Why Gandhi Jayanti?
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 02 October, 2015
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Happy Gandhi Jayanti.
Today we celebrate the birth of a man who is revered as a Mahatma (Great Soul) in India – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, also known as Mahatma Gandhi or simply Gandhiji in India.
No one really knows why, though.
It is said that he is the Father of the Indian Nation.
Today most people know him as the man whose photo is on all rupee notes. When the Indian government first came out with 500 rupee notes, it was common to refer to a 500 rupee note as a "Gandhi." This is what he is mostly known for today - 100, 500, 1000 rupee notes.
Gandhi advocated the philosophy known as ahimsa, or nonviolence. Nobody followed this philosophy even during Gandhi's lifetime. One of his most sucessful movements was the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920-22, which he had to abandon because inflamed followers burnt police constables to death in the infamous Chauri Chaura incident. This was to be a recurrent theme in his political career. He was not absolute on this position, either – he supported the British government in World War I and the Boer War.
He also incessantly advocated Hindu-Muslim unity. The failures of both the Hindu-Muslim unity and the nonviolence ideas were manifested in the partition of India in 1947, where an estimated 1 million Hindus and Muslims died in inter-religious riots after the leaders concluded that Hindus and Muslims could not peacefully live in one country. That failure has been obvious in 68 years of independence in India, where Hindu-Muslim riots are a regular feature in the news.
He also personally believed in a Hindu society without caste divisions, although he was reluctant to force the mass of caste Hindus to change to his point of view. After the emergence of Ambedkar as a prominent Dalit leader, Gandhi tried to compete for the votes of the Dalits and tried to make his support for them more explicit. But given that the mass of his support came from upper-caste Hindus, Gandhi could never push too much and was content to say that he hoped that by encouraging upper-caste Hindus to voluntarily give up caste discrimination, he could change Hindu society. In this, too, he has failed to shake the attitudes of upper-caste Hindus even 65 years after independence. What has given the Dalits real muscle is the activism that was started by Ambedkar which resulted in reservation in jobs, etc. and eventually the rise of Dalit politicians like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, not to mention the likes of the Dravida movement.
Gandhi also had ideas on the self-sufficiency of villages and on developing India through empowering the villages. His ideas on the rural economy were abandoned even while he was alive by his protege, Nehru, who believed in the western idea of industrialization. The country has proceeded on the path started by Nehru and has focused on industrialization at the expense of villages. So here, too, Gandhi failed to have an influence.
Some people have put forth the idea that Gandhi's real contribution to India's freedom movement was that he made it a mass movement - that he made it a movement of the entire Indian population. That may be so.
This is important to understand because the reasons for the British leaving India have never been clear. The much-hyped Quit India Movement of 1942 was a flat failure, even though our history textbooks in India made a big deal of it. The British imprisoned all the key leaders and completely suppressed the movement within 48 hours. All the leaders, such as Gandhi, were not released until after the war. There was really no movement in India demanding Independence in 1945.
Many theories have been postulated as to why the British gave India its independence. One of them is that it cost the British too much to administer India. This theory does not make sense because it is at odds with the general notion that India was a cash cow for the British. If the British in general made a lot of money from India, it would have more than covered the administrative expense. Our learned Congress MP Shashi Tharoor recently made an impassioned speech in Oxford about how much the British looted India's wealth. So unless they had completely bled India dry and the returns were not commensurate with the administrative expense, this theory does not wash. It is hard to believe that India was profitable to the British right up to World War II and then became unprofitable.
The second theory is that the British left India because of the mutiny in the armed forces following the trial of the INA soldiers after the war. This theory says that once the army and navy mutinied, the British realized that they could no longer trust the armed forces to keep them safe, and so quit before it got uglier. In this scenario, the credit goes to the late Subhas Bose, aka Netaji.
The counter to this argument is that even if the INA trials were the reason the British left India, without Gandhi the idea of a national movement for independence, nurtured by him for 30 years since his return from South Africa in 1915, would never have become so big that the Indian soldiers would have revolted.
I am tempted to accept this explanation, because of the lack of a better one. I'd be interested if anyone has a better explanation. Before Gandhi joined the Congress, the party would only debate in the living rooms of affluent lawyers to discuss what should happen to India. But when Gandhi arrived, he started going to the villages in India and talking to the poorest Indians. He started identifying with them and wearing the clothes they did. He became a man of the masses and made the Congress a mass party.
So maybe that's why we call him the Father of the Nation - because he united the masses of this vast subcontinent into thinking we were an India whose independence we should unite to fight for - even though we discarded all his ideas on what form and shape that independent India should take.