Mohandas Gandhi

His philosophy of nonviolence and his passion for independence began a drive for freedom that doomed colonialism

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He, and he alone, was responsible for the transformation of the demand for independence into a nationwide mass movement that mobilized every class of society against the imperialist, yet the free India that came into being, divided and committed to a program of modernization and industrialization, was not the India of his dreams. His sometime disciple, Nehru, was the archproponent of modernization, and it was Nehru's vision, not Gandhi's, that was eventually--and perhaps inevitably--preferred.

Gandhi began by believing that the politics of passive resistance and nonviolence should be effective in any situation, at any time, even against a force as malign as Nazi Germany. Later, he was obliged to revise his opinion, and concluded that while the British had responded to such techniques because of their own nature, other oppressors might not.

Gandhian nonviolence is widely believed to be the method by which India gained independence. (The view is assiduously fostered inside India as well as outside it.) Yet the Indian revolution did indeed become violent, and this violence so disappointed Gandhi that he stayed away from the independence celebrations in protest. Moreover, the ruinous economic impact of World War II on Britain, and--as British writer Patrick French says in his book Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division--the gradual collapse of the Raj's bureaucratic hold over India from the mid-'30s onward did as much to bring about freedom as any action of Gandhi's. It is probable, in fact, that Gandhian techniques were not the key determinants of India's arrival at freedom. They gave independence its outward character and were its apparent cause, but darker and deeper historical forces produced the desired effect.

These days, few people pause to consider the complex character of Gandhi's personality, the ambiguous nature of his achievement and legacy, or even the real causes of Indian independence. These are hurried, sloganizing times, and we don't have the time or, worse, the inclination to assimilate many-sided truths. The harshest truth of all is that Gandhi is increasingly irrelevant in the country whose "little father"--Bapu--he was. As the analyst Sunil Khilnani has pointed out, India came into being as a secularized state, but Gandhi's vision was essentially religious. However, he "recoiled" from Hindu nationalism. His solution was to forge an Indian identity out of the shared body of ancient narratives. "He turned to the legends and stories from India's popular religious traditions, preferring their lessons to the supposed ones of history."

It didn't work. In today's India, Hindu nationalism is rampant in the form of Bharatiya Janata Party. During the recent elections, Gandhi and his ideas have scarcely been mentioned.

Twenty-one years ago, the writer Ved Mehta spoke to one of Gandhi's leading political associates, a former Governor-General of independent India, C. Rajagopalachari. His verdict on Gandhi's legacy is disenchanted, but in today's India, on the fast track to free-market capitalism, it still rings true: "The glamour of modern technology, money and power is so seductive that no one--I mean no one--can resist it. The handful of Gandhians who still believe in his philosophy of a simple life in a simple society are mostly cranks."

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