The Pietermaritzburg incident on June 7 was the turning point in Gandhi's life. Making a case for celebrating that day instead of October 2.
A ritual is what we get when we do something as a matter of routine, without reflection or commitment. We often observe rituals without being able to explain the significance of the event or even why we are performing them. In his book Management and Machiavelli, Antony Jay gives an example of how ritual can take over everything. In the 1950s, it was observed that during a certain army manoeuvre one soldier stood to attention and did nothing else. Nobody knew why, except that “we’ve always done it this way”. A bit of research threw up the answer. In the past, horses were used to move pieces of artillery and someone had to hold the horses. But horses had been phased out of the army years ago. No one questioned the exercise, except perhaps the soldier involved. Perhaps he consoled himself with “ours not to reason why.”
Take the Independence Day spectacle. On August 15, in most schools, colleges and institutions, people gather, hoist the national flag, sing the national anthem and distribute sweets. In some cases, somebody will make a speech. Preparations begin the previous day. The flag pole is cleaned and painted, flowers are arranged and the flag itself is spruced up for the occasion.
But if we are honest about it, we have to admit that we remember Independence Day only on those two days. And, more often than not, we convert what should be a celebration into a ritual.
Another such day is October 2, Gandhi’s birthday. In this context it is worth looking back at the turning point of Gandhi’s life.
This occurred when he was thrown off a train in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa in 1893. Back then, first-class compartments were reserved for whites only and a white passenger objected to his presence in the compartment. Though he had a ticket, Gandhi was thrown off the train, his luggage dumped on the pavement.
This incident changed the course of history. It drew Gandhi away from a successful legal career and put him on the path to greatness and immortality. It made him question his own motives and the world around him.
There were many such moments in this extraordinary life: the salt march, the Quit India movement, the moment when he conceived the idea of peaceful resistance.
The consequences of that incident in Pietermaritzburg would shake the greatest empire the modern world had ever seen and led to the birth of a nation and change millions of lives.
In 1997 Nelson Mandela commemorated the anniversary of the Pietermaritzburg incident. At Mandela’s insistence the function was held on the platform where Gandhi was thrown out along with his luggage. It was a profound moment.
The impact of Gandhi’s life would be felt everywhere as Nelson Mandela said. It would influence and inspire many leaders including Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela himself. The date was June 7, 1893.
What is interesting is that such defining moments are rarely remembered. When we wish to honour the memory of the man, we commemorate his date of birth. We remember the man but do nothing to perpetuate what he stood for. Little wonder then, that we forget what we are celebrating. If we are honest, for many of us, the only significance is the holiday we get to enjoy. What happens on the other days of the year?
Would it not be more meaningful to commemorate Gandhi’s memory on June 7? Perhaps then, we will be stirred by the thought of what happened on that day. It might even spill over to other days in the year and inspire us.
What is true on a national scale is true at the individual level as well. Defining moments bring out the best in us. When we remember the defining moments in our lives, we feel inspired and capable of doing much more. If we can do something every day to bring back the spirit of those defining moments, every day will be a celebration and not a ritual. And our lives will truly change; be extraordinary.
Extraordinary lives make for extraordinary nations. Therefore, let us act as if every day were Independence Day. And remember Gandhi on June 7 and all the other days of the year as well.