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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 6, January 26, 2013 - Republic Day Special

Mahatma Gandhi

Tuesday 5 February 2013, by Jawaharlal Nehru


On the occasion of the sixtyfifth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom on January 30 this year, we offer our sincere homage to his abiding memory by reproducing excerpts from two speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru to explain Gandhiji’s significance before the US audience in October 1949.

You know that during the last thirty years or so, we carried on rather intensively our campaign for India’s freedom. We did not begin it; it was there. It had been continued for genrations before us but it came more to the world’s notice then, because a world figure stepped into the arena of Indian politics—that is, Mahatma Gandhi. And he produced a very remarkable change in India.

I was, of course, much younger then but still I have the most vivid memories of that change, because it affected me as it affected millions of our people. It was a strange change that came over us. We were at that time a very frustrated people, hankering and yearning for freedom and not knowing what to do about it. We were helpless, unarmed, unorganised in any proper way and totally incapable, as it seemed, of facing a great imperial Power which had been entrenched in our country for over a hundred and fifty years. Further, this was a Power which was not superficially there, merely by force of arms but which had dug down deep into the roots of India. It seemed an extra-ordinarily difficult task to remove it.

Some of our young men, in the depths of their frustration, took to violent courses that were completely futile. Individual acts of terrorism took place, which meant nothing at all in the wider contrext of things. On the other hand, the politics of some of our leaders then was so feeble that it could produce no result. So between the two, we did not know what we could do. It seemed degrading to follow the rather humiliating line which some of the leaders of Indian public life in those days recommended; and, on the other hand, it seemed completely wrong and futile to adopt the terrorist method which, apart from being bad in itself, could not possibly gain any results.

At that time, Gandhi came on the scene and he offered a way of political action to us. It was an odd way—a new way. What he said was not new in its essence. Great men had said it previously but there was a difference in that he applied that teaching to mass political action. Something which the individual had been taught to do in his individual life was suddenly sought to be adopted for mass action—and mass action in a vast country of people who, from the educational point of view, were illiterate, untrained and thoroughly frightened; people who were obsessed with fear and who (if I may refer to the peasantry of our country which formed about 80 per cent of our population) were kicked and cuffed by everybody who came in contact with them, whether it was a govern-mental agency or the moneylender. Whoever it was, they were treated badly. They never had any relief from the tremendous burden they endured.

Well, Gandhi came and he told them that there was a way out—a way of achieving freedom. ‘First of all,’ he said, ‘shed your fear. Do not be afraid, and then act in a united way but always peacefully. Do not bear any ill-will in your hearts against your opponent. You are fighting a system, not an individual, not a race, not the people of another country. You are fighting the imperialist system or the colonial system.’...

Almost magically, his influence spread. He was well known before also but not in this particular way. And within a few months we saw a change come over our countryside. The peasantry began to behave differently. It straightened its back. It could look you in the face. It had self-confidence and self-reliance. Now, this did not happen automatically, of course, for Gandhi’s message was carried to these peasants in the countryside by tens of thousands of young men and young women. First of all they went to the people who became enthusiastic about it and accepted it. Within a few months, the whole aspect of India changed.

Now, it is simple enough to say, ‘Do not be afraid.’ There is nothing magical about that. Of what were we afraid? What is a person normally afraid of? Many things. We were afraid of being put in prison. We were afraid of our property being confiscated for sedition. We were afraid, if you like, of being shot at and killed as rebels. Well, Gandhi argued with us, ‘After all, if you are so frightfully keen on freedom, what does it matter if you go to prison, if your property is confiscated or even if you are killed? It does not matter much mecause you will get some-thing infinitely more. Apart from serving for a great cause and apart from possibly achieving results, the mere act of doing this will fill you with a certain satisfaction and joy.’

Somehow or other that voice seemed to convince masses of people; and there came about a tremendous change.

Thus started in India what might be called the ‘Gandhi era’ in our politics, which lasted until his death and which, in some form or other, will always continue. I mention this so that you may have some kind of a picture of how we behaved. Large numbers of us gave up our normal professions and avocations and went to the villages preaching this gospel. We also preached other things which our political organisation demanded and we forgot almost everything else that we used to do. Our lives changed, not very deliberately—they simply changed, automatically and completely, so much so that it was a little difficult for us even to interest ourselves in those activities with which we had been previously associated. We were absorbed in the new activity of the moment—and not just for a moment but for years...

You may have heard that a large number of us, a hundred thousand of us, were in prison and apparently nothing was happening in India. The movement for freedom was suppressed. It was so, in a superficial sense. Six months later or a year later, suddenly one would find that the movement was very alive. Repeatedly, the British Government was amazed. It would think that it had put an end to this business; and then it would find that it had started off at a higher pitch than ever. A movement, which was a peculiar mixture of mass activity and individual action (that is, each individual doing something regardless of whether others did it or not), is a type very difficult to crush. It may be suppressed for a while; but because there is the individual incentive and because the individual wants to act regardless of whether others act or not, and when thousands and tens of thousands of individuals feel that way, it is very difficult to suppress them.

How do governments function? A democratic government in the ultimate analysis functions largely with the goodwill of the people and with their cooperation. It cannot go very much against them. Even an autocratic government has to have a measure of goodwill. It cannot function without it. In the ultimate analysis, a govern-ment functions because of certain sanctions which it has and which are represented by its army or police force. If the government is in line with the thought of a majority of the people, it is a democratic government and only a very small minority of the people will feel its pressure. Now, if an individual refuses to be afraid of these sanctions, what is the government to do about it? It may put him in prison. He is not afraid; he welcomes it. He may be, if you like, shot down. He is not afraid of facing death. Well, then a government has to face a crisis; that is, a government, in spite of its great power, cannot really conquer an individual. It may kill him but it does not overcome him. That is failure on the part of the government. A government, which is essentially based—apart from the other factors which I have mentioned—upon the sanctions it has, comes up against something—the spirit of man which refuses to be afraid of those sanctions.
Now, that is a thing which normal govern-ments do not understand. They are upset by it. They do not know how to deal with it. They can, of course, deal with the individual in the normal way by treating him as a criminal. But that, too, does not work, because that man does not feel like a criminal; nor do others regard him as a criminal. So, it does not work.

So that, this process, this technique of action, was not one of overwhelming a government so much by mass action—although there was that phase of it—but rather one of undermining the prestige of a government before which an indivi-dual would not bow. Many of you, no doubt, have read something very like it in Thoreau’s writings. This was developed on a mass scale by Gandhi. Naturally, the people of India were not very well trained; nor did they understand too well the philosophy of this technique of action. They were weak and frail human beings. They slipped and made mistakes and all that. Nevertheless, on the whole, they did function according to that technique; and ultimately they triumphed.
[From the address at the University of Chicago, October 27, 1949]

INDIA is an ancient country with millennia of history behind her but she faces the world today as a young and dynamic nation. For thirty years she concentrated on her struggle for national freedom. And that struggle, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, was an unusual one. That great man, whom we call the Father of our Nation, gave some impress of his mighty personality to India and more especially to our generation. And so, today, as we look out upon the world and fashion our foreign policy, we are governed by something of that idealism as well as the realistic approach that Gandhi gave to our struggle. If India is to play any effective part in world affairs or even in her own development, she has to function in conformity with the ideals that she has held for these many years. Those ideals are essentially of peace and cooperation, of national freedom, of a growing internationalism leading to a world order, of equality among nations and people and of the eradiction of want and misery from the millions who suffer from it.

Mahatma Gandhi taught us to view our national struggle always in terms of the under-privileged and those to whom opportunity had been denied. Therefore, there was always an economic facet to our political struggle for freedom. We realised that there was no real freedom for those who suffered continually from want, and because there were millions who lacked the barest necessities of existence in India, we thought of freedom in terms of raising and bettering the lot of these people. Having achieved political freedom, it is our passionate desire to serve our peoople in this way and to remove the many burdens they have carried for generations past. Gandhi said on one occasion that it was his supreme ambition to wipe every tear from every eye. That was an ambition beyond even his power to realise, for many millions of eyes have shed tears in India, in Asia and in the rest of the world; and perhaps it may never be possible completely to stop this unending flow of human sorrow. But it is certainly possible for us to lessen human want and misery and suffering; and what are politics and all our arguments worth if they do not have this aim in view?

[From the address at the University of California, October 31, 1949]

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