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Mainstream, VOL LV No 41 New Delhi September 30, 2017

A Gandhian Approach to Current Problems

Friday 29 September 2017

by Sadiq Ali

On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s one hundred and fortyeighth birth anniversary on October 2, we are reproducing the following text of Sadiq Ali’s Nineteenth Annual Gandhi Peace Foundation Lecture delivered on January 30, 1993 in New Delhi. It was first published in Mainstream (October 2, 1993). Sadiq Ali was the Governor of Maharashtra (1977-80) and later Tamil Nadu (1980-82). A veteran freedom fighter, he was successively Permanent Secretary and General Secretary of the AICC before becoming the President of the Congress-O (1971-73). Subsequently he was the Chairman of the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi and the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya Samiti.

It must first be recognised that Gandhi was no philosopher or thinker dealing with issues in abstraction. His political or social life began with the need for tackling a concrete problem facing Indians in South Africa. Till then he had been faced with two problems: (i) to earn his livelihood by legitimate means; and (ii) a search for personal salvation in religious terms. He was making a deep study of all the main religions of the world. This is what shaped the direction in which his thought was evolving. His whole nature made him eager to help and serve others. It was against this background that he responded to the social evil of racial discrimination when he was suddenly con-fronted with it and the humiliating situation in which he found his countrymen placed. It was in the form of this response that the doctrine of non-violent resistance was born. The more he thought about it, the more did its rich and far-reaching implications reveal themselves to him. It was the most humane way conceivable in the circumstances to right social wrongs. It produced better and quicker results. This discovery was no one-time affair. It just formed the basis for a ceaseless search to make his weapon of truth and non-violence more and more potent and effective. The person wielding it had to be cast in a particular moral mould and had to acquire certain moral qualities.

Truth and non-violence, Gandhi found, could accept no restriction in their scope. In his view, every problem and every social evil was amenable to treatment by non-violent techniques. This explains the multitude of ideas he presented during his lifetime on the kind of swaraj—or, in more modern language, the new social, political, and economic order—that India should have for itself after it achieved the end of foreign rule. What he said on this new order had very much to do with India. But much of it also had great relevance for problems and challenges facing the whole of humanity.

His profound belief in democracy is beyond question. This in turn was grounded in his belief in the freedom of the individual. Without this freedom, no real growth or happiness was possible for the individual. Democracy alone can provide the right environment for this growth. This democracy should have meaning not for a few but for all, including the poorest, even for the maimed, the blind, and the deaf. He did not believe in mere lip-sympathy for the ideal which comes so easily to most politicians. The entire social order should be such that this ideal is substantially achieved in pratice. This explains why he said again and again that he wanted swaraj for the poorest and the lowliest. “The swaraj of my dreams is the poor man’s swaraj,” he said. He also stressed:

The necessaries of life should be enjoyed by you in common with those enjoyed by the princes and the moneyed men...Real swaraj must be felt by all men, women, and children.

The emphasis on this character of swaraj alone would make it possible for the right economic and social order to be established. Today we call my system of government democracy if only it has elections and some other democratic symbols regardless of millions having no access to social and economic justice.

A commitment to genuine democracy has another implication in Gandhian terms. It calls for a high degree of seriousness of purpose and a sense of urgency. Gandhi realised that once a people were awakened, they became a revolu-tionary force. Their minimum expectations have to be satisfied, otherwise they would explode. This explosion could take many unpleasant and ugly forms. Today, one of the questions is whether our rulers and political parties have a high level of seriousness or a sense of urgency. This could be expressed in a variety of ways. The cruel truth is that we miss it in many ways. Let us take one simple example. To what crude level our elections, which are a vital element of democracy, have fallen! We did see a few weak-nesses in our first few elections after indepen-dence. We imagined that the process of elections would improve and get progressively purged of its weaknesses with the passage of time and with some more experience. There were even efforts embodied in legislation to deal with some malpractices. But, notwithstanding all these efforts, the whole electoral process is becoming less and less an honest mirror of public opinion. We are all bemoaning the emergence of money power and muscle power. Even criminals can acquire political respec-tability. This power is assuming more and more menacing forms.

There are several explanations for the emergence of this state of affairs. One is the distressing decline in the standards and norms that should guide the functioning of a political party. Gandhi had a big hand in shaping the party which brought us freedom. Each layer of the party had its appropriate part to play. Much importance was attached to primary committees and to honest enrolment of primary members. It is true tht there was some concentration of power and authority at the Central level but that was the demand of the hour in the midst of a non-violent war to win freedom. There was deep public respect not only for leaders but also for workers even at the lowest level. There was discipline without which nothing worthwhile could be achieved. There were certainly aberrations but the basic structure was sound. New tasks awaited this great party after became free.

In the earlier period of independence, certain norms continued to be observed. There was a lot of care in the selection of candidates. The lowest committees had a say in this selection. But what is the scene now? I am not talking of any one particular party but of the political scene as a whole. There is a swift descent. All power and authority tends to accumulate in the hands of a few, maybe even in one person. In the selection of candidates, the voice of the lower bodies counts less and less. It is common to hear today that most parties tend to become one-person party. With elections becoming more and more expensive, those controlling the purse have a decisive voice. There is much else that can be said to show that all decentralisation of power and authority has disappeared. Many malpractices have crept into the election process greatly lowering the quality of our democracy. Gandhi had laid considerable stress on the education of the voter. We may compliment the voter on the fine sense of discrimination he displays at times; but, the way electoral politics is practised, it largely clouds his judgement and leads him astray in many ways. Much of what Gandhi said on democracy has considerable value and relevance in the many-sided crisis in which the country is caught today.

At the present moment, what weighs heavily on our minds is the communal issue. We have been familiar with this issue for a long time, both before and after independence. It is perfectly true that the foreign British rule made good use of it for its own perpetuation. It did muddy the whole political scene and was the one formidable obstacle to the growth of India as a free, self-reliant nation. I doubt if there was any political leaders who was more conscious of the need for communal harmony than Gandhi. His whole philosophy of life, his own basic nature and spiritual leanings, his own interpretations and practice of Hinduism all drove him to a yearning for communal harmony, in particular Hindu-Muslim unity. There was no escape from it for any rational or any genuinely religious-minded person. In the early period of his life, Gandhi made a deep and reverent study of the principal religions of India and the world and came to certain firm conclusions. All religions, he was convinced, were basically true and all could and should live in perfect harmony. That Truth is one but there are many paths leading to it is also the central thought in Hindu scriptures. Gandhi’s non-violence and Truth could also lead him to no other conclusion. All this was on the human plane which was vital for Gandhi and which held good whatever the political situation he faced.

But there was also a complex political scene which awaited him in India on his final return from South Africa. A good part of India felt amazed when he threw in his lot with the Khilafat movement. So deep and genuine was his commitment to communal harmony that he thought it his plain and obvious duty to identify himself with the sorrow and anguish of his Muslim countrymen on the Khilafat issue. There was a great deal of criticism of his identification with the Khilafat issue both during the Khilafat agitation itself and even more after the agitation was over. The question here was not whether he was politically right or wise in taking the stand he did. Different opinions could be and were expressed on it but Gandhi at no time felt that his was an erroneous approach to the problem. He even said that he would do the same if a similar situation arose again. All this showed the depth of his commitment to the cause of communal harmony. He strove hard to promote it even though success was not within easy reach. Later, he came to the clear conclusion that no unity was possible in the presence of a foreign power which thought that its “divide and rule” policy was the secret of its survival. We all know what desperate steps Gandhi took to prevent the partition of India. But the policy of divide and rule, which had been in active operation for well over half-a-century, could not be cheated of its gains. What he did to heal the wounds of the partition during the last and heroic phase of his life is known to us all. Some of our countrymen put the blame for the partition, or a considerable share of it, on Gandhi. But they do him grave injustice.

Gandhi has written voluminously on the communal problem in different contexts.

A few brief quotations from his writings are illustrative of the great importance he attached to communal harmony:

Hindu-Muslim unity has been my passion from early youth. If not during my lifetime, I know that after my death Hindus and Muslims will bear witness that I had never ceased to yearn after communal peace.

Hindu-Muslim unity consists in having a common purpose, a common goal, and common sorrows. It is best promoted by cooperating to reach the common goal by sharing of one another’s sorrows and by mutual toleration.

The key to the solution of the communal tangle lies in everyone following the best in his own religion and entertaining equal regard for the other religions and their followers.

The only ideology which inspires and sustains the vast mass of our people is still their religion and not any political creed. Their religion tells them not only what is good and what is bad but also other norms of good conduct. Their beliefs help them to alleviate their sorrows. But today politics, in particular electoral politics, dominates the Indian scene. Through politics lies the road to power and wealth. Religion comes easy for exploitation. Caste is another element in our social fabric which is exploited for electoral purposes. I do not propose to go into the question which particular party uses these forces for electoral gains and in what measure. Those of us who have been associated in some way with Gandhi, his programme, and his vision are clear in our minds that the light he showed in an atmosphere of communal gloom was the only right way.

With all his attachment and deep devotion to religion, Gandhi stood for separation of religion from politics. Each man or woman was free to practise his or her religion. This by no means meant the exclusion of moral values from politics. If this happened, politics would be a most sordid and ugly thing. He also saw every religion at its best. He did not delve into past history to ferret out wrongs done in the name of religion. He was busy creating a new, great, and glorious India. He gladly harnessed whatever past could help him to create this kind of India. If this vision is missing, much evil can be wrought. It is the absence of this vision and our commitment to it which accounts for much that has gone wrong in our politics. Let political parties criticise one another, but the wrong deeds of any political party are not rectified by the other party or parties doing the same thing in a more intensified form. That way would lead to nothing but tragedy and disaster. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that we recapture the vision which the greatest man of our generation has bequeathed to India in this vital field of our natural life. India may have great ends. But if the means are wrong, there would be little hope of reaching the right ends.

But what is the commual situation today? It is undoubtedly bad. Why has it become so? Is it because our common people, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians are communal-minded? That is a blatnat untruth. The vast masses of our people holding their religion dear are far from being communal-minded. They have learnt to be tolerant of and respectful to other religions. They instinctively know without even any conscious effort on their part that the mode of worship may vary but it is God alone who is worshipped, all his various names notwith-standing. They have lived together, especially in villages, for centuries in peace and harmony. Any saintly figure, whatever his religion, is revered by people of all communities. There is hardly a State in India where this practse does not prevail. The normal worries of our people centre round their livelihood and the welfare of their children. Why then do they go astray? It is generally agreed now that is tis the kind of politics that is practised in the counry that should take the major blame for this sorry state of affairs.

There is some talk of Hindutva in the country. I would have no objection to it provided Hinduism is presented in its deepest and most catholic terms. But the way the word Hindutva is used has a very narrow connotation. It will only weaken and divide India instead of unifying it. Indian culture for Gandhi had in it the makings of a united India. Let me quote:

Indian culture stands for synthesis of the different cultures that have come to stay in India, that have influenced Indian life, and that, in their turn, have themselves been influenced by the spirit of the soil. The synthesis will naturally be of the swadeshi type where each culture is assured its legitimate place.

Indian culture is, therefore Indian. It is neither Hindu, nor Islamic, nor any other wholly. It is a fusion of all and essentially Eastern. And everyone who calls himself or herself an Indian is bound to treasure that culture, be its trustee, and resist any attack upon it.

There is a big talk of vote-banks in the communal context. Minorities, it is said, have been turned into vote-banks by politicians and political parties. This is true of every segment of Indian society. Various castes in the majority community have been turned into vote-banks. Our Scheduled Castes and Tribes are treated as vote-banks. There is much else in our complex that is capable of exploitation in terms of vote-banks. Whatever is evil and mischievous in this approach has to be brought to light, fought and resisted.

In the new context of recent harrowing happenings, it is very much worthy of consi-deration whether communal organisations should be allowed to have freeplay in the country. We have to build the nation on strong foundations. No effort should be spared to promote national feelings in the country and discourage and weaken all separatist forces.

Much stress is rightly put, especially in intellectual circles, on the need for liberal trends to manifest themselves in the practise of all religions in the country. This deserves undiluted support of all right-thinking people in the country. No unity in the country is possible on the basis of narrow-mindedness or intolerance. After living together for centuries, our country-men, belonging to various religions, have built up a composite culture. If there was some intolerance in any earlier period, it yielded place to tolerance and mutual understanding. Sheer commonsense, political necessities, and the work of our artists, mystics, and sages drew the country towards unity in diversity. There is no other path open to our countrymen unless we choose self-destruction and disaster.

Our country has been through a series of grim experiences in connection with a most bizarre dispute centring round a place of worship. it has led to enormous and widespread suffering. We venture to hope that good sense will now prevail and that we will have learnt a few valuable lessons in both political and religious fields. Gandhi had gone deep into this communal question and strove valiantly to find that right answer. May we not again go back to him and seek the ingredients of a right answer? He has also much to tell us in other vital fields of life.

This is just one aspect, indeed a very vital aspect of Gandhi’s approach to the problem of communal harmony. He had some dreams about India after it achieved its political freedom. These were not dreams of a visionary. He had a clear vision of a free India in all vital spheres of life—political, economic, social and cultural. He wished his free India to do great things not only for itself but also, if it trod the right path, for the entire humanity. Indian culture at its best had something in it which qualified it to make a vital contribution to the shaping of a new world civilisation. The key to peace for which the world is yearning could very much lie in India’s hands if only it had the right vision and this vision could be translated in some good measure into political, social, economic and cultural reality. Gandhi was firmly convinced that this great vision of his would be untranslatable into reality if communal harmony or national unity escaped India. Its absence would foul the whole atmosphere and obstruct progress in almost every direction.

The country has massive economic problems facing it. All our Five Year Plans were largely concerned with an attempt to solve them. The abject poverty of a formidable number of our people is intolerable and wholly inconsistent with the kind of a just social and equitable order at which we had aimed, both during our struggle for freedom and later after freedom was attained. Several efforts have been made to tackle these economic problems but the results have been limited. We may have a middle class which lives well, can educate its children, and have access to some medical care in times of need. We also have an affluent class which can indulge in extravagances. But beyond these classes exists a large mass of humanity which lives below what is called the poverty level. In all his plans and calculations, therefore, Gandhi was at pains to find work and a living wage for every able-bodied person in the country.

Gandhi devoted considerable thought to this vital subject of work for everybody. Democracy would be a very poor thing unless everybody had work or some means of honourable living. It may not even last. In this connection, he emphasised the importance of the spinning-wheel and the rejuvenation of the village economy. Those of us who had been brought up to think in terms of what the West has achieved and the advances it has made in material welfare are apt to think that India too could do the same on a comparable scale. India too, like the West, could be extensively urbanised with a steady diminution in the number of people dependent on agriculture. But Gandhi clearly saw that this hope was very much unrealistic. In his scheme, he permitted a large measure of industrialisation but he was convinced that, as far as basic necessities of life were concerned, there should be active revival of cottage and village industry with science and technology coming in only to increase their productivity. Here were simple, cheap means by which our people could be involved in productive activities. Our country’s leadership listened to Gandhi but was slow and hesitant in making the right beginning. Some steps were taken but they did not go far enough in the right direction.

All political parties, the country as a whole, and the government in particular, have to be clear in their approach to this subject of village industries. Much vague talk is indulged in by the political leadership in the country leading to a considerable amount of confusion and uncertinty. the whole subject calls for some hard and clear-cut decisions. It must be realised that there is a conflict between large-scale and highly mechanised industries and the small-scale and tiny sectors. This confliect can be resolved if we keep steadily in view our real basic objectives. It is thought by some of our foolish countrymen that in espousing the cause of village or cottage industries, Gandhi was opposing science and all the benefits and blessings it could bring. He had said that he would not mind if thirty thousand people produced all the goods that the country needed through the latest inventions of science, but the question is: what do we do with the rest of the population?

The economic content of democracy would be highly meagre if millions are out of work and employment and lead aimless lives. We have now with us an experience of almost half-a- century in the field of development. With all the new wealth we might have created, we are still one of the poorest countries in the world. The consequences of millions of people remaining out of work are not just economic nor are they just confined to the persons unemployed or semi-employed. They affect the whole social, political, economic, and cultural scene in the country—increasing lawlessness, growth in crude violence, and continuous exodus from rural to urban areas making the latter less and less livable. I need hardly labour the point.

These days there is a growing tendency in the large-scale sector to absorb less and less manpower so that the goods it produces are competitive in the world market. There is now a new threat to the tiny or village sector in the shape of multinationals. I may not go into the rights and wrongs of the new industrial policy of our government. The loosening or removal of controls on the indigenous large-scale sector has by and large been welcomes. But there are other features which are far from being non-controversial. It is in all this more complex context that an urgent and honest review of the place of our village industries in the total industrial scheme of the country should be undertaken.

In the social and cultural fields, the message of Gandhi was clear beyond any possibility of misunderstanding. His stress was on equality. Democracy in the India of today has to be nothing short of a revolution. Many inequalities should be on their way to extinction. The spirit of democracy rebels against them and this rebellion is beginning to take place. How orderly or disorderly the rebellion is another matter. A heavy blow has rightly been struck at the evil of untouchability. More blows are necessary. There is also a new movement for improving the conditions of the backward communities. Electoral considerations animating this movement may well be there but the need for social equalisation of all our people is unquestionably great and urgent.

To this social awakening we may add the growing recognition of the need for some effective decentralisation of power and authority which was an article of faith with Gandhi. The country has seen that concentration of power and authority, whether in planning or in other spheres, was wrong, unprofitable, and very harmful. We all know how Gandhi viewed growth in the power of the state with deep distrust. He was all for releasing the creative energies of our people—of each individual, man and woman. Our rulers have yet to realise this and translate it into political and economic reality. There could be a big healthy change in the political life of our country once Panchayati Raj becomes an effective force.

With all his preoccupation with the difficult problems of India, Gandhi’s approach to life embraced in its scope the whole of humanity. There is much talk today of globalisation of the Indian economy but its basis is not the oneness of mankind. Each country has to compete with other countries for the promotion of its national interest. This may be good and necessary within certain limits but none of the service of mankind is its motivating spirit.

Gandhi’s spirit of internationalism has a different odour about it. Let me quote:

I would not like to live in this world if it is not one world.

My patriotism is not an exclusive thing. It is all-embracing and I should reject that patriotism which sought to mount upon the distress or the exploitation of other nationalities.

One cannot serve the country injuring the world at large. In the final analysis, we must die so that the country may live and the country must die so that the world may live.

The golden rule is to be friends with the world and to regard the whole human family as one.

These quotations are meant to convey some flavour of the kind of one world in which Gandhi believed and yearned to work for. He believed in maximum self-sufficiency and self-reliance but it carried with it the obligation to depend on others where such dependence is necessary. Believing as he did in one world and the unity of life, all the crucial problems facing humanity today—economic, political, social, or moral—would have engaged his serious attention and called for solution in broadly non-violent terms. He also did not want any country to prosper at the expense of other countries. This is very much what is happening in the world today despite all talk of one world. There is a lot of exploitation, racial discrimination, and other divisions and hatreds. Also, a good deal of environmental degradation is there following the race for becoming rich. What Gandhi said on this vital theme has attracted a good deal of attention from the West and other parts of the world.

(Mainstream, October 2, 1993)

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