The memory of Mahatma Gandhi today, in India is reduced to rituals. His ideals are forgotten and much of what he stood for is remembered only in parts and misunderstood. Many young people brought up on modern ideas wonder what wisdom there is in turning the other cheek if someone strikes you on one cheek. Similarly, there is no place for simplicity in one's life, when everybody is turning towards western life styles and way of thinking. In the care free money oriented attitude that pervades our life today, talk about morals and non-violence certainly seems out of place.
Gandhian philosophy is vast and contains many ideals. It is easy to take any part of Gandhian thought and criticize it. Gandhi belonged to everyone, so there is no danger of any minority community reacting and issuing a death sentence on those who do so. Any two bit politician or journalist who wants to get away with it. It is perhaps a reflection on the sorry state of the country that its icons can so easily be defiled without punishment.
But this easily answers the question about Gandhi's relevance today. If he was irrelevant, as many people are bound to say, why is he not forgotten like many other twentieth century thinkers and leaders who remain buried in library books? Why does Gandhi evoke strong emotions in those who criticize him? The answer lies in the universal relevance of Gandhian philosophy not only in the country but all over the world. Many ideas come back to us finding acceptability in the West; and Gandhism may also have to wait till it is discovered.
In an age when our bureaucrats can not stand up for their beliefs and crawl when asked to bend, it is difficult to think of one man – "a half naked fakir" – who could stand up against the might of the British Empire. The courage of one man who was neither a dictator nor a politician can only be a cause of wonder. If the life in public life commanded only half the courage of the fakir, India would not be debating on the criminal-politician nexus today or the corruption that pervades the society.
There is no doubt that Gandhi was a man ahead of his times. He foresaw many of the problems that we face today. In 1927 he wrote "a time is coming when those who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants will retrace their steps and say, what have we done"?
If we see around us, many of the contemporary problems of the world have arisen from senseless development. Industrialization and high tech. have resulted in such high quantities of waste that countries do not know what to do with it. Nor do we know what to do with the huge quantities of arms that the world powers have collected. Today, the nuclear weapon states have collected deadly weapons capable of destroying the world several times over. If only a part of the money blocked in arms could be available to fight poverty and disease, the world would be a better place to live in.
But the western system thrives on market demand. Thus, there is a vested interest in keeping the demand alive even if it is for deadly weapons. Gandhi had foreseen this as early as 1980. He wrote in Hind Swaraj that modern civilization is a nine days wonders, which may sink under its own weight. Gandhiji also advocated total disarmament. He wanted India to adopt "non-violence to the utmost extent possible" which would be India's contribution to the establishment of a disarmed world. That India chose to go in the opposite way shows how strong the Western influences are.
Swaraj was not simple self rule, according to Gandhi. It also meant liberation from the system of governance imposed by the British on this country. He foresaw that independence world means only a change in the rules but the exploitative system would continue. When we see the state pushing for dams and other mega projects in total disregard of the people's feelings we realize the truth of his fears.
What Gandhiji favored instead was decentralization of polity and economy. Centralized economy and planning, according to him, were dehumanizing and alien to the Indian way of life and culture. The recognition of his idea by the government through Panchayati Raj is not only half hearted recognition of Gandhian thought, but has also come too late.
Gandhiji's views on the form of Government are also enlightening. The Westminister model that we have been following was given by England, but Gandhi was opposed to it because it implied the existence of two classes the rulers and the ruled. The British Parliament according to him was a "sterile woman" because it could do anything with finality. Nor could its members act on their own but must obey the whip of their parties, reducing them to rubber stamps. It was unfortunate that after independence India did not heed his advice. He also wanted to disband the Congress party which he knew consisted of selected leaders who were going to rule over the people much like the British.
Gandhiji's firm belief was in India's villages where a majority of the people lived. He saw the un-sustainability of cities and the attendant problem. "If India is to attain true freedom, then sooner or later the fact must be recognized that people will have to live in villages, not in towns, in huts not palaces". The Indian villager may be crude, but there is usually a deep reservoir of spirituality. "Take away the encrustation, remove the chronic poverty and illiteracy and you will find the finest of the specimens of what a cultured, cultivated and free citizen should be" he said. It is ironical that today we shun the villages where the majority of the Indian people live, but go to Western countries to learn sustainable living. The Indian villager has been living sustainably and in harmony with nature for centuries!
Today, Gandhi is intellectual indulgence. Everybody pays lip service to his memory but we lack the courage to seek his ideals. He exists like a father figure whom everybody can criticize.