4 February 2007
Remembering Mahatma Gandhi
By observing the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 59th death anniversary as ‘Martyrs Day’ and holding an international conference on his life and legacy, India does not only remember the ‘Father of the Nation’ about whom Albert Einstein once said “people may in future scarcely believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood did walk upon this earth”. It also recalls his moral vision and noble values of tolerance and non-violence, all of which need to be re-emphasized in a contemporary world characterized by an unprecedented tide of violence and recklessness.
As an Arab academic recently put it “we desperately need a person like Gandhi to lead the masses to the greatest victories without a drop of blood or a single shot”. But the problem is that there is no Gandhi and the current environment does not encourage the emergence of his like.
Arabs, of course, have heard of the remarkable experience of the man once described in Europe as the new Messiah, but only a few of them are aware of the philosophical foundations of his movement. Probably because of Gandhi’s Hindu faith, there is a trend in the Arab World, where extremism and religious fundamentalism is on the rise, to ignore his legacy and argue that his way of peaceful resistance is not relevant to present crises.
Armed with deep philosophical reading and unique experience from his time in South Africa, Gandhi returned to India to set an example of how poor and helpless people could turn their weakness and despair into power to meet the challenge of liberating their country with the minimum loss.
After a period of attempts to persuade the colonial authorities to change their ruthless policies, he came to realize that patience and dialogue would lead to nothing, especially in the aftermath of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in which the British troops killed 400 and wounded 1,200 Punjabi peasants. At the time, he could employ the wave of discontent generated by the massacre in urging Indians to meet violence with violence in accordance with the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’, something that would have led to bloodshed and mass chaos, given the upper hand of British rule. But his conviction that violence once began would not stop, and if ultimately stopped, it would leave behind a violent communal culture and impregnable wall of hatred, led him to promote ‘Satyagrah’, an intermarriage between ‘Satya’ (truth) and ‘Graha’ (love) that generated non-violent resistance.
Gandhi, however, needed first to liberate Indians from both fear of confronting the colonial repressive apparatus and fear of losing their living and interests. He also needed to liberate India’s women from miserable traditions that denied them equality and restricted their venture. He succeeded in doing so by alerting Indians that their fundamental rights were violated, their culture was penetrated, and their country’s resources were looted by British rule. He repeatedly stated that “the British are here not only because of their strength, but because of our division, weakness, and fear”.
His next step was the launch of civil disobedience by calling Indians to boycott the occupier’s institutions and firms. Some at the time, including his comrades, criticized the move. But they soon realized their misjudgment, particularly in the aftermath of Gandhi’s most famous and difficult struggle against the world’s largest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire; the 248-mile Salt March from Ahmedabad to Dandi in 1930 to defy the salt tax.
The Gandhian way of resistance differs from present resistance movements in the Arab world in numerous aspects:
1. Non-violence was instrumental in Gandhi’s struggle for freedom. He argued that “if your enemy is brutal, you must prove that you are more civilized by not retaliating with brutality”. By doing so, he did not only embarrass British rule but also gained the respect and support of many forces in and outside Britain. Had he resorted to kidnapping, suicide-bombings, slaughtering, or other barbarian means, his memory would not have remained rooted in the world’s conscience.
2. Gandhi knew that boycotting British institutions, firms, and products would not lead to the collapse of the occupier’s economy. His emphasis on boycotting and learning the art of self-reliance, therefore, was only a symbolic act to boost Indians’ will and determination.
3. Believing that the credibility of one’s action lay in setting a personal example, Gandhi began with himself. He quit his legal practice, gave up wearing Western-style clothing, and embraced a humble lifestyle by making his own clothes and living on a simple vegetarian diet. This, of course, differs from the practice of some Arab movements’ leaders, who urge their followers to boycott the West while savouring the Western lifestyle, products, and technology.
4. Unlike in some Arab resistance movements, Gandhi was keen to include all Indians into his movement regardless of religion, sec, ethnicity, or social class. He, therefore, neither restricted the participation to specific groups, nor attributed achievements to his Hindu community alone.
5. Gandhi was also keen to avoid emotional rhetoric that might work against the attraction of the sympathy and support of Western peace-loving forces. Thus, he never attacked Western values, beliefs, or systems, confining himself to criticizing British imperialism.
6. Despite his significant role and influence, Gandhi claimed no supremacy over national figures and groups. He recognized and respected his opponents’ right to seek or adopt alternative solutions and means and avoided labeling them traitors.
Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs