“My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on a given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at a given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth ….”
— The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 90
What can one say about a man who had such strong yet complex views on most things in life? How does one select a few examples of good communication from someone who wrote prolifically and whose every word was judiciously chosen and had the ability to convey his thoughts perfectly? Bapu’s strength as a communicator was that although he used words frugally, he was so precise that he was almost never misunderstood or misquoted.
When Bapu declared his intention to defy the British monopoly on salt in India by making contraband salt, many Congress leaders were opposed to the idea. Motilal Nehru wrote a 21-page-long letter, explaining its pitfalls and how it was likely to harm the cause of Swaraj. Bapu sent him a one-sentence reply on a postcard: “Adarniya Motilalji, kar ke dekhein (Respected Motilalji, do it and see).” After Bapu picked up a fistful of saline mud at Dandi and two tolas of salt was refined from it, he gave a clarion call to all of India to similarly defy the British. Being a loyalist, Motilalji declared his intention to break the salt law in Allahabad. By then, the British had realised their folly and the Viceroy had ordered the leaders to be arrested. When Motilalji reached home, the police was waiting to arrest him. The last thing Motilalji did before going with them was to send a telegram to Bapu: “Adarniya Gandhiji, karne se pehle hi dekh liya (I saw its importance even before doing it).”
Bapu never spoke in two tongues — one for the urban, educated elite and another for the unlettered rural masses. His simplicity was such that the two diverse groups understood what he wished to convey and his words spread far and wide in that era of no social media. On the eve of breaking the salt law in April 1930, when a Canadian journalist asked him if he wished to send a message to the world, he said something that continues to inspire humanity: “I want world sympathy in this battle of right against might.”
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Bapu was a prolific writer. After he took on the leadership of the freedom movement, he utilised every medium at his disposal to convey his messages far and wide. Part of this arose from his anxiety of people misunderstanding his messages. The incident at Chauri Chaura during the first Non-cooperation Movement — when a bunch of satyagrahis, enraged by police brutality, attacked the police station and set it alight — was an aberration. But it was enough of an alarm for Bapu to withdraw the nationwide movement which had succeeded beyond everybody’s expectations. For Bapu, means were as important as the ends and freedom achieved in this manner would be tarnished at inception. History is witness to many a leaders igniting movements, wars and rebellions successfully but none has been known for their ability to stop what they have started. What Bapu did was a masterstroke. He had launched the Non-cooperation Movement with an appeal to observe it as a day of prayers. While withdrawing it, he again used prayers as a tool. He went on a fast of repentance to atone for the sin of violence, for which he took personal responsibility. No appeal or impassioned speech would have achieved what this gesture did.
His instructions to those wanting to join his Sabarmati Ashram was also an exercise in frugality. They had to take 11 vows in just 11 words — ahimsa (nonviolence); satya (truth); astyeya (non-stealing); brahmacharya (celibacy); aparigraha, (non-possession); sharir shrama (manual labour); asvada (control over palate); sarvatra bhaya varjana (fearlessness), sarva dharma samanatva (equality of all religions); swadeshi (use of locally manufactured goods); sparsha bhavana (removal of untouchability). Today, it is fashionable to be verbose; most public communication is full of bombast and boast. In this time of fake news, whataboutery and hate-filled social media, Bapu’s honest communication seems like a panacea.
In his early days, Bapu used taboo terms such as “kafir”, “Negro” and “bhangi”. There is a campaign now to brand him a racist because of that. It’s true he used these terms and that, today, they are repulsive. When Bapu used them, they were acceptable. One must also remember that he grew up in a small town of orthodox India. His first exposure to Western culture was when he went to imperial London to become a barrister. His next encounter with “Western civilisation” was in the British and Dutch colonies of South Africa. So, his usage of those terms were more out of ignorance than malice. His actions during the Zulu Uprising and several outbreaks of the plague in South Africa illustrate that he harboured no prejudices towards the African natives. He can, and must, be criticised for using insensitive terms but he cannot be branded a bigot. Likewise, he used the word “bhangi” and took pride in referring to himself as a bhangi — a scavenger — a profession he considered to be one of the noblest services to mankind.
Even those who opposed him or disagreed with him admired his forthrightness. He had extensive dialogue and disagreements with Subhas Chandra Bose, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. None of them could ever accuse him of doublespeak. When he gave the call for “Quit India”, the slogan, precise and sharp as a rapier, left no doubt about its final objective — freedom. Likewise, his other slogan — “karenge ya marenge (do or die)” — wasn’t an order but a promise.
Perhaps, what makes his words still relevant 70 years after his assassination is this: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him…? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? … Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away (MK Gandhi, Mahatma : Vol. VIII).”
Tushar A Gandhi is the great grandson of the Mahatma. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Bapu’s Life, His Message’
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