The 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi provides an opportunity to reflect once again on how nonviolence can contribute to the survival of our planet. Indeed, in these turbulent decades of uncertainty and mediocrity, at a time when we celebrate our rapidly changing world without understanding it, prejudice, hatred, ignorance and strife continue to be our daily cups of tea.
Despite impressive advances in science and technology and the growth of material wealth in the industrialised countries, humanity continues to be afflicted with poverty, famine, malnutrition, and lack of education and health care. Differences in race, religion and nationality continue to contribute to many regional, national and international tensions. And many countries and nations that were beacons of democracy are now seeing a rise in populism, religious nationalism and sectarian rivalries.
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Undeniably, we live in a time of grave crisis and the need for nonviolent thought and behaviour is felt now more than ever before. But the central question is: how can Gandhi and his nonviolence contribute to a change in our mode of thinking and our style of living, in a world where power, money and celebrities are the new gods? This is what we have been asking on every anniversary of Gandhi’s birth since his assassination 71 years ago.
Frankly speaking, Gandhi is a forgotten figure in our world, though he continues, from time to time, to be part of our salon conversations. We do not need to look far to detect the drumbeat of conformity and complacency, accompanied by the rise of populism and nationalism, in our world. We can hear it in our neighbourhoods, workplaces and even educational institutions. So, the question remains: is there a space for Gandhian moral courage and dissenting criticism? On the one side, we notice the naïve and rosy optimism of ashramic followers of Gandhi, and on the other, the cynical demagogy of party politicians who post their pictures next to that of the Mahatma while denying people their basic rights. Honesty impels us to admit that Gandhism is neither a boutique of political charlatans who, as Socrates says, want to “sleep on undisturbed for the rest of their lives”, nor simply an assemblage of fundamentally benevolent human beings who think of saving their conscience by being good Samaritans. On the contrary, what Gandhi teaches us is that nonviolence combines tender-heartedness with tough-mindedness. The true Gandhians who made history, such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Vaclav Havel, were obstinate and stubborn humanists, who, like Gandhi himself, were severe self-critics, while being ethical benchmarks for others.
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But the truth is that our world lacks Gandhian leaders. Populist leaders of today follow the masses uncritically or make the masses follow them simplemindedly. The trouble with our century is that few politicians think and even fewer invite the people to examine their thinking experience on a daily basis. In today’s world, leaders are admired as citizens above citizens, like Bollywood actors, not because they think critically, but because they have the power to choose our destiny.
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This sums up neatly with the fact that a politician usually does not think, for the simple reason that he or she wants to remain unquestioned. Unsurprisingly, we can find here a similarity between the masses and their political leaders. But this is quite far from what Gandhi teaches us in the art of politics. If Gandhi remains relevant, it is because he adopted a distinctive method which was to define politics not as the conquest of power, but as the art of organising society nonviolently. This is how he challenged classical ways of theorising and practising politics.
At issue here is not only what Gandhi said and did, but the way he said and did it. This was a conscious attempt to think against the tradition that saw politics as either a pure imitation of the West or a process of mirroring a religious mode of thought. Gandhi looked at politics with eyes unclouded by either nationalist prejudice or religious fanaticism. In fact, the political promise of a democratic life, through legislation by the hands of theologians or party elites who considered people immature of deciding, proved unsatisfactory and insufficient for Gandhi.
Questioning and dissent
Consequently, in order to understand Gandhi’s perspective on the art of politics, one has to understand his Socratic approach of questioning and dissent. For Gandhi the quest for truth and justice, which relentlessly questions and examines anew, was an act of thinking and living dangerously. Even his assassination is proof that he was a gadfly who dared to ask embarrassing questions instead of flattering either the other political leaders or the masses. Therefore, the Socratic moment of Gandhi was his perpetual examination of convictions when everybody seemed to have been swept away by the euphoria of the masses.
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The fact that Gandhi believed that “there is no religion higher than truth” shows that he remained loyal to critical thinking and considered Hindu nationalism and Muslim fundamentalism as the major threats for Indian democracy and the world. But what Gandhi saw as a danger for the future is now our present. Yet, Gandhi has not spoken his last word. For all those who believe in nonviolence, the Gandhian legacy of doubting, questioning and overcoming remains a force. What we can still learn from Gandhi is that if democracy remains a regime of questions and doubts, it should also be a community of hope that justifies the existence of gadflies, whose task is not to disappear at moments of despair, but to help the masses think and favour liberty amid the calamities that close in upon it.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace, Jindal Global University, Sonipat