For sure, we cannot categorise Gandhi as one of the freedom fighters as that would be an injustice to his vision, his life and his ideals.
It’s therefore time we answered the question. And towards that, let’s dip into history. To answer this question, we must dip into history. Perhaps no other individual in Indian history has shared the position as that of Gandhi. He was a leader revered and loathed in equal measure. While leaders like Mao of China or Stalin of Russia would hold a deity-like status with their followers, Gandhi would be scathingly criticised with bitterness and acrimony by a large section of the society. Some saw him as a messiah of the poor and a prophet of interfaith harmony, while others saw him as a Muslim stooge.
But perhaps what is more interesting is that he allowed himself to be criticised and actively encouraged dissent. He loved his detractors as much as his compatriots while still standing by his principles steadfastly.
Living his principles
For example his principles of loving one’s enemy and leading a simple transparent life is revealed in his own actions.
All his travel plans were made public in advance and all his speeches would be published without editing.
He would always smile and welcome his detractors with compassion, not malice. Remember, Gandhi recommended the name of Dr.Ambedkar as the nation’s first law minister to Nehru; this despite years of bitter criticism and personal attack on Gandhi by Dr Ambedkar.
Consider another case. When Gandhi returned from the second round table conference he was welcomed by black flags by supporters of Bhagat Singh. The reason was that his negotiations with England failed to get an acquittal for Bhagat Singh who was charged for murder. When protestors shouted: “Gandhi down down and death to Gandhi,” slogans; he received them gracefully. He was offered black roses which he thankfully accepted.
And on the day when India won its independence, 15 August 1947, while an entire nation celebrated, one man welcomed the Independence with a 24-hour fast. He sat sadly in his room and when he was asked to join the celebrations he replied: “how can you hold celebrations when people are dying everywhere?”. He neither attended any function nor hoisted any flag nor took any sweets.
Gandhi was referring to famines that struck India causing large deaths in August 1947 as well as the Hindu-Muslim riots that killed a large number of people due to partition. Independence to him was a sad proposition as it had come with an unacceptable price of partition.
Prophet of Peace in the Hindu Muslim Riot of 1947
It was September 1947, the Hindu-muslim riots had reached their zenith in Punjab and Calcutta killing thousands of Hindus and muslims. Gandhi immediately reached Calcutta and announced that he would fast unto death to stop the riots.
“But how can you fast against Goondas?” His friends and followers asked. He replied: “I cannot allow this conflagration to spread.” “But what if you die” they asked. He replied “I cannot witness this bloodshed. At least if I die I wouldn’t be there to see this mayhem. I would have done my bit.” Then he started to fast. Initially no one seemed to care. The riots went on unabated. His kidneys began to fail. He was losing weight by the hour. His sugar levels were dropping. The doctors after failing to persuade him to break his fast issued a statement that Gandhi was on a road to suicide. The fast continued for days. His death was certain. Now the leaders of Hindu Mahasabha (old RSS) and the leaders of the Muslim League came to visit him together. They asked him to end his fast. The goondas of Hindu and Muslim parties came and laid down all their weapons before him and gave him reassurance that they would not indulge in violence. They hugged each other publicly and called to stop all violence against Hindus and Muslims.
On coming to know that the violence had suddenly stopped due to Gandhi’s fast, the British Press which had derisively dismissed him as a “half naked fakir” was in praise for his fast. Lord Mountbatten remarked: “one man had put an end to bloodshed through a fasting which 50,000 armed soldiers in Punjab and Calcutta could not achieve with guns and weapons in quelling the riots.” Gandhi had successfully appealed to the moral conscience of both Hindus and Muslims in ways like none other had done before.
After the riots subsided Gandhi would travel 116 miles on foot travelling village to village to spread the words of communal harmony,
begging the two communities to give up the feeling of revenge and start afresh their lives in brotherhood.
Practical and ecumenical Hinduism
Another interesting facet of Gandhi’s life is that his Hindu faith was practical and result oriented. He saw faith as a means of bringing salvation to the poor and the sick. When some one tried to justify untouchability as sanctioned by Hindu scriptures he replied: “if I discover that the Bhagvad gita, the upanishads, smritis clearly showed divine authority for untouchability then nothing on earth would hold me to Hinduism. I should overthrow it overboard as I should overthrow a rotten apple.”
Another instance is even more interesting. Nehru was wished by Kasturba Gandhi in Hindi while boarding a train back to Delhi. She said: “Ishwar aapke saath rahe” ie., Let God be with you. Nehru a staunch atheist lashed out at Kasturba that there was no God and that God is imaginary idea quoting holocausts and other evils as evidence. A devastated Kasturba turned to Gandhi for help only to hear Gandhi say: “Nehru is closer to God than all of us.” He was referring to Nehru’s work on communal harmony and secularism in building Hindu-Muslim unity.
Gandhi foresaw threat to environment by industrialization and consequent destruction of natural habitats and depletion of forest reserves far ahead of other thinkers. He therefore wanted people to balance the hunger for modernisation and industrialisation by adopting a balanced life style encompassing environmental friendly way of life.
He once wondered loudly “the economic imperialism of a single tiny island (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If the entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation then it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Gandhi’s fear was that the mad rush for resource exploitation could lead to anarchy, chaos, enslavement of the local populace if demand of the industrial production are not met.
We have largely seen this to have come true in many African countries like Libya, Sierra leone and Nigeria where global demand of natural resources like oil, gold, diamonds, coal, etc has led to serious conflicts in these nations. The natural resource has not only failed to benefit the local population and uplift it from poverty but has also lead to crony capitalism, mad rush for ruthless dictatorship and killings by rival mafias to the point that the researchers now call the natural resource as “Resource Curse” which becomes a threat to the population of a place.
An inspiring life for all eternity
His life would go on to arise a moral consciousness and ethical conscience like none other before, all over the world. He was, “a paragon of patience, a personification of modesty, a model of respectfulness and a symbol of courage.” His ideas would go on to inspire two men hailing from two different countries, belonging to two different continents to follow his path of non violence: Martin Luther King Jr in America and Nelson Mandela in, of all places, South Africa. That was the power of the man. Perhaps the best quote that sums up the life of Gandhi was by Albert Einstein who said: “generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.”
Ramachandra Guha sums up Gandhi’s life in his own style calling him “the conscience of humanity.”