We do not need Gandhiji today. We killed him then, and kill his ideas, his imagination, year after year.
Gandhiji gave us enough to think and act upon during his lifetime. I was aware of his life and thinking when I started to work at the Textile Labour Association (TLA) founded by Anasuyaben with Gandhiji in Ahmedabad. Industrial relations were redefined in terms of not capital against labour, but capital and labour for rebuilding a prosperous India. Alas, the industrialist, labour leaders, and the nation have left these ideas behind.
His ideas became valuable to me in terms of women’s leadership, where the means of struggle are truth and non-violence. How well he understood the potential of women’s leadership and how well he mobilised women in satyagraha. This understanding has appealed to me all my life as I became more and more active in Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). While facing the overwhelming challenge of moving thousands of working women out of poverty each year, his thinking offered us SEWA sisters a clear way ahead.
The origins of my understanding of Gandhiji were twofold: The immediate reality of thousands of poor honest women workers in the informal sector of Ahmedabad and later, India, and my wonder about if and how Gandhiji’s ideas can be or will be of use in addressing that reality. His ideas helped SEWA sisters move towards finding a just, dignified, and secure future of work for thousands of poor working women in India, and elsewhere.
In our schools, institutions of higher learning, and in professional life today, we are taught how to get to answers quickly. But when we are willing to put in time and effort to observe and understand the process of reaching the answer, in fact understanding the question itself far better and deeper from the point of view of the poorest woman, we do not need Gandhiji. May it be the future of work or the Fourth Industrial Revolution or knowledge economy or social impact investment or cashless banking or modernism in art, design, literature, education and technology.
We do not need him because he has given us enough to help deal with new ideas or systems to understand and assimilate them in our thought and action. Coherent, all-inclusive, ever-evolving knowledge for our day-to-day life-long needs: He has given us a way to achieve just prosperity as a nation.
I am not a Gandhian or Gandhi bhakt, even though it is my honour to work with dedicated teams of Gujarat Vidyapith or Sabarmati Ashram. Such devotion does not come to me easily. When I think of Gandhiji today, my heart is filled with guilt and what in the Sanskrit language is called glani.
Having accepted the automated and mass production as the two most important ways to accelerate economic growth — useful in many ways, but not always — we have reached a stage where we are determined to make us all — tribals, minorities, ethnic groups, women, unorganised sector workers, even as Indians — extinct. He warned us of this satyanash almost a century ago.
We have entered a stage in India where Gandhiji and his ideas are valued for what they can give us rather than what he or his ideas can make out of us. The balance between ‘to have’ and ‘to become’ has changed in favour of ‘to have’. Have more. And fast. And for oneself.
Like the tent of a Mughal emperor, for us his ideas now have less to do with who and how many they cover, but the status it offers in the eyes of the others: Voters, rest of the liberal world, or scholars.
Gandhiji has shown us what we can and must know in terms of satyagraha, sarvodaya, swaraj, or swadeshi, and also the limitations of these ideas. It is up to us, not him, to find out what we do not know about these ideas and how to take these ideas forward in action.
Je peed parai jane re! He offered us a new sense of shared destiny, that your suffering one day will be my own suffering, that we are in this freedom struggle together. As, for the ever-elusive political freedom, we have surrendered economic, social, and even, cultural freedoms and the shared destiny of India.
Gandhiji offered us a visual vocabulary through khadi, ashrams or padayatra. For example, the coarseness of surfaces in textiles, thinking about windows before walls in architecture, settlements surrounding trees or water in a layout plan, meandering pathways towards clear destinations, and more. We have underutilised this rich — and Indian — vocabulary.
Every citizen, every nation, has to reach a certain level of conscious self-knowledge. Gandhiji helped India do so then, still does today, and will do so tomorrow if we try to understand his ideas.
Understanding the ideas of Gandhiji is a continual process of recreating our own ignorance — and not increasing our scholarship of Gandhiji’s writings or ideas alone — in the sense of not knowing what is coming next. We are scared of acknowledging our ignorance of India and Indians.
We do not need Gandhiji today because he never left us. We left him. He is with us. But are we with him?
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 2, 2019, under the title ‘Windows before walls’. The writer founded SEWA in 1972 and was its general secretary till 1996. She is presently Chancellor, Gujarat Vidyapith