Leaders have made Gandhi a farce

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an unlikely revolutionary; a gentle prophet of the world who led an extraordinary revolution. Staff in hand, clad in loincloth, bespectacled, a cleft in the row of front teeth when he laughed or smiled (which he always did), he led Indians to freedom from behind. He said, “I follow the people, because I am their leader”.

He showed that empires were made of salt. With a spinning wheel he worked magic. To a century fraught with violence, Gandhi had offered an alternative, his doctrine of ahimsa or ‘nonviolence’.

He had used it to mobilise the masses of India to drive out England from the subcontinent with a moral crusade instead of an armed rebellion, prayers instead of machine-gun fire, disdainful silence instead of the fracas of terrorists’ bombs.

While western Europe had echoed to the harangues of ranting demagogues and shrieking dictators, Gandhi had stirred the multitudes of the world’s most populous area without raising his voice.

It was not with the promise of power or fortune that he had summoned his followers to his banner, but with the warning: “Those who are in my company must be ready to sleep upon the bare floor, wear coarse clothes, get up at unearthly hours, subsist on uninviting, simple food,  even clean their own toilets”.

Instead of gaudy uniforms and jangling medals, he had dressed his followers in clothes of coarse, homespun cotton. That costume, however, had been instantly identifiable, as psychologically effective in welding together those who wore it, as the brown or black shirts of Europe’s dictators had been.

Gandhi experimented with truth. Human life was his laboratory; love, his instrument; and the appeal of the heart, his language. He employed no techniques to condition the masses to the dictates of a demagogue or a clique of ideologues. Yet, his message had penetrated a nation bereft of modern communications, because Gandhi had a genius for the simple gestures that spoke to India’s soul.

As he perfected the technique of satyagraha, the prison gained the glory of a palace; the scars of suffering became a badge of honour. He had humbled Great Britain by sipping water and the bicarbonate of soda.He knew well the distinction between a devout religionist, who spread the fragrance of love and amity and a religious fanatic, who fuelled enmity.

The hunger of his fasts stirred the conscience of the  nation and extinguished the fires of hatred. He preached and practiced nonviolence of the brave, not of the coward.

Messenger of love

Today the country is overtaken by a wave of terrorist and communal violence. But, we forget Gandhi, who had courageously toured the villages of Noakhali in Bengal in the days immediately preceding Independence to put an end to violence there.

Thirty-six days before the date for India’s independence, Gandhi set out from the Sodepur Ashram for Calcutta where armed with knives and pistols, Hindus and Muslims faced each other in fear and mistrust. While India waited to celebrate the dawn of freedom, the wretched of Calcutta’s slums stood poised to compound their miseries in a frenzy of communal slaughter and destruction.

Just as he left the local Muslims in the safety of the Hindus of Noakhali so did Gandhi persuade the Hindus of Calcutta to be protectors of the city’s Muslims and transformed the savage metropolis into an oasis of peace. The city dwellers heard the message of the frail messenger of love. “The miracle of Calcutta” had held; the city, as The New York Times noted, “was the wonder of India”.

If Gandhi could “rekindle the lamp of neighbourliness” in Noakhali and Calcutta, cursed by blood and bitterness, why hasn’t his example inspired the whole nation and its leaders during the last 67 years?

The answer is simple: India’s leaders have rejected much more of Gandhi than they have adopted. We have come a long way away from Mahatma Gandhi. I still hear Gandhi singing in his high-pitched, uneven voice, as he left Noakhali, one of Rabindranath Tagore’s great poems set to music: “If they answer not your call, walk alone, walk alone...”

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