By Fr. Peter Gonsalves | Opening Doorz Editorial |October 02, 2023
This article is an extract from the December 06, 2019 Issue of ‘EduFocus’, a publication by the Archdiocesan Board of Education, Mumbai.
Just Who in the World Was Gandhi?
Two years ago, an international charitable organisation invited me to conduct a Peace Education training programme for their ‘social development’ staff from India. The meeting was held in an exotic, although modest, location on the banks of the Brahmaputra river.
About 40 members attended in a spacious hall with a breathtaking view. After the organiser introduced me and distributed the Peace Manual I was about to use for the 3-day course, he invited me to take the floor. Having noticed a picture of Gandhi on one of the walls, I began by expressing my sincere gratitude and the hope that we get off to a good start with the blessings of “Mahatma Gandhi smiling down upon us”.
To my surprise, the participants unanimously burst into laughter. Taken aback, I paused and politely asked what was so funny. On realising I was serious, the participants coyly bowed their heads to stifle their giggles and to avoid eye contact. The leader nervously replied, “It’s because you mentioned Gandhiji …”
Indeed, for a long time I have noticed how many of us Indians ignore Gandhi. Like fish unaware of the importance of water, we seemed to have taken our socio-political freedom for granted. It has become more fashionable to criticise him than to follow him. He has become a joke to many upwardly mobile Indians raring to advance economically and often unscrupulously. Our knowledge of Gandhi remains at the level of what we had learned in school. We are accustomed to seeing his pictures and statues, or naming schools and streets after him. The newer information we receive depends largely on the slanted news reports, not always in his favour.
For some, his name spells the betrayal of India by yielding to Pakistan’s demands. For others, he is unwelcome for not supporting Ambedkar and his cause. To an elite few, a vilification campaign to besmear his reputation has now reached its peak. His name is desecrated, perhaps to justify his assassination. In some cases, the details of his murder are excluded from school textbooks to remove vestiges of the aura he once enjoyed after his brutal martyrdom. By all appearances, the demythologisation of the man we were once accustomed to calling ‘Mahatma’ seems to have been stretched to its extremes. No wonder then, the laughter at the mention of Gandhi’s name in that hall on the banks of the Brahmaputra seemed like the most natural thing to do—even to people who were professedly and professionally engaged in the lofty task of serving and developing India’s poorest.
Fortunately, the rest of the world is not India!
Fortunately, the rest of the world is not India. Ordinary people I have met during the nearly 20 years of my sojourn abroad seem far better informed and more attuned to what those who walked in Gandhi’s slippers have to say about him. This article is therefore an ‘appetiser’, intended to encourage a critical reading and understanding of who and what Gandhi means to humanity.
Martin Luther King Jr. winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through non-violence, said: “Gandhi was inevitable. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk.”
Gandhi and Pope St John Paul II
Pope Saint John Paul II was a bellwether of political change for his people in Poland, and an important symbol and supporter of their ‘Solidarity Movement’ that destabilised Communist rule in 1989. According to him: “The figure of Mahatma Gandhi and the meaning of his life’s work have penetrated the conscience of humanity… The Father of Indian independence points the way to all who—for the most noble ideals—seek to separate the fight for justice from every form of hate.”
Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the Movement confirms: “We failed when we tried to combat Communism with weapons, but when we took up Mahatma Gandhi’s tactics and strategy, we emerged winners! Truly, the whole world should be a disciple of Gandhi.”
Nelson Mandela was the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and the country’s first black President (1994-1999) to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. He eloquently defines Gandhi’s unique place in the history of paradigmatic changes of the early twentieth century. “At a time when Freud was liberating sex, Gandhi was reining it in; when Marx was pitting worker against capitalist, Gandhi was reconciling them; when the dominant European thought had dropped God and soul out of the social reckoning, he was centralising society in God and soul; at a time when the colonised had ceased to think and control, he dared to think and control; and when the ideologies of the colonised had virtually disappeared, he revived them and empowered them with a potency that liberated and redeemed.”
Pervasive Impact of Gandhian Satyagraha
In 2005, international think-tank Freedom House conducted a unique study of 67 countries where transitions from authoritarianism to democratic rule occurred. The transitions that took place after World War II reveal the pervasive impact of Gandhian satyagraha for political change. “Far more often than is generally understood, the change agent is broad-based, non-violent civic resistance—which employs tactics such as boycotts, mass protests, blockades, strikes, and civil disobedience to delegitimise authoritarian rulers and erode their sources of support including the loyalty of their armed defenders.”
The 1999 feature-length documentary, “A Force More Powerful” vividly demonstrates the power of Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation in six instances: India, USA, South Africa, Poland, Denmark and Chile.
Although acclaimed by the world, Gandhi never received a Nobel Prize. However, in 1981, 53 Nobel Laureates signed a Manifesto of Nobel Prize Recipients in which they made explicit and exclusive mention of Gandhi as an example in the struggle for world peace and development. They appealed “to all men and women of goodwill, to the powerful and to the humble to act” on behalf of the millions dying of hunger as a result of the international political and economic disorder.
They added: “Although the powerful of this earth bear the greatest responsibility, they are not alone. If the helpless take their fate into their own hands, if increasing numbers refuse to obey any law other than the fundamental human rights, the most basic of which is the right to life, if the weak organise themselves and use the few but powerful weapons available to them: non-violent actions exemplified by Gandhi, adopting and imposing objectives which are limited and suitable: if these things happen, it is certain that an end could be put to this catastrophe in our time.”
UN Adopts 2nd October as International Day of Non-Violence
The United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution on 15th June, 2007 to observe and celebrate annually Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, 2nd October, as the ‘International Day of Non-Violence’. The resolution was piloted by the government of India under the Indian National Congress Party and was co-sponsored by 142 countries.
The current UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, made the following remarks at the event, “Leadership Matters—Relevance of Mahatma Gandhi in the Contemporary World”, in New York on 24th September, 2019: “Gandhiji’s vision and philosophy are pillars of the work of the United Nations. Part of his genius lay in his ability to see the interconnectedness and the unity between all things. His political achievements included leading the movement that ended colonial rule in India, using peace, love and integrity to prevail.”
He also declared that the UN had issued a stamp to commemorate Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, and added, “but we are in the company of more than 100 countries that have issued or are planning to issue stamps to honour this global leader.”
From the few but pertinent items listed above, I have attempted to illustrate what Gandhi means to the world. However, the sceptical reader may consider the explanation of Gandhi’s global recognition a chance phenomenon or a lucky coincidence. Did Gandhi ever imagine that his struggle to liberate India would have had such far-reaching consequences?
With apologies to Churchill, it is no exaggeration to apply his effusive praise for the troops in the Battle of Britain to the bête noire of his imperial dream: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many across the world to just one man.”
(Dr. (Fr.) Peter Gonsalves SDB teaches peace communication at Salesian Pontifical University, Rome. He is one of the consultors of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Social Communications. His academic publications focus on Mahatma Gandhi i.e. Clothing for Liberation—A Communication Analysis of Gandhi’s Swadeshi Revolution, Khadi: Gandhi’s Mega Symbol of Subversion, and Gandhi and the Popes—From Pius XI to Francis).