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Truth and dare

All human beings,however great,are children of their time,and have their cultural and personal limitations. Gandhi was no exception...

Written by Bhikhu Parekh |
October 2, 2009 2:00:02 am

All human beings,however great,are children of their time,and have their cultural and personal limitations. Gandhi was no exception,and is open to legitimate criticism for some of his beliefs and actions. There are however several areas where his contribution was remarkable and continues to remain highly relevant.

First,in a globalising and rapidly changing world,identity becomes a matter of concern to many. ‘Who am I?’ ‘What do I stand for?’ ‘What are my moral anchors?’ are some of the questions that human beings ask. Some think that identity is primordial and fixed,while others believe that it is infinitely pliable and we can become whatever we choose. Gandhi’s response was much more sensible. For him human beings are rooted and members of particular cultural and political communities,by which they are deeply influenced. They are also however reflective beings who can criticise their inheritance,learn from their experiences and refashion themselves. Identity for Gandhi is both inherited and recreated. It is not a substance but an ongoing process of self creation,not a prison but a creative resource. No wonder,he called his autobiography My Experiments with Truth. As he said,we “grow from truth to truth”,and that journey never ends.

Second,globalisation brings different cultures together. This raises the question as to how we deal with cultural differences. Some see these differences as challenges or threats,and turn inward. Others embrace them with abundant enthusiasm as if cultures were consumer goods. Gandhi’s response was more measured and mature. Every civilisation,culture or religion is unique,and represents a distinct vision of human possibilities. It has its treasures as well as its blind spots. Cultures therefore benefit from a dialogue with each other. A culture that turns inward or isolates itself from others denies itself the conditions of its growth. Others are our conversational partners,and it is as much in our interest as theirs that they should continue to flourish.

Third,like Tagore,Gandhi was deeply troubled by European ideas of nationalism and patriotism,and provided an alternative way of thinking about one’s relation to one’s polity. Nationalism glorifies an abstract entity called India or Britain. It values territory more than people,and thinks little of sacrificing millions to defend a piece of land even when it is uninhabitable. Patriotism is a bit better,but not by much. It centres on the state rather than people,is militaristic,and exclusive.

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Gandhi placed people at the centre of politics. Rather than talk about nationalism and patriotism,he talked about prajaprem — love of one’s people. This is very similar to Tagore’s idea of swadeshchinta — an anxious and loving concern for the well-being of one’s community. A country is nothing more than its people. And its people are made up of concrete living individuals. These individuals should be at the centre of one’s concern. Gandhi never lost sight of this. It is striking that when he was invited to unfurl the flag of independent India,he declined the honour and preferred instead to spend his time in violence affected areas. True ‘patriotism’ lay in healing wounds,in wiping away every tear from every eye,not in flag waving military parades and war mongering. Since one loves one’s people,one wants them to be the best they are capable of,and is critical of their failings of character and conduct. It is striking that no one was more critical of Indians than Gandhi,for him the sign of true love.

Finally,Gandhi’s life had a rare grandeur. He conquered one desire after another including his famous love of food and sexuality. He even eliminated fear of death,and walked unarmed against angry men full of revenge and hatred. When Madanlal dropped a bomb at one of his prayer meetings ,Gandhi carried on regardless,and chided the audience for being frightened of ‘a mere bomb’. He walked unarmed in Noakhali and other areas affected by communal violence,and dared his enemies to do their worst. It is almost as if he had transformed fear of death into love of it,in the hope that his death would achieve what his life had not.

In a very important sense,the supreme courage that he showed at the end of his life was there at the very beginning. When he was in South Africa,he was struck by the cowardice and sense of inferiority of the Indian community. He repeatedly urged them to “rebel against ourselves”,and told them that “those who behaved like worms should not blame others for trampling on them”. Building up a nation of proud,brave and self-confident people remained his life-long objective.

Gandhi’s life is a story of immense courage,moral transparency,and experimental vitality. “My life is my message”,he remarked on many occasions. The story of how a timid,diffident and moderately talented Mohandas Gandhi transformed himself by sheer will power into Mahatma Gandhi is a source of inexhaustible wisdom and inspiration.

The writer is a political theorist at the London School of Economics

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