In this post Anwesha Roy explores the historical significance of M. K. Gandhi’s philosophy for the nation. She argues that the current desire for another ‘Mahatma’ to lead India out of its current difficult times is contrary to Gandhi’s belief that self-reliance was the key to progress.
Every year, on 30th January, the Indian nation is collectively reminded of a murder – that of M. K. Gandhi, ‘Bapu’ or the ‘Mahatma’. The Prime Minister of India, the President and a host of Cabinet Ministers pay their ‘homage’ at Rajghat, Bapu’s final resting place. Amidst much media coverage, speeches are given and (in keeping up with the spirit of our times) tweets tweeted about how ‘Bapu’ remains a symbol of hope and inspiration to Indians all around the globe.
The 73rd death anniversary of the Mahatma in 2021 was no different in terms of paraphernalia of official tributes. The nation shall set itself up for another round of such tributes (and a national holiday) on his birthday on 2nd October. Yet, it seems that in 2021 Indians have been far removed from the Mahatma. This has opened up a massive chasm, one was long in the making and now is a reality too hard to ignore.
Communal hatred, against which Gandhi steadfastly stood, has consumed the nation. It is no longer just the big riots (for example, the Delhi Riots of 2020) that make headlines, but the everyday quotidian practices of communalism that would have hung Gandhi’s head in shame. Moreover, with more and more arrests being made of those whose only crime has been that of dissent against a right-wing government, one of the mainstays of the Gandhian rhetoric – the right and the power of dissent – lies completely destroyed.
But there is another, much more fundamental sense in which India continues to fail the Mahatma: by repeatedly evoking the need for another ‘Mahatma’ in these difficult times, to guide us out of this abyss. Every year, on his birth and death anniversary, there is a collective call for the return of the Mahatma in such dire times. The reasons for this are well-founded. But to talk of the need for a saviour, is to deny Gandhi any legacy.
Gandhi’s philosophy for the nation went way beyond non-violence. He was a man of action. Being idle, politically or otherwise, was anathema to him. Most importantly, for him, self-reliance was the key; the nation would progress if it stopped depending on others for help. And nowhere was this better demonstrated than in Noakhali in East Bengal in 1946-47, after the Hindu-Muslim riots of October 1946. Known as Gandhi’s ‘Finest Hour’, the Noakhali ‘Prayog’ (experiment) as he called it, was an incredible attempt by this one man and his team of ‘followers’ to try and ease communal tensions in Bengal. Bengal could lead the way, Gandhi believed, by serving as an example for the rest of the country, as to how to peacefully triumph over communal hatred.
It was in Noakhali and Calcutta that Gandhi clearly offered the way out of the helplessness of communalism. One had to stop feeling helpless and afraid by building up moral courage. One had to take up the baton and face the violent aggressor alone if it was needed. Positive action, that was his motto. His prayer meetings, walks and above all, his attempt to stay within Noakhali without any police or military help, personally meeting victims and also the perpetrators of violence, was a move to show the villagers of Noakhali that he wasn’t afraid. He said: ‘To run away from danger instead of facing it is to deny one’s faith in man…and even one’s own self’. Non-violent action by a true Satyagrahi, Gandhi believed, would change hearts and promote faith. His team of ‘followers’ too had to live as an embodiment of this ideal of positive action.
Through such an example, Gandhi was dedicated to building up a moral surplus in civil society, in order to turn everyone into a Satyagrahi. This moral force that would permeate every individual was the key to long-lasting and true freedom. After communal clashes resumed in Calcutta immediately following independence, his heroic fast was once again an attempt to generate that morality. The fast lasted three days, and he gave it up only after residents of the city reassured him that they would lay down their own lives for the restoration of the city.
The effect of the fast was electric, but communal peace remained fragile – what possibly mattered more to people of Calcutta was the prospect of forever harbouring the guilt of Gandhi’s death within their city. His physical self was more important to them than his actual cause. In the end, the moral surplus was generated only for the short period of the physical presence of Gandhi and the possible risk of his martyrdom (through fasts). What Gandhi achieved in both Noakhali and Calcutta were miracles indeed, albeit transient ones. Communal violence had subsided for the frail old 78-year-old ‘Mahatma’, but not because of the generation of moral force. In effect, there always remained a stumbling block in the way in which his Mahatma-hood percolated down to his country-people, who, more often than not, capitulated largely to please him.
Post-independence, there have been several attempts by individuals to embody the Gandhian philosophy of self reliance and moral courage. Vinoba Bhave through the Shanti Senas (Peace Force), Medha Patkar and Baba Amte in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada) and in the more recent years, Anna Hazare through his Lokpal Bill agitation, have all tried to use Gandhi as an inspiration. It is heartening that despite arrests, there is a sustained resistance against the communally divisive policies of the national government.
And that is why, at this critical juncture, Indians would be failing Gandhi, by desiring to have a ‘Mahatma’ amidst us again. This reversion to helplessness would be most un-Gandhian. Just like at Calcutta and Noakhali in 1946-47, it would mean looking to another to work a miracle. We would look to another for sacrifices and the collective redemption of the nation through those sacrifices. Fearless positive action and the regeneration of morality within civil society, which Gandhi championed all his life, and which has only just begun to be reformulated, would be lost. The nation and all its failings must be shouldered by every Indian, only then can there be any scope of any real ‘progress’.
India has the lessons and the examples with it. Let it not fail the Mahatma again.
Anwesha Roy is a Guest Teacher at the Department of International History, LSE. Her research interests and expertise lie in the field of socio-political history of South Asia, with special emphasis on issues of gender, caste, communalism and identity formation(s).
 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-53891354, last accessed 26 February 2021, 20:33.
 https://thewire.in/rights/umar-khalid-arrest-condemned, last accessed 22 February 2021, 19:45. There has been a sustained attack since 2015 by the BJP ruled centre, on students, journalists, lawyers, activists, and pretty much anyone and everyone who has dared to speak up against its communally divisive politics.
 David Hardiman, Gandhi in his Time and Ours (New Delhi, Permanent Black, 2003), pp. 184-190
 Anwesha Roy, Making Peace, Making Riots: Communalism and Communal Violence, Bengal 1940-47 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018) p. 222
 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG), Vol. 93, p. 9
 Satyagraha was essentially a moral term used by Gandhi to identify a non-violent ‘truth-force’. In conjunction, Satyagrahi was a person who embodied the moral ideal of non-violent political action.
 Roy, Making Peace, Making Riots, p. 239
 Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy: A Critical Examination (Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1989) p. 185
 Even Nelson Mandela in South Africa and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana were inspired by Gandhi in their political struggle. The efficacy of Gandhian principles in practical application, though, remains contested.