Last month’s terrorist attacks on Mumbai came 60 years after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu extremist. In the face of these brutal attacks, Gandhi’s life and teachings underscore several important ways ordinary citizens can respond constructively to such trying circumstances. A fundamental element of Gandhi’s message was that major transformations must begin with actions at the most immediate, personal level. Gandhi was an expert at taking action to transform difficult situations into building blocks for a better society. As we formulate our responses to the terrorism that ravaged Mumbai and still grips the world, there are some simple and profound lessons we can draw from the Mahatma.
Fear, according to Gandhi, is the driving force behind terrorism. “The (terrorist) fears something in his victim. It may be his different religion or his riches that he fears.” Perhaps in the case of Mumbai it was the diverse, cosmopolitan vitality of the city that its attackers feared and sought to destroy. No matter what, the response to violence inspired by fear must begin with individuals taking action without fear, and hence without more violence. Gandhi believed that fearlessness is indomitable: “There has never been, and will never be, a man who is able to intimidate one who has cast out fear from his heart.” The first lesson we can learn from Gandhi is that fearlessness will ultimately triumph over the fear behind acts of terror. This sentiment has already been adopted by some of the survivors of the Mumbai attacks. Bruce Scott, an American who was trapped on the 17th floor of the Taj hotel with his wife Patricia, told a reporter hours after the attack: “If you let fear control you, if fear runs your life, then the terrorists have won. Don’t let that happen.”
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The second lesson to learn from Gandhi is that no matter how small or large the arena or event, there is always some way to act positively to transform a situation. Gandhi believed that positive, transformative change begins when individuals act with goodwill in their hearts. He advocated seizing the smallest opportunities to accomplish actions with discipline and love. In the Mahatma’s words, “if there is any real magnet in the world which can draw man to man, it is only love”. Such a stance is an antidote to terror that every person can employ. We all have access to that magnet in our everyday interactions: Treating our families, neighbours, colleagues as well as strangers with compassion in daily encounters is the first step in securing a more humane society. When these positive actions are woven together they create the robust fabric of civil society that stands the best chance of stifling terrorism at its roots.
The third crucial lesson to take from Gandhi’s life is the importance of coordination and teamwork in the face of duress. Gandhi’s lifelong campaigns for the redress of injustices were exceptionally well-organized undertakings led by groups of talented, intelligent and disciplined men and women. The extent of his success is in large measure the result of this team enterprise. The famous Salt March—when Gandhi and 78 followers walked 250 miles over the course of a month in order to defy British law by collecting salt from the sea—was one example of Gandhi and Co.’s deft coordination and discipline. Less well known are the Ambulance Corps that Gandhi organized in South Africa during the Boer War and the numerous organizations he founded to undertake “constructive work” at the village level in India. While the efforts of the international community to respond to terrorism require extraordinary teamwork, this pervasive, borderless struggle with evil may very well be won or lost by the ability of ordinary people to work together for peace and justice in as many ways as possible.
These lessons of fearlessness, positive action and teamwork all combine in one aspect that is extraordinarily relevant today: service. Throughout his life, the notion of service (seva) was at the heart of Gandhi’s ethic; now it needs to be at the core of our collective response to terrorism. In small and numerous acts of service we all can contribute to constructing a more harmonious, stable world. Donate blood; volunteer in a shelter; mentor a student; invest in organizations that facilitate these activities; walk to raise funds and awareness for a charitable cause; start and lead a service enterprise. While many people around the world today are already energetically engaged in such service activities, we clearly can and need to do more.
In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, there will undoubtedly be anger and desire for vengeance. Yet, according to Gandhi, “the proper way to avenge murder is not to answer murder with murder… I am certain that this can never bring peace to society or advance it.” The best response to the Mumbai massacre will be found in the sum of citizens’ efforts both individually and collectively for a humane and peaceful society. We must all undertake this critical, cooperative work with the sense of urgency and determination that these troubled times demand.
The author is completing his doctorate in South Asian history at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. Comments are welcome at email@example.com