Mahatma Gandhi revered but ignored in India

I traveled in India for a month this winter and one of the best days that I spent was at the National Gandhi Museum located just off of the traffic-choked ring road in New Delhi. In the outdoor courtyard there is a sculpture of the diminutive Mahatma, bare-legged, clad in a simple shawl and carrying a walking stick as he leans into his 1930 march protesting against the salt tax imposed upon India by the British.

Dated but profound

Indoors, the Gandhi museum is quite rundown and also dated in its approach – nothing interactive here, but rather walls lined with black and white photos accompanied by printed panels to explain them. I bought a book of Gandhi quotes in the museum’s foyer and noticed as I paged through it that the pages smelled musty, but the message contained on those pages and wall panels is profound. Gandhi insisted that no single religion holds all the answers and that in India the majority Hindus must treat minorities with respect and tolerance. “Is the God of the Mohamedan different from the God of the Hindu,” Gandhi asked?

He also showed a great respect for Christianity and Christ, who, he said “belongs to all races and people.”Gandhi insisted that women must be equal. Even the casual traveler in India today can see that goal remains a long way off. “I will work for an India in which women will enjoy the same rights as men,” he said. Gandhi also opposed an entrenched caste system in India, which condemned people to endure poverty and exploitation in the belief that it was divinely ordained. “There can be no room in India,” he said, “for the curse of untouchability.”

Non-violent resistance

Gandhi developed his approach toward non-violent resistance or “satyagraha” when he fought discrimination against Indians in South Africa, where as a young man he worked as a lawyer. When he returned to India in 1915, he began to organize non-violent resistance against British colonial rule. He emerged as a leader of the Quit India campaign and the British imprisoned him on numerous occasions.

Gandhi was a political and a spiritual leader. For a time he was the president of the Indian National Congress, the major political movement in the struggle for independence. Later, as other leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru assumed political leadership, Gandhi withdrew but remained as the movement’s unofficial spiritual leader and icon. 

Lord Mountbatten, who was eventually to negotiate the British withdrawal, said that the more saintly Gandhi became the less political influence he possessed,  noting wryly that saints shouldn’t spend too much time around politicians. 

The Congress movement was broadly based but as independence approached it became clear Muslims wanted their own homeland. Gandhi wished for all to live in harmony within one secular state and opposed any plan that partitioned India into two separate countries. Nehru did not want partition either but he and others ultimately convinced Gandhi that it was the only alternative to civil war. Still, Gandhi refused to join in any national celebrations when independence was won. Partition led to a massive two-way migration of Muslims from India and Hindus from Pakistan, and hundreds of thousands of people died in the accompanying violence. Gandhi was devastated and he went on a fast in January 1948 to protest against communal riots.

Gandhi assassinated

Nathuram Godse, a member of the extremist All Indian Hindu Assembly, assassinated Gandhi a few weeks later. He believed that Gandhi was sacrificing Hindu interests in an effort to appease the Muslim minority. The Assembly was a precursor of today’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which virulently opposes pluralism and sees Muslims as the enemy preventing a Hindu India.  Gandhi is revered in India and officially accorded the honour of father of the nation but he seems now to be a prophet without much of a following. There are also historians who claim that the success of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance was over-rated. The British, they say, left India due to battle fatigue following the Second Word War. 

Materialist culture

Sir Mark Tully, a former bureau chief for the British Broadcasting Corporation, in New Delhi, observes also that Gandhi’s “principle of non-attachment to things does not go down well in a materialist culture.”  India is being hailed as an economic tiger and the national media lionizes entrepreneurs the country’s business schools. Foreigners are constantly providing self-assured advice. The Economist magazine criticized India’s 2008 national budget for providing fertilizer subsidies and loan forgiveness to small farmers. The British magazine says there are simply too many people in agriculture, without saying where millions of people it wants to see displaced from the land would go. The cities are already overcrowded and made barely habitable by traffic and pollution. The benefits of India’s boom have been captured mainly by the business elite and well-paid professionals. The new wealth has not trickled down to the poor, including thousands of farmers who have committed suicide.

Timeless message

Gandhi chose to live a life of extreme simplicity, dressing in simple cloth that he had spun himself. He turned the spinning wheel or “charkha” into a powerful symbol of self-reliance and bottoms up economic development that does not sit well with globalizers. Gandhi’s passionate call for non-violence, religious tolerance, and for gender and economic equality has not been realized in India or most other countries — but his message remains universal and timeless. 

4 thoughts on “Mahatma Gandhi revered but ignored in India

  1. Was so interested to read your comments and learn that you were at the Gandhi Museum in New Delhi. I wonder if there is now a movement afoot to revive Gandhism? The recent Bollywood film, Lage Raho Munnabhai, is a delightful comedy that shows how Gandhism can be applied to modern life.
    See for the Christian Science Monitor article on the film and for the official web site to the film


  2. Your blog re Ghandi was most interesting, and certainly accords with my perception of how Gandhi is now thought of (or not thought of) by the Indian people. I suspect that today his name resonates more with non-Indians than with Indians.

    The horrendous massacre of Hindus and Muslims that occurred upon independence and partition being declared brings into serious question, in my view, whether religious groups are capable of ever practicing tolerance toward the ‘other’. Despite Nehru and Gandhi’s sincere attempts to involve Muslims in the campaign of nation-building and British expulsion, and despite the Muslim leader Jinnah’s early and apparent sincere devotion to their ideals, the sympathetic biography ‘Jinnah of Pakistan’ (Stanley Wolpert, Oxford U. Press, 1984) makes it quite clear that even such an extraordinary person such as Jinnah was unable to withstand the pressure of his supporters to engage in denunciations of Gandhi and Nehru as wanting to establish a Hindu state which would effectively marginalize Muslims.

    As I consider that in many respects there is a great deal of evidence to support the proposition that organized religion is the scourge of humanity and humanism, none of this really suprises me. I suspect that the Christians who read your blog are in a distinct minority when it comes to real tolerance for the ‘other’.

    I enjoy your blog — it is food for thought, and provokes a little venting on the part of at least some of the readers.


  3. Thanks for your blog re Gandhi. Many of us, I think, need to be reminded, from time to time, that such people as Gandhi are true possibilities, even in a world in which they come to be viewed as anachronisms.


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