Gandhi shares his vision for India

Gitika Bhardwaj on a visit to Chatham House that foreshadowed the independence of the subcontinent.

The World Today
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Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

It was a Tuesday in October in 1931 when Mahatma Gandhi addressed an overflowing hall at Chatham House. Sitting next to Philip Kerr, the Marquess of Lothian, who would soon become the Under-Secretary of State for India, Gandhi pronounced: ‘I seize every opportunity I can of coming into touch with British public opinion and putting before them the purpose of my mission […] I hope the words I speak to you this evening will find a lodgement in your hearts.’ His mission? Obtaining Indian independence from the British Empire.

Born in Gujarat in 1869, a young Gandhi had travelled to South Africa in 1893, where his life would change forever. Shortly after arriving in Durban, he was thrown off a first-class carriage at Pietermaritzburg Station. The reason? He was Indian. The incident would become a turning point in his life, leading Gandhi to develop Satyagraha, a movement of non-violent civil disobedience, which he would use in the struggle for Indian rights in South Africa and, in due course, Indian independence from Britain.

By 1930, pressure for independence had been increasing from Indian groups protesting against British rule, until in March, one of the most notable acts of Satyagraha took place when Mahatma Gandhi, holding a wooden walking stick, set off on foot on a 240-mile journey to the town of Dandi to demand the repeal of a tax on homegrown salt, which was a major source of revenue for the British Empire. On reaching his destination after 24 days, Gandhi clutched a handful of salt from the sea and declared: ‘With this I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.’

The Salt March would focus international attention on the growing Indian independence movement. It would also, however, earn Gandhi, and other leaders of the Indian National Congress, imprisonment, and so, when the first Round Table Conference was convened between British and Indian delegates in November 1930 to discuss the future of India, Gandhi was not present.

However, British Viceroy, Lord Irwin, soon agreed to negotiate, and in the spring of 1931, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact ended the Satyagraha against the salt tax in exchange for several concessions including the releasing of thousands of political prisoners. The second Round Table Conference was subsequently convened in the autumn of 1931, bringing Gandhi to London.

Poverty alleviation

In his address at Chatham House, Gandhi outlined the challenges he believed the Indian people faced in British India. Describing the state of poverty at the time, he explained: ‘Nearly one tenth of the population is living in a condition of semi-starvation. They have no more than one meal per day consisting of stale chapatti and a pinch of dirty salt.’

But, if India were to govern itself, Gandhi believed poverty should be alleviated through ‘service to the villagers.’ For, ‘The cities do not make India,’ he said. ‘It is the villages […] Princes will come and princes will go, empires will come and empires will go, but this India living in her villages will remain just as it is.’

Gandhi’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, explains how the Gandhian principle of Sarvodaya – the lifting up of all – guided how his great grandfather believed poverty should be addressed in a post-independent India: ‘Gandhi’s idea for poverty alleviation was beginning at the bottom of society instead of the top.’

Gareth Price, a South Asia specialist at Chatham House, sees Gandhi’s outlook as a response to the impact British industrialization had caused in India: ‘Gandhi saw how the UK textile industry, in particular, had increased poverty in India. So, the spinning wheel, and its focus on self-reliance rather than foreign imports, was the way forward.’

Today, India is the world’s fifth largest economy, and poverty reduction rates are among the highest in the world, with more than 270 million people lifted out of poverty in just a decade. But Tushar Gandhi does not think this is how his great grandfather would have envisaged India’s economic growth: ‘Millions of people lifted out of poverty is impressive, but when you compare it to the population of India, it’s of little consequence. That’s where we have failed.’

Religious pluralism

In the hall at Chatham House, Gandhi spoke of another challenge that continues to afflict modern India: ‘We have within our population […] the problem of minorities.’

Religious pluralism was central to Gandhi’s dream of an independent India, yet conflict along religious lines has been a continual problem in a multicultural population, where almost 80 per cent of the population are Hindu and more than 14 per cent are Muslim, with the nation projected to have the world’s largest populations of both religions by 2050.

Kapil Komireddi, author of Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, believes the partition of British India was the moment when Gandhi’s dream of religious harmony in India collapsed: ‘India declared itself a pluralistic country in 1947 in which all religions were equal, but in order for this vision to be realized, it had to overcome the memory of partition. Repeated wars with Pakistan, however, have not allowed India to overcome that memory.’

The partition of British India, 16 years after Gandhi’s speech in London, created Pakistan as a home for many of India’s Muslims but left up to one million people dead and more than 10 million displaced. Komireddi adds: ‘Indian secularism has been under attack on two fronts since 1947. Pakistani separatism and Hindu nationalism, the latter, being based on the reasoning that if Pakistan is the homeland of India’s Muslims then India should be the homeland of India’s Hindus.’

Recent communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims in New Delhi is a case in point with the latest explosion of religious conflict leaving hundreds of people injured and over 50 people dead. ‘In recent decades, the rhetoric of hate has been much more prevalent than the rhetoric of harmony,’ says Tushar Gandhi. ‘The result is what we see today. We have never been this divided before. This would have shattered Bapu if he were here with us.’

But all is not lost according to Komireddi: ‘We may belong to different religions but, ultimately, we pledge allegiance to one flag, one constitution and one country. That is the genius of the Indian experiment. The Indian Muslim women protesting in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi over the past couple of months, singing the Indian national anthem and waving the Indian national flag, demonstrates a war going on at the moment to reclaim India’s multicultural identity.’

Non-violence

In 1931, Gandhi also spoke of an India which modelled itself on the ideal of non-violence. If it did so: ‘…then no nation on Earth can bend us to its will.’

Over the past 70 years, India has developed its defence and security capabilities significantly including becoming a nuclear power in 1998. But what would Gandhi have thought about the growth of India’s hard power? His great grandson believes he would have been disappointed but admits it has been justified to an extent: ‘Post-independence, we have been in continuous conflict with our neighbour, Pakistan, and so India’s ongoing military spending is somewhat justified.’

India has also pursued an active role in regional and international affairs, including contributing to UN peacekeeping missions since 1948, which has, to some degree, been in line with Gandhian principles. ‘India’s post-independence foreign policy owes much to Gandhi,’ says Gareth Price. ‘The idea of non-alignment and non-interference in the affairs of other sovereign states, along with support for decolonization across Africa, match Gandhi’s ethos.’

However, India’s role has been changing in light of its growing strategic and economic importance to Western countries explains Price: ‘Over the past couple of decades, India has been seen as a counterweight to China and as a rising economic power with a growing market for goods and services. However, it has retained its ability, outside of its neighbourhood at least, to balance its relationships.’

Independence

In his closing statement at Chatham House, Gandhi declared: ‘The masses in India are awakening and it is too late to persuade them that good alien rule is better than bad indigenous rule.’

In 1947, India would succeed in obtaining independence from the British Empire, but less than six months later, Gandhi would be assassinated. His legacy, however, would inspire civil rights activists and freedom movements around the world. ‘Gandhi’s example has been fundamental on the global stage,’ says Komireddi. ‘Martin Luther King used Gandhi as his inspiration for leading the civil rights movement in the US and Nelson Mandela was inspired by Gandhi so much that South Africa counts Gandhi as one of its founders.’

Despite inspiring the likes of King and Mandela, does Gandhi continue to have the same appeal in modern India? Not according to his great grandson: ‘India has abandoned Gandhian ideology at a time when the survival of our human species is being threatened,’ says Tushar Gandhi.

However, for some, Gandhi’s principles are reawakening across the subcontinent in response to some of the challenges that Gandhi spoke of almost 90 years ago: ‘Gandhi’s legacy is becoming apparent once again in Indian civil society,’ says Price. ‘While politicians on different sides of the spectrum fight to be the guardians of Gandhi’s legacy, the idealism Gandhi espoused is resonating again in India, even if at times, it seems far from being so.’

Read the transcript of Gandhi’s speech in October 1931 which was published a month later in International Affairs.