of Parliament guzzle local development funds and accept bribes in order to raise questions in the Lower House. The royal-military rule in Nepal is digging in its heel. The unity of Sri Lanka's people stands threatened. The dilution of Tibetan culture will be a great loss of all human heritages, but most Southasians appear blissfully unaware of the processes that have been unleashed by Beijing upon the roof of the world.

This is the time when the modern apostle of peaceful resistance needs to be rediscovered. M K Gandhi's ideas were extremely powerful during the independence struggles of Southasia. His beliefs and methods are even more important today in a region passing through the pangs of adulthood – decomposing democracy, arrogant autocracy, insecure intelligentsia, boastful business, and violent conflicts are actually symptoms of the coming of age of a region that had remained mired in orthodoxy and hopelessness for centuries. When status quo is too oppressive and change threatens to tear the place apart, Gandhi's vision beckons like the proverbial light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. But first, a powerful myth must be broken to reclaim Gandhi for entire Southasia. Indians have done a great disservice to the Mahatma by appropriating his legacy for a truncated Bharat that is India. Gandhi was an apostle of a non-brahminic tradition whose teachings and practices are the common heritage of humanity. Every Southasian has as much right to stake a claim upon his teachings as any flag-waving Bhartiya.

Misunderstood messiah
Any attempt to depict the teachings of the Mahatma in a hurry would be inherently preposterous. After all, his own writings span 100 collected volumes and there are numerous other works which delve into his work and thought. Unable to access the true depth of his life and message, his legions of admirers do the next best thing – they portray him  through epigrammatic quotations often lifted and quoted completely out of context. From the mischievous ("I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.") to the rhetorical ("What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty and democracy?") and from the banal ("It is unwise to be too sure of one's wisdom") to the profound ("Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it's very important that you do it.") – all kinds of quotable quotes have been picked up and paraded according to the bias of the presenter. So much so that Gandhi has become some kind of an emblem of the high-end alternative lifestyle where laptops are Macs, khadi serves for silk, watches are handcrafted but in Zurich, and there is no taboo on sipping wine from paper cups. These 'Page Three Gandhians' of jet-set Hindistan have done more harm to the memory of the Mahatma than the armies of RSS swayamsevaks doing callisthenics in Khaki shorts. Caricature too is a form of tribute, but not when the object of spoof is too complex to be understood through inexpert simplification.

Presenting Gandhi as the 'Father of the Nation' of India was one of the most gross simplifications made by the otherwise erudite Jawaharlal Nehru, with his own visions of Indian grandeur. In fact, that appelation rightfully belonged to Chacha Nehru himself more than to anyone else. Along with Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, it was Nehru who wanted an independent India even at the cost of its division. Nehru probably thought that he was paying his mentor a tribute by having him declared the father of the independent but truncated territory that became present-day India. In fact, that title downgraded the contributions of an outstanding Southasian of Gandhi's stature. Unlike Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Don Stephen Senanayake, or Bishweswor Prasad Koirala, Gandhi did not set out to form a state in the Westphalian sense, or be the ruler of a pre-nationhood tribal homeland. The Mahatma consistently aimed higher. In a region wracked by centuries of colonialism, the Mahatma wanted to build nothing less than a whole new civilisation. If building a state through conquest, compromise or consensus was his sole aim, he would not have died a broken man, deeply disappointed by the Partition which still created countries that most political leaders of his time wanted. Keep in mind that Gandhi was nowhere near the Red Fort celebrations when the 'tryst with destiny' was heralded by Jawaharlal.

In many ways, Gandhi was an inheritor of the non-brahminic tradition of Hindu philosophy. It is not just a coincidence that the Gandhian ideology began to take shape after Gandhi visited Champaran in the backwaters of Bihar in 1917, an area that has been the natural refuge of non-Vedic scholars throughout history. Bihar, and parts of the Ganga plains that now fall in modern Nepal, has always been home to non-brahminic paths of salvation. Householder King Janak refined his beliefs in participation without attachment in Mithila. Mahavir and Buddha, born into Vaishya and Kshteriya clans respectively, began their movements against entrenched brahminism from this region. Gandhi led the movement against indigo planters in Champaran. In the decayed remnants of historic Vaishali, he probably began something even bigger—a quest for self-definition. There, in the cradle of the Lichchhavi civilisation, he initiated a movement to restore the dignity of every individual irrespective of her race, caste, class, gender or age. For a society steeped in the tradition of codified hierarchy, this was nothing less than a 'total revolution', an expression that the disillusioned Marxist Jaiprakash Narayan appropriated once he embraced Gandhism in the early 1970s.

Gandhi surmised with uncanny intuition that there was not much material surplus left in India to redistribute among its 350 million people. Theories of Marx had little resonance in an area of agricultural decline and industrial darkness. Centuries of plunder by waves of raiders had killed the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of the Jamuna-Ganga plains where commerce had become a dirty term associated more with deceit than fair trade. The mythic duo of baker and butcher trading with each other in self-interest as immortalised by Adam Smith had no use for subsistence farmers residing in villages with almost no connection with each other. There had to be a third way, thought Gandhi, as he saw the depth of physical and moral poverty of fellow human beings on his way to, and in Champaran. He saw the alternative in the dream of Gram Swaraj where individuals did trade with each other, though not for profit but to ensure collective survival through self-help and self-sufficiency. The British Empire, founded on the principle of trade and rooted in the traditions of the East India Company, found it hard to understand a logic where profit did not deserve even to be denounced. Ergo, the British had to go and let India find her way.

Goal established, Gandhi searched for the right mix to advance his cause. He had seen the efficacy of non-violent protests in South Africa. He refined it further by adding the element of self-inflicted suffering, probably derived from the Buddha's teachings – the same Sakyamuni who had walked these mid-Ganga plains two-and-half millennia earlier. The importance of prayers may have been inspired by Mahavir's mediations. Was the spinning wheel an indirect homage to Kabir, the weaver-prophet of Benaras who had sung the songs of salvation through faith in the self and bread-labour?

The potency of Gandhi's terms is often lost in translation. For example, ahimsa is much more than a passive strategy of non-violence; it is an active seeking of the absence of violence. The literal meaning of satyagraha suggests an insistence on truth, but it is much more than a tool of protest; it proposes a whole new way of life centred on the power of belief in one's own convictions. Bramcharya is not just celibacy; it is an adoption of the righteous path.

Going beyond non-attachment and goal-seeking, aprigraha is a total commitment to truth in every aspect of a seeker's life. Ashahayog is often translated as non-cooperation. But there is no negativity in Ashahayog; it suggests instead an insistence on proactive cooperation. If ethics are to a society what morals are to an individual, Gandhi sought to establish certain principles of 'ram rajya' derived more from the Buddha and Mahavir than from Balmiki or Tulsi Das, two popular bards believed to have penned the epic Ramayan in Sanskrit and Awadhi respectively.

To the band of ambitious Westernised oriental gentlemen around him – M A Jinnah in his Saville Row suit, the Etonian Nehru or the upwardly mobile middle-class geniuses such as Rajendra Prasad and B R Ambedkar – these principles were blasphemous to the ideals of freedom set out by the French Revolution, the American War of Independence and the Russian October Revolution. Gandhi's teachings questioned everything they thought they knew. It was heresy they had to accept only because it seemed to work: Gandhi's appeal galvanised the masses. No other apostle since the Prince of Peace in 500 BC has been accepted by the ruler and the ruled alike. Gandhianism had acquired the potency of a new religion, a way of life that had to be resisted by those who wanted to build India or Pakistan in the image of Britain, France or the United States of America. Gandhi's most trusted lieutenants – Jinnah, Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel – followed his strategy faithfully, but without the conviction that the means propounded were the ends in themselves.

Nehru wanted to build an India which would be a hybrid of Mauryan glory and Mughal splendour. Fearful of his fate in such an entity dominated by the personality of a self-assured Kashmiri Pandit, Jinnah, a non-believing Shia within a Sunni-majority Muslim community, sought an alternative vision of a secular polity governing over a homogeneous population of the faithful – an Islamic ram rajya. He found it in the aspirations of the United Provinces' landed gentry longing for an Awadh renaissance patterned after the court of the last nawab of Lucknow, Wazid Ali Shah.

That Nehru could never replicate the Mauryan glory in a pauperised India was a foregone conclusion. His 'tryst with destiny' freedom speech was in fact the swan song of a disillusioned Emperor Ashok who suddenly found that the India he was about to rule held no resemblance to the India he had bargained for. Like all images of an idealised past, the secularism of the Awadh court was only partially true: Hindu subjects of the nawab had accepted a second-class status long before Wajid Ali Shah had begun to sing and dance like Radha. Jinnah's oft-quoted speech, before the Pakistan Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947, "You are free to go to your temples …" was thus fundamentally flawed: in any ram rajya, rule of the enlightened is based on the principle of its complete acceptance by all the rest.

Gandhi had therefore already died the day India and Pakistan became independent. Like most visionaries, the Mahatma had been way ahead of his time. Colonial India was not ready for his revolution. It accepted his politics, but with strong reservations, and then only because his methods seem to work to the amazement of his sophisticated contemporaries. Gandhi's famous retort that he was a politician trying to be a saint was perhaps an acceptance of defeat of his life's mission. In 1947, he was ready for the parody that independent India would make of his life and teachings. Nehru consigned him to the pantheon of gods no sooner had the Hindu zealot killed him and his ashes consigned to the Jamuna. More zealots kill him every time they garland his statue, parade him through the streets in religious processions and ridicule him as the Father of the Indian nation, which bears no resemblance to his formulations. Pakistanis kill him every time they denounce the man who first sought to establish Muslim pride through his Khilafat Movement (the Quaid had thought, with remarkable foresight, that it was madness to rekindle Islamic passions) and worked for the interests of Pakistan even after Partition.

Method in madness
Sincerity was the source of Gandhi's power. He believed in the purpose of his mission and worked to achieve a unity between his thought, speech and actions. His modus operandi was based upon mobilisation of the people rather than the political parties. Once these noble goals were established, he had no hesitation in using the nascent media of his time to advance his cause. Whether it was his fast unto death, or the long walk to defy the Salt Law, theatrics was built into the Mahatma's every protest. The media loved it and its power shamed the rulers every time a reporter sent a dispatch from the boondocks of the far-flung empire. With a mischievous twist, Gandhi used the very instruments of empire to undermine it from within. Various leftist groups have since tried to replicate this technique, but since they ignore the fundamental feature of this moral method of political arm-twisting – non-violence – they fail to create a favourable impact and cannot move the mass.

Gandhi improvised on the anarchic impulses of Marx and established that any action meant honestly to recreate cannot be called destruction. Jinnah and Nehru, the other two outstanding lawyers from the Temple Inn, could never appreciate the ancient Hindu logic of dying to be reborn. Like other god-fearing and law-abiding English gentlemen, wogs at the fag end of the empire loved order and feared anarchy. They could not recognise the method in the madness of Gandhi, who had experienced firsthand the tyranny of 'order' that then existed in Indian society – caste, untouchability, gender discrimination and an utter disregard for health and sanitation. These issues could not wait for either Jinnah's homeland or Nehru's utopia. A revolution was needed to reform the Indian mindset, and revolutions are by definition anarchic. Order implies continuation of the status quo. Fear of anarchy has to be overcome in order to initiate long-needed changes in the existing order that had institutionalised inequality for millennia.

All the societies within Southasia are passing through a dangerous phase of disillusionment and hopelessness. In some parts, as in Nepal, Telangana, Jharkhand and Marathbada, political entrepreneurs are seeking solutions by reinventing Maoism. In West Punjab, East Bengal and Saurastra, experiments in militant Islam and Hindutva are vitiating the environment of peaceful coexistence. East of the Brahmputra, a fascist upsurge plagues separatist movements and racist rulers alike. Elsewhere in the region, there is a dangerous drift and listlessness. Rediscovering Gandhi in these times is essential if one seeks the play of sanity in Southasia.

The challenges have multiplied since Gandhi died in 1948. Commercialised newspapers, instantaneous television images, impromptu SMSs and mindless blogs have made the task of creating a unified answer to the empire of market fundamentalism extremely difficult. But responses are being crafted that raise hope. The human rights movement in Pakistan, the agitation by the Narmada evacuees, the voices of dissent in Bangladesh that speak for its Hindu and Buddhist minorities, the modest Sarvodaya experiment of Sri Lanka, the ongoing people's movement in Nepal and the transformation of erstwhile socialists in the Jamuna-Ganga plains – all are indications of churning of a society on the threshold of change.

Like most philosophies, Gandhism too needs to be rediscovered by every generation to suit the needs and aspirations of its time. That Gandhi has endured and thrived in the dreams of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela alike is ample tribute to his memory. He has become even more important after the end of the Cold War and the consequent declaration of the Clash of Civilisation in the wake of 9/11. Mull over the ancient Christian aphorism about turning the other cheek in its transformed Gandhian version – "an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind" – and there is no way you can ignore the force of his ideas and their relevance in our times.

"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth," wrote Albert Einstein. Hindus and Muslims schooled in the belief of the birth of a redeemer in every epoch may find it unbelievable that a scientist of Einstein's stature failed to see that there was no way Gandhi could not have emerged in a region virtually at the edge of collapse in early 20th century. Passing through almost a similar phase once more at the start of the 21st century, Southasia will have to rediscover Gandhi because redeemers are not born whenever they are needed. They have to be found in their philosophies.

~ C K Lal is a Kathmandu-based columnist for this magazine and the Nepali Times.

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