Mohandas Gandhi

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

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What, then, is greatness? In what does it reside? If a man's project fails, or survives only in irredeemably tarnished form, can the force of his example still merit the extreme accolade? For Jawaharlal Nehru, the defining image of Gandhi was "as I saw him marching, staff in hand, to Dandi on the Salt March in 1930. Here was the pilgrim on his quest of Truth, quiet, peaceful, determined and fearless, who would continue that quest and pilgrimage, regardless of consequences." Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi later said, "More than his words, his life was his message." These days, that message is better heeded outside India. Albert Einstein was one of many to praise Gandhi's achievement; Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama and all the world's peace movements have followed in his footsteps. Gandhi, who gave up cosmopolitanism to gain a country, has become, in his strange afterlife, a citizen of the world: his spirit may yet prove resilient, smart, tough, sneaky and, yes, ethical enough to avoid assimilation by global McCulture (and Mac culture too). Against this new empire, Gandhian intelligence is a better weapon than Gandhian piety. And passive resistance? We'll see.

Salman Rushdie, born in Bombay, India, is the author of The Moor's Last Sigh

Sidebar

Beyond patriotism and into legend: the nation builders
The sun finally set on the British Empire — and so too went the Ottomans, Habsburgs and Soviets. As empires crumbled, the edifices of new nations rose from the ashes. They were often built by the will of thousands but shaped by the visions and personalities of a few. Mustafa Kemal was a passionate man with a deep nationalist flair. He worked tirelessly to keep Turkey free — routing the imperialist British at Gallipoli in 1915, then expelling the Greeks in 1922. A year later he founded the Turkish Republic and began to remake it in his image. He secularized and modernized the nation; among other things, he outlawed the Islamic fez, introduced the Latin alphabet and opened Turkish society to women. In 1934 he took the family name Ataturk — "Father of All Turks." To modern Turks he remains a historical giant and a spiritual inspiration.

Gamal Abdel Nasser once wrote, "Within the Arab circle, there is a role wandering aimlessly in search of a hero." Nasser came closer than anyone else this century to filling that role. In 1952, at 34, he orchestrated the overthrow of the Egyptian monarch King Farouk. By 1956, when he touched off an international crisis by nationalizing the Suez Canal, he had enraptured Arabs with a vision of an Arab alliance free of alignments to either superpower. But after Egypt's military defeat by Israel in 1967, the pan-Arab dream was flickering. When Nasser died suddenly in 1970, at 52, it went out for good.

Fidel Castro To see him today — frail, stolid, gray-bearded — is to forget the brash 32-year-old who took power in 1959 to the crack of executioners' rifles. For seven years he had led the insurgency against the pro-Western Batista regime. When the rebels triumphed, they exacted their vengeance, killing hundreds of Batista sympathizers. Over the next 40 years, Castro's government became a seat of Marxism-Leninism and political repression — and a source of irritation to nine American Presidents. By 1990, Cuba was broke and isolated. But as the century ends, Castro remains, stubbornly, in power.

Lee Kuan Yew returned to Singapore from England in 1950 after four years at Cambridge. As the leader of a group of Chinese radicals, he won autonomy from Britain in 1959. After a short-lived merger with Malaysia, he quashed communist opponents and became the new republic's undisputed leader. During 30 years in power, he turned Singapore into a marvel: its standard of living is Asia's highest, and its students rank with the best in the world. Lee pursued a form of authoritarian governance that earned him critics in the West — but imitators in Asia. "In every democratic country," he said, "freedom is limited."

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