Mahatma Gandhi - Gandhigiri - Way to Go
Steps to GandhigiriGandhi was not born a mahatma. The struggles, apprehensions and even setbacks and failures on his spiritual journey are a strong reminder to all of us that we can aspire to raise ourselves to such
A few years back, when I was a reader of Life Positive, many comments were passed on the Gandhi special issue of Life Positive Plus that was on my office desk. The most common ones were: “Gandhian ideas are too impractical in today’s world”, “a Gandhi special! Is this a government publication?”, “don’t tell me you actually believe Gandhi’s ideas are still relevant?” As is often the way of the world, most people did not actually pick it up to go through the contents before passing such judgments, but were pretty certain they were right.
Though not indicative of the entire country, many people, particularly Indian citizens, considered Gandhian thought to be at best, irrelevant, and at worst, damaging. Gandhian principles were relegated to coffee-table discussions and, at a more serious level, academic seminars and organized debate.
It is in this context that we need to celebrate the film, Lage Raho Munnabhai. In one fell stroke, it rescued the Mahatma from the stuffy pages of history books into which he had been interred, gave him a fresh and irreverent persona, and, above all, applied his principles to contemporary situations. Munnabhai, as Gandhi’s apostle, caused a hard-headed builder to relent, brought a father and son together and saved a young girl’s marriage. Yes, the methods were not exactly kosher (can you imagine Gandhiji sending flowers? He hated to have them plucked), but importantly, the spirit prevailed. The spirit of non-violence, of amity, of unity. The overwhelming response to the film and the unashamed tears we shed in watching it, is one of the most heartening testimonies that in Gandhi’s land, the great man’s values are still capable of melting hearts and firing souls.
It would be nice to think that we in India are finally ready for Gandhian thought. For there is no question that Gandhi is eternally relevant, in just the same way as truth or love are relevant – it is we who swerved away from their relevance by the enticement of the consumerist and sense-based culture.
But of course, there is more to Gandhian values and principles than the film could quite contain. His prescription for living and for resolving issues have never seemed more saner than in our present conflict-ridden times. So let us move on then and see Gandhi at work through the actions and ideologies of his votaries.
Winning Over Hearts
“Satyagraha’s goal is winning over people’s hearts, and this can be achieved only with tremendous patience,” says Mr Arvind Kejriwal, recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award for Emergent Leadership, 2006.
He should know.
A mechanical engineer from IIT and officer with the Indian Revenue Service, he now works with his team members in Parivartan, an organization that began in 2000 with a mission to eradicate corruption and enable transparency in governance. The first activity they undertook was to provide relief to taxpayers from extortionist corruption in the Income Tax Department. Similarly, grievances with the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) were resolved with Parivartan workers sitting at the entrance of three DVB offices everyday during public dealing hours and telling every consumer going in not to pay bribes and assuring them of help in sorting out the issues faced. Though these were effective, Parivartan recognized that this approach could not be taken to every issue faced by the citizens.
Hence, when the Delhi Right to Information act became effective in 2001, Parivartan shifted its focus to implementing and educating the public on this Act to achieve true empowerment to the people and less dependency on any organization, including Parivartan itself. This too was done primarily through satyagraha. For instance, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi that had not implemented it for months, finally did so after a peaceful, determined satyagraha put up by the volunteers of Parivartan. Notably, this step was taken after many attempts at approaching and convincing the officers in charge. As Mr Rajiv Kumar Sharma, one of the co-founders, says, “One of the core tenets of satyagraha is trying all justified means before protesting, for otherwise, it would become a mockery of the whole concept.”
With their experiences, both Mr Kejriwal and Mr Sharma are absolutely certain that any challenge can be surmounted with this potent tool.
Not all protests, however, are satyagrahas. Indeed, though many great leaders and crusaders all over the world, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung Lung Syu, Anna Hazare, Medha Patkar, to name a few, have applied and continue to apply its principles, paradoxically, it is also the area which is most often misunderstood and therefore, applied incorrectly.
Quite often, a union strike, a student dharna and even pure noncompliance by a mob, are casually touted as ‘satyagraha’, without realizing that true satyagraha is a tough call.
Wanton disregard for the law is definitely against the principles of satyagraha. Gandhi himself had deep respect for the law. In fact, he was often misunderstood for this stance as in the case of his differences with Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose and yet, never compromised on this principle.
Unfair laws, were of course, challenged but this was always through lawful means and with the courage to face the consequences that followed.
The recent Delhi traders strike against the government edict banning commercial activity in residential zones, is often quoted as an example of Gandhigiri or satyagraha, but it is not so. Firstly, the traders were in the wrong side of the law. If they felt the law was unreasonable, they could have registered their protests peacefully, presenting the full facts and making a distinction between various kinds of trading activities. The protest did, of course, also degenerate into violence, further eroding its moral stand. As Mr Kejriwal says, “An approach that would have been correct in principle and also far more effective would have been for the traders to involve the residents in the protest, to convince the government that small shops were providing an essential service to the community and in this manner, a distinction could have been made between nuisance and service.”
Satyagraha, then, is really not a short cut or easy option. Before one embarks on a satyagraha, at a personal level, cultivation of patience and control of anger is essential so that peace is never compromised, either in speech or action. Further, clarity in thinking is absolutely essential as the demand should be very specific and not just a release of frustration or angst. Last, but not the least, one must explore all amicable methods of resolving the issue before resorting to peaceful non-cooperation to register the protest.
A two-digit growth figure is not really a cause for celebration if it is not combined with social equity and justice. One cannot have a country with multinationals, malls and ostentatious consumption at one level, and farmers’ suicides and extreme poverty at another.
The Naxalite movement, for instance, is really due to the destitution, deprivation and alienation faced by the weaker sections of society. The only way this can be stemmed is with conscious, determined efforts made at the societal level to reduce disparities between different sections of the society. Equitable distribution of land, provision of education, basic heath care and employment opportunities to all are absolutely essential if we truly wish to grow as a civilized nation.
Gandhi’s talisman of seeing whether an action/policy benefits the poorest of the poor still needs to percolate at all levels so that we achieve true freedom for all or purna swaraj. This, to Gandhi, was not an idle dream. He suggested methods that could make such a thing possible – sarvodaya (projects that benefit all), gram swaraj (village self-governance) and swadeshi (local production), being some of them. Though India is now independent, the challenges in these areas remain glaringly unresolved.
Whether we get into a cycle of violence and retributions or work actively towards purna swaraj, entirely depends on us.
With crowded cities gasping for breath and droves of villages not having any means of sustenance, we are seeing a skewed developmental model that needs to be tackled urgently.
The Panchayat Act and Panchayati Raj were definitely important steps in this direction but it is only good leadership at that level that can ultimately drive developmental efforts to the village. Rangasamy Elango in Kuthambakkam, Tamil Nadu, is one such leader. Elango, a Dalit, did face discrimination in his village but was clear that retribution as a way of ensuring justice only led to agony and anguish and returned to his village, giving up a secure job in the city that he had obtained after acquiring higher education. Now the Panchayat chief, he has ensured that community-integrated housing, indigenous industry and other ideals of local government are all in place there.
Though living as per Gandhi’s principles, he never really knew much about Gandhi till he faced a challenge.
Before he could rejoice with the success of his first project that improved drainage and generated employment, he realized this very success was a sore point with vested interests. Projecting that Elango had overshot his authority by using granite instead of the traditional ‘rubble’, they got him sacked. Shocked and on the verge of giving up his dream, he was given the Tamil translation of Gandhi’s My Experiments with Truth by his wife, who said gently, “Are you allowing the first setback to deter you?” Reading the book made him understand the true message of Gandhi’s life, “First be truthful. Then be fearless.” This gave him the strength to fight his case with the authorities where he stated his case clearly and he was soon back in the fray.
Applying the principle of local development in all areas is truly economically viable, as Elango found by producing food products and setting up a dairy processing unit. For, with one economic activity, very often there are others that can also be done locally and the cost of middlemen is substantially reduced.
Now that a Panchayat academy has been set up, perhaps more Elangos will rise, paving the way for the gram swaraj envisaged by Gandhi where, “every village is its own republic, independent of its neighbors for its own vital wants and yet interdependent for many others in which dependence is necessary.”
The success, though with certain limitations, of Acharya Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement in the 1950s, inspired the setting up of Ekta Parishad, an organisation that seeks to ensure that the state implements existing land and agriculture laws or creates new ones that are favourable to the poor and landless.
Its chairman, Mr P V Rajgopal, a Gandhian, who played a role in convincing the Chambal Valley dacoits to surrender, is extremely concerned that the adivasis are being displaced and ignored in the development agenda of the country. He says, “We are now in a situation where an adivasi could be asking us, In order to promote your supermarkets, why are you destroying our supermarkets?”, pointing out that the adivasis had a totally sustainable relationship with the forest which provided food, medicine and shelter to them – a fact that has many lessons for us.
On the anvil is Janadesh 2007 that is slated to culminate on October 2, 2007, that will again be a non-violent march to bring the grievances of the landless to the notice of the government.
Though the struggle is still on, the mission has had many successes and hopes to stem the tide of deforestation and displacement.
A wise patriach or matriarch knows that it is absolutely essential to ensure that whatever family action they take must be acceptable and fair to all members of the clan, whatever their age, income, talent and ability.
“Vasudeva Kutumbukam”, says a Vedic epithet – the world is your family. So, when one views the community, country and even the world as a family, one’s actions represent sarvodaya, the well-being of all. All actions that we take are to be value additions to this world and never harmful, socially, environmentally or financially.
Such a perspective happens to be economically viable too. Jaswantiben Popat’s Lijjat pappad, Anna Hazare’s village development, Mohammed Yunus’ micro credit operations and many more are examples of how this is really a ‘win-win’ formula.
One such example is that of Shrujan, an NGO established by Chanda Shroff, who recognised that the traditional embroidery of Kutch was a unique craft that could be used to generate regular income for indigent women. Training and helping them sell their work all over the world, ‘Kaki’, as the women affectionately call her, started off with a group of 30 in 1969 and today, provides sustainable means of livelihood to about 3,000 women from 114 villages. The first Indian winner of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2006, she intends setting up a living and learning design centre, a handicraft museum, workshop, school and library rolled into one, and states her aim to be the sustenance of every village in Kutch through its own heritage and culture.
The Indian peasantry, the largest body of surviving small farmers in the world, today faces a crisis of extinction, says Vandana Shiva, leading ecologist and founder of Navadanya.
The starvation and even suicides of farmers remind us of the dismal agricultural scene in many parts of India. Does Gandhi hold the answers here too?
In 1948-49 when there was lack in the production of food grains, Gandhi suggested that people should produce rice for themselves along with clothing. This message led to the resignation of Cherkady Ramachandra Rao from his post in Khadi Board, Moodabidri, instantly. He came to Cherkady in Karnataka with a mission to practice Gandhian ideology and accomplished his goal by becoming another Fukuoka, with his own unique one-straw revolution.
Growing paddy without tillage or other common practices, he started a practice called ‘Sarvodaya paddy cultivation’ that became very popular in the area as ‘Cherkady crop’, using natural manure and water supply. Though its popularity has faded away with the entry of the hybrid variety, the method and the crop is still considered to be appropriate for hilly and dry area.
Mr Shital Sharma from the University of Agriculture, Dharwad, avers, “Organic farming is truly in keeping with Gandhi’s principles as “ it is sustainable agriculture that ensures the farmer remains self-reliant; it is beneficial economically to the farmer in the long run and is beneficial to the health of the consumer.” He is quite certain that with this approach, the agriculture scenario would improve and the farmers would be more in control of their lives.
Ethics in Business
N.R. Narayana Murthy, named one of The Economist’s top 15 most-admired global leaders, takes one of his most important business lessons from Mahatma Gandhi. Quoting him in a talk at Stanford, Murthy told listeners: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” He and his wife Sudha Murthy, one of India’s first female technology engineers and chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, believe in boosting profits through innovation and giving it back to the community. At Infosys, employee morale and the entrepreneurial spirit are supported through a system in which ideas are accepted on their own merit, regardless of where they originate. Murthy also believes that one must earn the good will of society by living in harmony with the environment and making a difference. Toward that end, the Infosys Foundation gives back to the “poorest of the poor” of India, through micro-lending, counseling, and educational efforts.
Of course, the Birlas, the Tatas, the Godrejs too are quite committed to their social commitments.
Gandhi’s principles of trusteeship, which affirms that the rich should hold themselves as trustees of the wealth they possess, and his discernment that the means are as important as the ends, are eternally relevant for responsible business, says Mr Athreya, a leading management consultant.
Companies are increasingly paying heed to these values by manufacturing environment friendly products and services, and adopting corporate social responsibility and philanthropy.
Indeed, the downward slope in business ethics, seen a few decades back, is slowly reversing again. This is perhaps, partly due to the shock of impending global warming and the disasters of a socially imbalanced society and sometimes even for publicity, but also certainly due to the disenchantment with mere material acquisition as the purpose of life.
In this age of overflowing materialism and the temptations of the senses, can Gandhi give us guidelines on how we should comport ourselves? Indeed he can. He once said that a good parameter to use to check whether one should do or acquire something was to extrapolate it to the whole population. What if everyone owned a Maruti car or bought brand names or had six-figure salaries? Obviously, the earth would not be able to sustain this. What cannot be used by the many should be eschewed by the few, he advocated, for it militated against the principle of natural justice. If America had applied this line of thinking before constructing nuclear weapons, certainly the world would have been a better place today.
Similarly, Gandhi used ahimsa as a sweeping parameter to guage the ethicality of any project or situation. By this parameter, industrialization did not measure up for it was based on exploitation of labor and of the environment. This concept also antagonized Gandhi to communism, although he was deeply in sympathy with their ends. Gandhi hated vivisection; and long before the damaging consequences of chemical manure and technology-heavy farming had come to light, Gandhi was already writing against them. One common misconception is that ahimsa refers to physical violence alone, but it is not so. Thus, personal gain at the cost of squashing another’s aspirations, livelihood and/or assets are morally wrong just as projects that destroy communities, contaminate water or the environment are. Again, this principle is really in one’s own interest, as we would be rid of a lot of baggage, acrimony and negativity if we learn to apply it.
When a Hindu man came to Gandhi in Kolkatta at the height of the riots, extremely miserable at having slaughtered a Muslim child, Gandhi’s advice was, “Raise a Muslim child and make sure you raise him as a Muslim, not as a Hindu. This is the only way you can purge your sins.”
“An eye for an eye only makes the entire world blind,” said Gandhi. This message – that love alone can surmount hatred is agonizingly relevant in the entire world today, especially in the wake of terrorists who are even willing to give their lives for a skewed cause. No amount of ammunition or security systems can ensure victory in this war. The only way we can succeed in saving the world is through a collective transformation of the consciousness of society.
PV Nazareth, founder of the Sarvodaya Trust in Bangalore, is certain that Gandhian values alone can save the world today from the menace of terror and conflict and says, “What is greatly needed today is not a “war on terror”, but a war on untruth and injustice, and the revival and practice of Gandhian ideals.”
Sarva Dharma Samanatva
Religion is an essential part of the Indian ethos and will remain so. The entire world is, in fact, recognizing the importance of spirituality and religious practice. In our battle against terrorism and fanaticism, the negative manifestations of religion, we often try hard to distinguish between secular values and religious values, religion and spirituality, dogma and faith but sometimes, these distinctions become merely a play with words.
Gandhi recognized correctly that “sarva dharma samanatva”, “respect for all faiths”, is really the tonic for communal harmony. The key word is respect. For, it is not mere ‘tolerance’ but respect that brings about harmony and one of the best ways this can be achieved is the praying together of everyone with prayers of all religions, as Gandhi did personally and with inmates of his ashram.
The Ram-Rahim Nagar slum residents in Behrampur, Ahmedabad, have truly shown such an example. With a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims, a Hanuman temple and dargah existing side by side, the residents have ensured that the unrests in 1969, 1985,1992 and 2002 have not allowed the harmony to be disturbed in their area. They have even housed and provided relief to the riot-affected people in 2002 in a nearby mosque. Residents keep night-long vigil so that no outside elements can enter and spread rumors and hatred among them, and are a sterling example to those who remain uncertain on whether peace can truly prevail in mixed groups when communal passions are stirred up.
Gandhi also recognized that religion can be an extremely effective tool for social transformation. This too is happening more and more in the world today. For instance, the United Nations now actively seeks the involvement of religious leaders in several of its developmental initiatives and the World Parliament of Religions, in its last meet at Barcelona in 2004, expanded the scope of its directives and has stated the missions to be rehabilitation of refugees, tackling third world debt, provision of safe, drinking water to all and stemming the growth of religious conflict.
Sadly, globalization has neither made the globe a better or safer place, as one would have hoped. We have many means of transport but do not know if we can reach our destination safely. We have more than adequate goods but do not know how long the world will remain environmentally habitable. We can grow crops on a huge scale but do not know the means to survive if one fails.
Dr Athreya points out that most challenges in the national and global scenario today have a Gandhian principle as an antidote. Climate change and environmental degradation are caused mainly by consumerism and can be tackled by heeding his statement that the earth produces enough to satisfy everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed. The resolution of conflict has its antidote in non-violence, dialogue, and development of the poorest of the poor. Monoculture can be combatted by the principle of inclusivity and acceptance. He said, “Keep your windows open for all the breezes, but don’t be swept off your feet.”
I remember a scene that I witnessed in the ladies compartment of a local train in Mumbai. A lady plonked herself on the floor with a huge vegetable basket and started shelling peas from a basket, throwing the skin on the floor. Everyone “tch-tched” in disgust and commented on her lack of civic sense. One lady, however, tackled this differently. Quietly, she went closer and talked to the lady, asking her where she set up her market and so on. After this, she pulled out a bag, shelled some peas with the lady, put the skin of the peas she had shelled in a paper bag and unobtrusively left the bag there. The lady with the basket not just started putting the skin in the bag but also gathered all the ones she had thrown on the floor earlier, much to the pleasant surprise of everyone around her.
This was much before Munnabhai came along, and most probably the lady in the compartment was not acquainted with Gandhian thought, but this is surely a true glimpse of Gandhigiri in action.
As Gandhi himself often pointed out, all his principles were culled from tradition, and heavily influenced by his Indian roots, and such a thing never dies. It is still present all around us. We only need to look carefully, separating the wheat from the chaff.
Gandhi himself was a striking reminder of the principles he espoused, rather than merely a theorist.
Rajni Bakshi, the author of Bapu Kuti, points out in an interview on indiatogether.com, “The very minimal duty of our generation is to pass on the ideas of Gandhi onto the next generation. Not because he ‘discovered’ or came up with all those ideas, but because he, more than anyone else, lived his life as a personification of those ideas.”
Therefore, a true Gandhian practises his values and ideals and transforms himself before daring to preach to the people. As Mr Rajgopal says, “You can have a beer and a cigarette and talk about Marx, but you can’t do that with Gandhi. The moment you speak about Gandhi, your practice is just as important.”
This is a process, not an overnight transformation. However, each step in this direction has the potential for tremendous spiritual growth. Usually, the most difficult step is the first one – for this involves recognizing the importance of the ‘other’ in our lives and acknowledging the fact that we are all heavily interdependent and connected. After one is spiritually evolved to a sufficient degree to acknowledge this, the next steps follow naturally.
One must also remember that the principles of Gandhi are heavily interlinked, for instance, one cannot apply ‘sarvodaya” and not “sarva dharma samanatva”, as well-being of all essentially includes respect for all faiths. Similarly, ahimsa is essential for sarvodaya. So, really, once one starts, all of them will start becoming a part of oneself, slowly but surely.
The question then is, when do we begin?
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