Ramachandra Guha is author, most recently, of Gandhi Before India. He lives in Bangalore.
In 1931, Mahatma Gandhi visited London seeking a settlement between Indian nationalists and British imperialists. As he got off the boat, he was reportedly asked by a waiting journalist what he thought of Western civilization. Gandhi answered: “I think that would be a good idea.”
This is a lovely story, guaranteed to raise a laugh when told afresh. A friend of mine complicates (and enriches) it by adding an imaginative afterword: If Gandhi were to be reborn and come back to his homeland, and were he then asked what he thought of Indian civilization, he would answer: “That, too, would be a good idea.”
In India, Gandhi is known as Father of the Nation. What would he think of this child, 67 years after its founding? In what ways has India failed Gandhi’s expectations, and in what way has it honoured them?
India is currently in the middle of its 16th general elections. This is a massive exercise, conducted in nine phases, with some 500 million adult citizens voting in 28 far-flung states. That India is a thriving multiparty democracy would certainly have pleased Gandhi. That it has a a vigorous culture of debate and dissent, that political arguments are largely (alas not wholly) settled through non-violent means, seems consistent with his ideas of freedom and justice.
When India became free, it was also broken into two, with the Muslim majority provinces becoming part of a separate country called Pakistan. Originally a homeland for Muslims, Pakistan is now an Islamic republic where minorities enjoy a distinctly second-class status. Under Gandhi’s influence, however, India refused to identify faith with state. It would not be a Hindu republic. Minorities would enjoy equal rights.
Down the decades, the practice has sometimes fallen short of the ideal. There have been periodic bouts of Hindu-Muslim violence. Muslims remain underrepresented in the professional and entrepreneurial elite.
If India’s record in sustaining religious pluralism is mixed, its record in the matter of linguistic pluralism is exemplary. Gandhi insisted that every major language group in India must educate and administer themselves in the mother tongue. No single language would be predominant. And so it has turned out.
Canada is rightly proud of its robust bilingualism, but India has almost two dozen major languages, each with a thriving literature of its own. As many as 17 scripts are represented on its currency notes. Gandhi would have approved.
Where India has truly failed Gandhi is in the quality and capability of the public services. He was himself a man of personal and professional honesty. Now, however, most Indian politicians are corrupt. Land and mineral resources owned by the state are handed over to favoured corporations for a (large) consideration. Some politicians stoke caste and religious tensions just prior to state and national elections, with a view to consolidating vote banks. Meanwhile, corruption is also rampant in the police, in the bureaucracy, in education and health departments, and in the lower levels of the judiciary.
Gandhi would also have been dismayed by the disregard for environmental sustainability. He prophetically warned, in 1928, that if India “industrialized in the manner of the West, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Rather than tailoring our development to our own resource endowments, we have adopted a capital-intensive, energy-intensive model that succeeded in its original homes, Europe and North America, only because of the access to colonies and the massive resource catchments they provided. As a result of this choice, modern India is an environmental basket-case, with falling water tables, massive pollution (New Delhi’s air is more polluted than Beijing’s), disappearing forests and toxic soils.
Gandhi’s ideas and ideals are being erratically followed in his homeland. On the other hand, the political technique he invented, that of non-violent resistance to discrimination, has been effectively used in Eastern Europe, North America, Burma, Tibet and, most recently, the Middle East. And environmentalists and proponents of interfaith dialogue everywhere owe debts to him.
Like the Buddha, Gandhi belongs not to India, nor to his own time, but to the world.
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