Has India let the death of Gandhi be in vain?

Has India let the death of Gandhi be in vain?

Mahatma Gandhi worked hard to liberate his homeland while bridging internal divisions before he was shot 70 years ago. Insight looks at whether the country has abandoned his teachings.

He was one of history's most remarkable human beings. But what would 'Mahatma' Gandhi, father of the nation, think of India today, 70 years after his assassination?

INDIA: He has been immortalised as a martyr, forever remembered as a man who walked the earth like a colossus, brought down an empire without firing a bullet, and led half a billion people to freedom.

Through his life’s work of peaceful activism and the promotion of equality and justice, he became a global emblem, inspiring movements for civil rights and freedom.

But would Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known to the world as Mahatma Gandhi, have been proud of the legacy he left India, or has the country he liberated abandoned his teachings now, 70 years after his Jan 30 assassination?

Mr Tushar Gandhi told the programme Insight that his great-grandfather would not be pleased if he were alive today, looking at the state of the country. 

“I think if Bapu (father of the nation) was here, he wouldn’t have allowed things to slide so far, the disparities to become so vivid and stark,” he said.

He’d have launched another movement to liberate rural India from its fate and shaken them (out of) their complacency and shaken up the administration.

Historian and author Ramachandra Guha agreed: “If he were to be reborn and to return to his homeland, I think he’d have decidedly mixed feelings.”

A rapidly growing economy has made India an emerging power today, with growth averaging around 7 per cent over the last two decades and outstripping China’s in 2014.

Its economy is now the seventh largest in the world, and is forecast to become the third largest by 2030. But globalisation and heavy industrialisation in India has come at a price that Gandhi would not have paid.

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India has moved towards a consumerist society in which cities are lined with malls and a burgeoning middle class, conservatively estimated at 50 million, have immense buying power.

Economist Sudarshan Iyengar pointed out that Gandhi had argued for accepting a lower standard of economics by all, or what he called “voluntary poverty”, which would result in a more equal distribution of wealth.

The uncontrolled rise of the wealthy was Gandhi’s biggest concern, one that has now manifested itself.

According to anti-poverty charity Oxfam, up to 670 million Indians, the poorer half of the population, saw their wealth increase by one per cent last year, while the richest one per cent accounted for 73 per cent of the national income generated.

“It’s 1 per cent versus the rest. This is nothing short of loot. That's why you’re seeing starvation deaths in India,” rights activist Nikhil Dey, the founder of workers’ group MKSS, told Al Jazeera.

The poor aren’t being allowed to function. Land is being taken over, employment doesn’t exist, (and) schools are being privatised.

The urban-rural divide has got deeper, and life for the 700 million rural people is stuck in a time warp. More and more villagers are moving to the cities in an attempt to climb out of poverty and debt.

Dr Iyengar said: “There are millions of poor people whose poverty has to be removed … and the role of the state is going to be paramount.”

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What would further horrify Gandhi, who was a proficient campaigner against racial injustice and was undeterred in his mission to unify India, is the air of religious intolerance that has pervaded the country.

Religious bigotry grew to its most intense from about 1989 to 2004, after the razing of a mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 triggered a series of religious riots across the country that killed nearly 2,000 people.

It helped to bring the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in many states. Party leader Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, and since his rise to power, emboldened right-wingers supported by the BJP have made their presence felt.

“The growing trends towards a kind of Hindu majoritarianism in Indian politics – the fact that the ruling political party somehow seems to think that Hindus are first-class citizens, and Muslims and Christians are second-class citizens – would have worried and upset (Gandhi),” said Dr Guha.

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“He argued … that a free India must be based on non-violent and democratic politics. (It) must promote religious harmony, abolish caste and gender distinctions and must sustain economic self-reliance.”

When Gandhi preached his philosophy of love and non-violence, he also fought for the rights of the Dalits, who were deemed untouchable under the caste system.

But atrocities against Dalits still exist in parts of the country. Gandhi’s home state Gujarat has one of the highest incidences; more than 1,300 cases were reported there in 2016.

In October, a Dalit man was lynched to death, allegedly by men from the upper caste Patel community, for watching the garba, a traditional Gujarati dance. In another incident, Dalit youth were beaten up by Rajputs for sporting moustaches.

These incidents would have saddened Gandhi, who dreamt of a classless, casteless society and renamed the Dalits the children of God, or Harijans.

Mr Tushar, who is a journalist, said: “Bapu’s idea of caste was of assimilation. He wanted Hindu society to assimilate in a statusless kind of society, where there were no hierarchies.”

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Gandhi had also spoken out against child marriages, violence against women, the dowry system and the lack of schooling for women. Despite flickers of progress, these remain embedded in daily life, with crimes against women persisting in a shocking manner.

In 2013, a court sentenced four men to death for the gang rape and murder of a Delhi student, a crime that led to protests across India and new laws against rape.

“These crimes were happening even in the past. They get highlighted now … but the fact is that even when these crimes occur, you hear voices that in a way blame the women for their fate,” said Mr Tushar.

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While the attacks continue, there is also a growing empowerment of women, who are taking up jobs previously dominated by men and making their voices heard. But they have a long way to go.

Dr Guha said: “Women aren’t properly represented in Parliament, right? Even though they’re half of the population, they may be 10 or 15 per cent of the parliamentarians.”

All is not lost, though. For example, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (Sewa), a trade union and co-operative with more than 1.8 million members, has started a revolution of its own.

The organisation, founded in 1972, promotes the rights of low-income female workers and has been seeding women-based labour groups across South Asia.

“(Gandhi) said that women were natural leaders … That’s what I’ve seen,” said founder Ela Bhatt.

“Sewa has been able to bring so many changes on the economic, labour (and) policy fronts and also individually. And that has all been because of the leadership of women.”


It is not just the veterans whom Gandhi has inspired.

The Gandhian way of sustainable living has stirred a group of young people in Bengaluru to initiate a cultural hub called Ragi Kana – weekly Sunday markets that connect rural producers with urban buyers.

Gandhi’s vision for an independent India was “the liberation of the poorest of the poor, the uneducated, the deprived – the forsaken people of India – and to make them self-reliant for their own welfare”, noted Mr Tushar.

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Great-grandson Tushar Gandhi

The philosophy of Ragi Kana echoes that ethos, said convener Vikas Talya from the non-governmental organisation Gram Seva Sangh, which started up the hub last year.

The NGO was concerned about villagers leaving jobs they were proficient in and heading to the city to do menial work. Hence the marketplace became an avenue for them to do their jobs and get paid.

“Gandhi believed in the rural upliftment – the ‘gram swaraj’ (village self-rule) where the villages grow their products and control their economy and their self-sustainability,” said Mr Talya.

Just as the NGO hopes to keep the Gandhian flame burning brightly, over in Delhi a flame has been burning for 70 years in Raj Ghat, Gandhi’s memorial place, and it continues to be a reminder of his teachings.

Love, truth and non-violence – many are hoping these can yet be the hallmarks of India.

Watch catch-up episodes of Insight here. New episodes every Thursday at 8pm.

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Source: CNA/dp