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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 1 New Delhi December 22, 2018 [Annual Number]

Mahatma Gandhi — The Great Communicator

Sunday 23 December 2018, by Nikhil Chakravartty


The following is the text of the Gandhi Peace Foundation Lecture 1995 delivered by Nikhil Chakravartty in New Delhi on January 30, 1995. It first appeared in Mainstream (October 3, 1998) after N.C.’s demise.

I am deeply touched by having been asked to deliver this year’s Gandhi Peace Foundation Lecture. Nobody is more conscious than I am about my inadequacy in speaking on this sacred occasion, the day of the martyrdom of the greatest son of my country. Perhaps my only qualification to talk about him is that I belong to the generation that was witness to the historic transition from subjection to freedom of our great motherland, and as a young reporter I cherish the memory of the exciting moments in the presence of Gandhi.

I am no scholar of the study of Gandhiji’s great life, rather I spent my activist youth as an impudent critic of the elders in our national movement for independence. Having spent over half-a-century as a journalist, I have chosen as the subject of this presentation: ‘Mahatma Gandhi—the Great Communicator’. This is a very subjective endeavour—a string of cursory thoughts—based largely on my personal reflections on our struggle for freedom and how it acquired its unique characteristic from the way Gandhiji built and guided it.

Our freedom struggle needs to be assessed in a historical perspective. Its dominant charac-teristic that marks it out from other great revolutions in history was its tremendous sweep. No other revolution in history set in motion so many millions of people. This is no idle boast but the plain statement of a historical reality which is often missed by our academics and politicians alike.

In late eighteenth century France, the objective conditions of mass discontent and disenchant-ment with the ancient regime no doubt prevailed, but the actual revolutionary action involved a small number of a few thousand, mostly in Paris: once the fuse was lighted, the revolution flared up in different parts of France without any coherent leadership. It was largely a spontaneous upsurge, even the leadership at the core could not hold its own and it changed hands fast so that even those who led it at the beginning were soon either left by the wayside or liquidated, giving rise to the classic phrase that the revolution had devoured its own children.

The Russian Revolution had a more organised leadership than those who had led the French Revolution, but it was a small band of deter-mined militant revolutionaries under a leader who had an uncanny sense of the configuration of forces ranged in a decadent imperial system. So, when the Czarist system itself cracked up with the fasco of defeat in the First World War, Lenin gave the call for capture of power which the Bolsheviks swiftly carried out. In terms of moving millions into revolutioinary action, the Bolshevik Revolution was mostly the handiwork of small groups of determined revolutionaries who, everywhere, first captured the key points of power and then sought to redesign the social structure in the interest of the common people as they thought fit. In a sense it was a sort of managerial revolution led by a party which concentrated on the means of capturing power, and power alone.

The Chinese Revolution was also similar to the Russian Revolution in its broad historical sweep. In this case also, it was a small group of a few thousand led by a remarkable leader, Mao Zedong, steeled in the Long March which was a sort of armed padayatra—a decade-old campaign to rouse the peasantry in some pockets of the vast sprawling domain of China with the administrative system itself having broken down and replaced by an ineffective regime under the Kuomintang. It was the specialisation of the guerrilla war approach which enabled Mao to spread his network taking advntage of the Japanese occupation of most of the mainland. Unlike the Russian Revolution, which relied more on the working class, the Chinese Revo-lution targeted largely on the peasantry. Here too, the number of people actively engaged in mass action was small—the same reliance on a determined band. The form of action was essentially armed guerrilla forays which harassed the enemy and finally overpowered it. This way the authority of the state was subverted until the final citadel of power was captured, and thereby the guerrilla bands of yesterday were joined together to form the victorious People’s Liberation Army.

Compare these three great landmarks in modern history with what happened in our country in the first half of the twentieth century. Stage by stage, the premier nationalist organisation, committed to the struggle for independence, fully involved larger and larger sections of the people into the vortex of struggle for power. This way, the only weapon for winning power was to organise larger and larger sections of India’s unarmed humanity into mass action. By the time independence actually came, the Congress commanded much larger sections of the people than anybody had so far done in history.

The main feature of the Indian struggle for freedom has been that it throughout depended almost wholly on activating the masses by injecting into them the urge for independence by emphasising the strength of the Indian people vis-a-vis the colonial rulers, and thereby set them free from the fear of the ruler. The non-violence, as it was practised, emphasised on the strength of the Indian people in relation to the ruler who had to depend on the gun for establishing his authority. The fact that through the Arms Act the Indian people were denied the right to defend themselves was turned into a symbol of strength, that the people would depend on their conscious strength to ward off the foreign ruler. This meant constant effort on the part of the leaders of the independence movement at raising the consciousness of the vast masses of common people—not just a small section of determined revolutionaries as had been the case of the other great revolutions. The fact that the Indian people were not permitted to bear arms under the British Raj was not allowed to dampen or demoralise the millions. Rather, a new form of strength was instilled into their consciousness.

This aspect of the Indian Revolution marks it out as distinct from the other revolutions in modern times. Nowhere was the question of the gun permitted to be of supreme or decisive importance in the mainstream of our national struggle for independence. This does not mean that the sacrifice of those revolutionaries who unwaveringly gave their lives by taking up arms against the foreign ruler was of no consequence. From Aurobindo Ghosh and Savarkar to Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad to Subhas Chandra Bose, they all made the finest contributions to the struggle for freedom, but the successive waves of mass upheavals that decisively brought down the British rule in India did not depend on the wielding of arms by a small minority of dedicated revolutionaries, but essentially on the raising of the level of consciousness of the broad masses of the people.

This precisely was the unique contribution of Gandhiji. When historians and publicists talk of Gandhi having taken politics from the monopoly of the intelligentsia to the wider world of the common humanity, it was not just a question of broadening the base of the movement for freedom. This was not merely a question of quantitative increase in the number of participants in the movement but qualita-tively a different type of movement emerged with its essentially distinct hallmark.

How was this achieved, what was the weapon by which the mass consciousness was raised? How was the message of the freedom struggle conveyed to the common people? Herein comes Gandhi’s role as a great communicator. For, he depended solely on communicating the message of freedom to the masses and thereby sought to lift their consciousness. That message was not just a mere exhortation for rousing the emotional urge of a nation to be free—however important might have been that task for welding the sense of unity among the people. This had been done in a limited area during the Bengal anti-partition movement of 1905—which in a particular region had assumed the character of a mass movement and had been successful in forcing the British rulers to abandon their plan to vivisect one of the militnat pockets of the national movement.

Gandhiji’s movement, on the other hand, was much more comprehensive: it tried to activate all the diverse sectors of the national spectrum. From the affluent classes to the impoverished, from the intelligentsia to the unlettered—nobody was left out. It was not just confined to tending only the grassroots level as we notice nowadays a multitude of activist groups have been doing. No doubt these are bringing some relief to the people at the bottom. By their endeavour these activist groups have certainly been educating and activating the uncared-for sections of society to stand on their own legs. What distinguished Gandhi’s movement for independence was that it was not only much more comprehensive but it sought to open the eyes of the millions left in darkness about the limited capacity of the foreign ruler and the great opening for the country’s advance once the foreign ruler was forced to quit through the demonstration of strength by the people.

Gandhiji ran the pilot project of his new technique in South Africa against the hated rule of apartheid. There too he did not advocate the taking up of arms but sought to instil into the common people a realisation of their own strength in blocking and muzzling the White ruler’s oppressive rule. From that apprenticeship abroad, when he came back to India in 1915, political activity in the country was afflicted with stagnation and political forces, mostly confined to the intelligentsia, were in disarray. The tour he undertook—his Bharat Darshan—enabled him to understand the urges of the common people and one of his first acts was the Champaran satyagraha, a form of struggle so unfamiliar to both the Indian politician and the British ruler of the day. Drawing upon his South African experience, he made a special effort at cultivating the minority Muslim community and from then onwards came his interest and subsequent compact with the Khilafat agitation. The Rowlatt stayagraha and the Khilafat were his earlier excursions before his first major national campaign in the form of the non-coope-ration of 1920. For the first time in the annals of the national movement, a countrywide cam-paign involving the common masses was initiated.

It is not the purpose of this presentation to trace the history of the freedom struggle—what is relevant for the purpose is Gandhiji’s role as a communicator. He left out no means, no technique to rouse the consciousness of the people—instil into them the imperative of their active participation in the movement. To enable him to do so, he took up a wide range of activities pertaining to all sections of the people—from education to village welfare, from the spinning wheel to cattle protection. His effort at total identification with the village poor made him design even his personal attire and way of living. Since he looked upon public activity as having an element of moral purpose, he regarded the entire crusade for independence as an experiment with truth. For him the freedom of the country was part of the struggle for truth—an approach which was perhaps easier for the unlettered villager, steeped in the tradition of customs, to grasp than the Western educated liberal intelligentsia of the city.

This is an aspect of Gandhiji’s movement which was not easy to understand for the educated intelligentsia and in this controversy arose the intense debate over the question of linking ends with means. From the Marxists to the radicalists of all hues, the linking of ends and means could not possibly be part of the domain of politics, where the supremacy of the objective of power became of paramount consideration, and hence there could be no organised link between ends and means. In the early thirties when Aldous Huxley reopened the question in his book, Ends and Means, the Indian Marxist response was Ends are Means. This is where Gandhiji’s insistence on politics and morality being inseparable demarcated him from the Western educated liberals ands helped him to a large measure to be attuned to the philosophical base of very large sections of the corpus of India’s socio-cultural heritage. This also denoted that for him politics—the struggle for independence—could not be compart-mentalised from the totality of the human condition. In his scheme of things, the struggle for independence was but the manifestation of the wider struggle for the regeneration of the entire society.

As a communicator, Gandhiji, like most of our great leaders, used the medium of the press apart from the spoken word. In the midst of all his multitude of activities, Indian Opinion, Young India and Harijan came out regularly—a one-man endeavour—conveying his message to his countrymen. The importance that was attached to the written word by Gandhiji and other national leaders reflected their urge to reach out their message to as wide a section of the people as possible. The means to convey that message were often primitive, but no medium available at the time was left out. From traditional interpersonal means—including the travelling bards—the bauls of Bengal, for instance—to the educated student going out on literacy-cum-swadeshi missions—the composing of patriotic songs and setting up of choirs in villages, mohallas and bustees, to the immortal ‘magic lantern’—no video at that time—nothing was left out. It was a gigantic operation, sustained through the ups and downs of the freeom struggle, and later on followed by handwritten posters and graffiti.

How true to his convictions Gandhiji was in his actual functioning as a journalist could be gathered from many of his writings. Here is a passage from Young India (July 2, 1925) about how he strove to serve as a true communicator:

To be true to my faith therefore, I may not write in anger or malice. I may not write idly. I may not write merely to excite passion. The reader can have no idea of the restraint I have to exercise from week to week in the choice of topics and my vocabulary. It is training for me. It enables me to peep into myself and to make discoveries of my weaknesses. Often my vanity dictates a smart expression or my anger a harsh adjective. It is a terrible ordeal but a fine exercise to remove these weeds.

As a communicator, Gandhiji was aware of the need to take into account the level of aware-ness of his target reader or listener. This can be seen in the very naming of each of the great upsurges. None of these were just spontaneous upsurges, but each one was preceded by meticulous preparations. By the correct standards of a communicator, Gandhiji chose the form of struggle, the target and even the language of every campaign in keeping with the level of consciousness of the common people. In the first round it was Non-Cooperation (1920). Ten years later, it was more assertive—Civil Disobedience (1930-32). And a decade later, having taken into account both the internal and the external circumstances, it was Quit India (1942). With every stage, the tempo was raised higher, mass involvement more intense and widespread than before, until the finale was reached with the battle cry of Do-or-Die. Here was the remarkable manifestation of the acute sensitivity of a great communicator.

It may be worthwhile to refer briefly to a couple of specific instances of how Gandhiji operated as a communicator. Before he undertook the Dandi March for the Salt Satyagraha in 1930, there was careful consultation within the leadership; it was not just the product of the brainwave of one individual leader. Recent research on the subject by a very perceptive scholar in social communication at Ahmedabad has brought out significant details about it. (‘What Moves the Masses? Salt Satyagraha as Case-Study’ by Suchitra, Mainstream, January 28, 1995) After the pledge to achieve complete independence, taken on the banks of the Ravi at Lahore on December 31, 1929, first came the Independence Day declaration of January 26, 1930 which catalogued the injustices of the British Raj. Next came Gandhiji’s letter to Viceroy Lord Irwin, in which eleven demands were raised, including the abolition of the salt tax. Meanwhile, the leaders discussed the form of civil disobedience to be launched. Pandit Nehru and Subhas Bose suggested the setting up of a parallel government while Sardar Patel proposed a march to Delhi or alternatively a countrywide breaking of land laws. Gandhiji envisaged a long drawn-out movement in which the masses would have to be drawn in. He felt the British Government would pounce upon the setting up of a parallel government or a march to Delhi. Gandhiji felt his target audience was the Indian society to be unified and he was conscious of the need to cultivate public opinion abroad. So, the defiance of the salt law was taken up as the initial item of civil disobedience. Resentment at the salt law had a long history. As early as 1844, there were disturbances protesting against this impost which touched even the poorest of the poor. The Congress, at its inaugural session in 1885, had referred to it. During the 1905 swadeshi movement in Bengal, the call was given for the boycott of Manchester cloth and salt imported from Liverpool. At the same time, focusing on this iniquitous tax, Gandhiji expected to mobilise international support, at least to expose the exploitation of the Indian people under the British Raj. In his own hand he wrote out for the press: “I want world sympathy in this battle of Right against Might.”

Then the form of the struggle. A march from Ahmedabad to the seashore at Dandi passing through villages would provide sufficient space for non-stop propaganda for weeks against the Raj and mobilise villagers along the route, whose publicisation would bestir other volun-teers in other parts of the country, and thereby propagate the vision of Purna Swaraj. The march was undertaken by 80 persons including Gandhiji himself. The other 79 were chosen to represent all the provinces in India, and they were drawn from all communities—Muslims, Christians and Hindus both upper caste and the depressed. Abbas Tyabji and Sarojini Naidu were chosen as leaders in the event of his own arrest—symbolically representing the Muslims and the womanhood of the country. And he sent his letter to the Viceroy notifying his decision to break the salt law, through an Englishman, Reginald Reynolds, who later recalled:

I realise that Gandhi’s use of me was symbolic—it was to show that this was not a matter of Indians versus British but of principles.

The whole nation was electrified by this new form of mass action—totally peaceful and non-violent even facing police brutality as the satya-grahis tried to enter the salt factory at Dharasana.

In this campaign—the first truly nationwide mass campaign against the Raj—Gandhi often used the religious idioms as the best means of arousing the rural masses familiar with religious lore. Incidentally, Gandhiji drew the correct lesson from the poor response to the repeat performance of the Dandi March exactly two years later, in 1932—after the failure of the Gandhi-Irwin pact. From this the lesson was drawn that the repetition of a specific form of campaign does not fetch the same results. This is a lesson which many of our political parties and mass organisation activists need to keep in mind today.

Ten years after the Civil Disobedience move-ment, I had a personal experience of Gandhiji’s remarkable style of communication at the Ram-garh Congress session in 1940. The Congress nagar had come up in a rural setting with bamboo and local shrubs. During his early morning walk, Gandhiji noticed a red flag fluttering at a corner of the enclosure reserved for the leaders’ camp. It appeared that the fraternal delegation from Burma’s Dobama party was put up there and so they hoisted their party flag. Panditji was sent for and he tried to explain to Gandhiji that this red flag, being the party flag of the Burmese delegation, should not be taken as a defiant rival to the Congress tricolour. But Gandhiji was adamant, and so Pandijit quietly managed to shift the Burmese delegation to the nearby Dak Bungalow outside the Congress nagar. The matter betrayed an attitude of intolerance on the part of Gandhiji, some of us thought.

In the afternoon of the same day, the Subjects Committee was scheduled to meet. In those days, the Congress as a unique national platform included within its fold different ideological and political formations from the Congress Socialist Party and the banned Communist Party (functioning as the National Front group after the name of its legal journal) as also the so-called Nationalist Congressmen representing by and large the point of view of Hindu orthodoxy. There were arrest warrants against the Commu-nist leaders, including the notification of handsome police reward for their capture. The Communists had sent one of their leaders, Bharadwaj, to participate in the Congress session. With an arrest warrant against him and the police and their informers hovering all over the place, it was difficult for him to come out of his undisclosed shelter in the Congress nagar and place the National Front point of view before the Subjects Committee. The Communists approached Panditji for advice on how Bharadwaj could come to the Subjects Committee session. Panditji promptly went to Gandhiji for advice. Remembering the morning incident, we were almost sure that Gandhiji would be far from helpful. In a few minutes Panditji came out of Gandhiji’s camp and told us that Bharadwaj would go to the Subjects Committee pandal with Gandhiji himself in his car. We were literally taken aback when we found the car carrying Gandhiji going right at the back of the platform, and out came Bharadwaj trailing behind Gandhiji, and then sat on the dais greeting the leaders from Maulana Azad, Rajen Babu, Sardar Patel and Panditji to JP and all the others. Sardar Patel moved the official resolution, followed by JP who placed the CSP point of view. Then Bharadwaj placed the National Front point of view. Discussions went on, and at the end Sardar Patel replying to the debate tore the CSP and the National Front amendments to pieces and carried the day. Meanwhile, unnoticed by many, Bharadwaj slipped out, helped by Panditji and Dr Lohia.

This indeed was an amazing experience. How could one reconcile Gandhiji’s morning allergy to the red flag and the very same afternoon, sheltering a ‘wanted’ Communist leader to come before the party forum and place his point of view? I have thought over this incident many times since. By his conduct, Gandhiji was transmitting two messages. First, by insisting on the removal of the red flag Gandhiji wanted to convey the message to all, that within the national platform which the Congress represented in the struggle against the foreign power, there could be but one leadership, one flag—no question of any ambiguity. At the same time, he wanted to convey the clear message to the British Raj that in its confrontation with the Congress, no party would be on its side, that all were behind the Congress. Subsequnetly, it was the breach of this commitment in 1942, when the Communists went against the Quit India upheaval, that they invited upon themselves the anger of Congressmen and were thrown out of the Congress.

The protracted negotiations over the transfer of power and the Muslim League’s insistence on Pakistan finally led to the Mountabatten Award of June 3, 1947, by which the country was partitioned. As it was well known at the time, Gandhiji was opposed to the partition. The difference between him and the leaders of the Congress flowed out of his premonition about the future. As a great communicator, Gandhiji could not only transmit but perceive as well what was in store. This is borne out by a very penetrating passage in Tendulkar’s biography, Mahatma. Two days before the Mountbatten Award, that is, on June 1, 1947, Gandhiji had woken up in the morning earlier than usual and spent the time before the prayer in musing:

Today I find myself all alone. Even the Sardar and Jawaharlal think that my reading of the political situation is wrong and peace is sure to return if partition is agreed upon. They did not like my telling the Viceroy that even if there was to be partition, it should not be through British intervention or under the British rule. They wonder, if I have not deteriorated with age. Nevertheless, I must speak as I feel, if I am to prove a true, loyal friend to the Congress and to the British people, as I claim to be, regardless of whether my advice is appreciated or not. I see clearly that we are setting about this business the wrong way. We may not feel the full effect immediately, but I can see clearly that the future of independence gained at this price is going to be dark.

Then after a pause, he pondered:

I shall, perhaps, not be alive to witness it, but should the evil I apprehend overtake India and her independence be imperilled, let posterity know what agony this old soul went through thinking of it. Let it not be said that Gandhi was party to India’s vivisection. But everybody is today impatient for independence. Therefore, there is no other help.

Here is a seer who could communicate his premonition. For those of us who were fortunate in watching him in person, those last days of his life—with his mind heavy with the unleashing of Hindu-Muslim clashes even when the foreign power had left—were perhaps the most momentous. On the one hand came the realisation of his goal—the independence of the country—while at the same time, the menace of communal hatred was vitiating that newly-won freedom. It was the hour of fulfilment tinged with a horrendous tragedy. For him therefore there was no moment of rest with the achieve-ment of independence: the struggle had to go on. Since he could not avert the partitioning of the country, he had to meet the challenge of its sombre aftermath—how to put out the hell-fire of communal animosity. And so he set out on this, his final crusade—how to turn the millions of common humanity that he had served to mould all his life and make each one of them his brother’s keeper. In the midst of blood and fire, he strove—Noakhali, Beliaghata, Bihar and Delhi—until he fell a martyr to the cause which is yet to be redeemed by his heirs and successors. Till the last drop of life ebbed out of that frail body, the great communicator never ceased for a moment to transmit his message—the message which remains a sacred injunction even to this day fortyseven years after.

Today, this country needs a Gandhi to bring about the regeneration of our democracy. As morality is being banished from our politics and public life getting corroded all around, this country has the need of the Mahatma, the Great Communicator today more than at any time in the past. Seventy years ago, Mahatma Gandhi had said:

Real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few, but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused.

This commandment alone can enthrone social justice in this great land of ours.

(Mainstream, October 3, 1998)

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