Mandela and the Mahatma

Updated - December 16, 2016 03:02 pm IST

Published - July 18, 2013 01:07 am IST

A woman walks behind a fabric bearing a portrait of former president Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa   Sunday June 9, 2013. Mandela has been hospitalized with an occurring lung infection. The latest government report says that he remains in a serious but stable condition. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

A woman walks behind a fabric bearing a portrait of former president Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa Sunday June 9, 2013. Mandela has been hospitalized with an occurring lung infection. The latest government report says that he remains in a serious but stable condition. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

The depth of oppression in South Africa created Nelson Mandela, a revolutionary par excellence, and many others like him: Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Albert Lutuli, Yusuf Dadoo and Robert Sobukwe — all men of extraordinary courage, wisdom, and generosity. In India, too, thousands went to jail or kissed the gallows, in their crusade for freedom from the enslavement that was British rule. In The Gods are Athirst , Anatole France, the French novelist, seems to say to all: “Behold out of these petty personalities, out of these trivial commonplaces, arise, when the hour is ripe, the most titanic events and the most monumental gestures of history.”

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi spent his years in prison in line with the Biblical verse, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Nelson Mandela was shut off from his countrymen for 27 years, imprisoned, until his release on February 11, 1990. Both walked that long road to freedom. Their unwavering commitment to nationalism was not only rooted in freedom; it also aspired towards freedom. Both discovered that after climbing a great hill, one only finds many more to climb. They had little time to rest and look back on the distance they had travelled. Both Mandela and the Mahatma believed freedom was not pushed from behind by a blind force but that it was actively drawn by a vision. In this respect, as in many other ways, the convergence of the Indian and South African freedom struggles is real and striking.

Racial prejudice characterised British India before independence as it marred colonial rule in South Africa. Gandhi entered the freedom struggle without really comprehending the sheer scale of racial discrimination in India. When he did, however, he did not allow himself to be rushed into reaction. The Mahatma patiently used every opportunity he got to defy colonial power, to highlight its illegitimate rule, and managed to overcome the apparently unassailable might of British rule. Gandhi’s response to the colonial regime is marked not just by his extraordinary charisma, but his method of harnessing “people power.”

Nelson Mandela used similar skills, measuring the consequences of his every move. He organised an active militant wing of the African National Congress — the Spear of the Nation — to sabotage government installations without causing injury to people. He could do so because he was a rational pragmatist.


Both Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are entitled to our affection and respect for more than one reason. They eschewed violence against the person and did not allow social antagonisms to get out of hand. They felt the world was sick unto death of blood-spilling, but that it was, after all, seeing a way out. At the same time, they were not pacifists in the true sense of the word. They maintained the evils of capitulation outweighed the evils of war. Needless to say, their ideals are relevant in this day and age, when the advantages of non-violent means over the use of force are manifest.

Gandhi and Mandela also demonstrated to the world they could help build inclusive societies, in which all Indians and South Africans would have a stake and whose strength, they argued, was a guarantee against disunity, backwardness and the exploitation of the poor by the elites. This idea is adequately reflected in the make-up of the “Indian” as well as the “South African” — the notion of an all-embracing citizenship combined with the conception of the public good.

At his trial, Nelson Mandela, who had spent two decades in the harsh conditions of Robben Island, spoke of a “democratic and free society in which all persons live in harmony and with equal opportunities. […] It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if need be, an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

The speed with which the bitterness between former colonial subjects and their rulers abated in South Africa is astonishing. Mandela was an ardent champion of “Peace with Reconciliation,” a slogan that had a profound impact on the lives of ordinary people. He called for brotherly love and integration with whites, and a sharing of Christian values. He did not unsettle traditional dividing lines and dichotomies; instead, he engaged in conflict management within a system that permitted opposing views to exist fairly.

Gandhi’s vision for independent India too extended beyond the territorial realm. He rejected the notion of a “clash of civilizations,” and sought to build bridges with the British. He saw no reason why cross-cultural goodwill — an idea close to Mandela’s heart — couldn’t be revitalised and sustained. Without his global perspective, India arguably would not have been an active participant and partner in the Commonwealth.

This is not to say the views of Mandela and Gandhi fully converged. Gandhi had no doubt in his mind that, by adopting the traditionally accepted form of protest, he had mounted sufficient pressure to ease government control. Mandela, on the other hand, believed in “a more active, militant style of protest […] - actions that punished the authorities.” He and his brave partners at Robben Island questioned the rationale behind hunger strikes, especially because it was next to impossible to alert people on the outside when they were waging such a strike.

Today, the India that Gandhi helped shape appears to be in disarray. Corruption is endemic. Our institutional inefficiencies are gloriously obvious. The political process has been fouled by the politics of caste and community. The South Africa of Mandela’s dream is, likewise, all but shattered. Unemployment among blacks is high. Slums still exist in the cities. Crime is rife. Fundamental obstacles to racial reconciliation have not been removed. Still, amid the problems faced by the two countries, the popular image of Bapu and Mandela is that of benevolent leaders, whose actions could not always be comprehended by us ordinary mortals. After all, history cannot be anticipated by those who make it.

(Mushirul Hasan is Professor of History, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.)

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