There are at least three reasons why I need Gandhi today.
One emerges from this true tale. In February 1908, right after a satyagraha that Gandhi had organised in South Africa’s Transvaal region, there was a bid to kill him in the region’s biggest city, Johannesburg. A man called Mir Alam and his associates were angry with Gandhi’s settlement with Transvaal’s white government, which for the time being had ended the satyagraha.
Thirty-eight at the time, Gandhi was walking on a street in the heart of the city when a club swung from behind his back hit him on his face. Mumbling “Hey Raam,” he fell and fainted.
Joseph Doke, a white Baptist minister who had walked with him, took Gandhi to his home, where a recovering Gandhi, unable to speak because of stitches on the cheek and mouth, wrote out a request: Would Doke’s little daughter sing Lead Kindly Light to him?
John Henry Newman’s 1833 verse, which Olive Doke sang softly at the door, began with these lines:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,/ Lead Thou me on;/ The night is dark, and I am far from home,/ Lead Thou me on;/ Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see/ The distant scene; one step enough for me.
Scenes like this from Gandhi’s life fortify me in moments of concern or disappointment. Taking a single next step, be it simple or tiny, pleasant or painstaking, raises my morale.
Secondly, I enjoy Gandhi the dissenter. As a lad, Mohan dissented from his mother when she asked him not to touch Uka, the Dalit youngster who came to clean the family home in Rajkot. He dissented again when asked by the mother to avoid Sheikh Mehtab, the wayward athlete in his school. When his caste forbade him from going to London, Mohandas said he would go anyway.
As a law student in London, where he joined the Vegetarian Society, 20-year-old Mohandas unsuccessfully backed the society’s controversial dissenter, Thomas Allinson, when its head Alfred Hills, a prominent industrialist, wished to oust the doctor for advocating artificial birth control.
A dozen years later, when Gandhi was in Johannesburg, his readiness to dissent captured a young white associate called Symonds, who teasingly told Gandhi that “he would withdraw his support” if Gandhi was “ever found in a majority”.
In August 1942, when the Congress voted overwhelmingly (in Mumbai) in favour of his “Quit India” call, Gandhi praised the dissenters: “I congratulate the thirteen friends who voted against the resolution.” His August 1942 remarks also contained these lines: “I have read a good deal about the French revolution. Pandit Jawaharlal has told me all about the Russian revolution. But I hold that though theirs was a fight for the people, it was not a fight for real democracy… My democracy means every man is his own master.”
Gandhi thought India’s independence would mean little unless it also meant the independence of every Indian. This came across in February 1946, when a mutiny by Indian ratings in ships of the Royal Indian Navy created considerable excitement.
Although no Indian officer joined the mutiny, thousands of workers in Mumbai struck work in sympathy. When he heard that mutiny supporters were forcing people to shout “Jai Hind”, Gandhi intervened. If “a single person is compelled to shout ‘Jai Hind’, or any popular slogan,” he declared, “a nail is driven into the coffin of Swaraj in terms of the dumb millions of India”.
In 1934, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German dissenter, had written to Gandhi of his wish to travel to India to meet him. Gandhi replied immediately with a welcome, warning, however, that he might be in prison when the German arrived. Unable, in the end, to travel to India, Bonhoeffer was executed in Nazi Germany in April 1945.
There’s a third reason why we need Gandhi: His commonsense grasp that if India’s vast numbers are to find even minimal comfort, our countryside has to hum with life. The countryside Gandhi envisions in 1937 is sustainable, ultra-modern, egalitarian:
“An ideal Indian village will be so constructed as to lend itself to perfect sanitation. It will have cottages with sufficient light and ventilation built of a material obtainable within a radius of five miles of it. The cottages will have courtyards enabling householders to plant vegetables for domestic use and to house their cattle. village lanes and streets will be free of all avoidable dust. It will have wells. accessible to all. It will have houses of worship for all, also a common meeting place, a village common for grazing its cattle, a co-operative dairy, primary and secondary schools in which industrial education will be central, and it will have (a) Panchayat for settling disputes. It will produce its own grains, vegetables and fruits, and its own khadi.”
Presented in 1946, Gandhi’s picture of “a holistic village worker” is also refreshing:
“(He) must know everybody living in the village and render them such service as he can. He will so win over the villagers that they will seek and follow his advice.
Supposing I go and settle down in a village with a ghani (an oil-press), I won’t be an ordinary ghanchi earning 15-20 rupees a month. I will be a Mahatma ghanchi! I have used the word in fun. What I mean. is that as a ghanchi I will become a model for the villagers to follow.
I will be a ghanchi who knows the Gita and the Quran. I will be learned enough to teach their children. The villagers will come to me and ask me: ‘Please make arrangements for our children’s education.’ I will tell them: ‘I can find you a teacher but you will have to bear the expenses.’ And they will be prepared to do so most willingly.”
Who wouldn’t want such a person in their village?
The writer is research professor at Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
— This article first appeared in the October 9, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Mahatma for the last man’.