Once sneered at, Gandhian experiments find relevance in a post-modern world

Mahatma Gandhi.

January 30, 2023, marks the 75th anniversary of the martyrdom of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Mahatma for millions of people. Seven and a half decades have passed, but the width and depth of the discussions about Gandhiji and his thoughts are still expanding. One can call it Experiments with Gandhi and his thoughts; about the man who famously wrote about his Experiments with Truth.

The Middle Temple lawyer, who adopted novel methods to challenge the mighty imperial regime, attracted the attention of the entire world in the three-and-a-half decades of the first half of the twentieth century, in which he strode the Indian political arena like a colossus.

He had a clear vision of how the country’s polity should take shape. He wrote Hind Swaraj in 1909 in a dialogue form envisioning how independent India should be. Much later in 1946, he also wrote the foreword for the book “Gandhian Constitution for Free India” penned by Shriman Narayan.

Gandhi was clear that it was not exactly the exposition of his ideas, for which he could have written the book. But it did reflect Gandhian ideals for restructuring our polity.

The village was to be the base of administration and the power structure was not pyramidal but like concentric circles. In Gandhian thought, there is an inherent dislike for a centrist state. Gandhi believed in individual rights, yet not in ultimate individualism.

He was for a communitarian structure, where each village was a self-sufficient unit. He was not in favour of gigantic political and economic apparatuses associated with the modern state, whether adopting Westminster democracy, presidential form or a one-party polity.

Gandhiji probably felt that streaks of authoritarianism inherent in a centralised set-up can eclipse democratic norms. He was prophetic. India has been a functioning democracy. But, we also witnessed the internal Emergency of 1975-77. The lurking dangers of authoritarianism are still there in all democracies.

In arguing for decentralised governance, by pointing out the inadvisability of centralisation of power, Gandhi has proved to be clairvoyant.

But we need to note that the Gandhian enthusiasm for decentralised governance was not shared by eminent personalities like Dr B R Ambedkar. They saw village society as oppressive and as a den of ignorance and a 'sink of localism'.

In such a scenario, might is always the right and weaker sections, who are in the lowest rung of the oppressive caste hierarchy, can never make their voice heard. Benign expectations of conscience transformation may not work that easily. Caste, the scourge of our society needed to be annihilated, before we think of anything like decentralisation.

Gandhiji attacked evil practices like untouchability but did not have any big bang programme for caste annihilation. Critics of decentralisation believed that social metamorphosis through conscience transformation takes a long time and in the interregnum, decentralisation of power to villages can lead to elite capture of everything.

Sceptics and critics of decentralisation won at that time. Today, at least in some parts of the country, decentralisation without elite capture has happened.

But there are examples on the contrary too. The lesson we have to draw is that the state needs to implement transformative policies in the social and economic realm and proceed with decentralisation.

Gandhi was criticised in the heady decades of the 1930s for being anti-modern in his views. Those were days when the capitalist world was facing crises of recession and unemployment after the Great Depression of 1929. The Socialist economy of the Soviet Union was attracting the attention of many including Jawaharlal Nehru and socialists like Jayaprakash Narayan.

A boy rides a bicycle past a mural depicting Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi on April 6, 2022. File photo: AFP/ Sajjad Hussain

Gandhi had his ideas about class conflicts. He viewed that there should be harmony and that the capitalists shall hold wealth as trustees of everyone in the society. Such a view was hardly acceptable to many who thought seriously.

Capitalism was replacing need with greed and its motto was accumulate and accumulate. Where is the place for a doctrine like a trusteeship in this mode of production? Criticism raged.

Even today, with renewed interest and support for ideas like decentralisation, there are only a few supporters for an idea like the trusteeship doctrine. But one needs to admit that at least to a limited extent, it is this doctrine that has been behind the present concept of Corporate Social Responsibility.

But Gandhiji, whose life was taken away by three shots from a Beretta pistol, was much more than his social and economic ideals. He was a quintessential rebel, who could defy authority when he was convinced that he was morally and ethically right. This is the spirit behind non-cooperation.

He also deflated agitations when public enthusiasm was at its peak. One leader, who could appear morally strong fighting a mighty state apparatus- that was Gandhi.

Normally, a person captured by the state appears weak. Here was a non-violent fighter, who pleaded guilty before District Judge Broomfield that he was accepting the sedition charges. His Dandi March, and the reverberations it sent across the country, is a milestone in history.

The do or die of 1942, which stoked the fire of nationalism, though the entire pantheon of leadership was arrested is another example of the power his words carried.

A boy dressed up as Mahatma Gandhi attends an event to celebrate Gandhi’s birth anniversary at a school in Mumbai on October 2, 2022. File photo: AFP/ Punit Paranjpe

Imperialists feared his words, but people felt enthused by them. But some of those whose worldview could not be reconciled with that of Gandhi, thought it fit to silence him permanently. But nothing could have been more futile.

Scholars, public men and people from all walks of life are still experimenting with discovering Gandhi. It is going to be a long process. Lloyd Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, two eminent scholars on India, described Gandhi as a post-modernist.

Gandhi cannot fit into any frame of ideology, hitherto existing, easily. So his thoughts have been considered an ideology in itself. He valued individual beliefs but believed in communitarian action. He was secular but did not keep religious values out of politics.

He was a quintessential rebel but did cooperate with the people with whom he fought battles of non-violent non-cooperation. He lived by showing examples through deeds. But any one deed cannot be isolated and shown as one which Gandhi stood for.

He gave conformism and formal petitioning methods a jerk and thus transformed the nationalist movement into a mass movement. He is the propagator of 'lokniti' against 'rajniti,' and this was experimented by Jayaprakash Narayan, a socialist converted to Gandhism in the 1970s.

Gandhi’s ideals cannot be holistically espoused by Ashram Gandhians or Sarkar Gandhians (terms used by Ram Manohar Lohia), but by those who believe in what is morally right and can engage in non-violent non-cooperation with wrongs of the mighty.

Experiments with Gandhian wisdom continue and his thoughts find wider and deeper interpretations. The three shots from the Beretta pistol felled the man, not his spirit.
(The author is a former IRS official)

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