Gandhi in the post truth world

Shashi Tharoor


I Mean What I Say

Gandhism without moral authority is like Marxism without a proletariat.  Yet few who have tried his methods worldwide have his personal integrity or moral stature. The coercive hartal, the hypocritical 'relay fast', the theatrical misuse of dharnas, only show how far the world has fallen from Gandhiji's ideas of Truth.

As we contemplate the 75th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, it is clear that the most striking feature of the first seventy years of Indian independence has, in fact, been an absence -- that of the Father of the Nation.

In his immortal 'Tryst with Destiny' speech to the nation on the midnight of 15 August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru had spoken of the Mahatma as 'embodying the old spirit of India' whose message would be remembered by 'succeeding generations.' Just five months later, on January 30, 1948, the torch of this spirit was tragically snuffed out by a Hindu fanatic, in the capital of the new state he had done more than anyone else on earth to establish.

Today, in the 'post-truth' era, it is fair to ask how much that old spirit survives. Gandhiji was profoundly influenced by the principles of ahimsa and satya and gave both a profound meaning when he applied them to the nationalist cause. But though publicity posters for the Oscar-winning 1982 film 'Gandhi' proclaimed that 'Gandhi's triumph changed the world forever', I am far from convinced it did.

The Mahatma was the extraordinary leader of the world's first successful non-violent movement for independence from colonial rule. At the same time he was a philosopher who was constantly seeking to live out his own ideas, whether they applied to individual self-improvement or social change: his autobiography was typically subtitled 'The Story of My Experiments with Truth'.

No dictionary imbues 'truth' with the depth of meaning Gandhi gave it. His truth emerged from his convictions: it meant not only what was accurate, but what was just and therefore right. Truth could not be obtained by 'untruthful' or unjust means, which included inflicting violence upon one's opponent.

To describe his method, Gandhi coined the expression satyagraha - literally, 'holding on to truth' or, as he variously described it, truth-force, love force or soul-force. He disliked the English term 'passive resistance' because satyagraha required activism, not passivity. If you believed in Truth and cared enough to obtain it, Gandhi felt, you could not afford to be passive: you had to be prepared actively to suffer for Truth.

So non-violence, like many later concepts labelled with a negation, from non-cooperation to nonalignment, meant much more than the denial of an opposite; it did not merely imply the absence of violence. Non-violence was the way to vindicate the truth not by the infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one's self. It was essential to willingly accept punishment in order to demonstrate the strength of one's convictions.

This was the approach Gandhi brought to the movement for India's independence -- and it worked. Where sporadic terrorism and moderate constitutionalism had both proved ineffective, Gandhi took the issue of freedom to the masses as one of simple right and wrong and gave them a technique to which the British had no response. By abstaining from violence Gandhi wrested the moral advantage. By breaking the law non-violently he showed up the injustice of the law. By accepting the punishments imposed on him he confronted his captors with their own brutalisation. By voluntarily imposing suffering upon himself in his hunger-strikes he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defence of what he considered to be right. In the end he made the perpetuation of British rule an impossibility.

The US civil rights leader Martin Luther King jr. attended a lecture on Gandhiji, bought half a dozen books on the Mahatma and adopted satyagraha as both precept and method. King, more than anyone else, used non-violence most effectively outside India in breaking down segregation in the southern states of the USA. 'Hate begets hate. Violence begets violence,' he memorably declared: 'We must meet the forces of hate with soul force.' King later avowed that 'the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance... became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation and Gandhi furnished the method.' In 2011, President Barack Obama told India's Parliament that were it not for Gandhi, he would not be standing there as President.

So Gandhism helped to change America forever. But it is difficult to find many other instances of its success today. India's independence marked the dawn of the era of decolonization, but many nations still came to freedom only after bloody and violent struggles. Other peoples have fallen under the boots of invading armies, been dispossessed of their lands or forced to flee in terror from their homes. Non-violence has offered no solutions to them. It could only work against opponents vulnerable to a loss of moral authority -- governments responsive to domestic and international public opinion, capable of being shamed into conceding defeat. In Gandhi's own day, non-violence could have done nothing for the Jews of Hitler's Germany, who disappeared tragically into gas-chambers far from the flashbulbs of the press.

The power of Gandhian non-violence rests in being able to say, 'to show you that you are wrong, I punish myself.' But that has little effect on those who are not interested in whether they are wrong and are already seeking to punish you for your disagreements with them. For them your willingness to undergo punishment is the most convenient means of victory. No wonder Nelson Mandela, who told me that Gandhi had 'always' been 'a great source of inspiration', explicitly disavowed non-violence as ineffective in his struggle against apartheid.

Mahatma taught the virtues of truth, non-violence and peace

The sad truth today is that the staying-power of organised violence is almost always greater than that of non-violence. Some twenty million lives have been lost in wars and insurrections since Gandhiji's passing. In a dismaying number of countries including his own, governments spend more for military purposes than for education and health care combined. The current stockpile of nuclear weapons represents over a million times the explosive power of the atom bomb whose destruction of Hiroshima so grieved him. As the Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11 demonstrated, India faces the threat of cross-border terrorism to which the Mahatma's only answer - a fast in protest - would have left its perpetrators unmoved.

Gandhism without moral authority is like Marxism without a proletariat. Yet few who have tried his methods worldwide have his personal integrity or moral stature. The coercive hartal, the hypocritical 'relay fast', the theatrical misuse of dharnas, only show how far the world has fallen from Gandhiji's ideas of Truth.

None of this dilutes Gandhi's greatness, or the extraordinary resonance of his life and his message. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence and war, the Mahatma taught the virtues of truth, non-violence and peace. He destroyed the credibility of colonialism by opposing principle to force. And he set and attained personal standards of conviction and courage which few will ever match. He was that rare kind of leader who was not confined by the inadequacies of his followers.

Yet Gandhi's Truth was essentially his own. He formulated its unique content and determined its application in a specific historical context. Inevitably, few in today's world can measure up to his greatness or aspire to his credo. The originality of his thought and the example of his life inspires people around the world today, but Gandhi's triumph did not 'change the world forever.' In the post-truth world we live in, I wonder if the Mahatma would feel he had triumphed at all.

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