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Significance of Gandhian Ideas in the Modern Era – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Significance of Gandhian Ideas in the Modern Era - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Arun Kumar

The frequency of extreme weather events has been increasing. Ferocious cyclones, severe droughts and floods, wildfires, melting glaciers, and polar ice caps are reported too frequently. The world needs to consider an alternative development path, and Gandhi can be one starting point.

Gandhi, tradition, and modernity

Gandhi is a hallowed figure in the world, not just in India. However, Gandhian thought has been increasingly pushed to the margins since his death in 1948. It survives in alternative spaces but is hardly practised anywhere, including India.

This marginalization resulted from Gandhians’ failure to create a milieu that could make Gandhi’s thoughts widely acceptable, especially to the youth. The dynamism required on their part to rapidly evolve their thought to meet the growing challenges in the world in the last 70 years has been missing. Gandhi himself was dynamic, ever-evolving with the changing social situation. In contrast, after his demise, his followers, wanting to remain faithful to what he had said, got frozen in the past.

Gandhi was ahead of his time. He struggled to convince the public to pursue the path he propagated during his lifetime. Even the Indian national movement he led veered off from how he wanted India to follow. In his India of my dreams, he argued that India could give a civilizational alternative to the Western civilization, which he rejected as `evil’. He perhaps accepted later on that the Congress party was not willing to follow a different path than the path of western modernity.

Gandhi operated at two different levels, and that confuses analysts. First, there were his fixed points, and second, his tactical political line changed with the need of the national movement. Analysts often get confused by this duality and interpret him in the latter framework while his thought emerges from the former. His fixed points need to be understood and propagated at present.

A change is happening globally in people’s consciousness due to the growing threat of climate change and extreme weather events. The emergence of new viruses infecting humans leading to the Coronavirus pandemic has driven the world towards a ‘new normal, which requires a different understanding than what the world has functioned with. So, there is a search for an alternative sustainable development path. Youth realizes their future is in jeopardy and want to change – Greta Thunberg is a symbol of that. In this context, Gandhian thought provides an alternative way of thinking.

India and especially its poor, face a dire situation. The country is impacted by global climate change and the rapacious consumerism of the well-off. At a low level of per capita income, our air, water, land, forests, etc., are some of the worst polluted in the world. This disproportionately affects the marginalized sections that are the least equipped to deal with the challenge. So, for the vast majority of Indians, Gandhian thought could provide an alternative way for themselves and the nation. So, what may have seemed irrelevant is now resurfacing as an alternative, especially for the marginalized majority in India.

Leadership required to guide society

Gandhi’s praxis and sacrifices made him acceptable to the impoverished Indian masses and to thinking people worldwide. The gap between his thought and action was minimal, making him a credible figure and acceptable as a mass leader. People of such conviction and moral strength are missing today, especially among the leadership, mostly seen as hypocritical and power-hungry. Even Gandhians have been found wanting in this respect and cannot lead the people.

Gandhi believed in public action, not individual action, leading to his connection with the people. His efforts were designed to impact people’s consciousness and induce them to think of the broader social sphere and accordingly change themselves.

Presently, consciousness is increasingly leading to individualization and atomization, hence growing alienation from society. The rampant use of social media gives the feeling of connectedness, but there is growing atomization. Linkages between individuals are so weak that they feel autonomous but lonely, increasing psychological problems. A holistic existence has become a challenge. Gandhian thought offers a viable alternative.

The changing social consciousness is a result of the ongoing process of marketization in society – meaning that principles of markets have increasingly penetrated social institutions. This resulted in a philosophical shift in society, taking it away from Gandhian thought and making collective action difficult.

Great leaders of present times, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, said that Gandhi inspired them. But despite their aura, the situation in their country only deteriorated. In S Africa, inequality has grown since apartheid was abolished. Nelson Mandela, the first president of the country after apartheid ended, could not pursue alternative policies to help the marginalized there. Martin Luther King negatively impacted social attitudes in the USA, as is clear from the `Black Lives Matter movement. Sixty years later, even after a black president, African Americans struggled for equality. 

Fundamental change is required to build a different consciousness, to make Gandhian thought acceptable to a broader audience. Marketisation has gripped people’s opinions, and they have adopted consumerism which has become their opium. So, there is resistance to thinking of a different and challenging path proposed by Gandhi.

In brief, after the Second World War, the philosophical changes in society created a situation in which neither their leadership guided humanity to change nor was the public prepared for it.

Gandhi’s Hinduism Not An Impediment To Wider Acceptance

Gandhi’s thought has its basis in spiritualism. While he was politically active in the independence movement and acted tactically to help India achieve it, his actions were motivated by the idea of the unity of all living and non-living things on this planet – humans, animals, plants, and the Earth itself. So, for him, violence towards any of these elements was violence towards oneself. A natural result of that was non-violence.

So, all human beings, whichever religion they believed in, were also a part of him – the difference in the faith of others was immaterial. His being a staunch Hindu did not come in the way of accepting non-Hindus. He also treated his political opponents and the British colonizers with dignity for the same reason. The fight against British rule had to be non-violent.

In present-day India, the communal divide is being promoted for electoral gains. Gandhi also encountered that because the British practised divide and rule. He understood how that had weakened India and, therefore, would have characterized the present situation as exceedingly short-sighted and against the national interest. In his framework, conflict among people can only be a source of societal suffering and deterioration.

Civilisational alternative

Gandhi believed that Western civilization was evil and that Indian culture could provide an alternative. But he was not against learning from others. He said we need to keep our windows open for ideas from everywhere. He believed society would be mature enough to discriminate which foreign influences were in their interest and which were not.

Non-violence was a way of strengthening the individual’s resolve to be able to reject that which may be in their interest but against that of society. He propagated `voluntary poverty as a check against consumerism which is destroying the planet and its environment. He argued there is enough for everyone’s needs but not for their greed. So, greed is bad and has to be given up voluntarily. One can consume more, but one should voluntarily give it up – only a strong conscious individual can do that. This was the essence of `swaraj’, which was not just for the nation but was equally applicable to the individual.

Gandhi was against the imposition of ideas on others. He was for dialogue and convincing others. He opposed the hegemony of western civilization created through violence, colonization, and impoverishment of the colonized. So, he did not want the imposition of Indian culture on anyone – it had to be through reason.

Holistic vision

Gandhi’s vision incorporated society’s political, social, and economic aspects. Due to the centrality of non-violence, the India of his dreams was based on the following principles: the `last person first’, acceptance of `voluntary poverty, and non-alienating education based on `nai taleem’. The first principle was political to establish true democracy. The second one was to check consumerism and preserve the environment. The third was to end alienation and strengthen an individual’s commitment to society. These elements were to be the bedrock of harmonious existence and human development in the broader sense and not just the material, contrary to how the story is viewed today.

Following these principles, India could become a genuinely democratic and egalitarian country with a sustainable development path with, a clean environment and highly conscious individuals over a long period. That sounds Utopian, but utopias, even if not achieved, give society and individuals a direction to strive for.

Gandhi and the capitalists

Gandhi proposed `trusteeship’. That is, owners of capital hold it in trust for society. Marxists characterize it as collaborationist. Gandhi’s framework was built on individuals and not classes and conflict. Due to his belief in non-violence, he did not subscribe to the idea of the existence of a fundamental conflict between capital and labour. He believed that it is good in everyone, and one can appeal to that and change people. So, through the idea of `trusteeship’, he appealed to the goodness in capitalists. This is seen as status quo and pro-capitalist. But, this idea, in conjunction with `last person first’, could be a force for equity in society.

At the practical level, Indian business people wanted an independent India for their uncontrolled growth and mostly paid lip service to Gandhi’s principles. They saw Gandhi as an instrument to get the freedom to achieve their goal.

Indian business people and the Indian elite desired Western modernity, which they pushed for after independence. They were not for equity, lukewarm towards democracy, and undermined government intervention in favour of the poor. They supported the trickle-down approach for their interest even though there was little trickle-down. They promoted corruption and cronyism to corner gains.

India was a profoundly feudal society during Gandhi’s time, and he worked under severe constraints and limitations. The prevailing social conditions and people’s consciousness did not allow them to transcend their situation to follow the Gandhian path. So, the capitalists used Gandhi for their ends. So, Gandhi failed on his yardstick of ‘ends and means. He used means of freedom that were not consistent with his strived-for limitations.

Is Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj an abnormality?

Was Gandhi against technology? He promoted charkha, which is technological innovation. He was against that technology which would lead to unemployment and environmental destruction. He wrote in the Hind Swaraj against doctors and the railways. He said that western medicine weakens the individual when it thinks one could eat anything; if there is a problem, there is medicine for it. He wanted individuals to be integrated with nature and not be kept healthy artificially through medication. Ignoring his lesson today, there is a proliferation of lifestyle diseases. The use of antibiotics is resulting in drug-resistant infections.

Gandhi wanted technology to help people become more robust and not weaken them. The choice of technology should be under social control, based on society’s needs and not the other way around. Presently, it is resulting in irresolvable challenges to humanity. 

In brief, the relevance of Gandhian thought has become apparent now after having been sidelined for decades. The bearing would become more evident as countries face more calamities. The question is, would this realization come in time? Delay would imply that humankind is not the fittest to survive like many other species that have become extinct earlier. Following Gandhian thought will make humankind fitter stay on Earth.

This article was first published in The Leaflet as Search for alternative development path: Relevance of Gandhian thought on October 2, 2022.

Read more by Arun Kumar at IMPRI Insights

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About the Author

Arun KumarMalcolm S Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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