Gandhi and the audacity of hope

Amid the normalisation of violence, his record of hope is the best way to acquaint young Indians to him

December 29, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

A sharp symmetry between violence and its opposite has remained unnoticed. It surfaced this year in the murder of Saudi Arabian dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Mahatma Gandhi’s 149th birth anniversary, i.e. October 2. The United Nations has named this day as the International Day of Non-Violence. That is the day when over a dozen men were reportedly flown from Riyadh to Istanbul to kill one journalist. They executed their mission in a manner for which few parallels can be found, even in Arabian Nights.

In a familiar tale of this global classic of folklore, a man’s dismembered body is stitched back together by a tailor. Khashoggi’s killers reportedly dissolved his body parts in acid. The mode of killing, the venue and the manner in which the journalist’s body was disposed of mark a new normal in the history of violence.

An ignored synchronicity

The motive for this murder continues to be a subject of intelligent guessing. If suppressing a writer’s voice was the motive, its success and the reluctant response it received are worthy of inclusion in the annals of modernity. The country renowned for the loudest upholding of the human right to freedom of expression has preferred to guard its business interests over guarding this jaded moral edict. The horror got absorbed in the debate over adequacy of evidence about fixing of responsibility. As for us, we as a nation are so occupied with dousing our own internal fires, we ignored the synchronicity of October 2 and the murder in Istanbul.

Apparently, the world we now live in is so used to violence that the manner of killing and disposal of physical remains of a person do not seem all that relevant. In any case, feeling revulsion has little value now as an ethical act. We feel it so frequently that it has lost status among emotions with a moral bearing. Some years ago, I met a small boy who had spent most of his childhood in the kind of colony that is popularly referred to in Delhi as jhuggi-jhopri . Although this term is officially used to refer to a slum, it encompasses the attempts to cover the gruesome living conditions of a metropolitan slum by referring to them in Hindi as a place of improvised huts. The term evokes an image of a village that has reincarnated in a city, but the huts, or jhuggis, are made of recycled tin and plastic, not wood and dry grass. The colony where this boy had grown up was located in Chanakyapuri, the heart of diplomatic New Delhi.

His parents had migrated in search of work from a village in Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. He had very limited exposure to school life. He recalled it mainly for the beatings he got there. His life outside school was also full of suffering and witnessing of routine violence. He was in the habit of hitting others, including his little sister, hard enough to draw blood. He felt no remorse when that happened. I tried introducing him to art and singing in the hope that colours and rhythms might heal the injuries his little heart had suffered. But he remained a boy without room for emotions. Violence had turned him into a hollow human at an early age. The possibility of even partial restoration was slim. I tried telling him stories and arousing his interest in things he saw on television. It was a struggle because he had learnt very little about the world during the years he had spent at school. When the 2nd of October came, he asked me why it was a holiday. I told him it was Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. Years have passed but I still remember his puzzled look. Apparently, he had not heard about Mahatma Gandhi. On being told that it was Gandhi’s birthday, he asked, “Who will cut the cake?”

Gandhi’s cake

I recall being amused by that question, but it gathered irony and meaning with the passage of time. It takes little imagination to guess what happens to such children. Where we ought to apply our ability to imagine and foresee is the social landscape inhabited by a growing number of such children. This is the context in which remembering Gandhi, 70 years after his assassination, might be of some precious help. What would Gandhi have said on being told about the violent habits of the boy who wanted a cake to be cut for him? It is not difficult to imagine Gandhi’s commentary. He would point out that roots of violence lay in the conditions that forced the boy’s family to migrate from their village in Bulandshahr to a Delhi slum. This diagnosis is consistent with the critique of modern political economy Gandhi offers in his tract, Hind Swaraj . This little book portrays the omnipresent culture of violence that propels the pursuit of material prosperity at the expense of human bonds and dignity. From Gandhi’s point of view, we are in a mess of our own making. Our disdain for rural distress and alienation from vernacular life are silently catching up with us as a nation and spewing violence through different channels. Politics is one such channel where hatred and bigotry have now gained social sanction.

Many of Gandhi’s ideas look arcane today. If you discuss Gandhi with young people, they ask, “Is he relevant?” After a recent discussion about Gandhi with children, I have realised that his relevance cannot be established by talking about truth and non-violence. Neither of these familiar items of Gandhi’s discourse is easy to communicate. An easier entry into Gandhi’s thought and life might be through hope . His urge to carry on doing something under adverse circumstances arose from the hope that the human urge to find love will ultimately prevail.

‘A prisoner of hope’

Judith Brown characterised Gandhi as a ‘prisoner of hope’ in her 1989 study of his political career. Despite his hope that truth and non-violence shall prevail, he had to witness the holocaust of Partition. However, his own accomplishments and failures provide us no measure to grasp the nature and logic of his hope.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the NCERT and the author of ‘Education, Conflict and Peace’

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