When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi first returned to India in 1915 after his stint as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, the country was just beginning to see the shaping up of a nationalist movement led by the Congress party. At that moment, Gandhi though was aghast at seeing the conditions of peasants and urban labourers and the exploitation they underwent at the hands of wealthy landlords. Mobilising them in a campaign of protest was his first act of social reform in India. In the next few years and decades, Gandhi would discover unique ways and means to challenge British authority, and to bring about revolution in the existing economic, religious and caste order.
In course of time, the Gandhian way of struggle against exploitation would turn into a politically methodology in itself, inspiring several other revolutionaries around the world who dreamt of challenging the powerful. His methods of political mobilisation influenced and continues to influence independence and social reform movements across the globe. As we remember Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary, we reflect upon five notable world leaders who actively drew from the Gandhian model of ‘ahimsa’ and ‘satyagraha’.
Martin Luther King Jr.
The African-American civil rights movement is perhaps one of the most momentous episodes of American history. Leading the decade-long movement was the American Baptist minister and activist Martin Luther King Jr. with his staunch belief in Christian principles and Gandhian philosophy.
During his initial days of activism in the early 1950s, King hardly ever referred to Gandhi or his philosophy of nonviolence. Rather, he was a believer in self defence and kept arms to protect himself from attackers. King was introduced to Gandhi’s teachings by African-American civil rights activist Bayanard Rustin who had applied the strategy of non-violence in the Journey of Reconciliation in 1947.
King referred to Gandhi as “one of the individuals who greatly reveal the working of the spirit of God”. He used Gandhi’s philosophy very extensively in the civil rights movement, wherein the participants were given thorough training in the method. Inspired by Gandhi, King wanted to take a trip of India, which he managed to do in April 1959. “The trip had a great impact upon me personally. It was wonderful to be in Gandhi’s land, to talk with his son, his grandson, his cousins and other relatives,” he wrote in his account, ‘My trip to the land of Gandhi’ in July 1959. Describing what he saw as the impact of nonviolence in India, he wrote, “I left India more convinced than nonviolent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.”
Even when King won the Nobel prize for peace in December 1964, he once again stated about the inspiration he drew from Gandhi. “This approach to the problem of racial injustice is not at all without successful precedent. It was used in a magnificent way by Mohandas K. Gandhi to challenge the might of the British empire and free his people from the political domination and economic exploitation inflicted upon them for centuries.”
When the anti-apartheid icon of South Africa, Nelson Mandela was released from jail after 27 years, his first destination abroad was the land of Gandhi, whom he often referred to as his ‘political guru’. He considered his visits to India as a pilgrimage to the place of his Guru, whose philosophies on ‘Satya’ and ‘Ahimsa’ he was devoted to.
Gandhi’s influence on South African politics dates back decades before Mandela took reigns of the anti-apartheid movement. As mentioned by legal studies expert Bridglal Pachai, “Gandhi received his political baptism in South Africa”. It is here that Gandhi first developed the method of civil disobedience against racist laws that restricted the rights of Indians settled there. By the mid-twentieth century, Gandhian philosophy was deeply entrenched into the South African psyche.
It is widely known that the African National Congress (ANC) founded in 1912, and which was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle from the 1940s, was largely based on the philosophy of Gandhi. Political commentator Allister Sparks writes that the ANC was founded “under the strong influence of Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence”. As part of the ANC, Mandela prepared the joint defiance campaign against apartheid in 1952. It was designed to follow the path of nonviolent resistance as influenced by Gandhi, which Mandela believed to be a pragmatic strategy.
However, his campaign could not remain completely nonviolent and the Sharpeville Massacre resulted in the party getting banned. Mandela is noted to have written in his autobiography that “nonviolent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me. nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy”.
Despite giving in to violence, Mandela continued to consider Gandhi as his biggest inspiration. As a strong follower of Gandhi’s teachings, he was awarded the International Gandhi Peace Price in 2001 by the Indian government for his efforts at peacemaking.
Ho Chi Minh
When Professor of East Asian Studies, William J. Duiker published his biography of Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh in 2001, he referred to him as “half Lenin, half Gandhi”. The Communist revolutionary and architect of Vietnamese independence, Ho Chi Minh’s life has been shrouded in mystery. A revolutionary leader of the mid-twentieth century, he is known to be largely influenced by Gandhian thought. “I and others may be revolutionaries but we are disciples of Mahatma Gandhi, directly or indirectly, nothing more nothing less,” he is believed to have said.
Ho Chi Minh’s Gandhian beliefs though, had their limitations. When he founded a new order in Vietnam, numerous excesses were committed by his supporters in the name of land and economic reforms. However, he did maintain that social revolution need to be brought about with minimum bloodshed.
Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan
Fondly referred to as ‘Frontier Gandhi’, Abdul Gaffar Khan was not just thoroughly influenced by Gandhi but was also one of his closest aides during the freedom movement. He first met with Gandhi in 1928 and soon found himself becoming an important part of the Indian National Congress (INC). Gandhi’s ideas of nonviolence had a profound impact on him and he would often speak at length on how the philosophy was an integral part of the Quran. Khan, like Gandhi dreamt of an independent India in which Hindus and Muslims would live together peacefully. When the Partition did happen against his wishes, Khan continued to spread Gandhian ideas in Pakistan, much to the disappointment of the new formed Pakistani government.
In 1969, on the occasion of Gandhi’s 100th birth anniversary, Khan visited India and made a rather powerful and emotional speech in the Parliament. “I came to see the land of Gandhi. I wanted to see what has become of the ideals of justice and socialism,” he is noted to have said.
The Dalai Lama
In 1956 when the Dalai Lama made his first-ever visit to New Delhi, his first stop was at Rajghat, the cremation ground of Gandhi. “As I stood there I wondered what wise counsel the Mahatma would have given me if he had been alive. I am sure he would have thrown all his strength of will and character into a peaceful campaign for the freedom of the people of Tibet,” he wrote in his memoir describing his visit. The Dalai Lama is believed to be guided by Gandhian philosophy in his ongoing struggle for Tibetan independence.
Professor of Philosophy, Bharati Puri, in her article ‘Deconstructing the Dalai Lama on Tibet’, writes that “the Dalai Lama initiated the voluntary migration out of the boundaries of a state, which was adopted ‘usefully’ by the Tibetans. He has thus earned the title of a ‘satyagrahi’. “Time and again he has reiterated that the only way of bringing about constructive political change is through nonviolent means. Some people might say Gandhiji’s Ahimsa is powerless or pessimistic, but now the whole world is looking up to Mahatma Gandhi’s non violence,” he said at a public address he delivered in Pune in 2008.