What Gandhi means in our times

Representative image. PTI Photo

If we are looking for legitimate reasons to remember him, the ideas of seva and trusteeship hold much significance for us.  M K Gandhi had a visceral aversion to the celebration of his birthdays. And yet, during his lifetime and in ours, we celebrate the anniversary of his birth. These celebrations have increasingly become formulaic, even in those institutions which have been charged with his legacy.

As we commence celebrations of 150 years of his birth, Gandhi could not have been more of a recessive presence from our conscience, from our public life, from the structures of political economy, and from inter-faith and inter-community relations in contemporary India and perhaps the world. His deeply examined life is a source of discomfort, even acrimony. He is called upon to prove his relevance and sometimes even his innocence.

There is probably a reason for this. Gandhi is an ally, a guide and even a leader when we feel vulnerable. He emerged at a time when we as a society and a polity were deeply vulnerable, unsure and afraid, viscerally so. One of the greatest gifts that he gave us was freedom from fear, a capacity to face an oppressive State and invite it to imprison us so that we could demonstrate that in times of tyranny, prison is the only free space.

But in times when we feel that we are on the path to greater glory, when we are 95 per cent over the moon, when we are better than our neighbours, we feel we should place MKG away because he has the capacity to emerge at the most inopportune of moments and take hold of our conscience. Gandhi was after all, and remains today, a master of the art of disobedience.
If we are looking for legitimate reasons to remember him there are probably two large ideas that retain resonance in our times, perhaps more than in his.

One is an act called seva, translated all too often as ‘service’. Seva is derived from saha and eva meaning ‘together with’. It is suggestive of a mode of being in the world, with nature and with fellow beings. Seva by its very root meaning is an act performed with others and also for others.

Seva cannot be self-serving, self-aggrandising, self-seeking. It is an act of being with others, a being that is non-acquisitive, a being that seeks only to serve so that pain is alleviated, suffering is made bearable and joy experienced.

In this sense, seva is the complete opposite of servitude and slavery, where both self and self-volition are denied. It was Gandhi who brought seva from a personal, religious, ethical universe into the realm of the political. An ethical person for Gandhi is one who recognises the pain of others.

In this mode of freedom, the ethical is ever-present not as a concept but as the last person, the most dispossessed, the ‘meekest’ person that we have been ‘together with’, been a sevak of.

Gandhi fused the practice of seva with a notion that is utterly contemporary. The idea of trusteeship. Even the very limited sense in which trusteeship has been understood and practised is immensely transformative.

It teaches us that we are not the owners but trustees of the wealth that we have accumulated and that it has to be used for the creation of ‘public good.’ It is a practice of voluntary redistribution. But in a deeper sense, it is not limited either to the wealthy or to the realm of political economy. It is available to all of us.

Trusteeship is an ecological idea. It tells us what Greta Thunberg and others like her have been trying to tell us. That the Earth does not belong to us, that we are not the masters of nature, and that our attitude towards the Earth and her resources, and the life that it sustains, can only be that of a trustee.

That is, we hold the Earth as a trustee for the generations to come. We have hitherto believed that Gandhi lacked elementary literacy about economics as he placed ethics at the heart of economic organisations. The crisis we face today is made by economics bereft of ethics.

It is likely that those who lead us, those who create wealth will not pay heed to the precarious situation. We would then be required to use the one lesson that Gandhi wanted all of us to learn, that of disobedience.

Surrounded as we are by an orgy of violence we have forgotten the power of non-violent resistance, of the need for defiance of structures of power. Let us remind ourselves that we may be powerless but we are many.

If this is asking for too much let us celebrate him as the janitor-in-chief of the country, but be aware that he would want us to cleanse the dirt of our minds before we clean our beaches.

(The author has recently published a critical edition of M K Gandhi’s autobiography and The Diary of Manu Gandhi)

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