Sunday Levity: What did you learn from Gandhi?

The morals we draw

The father gathered the two little girls around him. Since they had disturbed him while he was reading a book on Gandhi, he decided to tell them about the Mahatma and more specifically, why he had a large framed photograph of the man in his study. So he told them the story of India’s independence and why it was unique among all such struggles. He told them that non-violent struggle, “not listening to the orders of the bad guys” was about thinking different. And if they looked carefully, they’d see “Think Different” written at the top right corner of the said photograph.

As usual, he asked “So, what’s the moral of the story?”

Instantly the Little Airy replied “Don’t listen (to orders).”

It figures, the father thought.

The making of the March to Dandi

How to move the masses

Mahatma Gandhi and his companions began walking towards Dandi on March 12, 1930. Here are some excerpts from Thomas Weber’s remarkable On the Salt March – The historiography of Mahatma Gandhi’s march to Dandi that illuminate the logic, planning and strategy that went into it.

Before salt was seized upon as the issue for the campaign, Gandhi had come around to believing that while salt in excess may be harmful, a tax is no way to teach moderation…The poor, he claimed, need more salt that they eat and their cattle need more than impoverished farmer can afford. This along with the question of the right of a foreign government to tax a naturally occurring substance became the key issues in the salt debate.

It is quite probable that the final decision to make the salt tax the focus of the agitation came when the “Monograph on Common Salt” produced by the (Federation) of Indian Chambers of Commerce fell into Gandhi’s hands. The brief of the monograph was to examine “the great possibility of making Indian self-contained in her supply of salt.” In the course of presenting its case the document went into great detail tracing the history of the salt revenue in India. It was resplendent with well argued propositions that would have been useful in helping to make up an indecisive mind. The topics touched on included “Rationale of Salt Eating”, “More Salt Needed in the Tropics” and “A Poor Man Needs More Salt than a Rich One”. Mahadev Desai’s article in Navajivan of 2 March 1930 closely followed the arguments of the monograph and already a week before that date the monograph was recommended to Congressmen by Jawaharlal Nehru in a circular to Provincial Congress Committees.

Four days before the (Dandi) March commenced, in a speech at Ahmedabad, Gandhi told his audience that, “I want to deprive the government of its illegitimate monopoly of salt. My aim is to get the salt tax abolished. That is for me one step, the first step, towards full freedom.”

In reality the tax was relatively small and there was no popular mass agitation for its repeal. The breaking of laws against salt did not appear to be the stuff of a struggle for national independence. Motilal Nehru was amused and perhaps even angered by the irrelevance of Gandhi’s move. Indulal Yajnik, (a Gujarati radical), asked “Wouldn’t the Salt Campaign…fail to arouse the enthusiasm of the youth of the nation? Wouldn’t they all see through the farce of wielding a sledge hammer—of satyagraha—to kill the fly of the Salt Act?” But Gandhi knew the mind of rural India better than any of them.

The action that Gandhi planned was largely symbolic—the salt produced by illicit means would be impure and probably unpalatable, but it was breaking a British law which earned rulers money at the expense of the masses. The taking of salt was…the taking of power away from the rulers. It was a symbol of revolt and a very practical symbol at that.

Gandhi expected a long drawn-out movement during which a large mass of people had to be mobilised so the method of struggle needed to be a simple one, one capable of generating emotional feelings and one which everyone could understand everyone, down to the humblest peasant, could participate in. It also had to be a means of action that the government could not prevent in its early stages…Furthermore an attack on the salt tax did not threaten Indian vested interests and so was not alienating the non-Congress supporters.

The authorities were waiting for the March to fail; Gandhi and his supporters had to ensure that it did not. The careful selection of the route was one way to help facilitate the materialisation of the desired outcome. The students of the nationalist university at Ahmedabad, the Gujarat Vidyapith, under the direction of Kakasaheb Kalelkar were deeply involved in the planning stages. A team led by Narhari Parikh search books and records for information on salt and the Salt Laws and then channelled the material back to Mahadev Desai for use in his articles and Gandhi’s correspondence with the Government. Another group, led by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, undertook an economic survey of the Matar taluka, the first area the March would pass through after leaving Ahmedabad…Ravishankar Maharaj scouted the area around the Dharasana saltworks and reported back to Gandhi before the March got under way.

Gandhi insisted that (women) stay behind at the Ashram. He explained “Women will have enough opportunity to offer satyagraha. Just as Hindus do not harm a cow, the British do not attack women as far as possible. For Hindus it would be cowardice to take a cow to the battlefield. In the same way it would be cowardice to have women accompany us”

Possibly the strangest inclusion (into the list of Marchers) was Haridas Muzumdar. Muzumdar had lived much of his life in the U.S.A. as a scholar and teacher and propagandist for the cause of Indian independence…It appears that Muzumdar, who was often to prove something of an odd man out during the journey, was included partially for political reasons—Gandhi liked his propaganda work and approved of the Gandhi biography he had written.

(The list of Marchers included one person from Fiji—“originally of U.P. but born in Fiji”—and one from Nepal. There were two Muslims, one Christian and the remaining 76 were Hindus. There were 12 graduates: 7 of Bombay University, 3 of Gujarat Vidyapith and 2 of foreign Universities).] Most of the Marchers to be were between twenty and twenty-five years.) [Thomas Weber, On the Salt March pp 89-121]

A very unGandhian land

India didn’t start projecting power yesterday

When you read an article that goes “Land of Gandhi Asserts Itself as Global Military Power” in the western press you suspect that it is a stereotype-reinforcing piece written for stereotypical western readers. And that is exactly what Anand Giridharadas’s piece in the New York Times is. (Linkthanks Ram Narayanan and Rajeev Mantri.)

Yes, India achieved its independence through the political stewardship of Gandhi. And Jawahar Lal Nehru, its first prime minister, was caught between his rhetoric, perhaps his personal convictions and cold, hard reality. That’s where the “Land of Gandhi” ends as far as the rejection of violence and military force is concerned.

Let’s ignore the various strands of opposition to British rule (hey, Mr Giridharadas forgot the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Aurobindo Ghosh and Subash Chandra Bose) that can lead us to conclude that Mahatma Gandhi was an aberration. A gigantic aberration, but an aberration nevertheless. Let’s focus on the India since 1947.

The Republic of India was forged together through very unGandhian ways. Some rulers were woed with promises and solemn covenants, which were subsequently broken. Other rulers were coerced using the threat of force. Hyderabad and Goa were annexed through the use of force.

Nehru himself pursued a risky strategy with China but little understood military affairs to realise the disconnect between his intention and India’s capability. But he authorised the invasion of Goa. Lal Bahadur Shastri authorised the escalation of the war Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started in Kashmir. Indira Gandhi did a number of very unGandhian things. Rajiv Gandhi sent Indian troops to combat in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, in addition to signing off on the production of the nuclear bomb. And Atal Bihari Vajpayee carried off the use of military force within the framework of nuclear deterrence. Land of Gandhi, anyone?

The Indian government has generally tried to put a gloss on its use of power by casting it in various morally appealing terms to obfuscate the underlying realpolitik. To the extent that India was ever the Land of Gandhi, it has long asserted itself through the use of force. It is just that its own growth during an era of increasing globalisation has caused it to be interested in a wider area of the globe than was the case earlier.

Gucci doesn’t trump Gandhi

Fashion was never the Mahatma’s strong point

Emily Wax, Washington Post’s correspondent, files a story fresh off the latest shuttle flight from Mars. People in India, she finds, are neither wearing the homespun nor living the spartan lifestyle like the great father of their nation. Why, they are going for branded goods instead!

Sominism is spreading. It’s affecting another of America’s great newspapers.

Disregarding the Mahatma’s advice on personal lifestyle and economic development is neither new nor a bad thing. Apart from its political symbolism (and political atavism today) homespun never had popular appeal. Not even in the Mahatma’s days. In fact, Gandhi himself was a practical man. He excused Sarojini Naidu from wearing khadi sarees when she complained that they made her uncomfortable. [See “Clothing Matters: Dress & Identity in India“, by Emma Tarlo, on Google Books. Ms Tarlo writes that few young women in Gandhi’s ashram wore the austere colours the Mahatma advocated. And that Sarojini Naidu’s choice of dress was motivated by fashion.]

Indians, meanwhile, were nothing if not brand conscious. Like other members of the species. What has changed is that rising incomes have made the more expensive brands accessible to a lot more people. That’s cause for celebration.

On Gandhi and the Jews

A deeper understanding of ahimsa at the time of genocide

Over at Prospect magazine, Salil Tripathi has a brilliant explanation of Mahatma Gandhi’s views on the Jews and the Third Reich.

This position has been characterised as passivity bordering on cowardice. But it is subtler than that. Gandhi expressed great sympathy for the historical persecution of the Jews. He called antisemitism “a remnant of barbarism.” He supported German Jews’ right to be treated as equal citizens, and admired their centuries of refusal to turn violent. He wanted the Jews to assert themselves wherever they happened to be, as citizens of that country first (which is why he argued that the Jews should not attempt to form a homeland in historic Palestine).

Jews must insist upon non-discrimination and equality wherever they lived, he said: they should fight the Nazis by insisting on practising their faith freely, as equal citizens: “If I were a Jew and were born in Germany,” he said, “I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment.” A Jewish cry for a national home, Gandhi argued, would in fact provide justification to the Nazis to expel them. Continue reading “On Gandhi and the Jews”