Echoes of Gandhi – Sunday column, January 16, 2011
I need to know more about Mahatma Gandhi.
During the past few months I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing three towering figures in the Indian eco-justice movement. Bunker Roy is the founder of Barefoot College; Satish Kumar edits Resurgence magazine; and the protean Vandana Shiva is a physicist, eco-feminist, philosopher and doughty foe of agricultural imperialism. All three are consciously and proudly heirs of Gandhi. They pepper their conversation with references to Gandhi, referring to him the way a Christian might refer to the Bible. “As Gandhi’s example shows…” they will say. “Well, we learned from Gandhi…” Or “Gandhi once commented…”
Gandhi is the secular saint of the world’s biggest democracy, a pervasive presence in Indian life. Every time you make change in India, you think of him; his image is on the currency. Indians call him Bapu, or Father, and he is officially The Father of the Nation. Hire a driver to show you New Delhi, and the first place he takes you is the Gandhi memorial, a perpetual flame in a stone quadrangle inside a broad, walled garden. As you stand there, hordes of Indians come by to pay their respects – families, couples, tourists, busloads of uniformed schoolchildren. He has been dead since 1948, but you would think he had died last year.
His actual name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, but he is normally called by the honorific name “Mahatma,” from the Sanskrit words maha (great) and atma (soul). Raised in Porbander, India, he trained as a lawyer in London. In 1893, at 24, having failed to establish himself in Bombay, he found himself practising law in Natal, South Africa, where he experienced at first hand the violent racism – beatings, floggings, imprisonment, death – directed at all non-whites by the country’s European elite.
Here, as a leader of the Natal Indian Congress, Gandhi developed his philosophy of satyagraha, or “truth force” — the non-violent, passive resistance that he taught to his fellow-citizens after his return to India in 1915. His experiences in South Africa had led him to reject prejudice, injustice and imperialism, and he was becoming the gentle, implacable leader whose actions would change the face of the world.
He employed satyagraha in numerous confrontations with the British, but perhaps the most crucial was the Salt March. In January, 1930, the Indian National Congress declared the independence of India, and announced its willingness to withhold taxes and engage in civil disobedience to enforce the declaration. The British had imposed a heavy tax on salt, requiring Indians to buy their salt from British sources. In February, Gandhi announced that unless the British Viceroy repealed the salt law, he would lead a 390-km march to the sea, where he would manufacture salt in defiance of the law. The Viceroy ignored him. The march took 24 days, and passed through 48 villages, growing to two miles in length as it went. The confrontation drew world attention, which Gandhi deftly exploited.
At the shore, he made salt. Millions followed suit. The British shot more than 200 at Peshawar, beat dozens to death at Dharasan and jailed 60,000. But nothing worked. In the end, the Viceroy had to negotiate with Gandhi. The Salt Satyagraha had shown that unarmed, non-violent Indian peasants could take on the British Empire and win. Seventeen years later, the British withdrew from India for good. The following year, Gandhi was shot dead by a Hindu extremist.
He lives on in the memory not just of India, but of the world. His admirers form virtually an honour role of 20th-century leadership – Nelson Mandela, Albert Einstein, Benigno Aquino, Aung San Suu Kyi, Stephen Biko, Al Gore, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King. His words ring in our ears, and his teachings resonate in our lives.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, he said. There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need, but not for man’s greed. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth. I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
And this, the great challenge to us all: Be the change that you want to see in the world.
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Silver Donald Cameron’s interviews with Vandana Shiva and Satish Kumar are posted at www.thegreeninterview.com
. His interview with Bunker Roy will appear there within the next few weeks.