Image: Uday Kuckian
In Memory of His Martyrdom
Gandhi, Non-Violence and Indian Independence
Gandhi was reportedly anointed as
the ‘Father of the Nation’ by no less than Subhas Chandra Bose
himself – arguably his most formidable challenger from within the
It was meant to underscore and
highlight essentially two points: one ideological and the other
One, India as a ‘nation’, as opposed to
‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’, was (being) forged out of the
crucible of its struggle for freedom from the British colonial rule. The
origin of the idea is usually traced back to the first economic history
of India by an Indian authored in the mid-nineteenth century.
The appellation also captured in rather explicit
terms the more obvious acknowledgement of Gandhi’s stellar role in
that epic struggle (by one who had just parted with him after a bitter
Gandhi also had come to be known as Mahatma, the
Great Soul. The tag was presumably chosen by Rabindranath Tagore. This
was to extol his presumed steadfast adherence to and application of
ethical principles – truth and non-violence, in the field of politics.
These two – Gandhi the political Leader and
Gandhi as the upholder of ‘principles’, are discrete and yet closely
intertwined aspects; and in his case, I’d argue, it is the latter that
appears to have flowed from the former rather than the other way round,
as commonly presumed.
To illustrate, in ‘practice’, Gandhi’s
‘non-violence’ effectively meant massive – mass participatory,
resistance at a low/regulated level of militancy.
The primary emphasis was not to keep the level of
militancy down, as is often alleged by the Left, but to give the
resistance a sustainable ‘mass’ character. In his estimation
‘violence’ would have had stripped resistance of its ‘mass’
character (and threatened its sustainability), again in his estimates so
very necessary for making the resistance effective.
He had already experimented with his methods in
South Africa, where the ruling order was arguably even more brutal. (The
Civil Disobedience in India had also been preceded by Champaran and
Even the track record and experience of the
outcomes of the struggles by the militant nationalist currents in India
itself must have had reinforced his search for out-of-the-box
His early thoughts must have had been impacted by
Vaishnavite and Jain traditions on account of sheer close proximity. He
himself belonged to the former. At a later stage, Tolstoy, and his
interpretations of Christian ethics, became a major influence.
The Leftist critique that the road of militancy was
shunned as a deliberate strategy to ensure that the leadership of the
resistance does not pass into the hands of the toiling and the oppressed
has a ring of truth though. Gandhi's refusal to seek clemency for Bhagat
Singh, in the early thirties, points towards that. But the traditional
militants themselves had by and large been much more elitist in social
composition, as compared to the mass of followers of the Congress under
Gandhian leadership, and more conservative in terms of social – i.e.
as regards caste and gender, outlook of the leaders. Bal Gangadhar Tilak,
a front ranking national leader enjoying iconic status among the
militants, is a graphic example.
Specifically Leftist ideas started gaining some
currency in India only since early twenties, under the impact of
Bolshevik revolution, though Bankimchandra – who’d later evolve as a
conservative thinker, had authored radical essays like ‘Samya’
(Equality) and Bangladesher Krishak (Peasants of Bengal) about three
Gandhi had called off the first mass struggle
against the colonial rule as far back as in Feb. 1922 after a violent
attack on a police station at Chauri Chaura in eastern U.P., when the
radical threat/challenge must have had not appeared too intimidating.
In stark, and interesting, contrast he tried
nothing of that sort twenty years thence in the context of the ‘Quit
India Movement’, which would in due course assume gigantic
proportions. It is also noteworthy that with much greater ideological
and political weight of the Left, notwithstanding the treacherous
conduct of a significant section of its in those days, even the August
Revolution did not usher in any rule of the toilers.
At any rate, in the process we also tend to
disregard that the movement was the first act of nationwide mass
resistance, cutting across multiple divides, against the colonial order
– very much different in character from the 1857 rebellion.
In terms of this reading, Hindu-Muslim unity was
also a great practical imperative for building up a really effective
mass resistance against the seemingly all-powerful colonial ruler.
In any case, Gandhi took great pains to rationalise
his political strategy in philosophical terms. And his philosophy had
strong religious groundings, of multiple shades.
Again the hold of religion on Indian psyche must
have had been duly factored in. He had to offer an alternate
interpretation of the Bhagabad Gita, as opposed to the one given by
In sum, the point here is that Gandhi’s
philosophy of non-violence essentially played a complementary role,
evolved over time, to promote the strategy of active mass resistance to
colonial rule at a low/regulated level of militancy. This is, however,
not to deny the complex interplay of the two or the wide scope and
multi-layered character of his doctrine encompassing even (offbeat)
economic models and concern for ecology.
This does not of course shut out the possibility of
using Gandhi as a great resource, particularly in the fight for
‘peace’, given his iconic status in the ‘nationalist’ folklore,
his unambiguous and trenchant condemnation of Hiroshima-Nagasaki
bombings, and the salutary role played by him in trying to bring about
communal amity in the midst of all-engulfing insane violence almost as a
single-person army particularly since August 1946 eventually culminating
in his martyrdom on this very day twentynine years bac while conducting
a routine public prayer unarmed and unprotected, despite repeated
threats to his life, at a public place.
He, the widely acknowledged ‘Mahatma’, was
felled by the bullet of a Hindu fanatic with RSS roots for the crime of
It is only after his death, with the passage of
time, Gandhi the Philosopher (of Non-Violence) has gradually overtaken
Gandhi the Leader of Indian Independence Movement. And in the process,
he has become more and more an international celebrity with eroding
status in his own country. The original stock of his international
admirers, which had included luminaries like Romain Rolland and Albert
Einstein, has been further reinforced with the likes of Martin Luther
King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Sukla Sen is a social activist based in Mumbai.
Engaged with the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament as a part of
the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament & Peace (CNDP) and an editor
of its journal, Peace Now; with media campaigning on various issues as a
part of the People's Media Initiative (PMI); and for communal amity and
against ideologies and politics of sectarian hatred as a part of the
EKTA (Committee for Communal Amity), Mumbai.