Home / Opinion / India, Gandhi and the art of world travel

9 January marks the 100th anniversary of the greatest homecoming ever by an Indian, one now celebrated in the mother country of perhaps the largest and most far-flung diaspora in the world as Overseas Indian Day.

100 years ago, in 1915, a lawyer and community organizer from Gujarat called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (at 46, already well into middle age) stepped off the SS Arabia at Bombay Harbour. Gandhi had spent the previous two decades in South Africa, where he made a name for himself representing the civil interests of prosperous merchants of Indian origin as well as the political rights of indentured labourers of Indian origin in a society divided along racial lines. Before that, he had also spent a few years as a (fairly mediocre) student in England.

In between these two stints abroad, Gandhi made one brief, unsuccessful attempt, in the 1890s, to return to India and set up his own legal practice. One reason for his failure then was his own diffidence; another, the fact that, as an Indian who had travelled abroad across the “black waters," he was seen as having lost caste in a highly stratified and cloistered social world. Indians of that time preferred to deal with somebody who was uncorrupted by contact with the great unknown.

Though he eventually returned to India a successful and even wealthy man, Gandhi’s travels had not made him arrogant, but rather more curious and more humble. It’s worth noting that he had promised his political mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, that he would not speak or write on India for a year, until he had travelled around the country and acquainted himself with its problems.

During his sojourn in South Africa, Gandhi discovered something enormously liberating about the life of emigres. The boundaries drawn by Indians at home between themselves were blurred, and sometimes entirely abandoned, by the solidarities and hardships of becoming Indians abroad—the experience of which, for the rest of his life, was expressed in Gandhi’s optimism about their ability to transcend their differences and work together.

Gandhi’s early life in Gujarat, then, and his outlook as a devout Hindu were orthodox; his life experience for an Indian of the time, though, was unusually heterodox. He was virtually the only protagonist in the movement for Indian independence (which he transformed within a decade from a primarily upper-class, small-scale campaign to a mass movement) to come from a family of modest means and yet possess a sophisticated sense of the possibilities of both India and the West.

Through his capacity to combine homegrown ideas with those from around the world, Gandhi forged, first abroad and then at home, a creative new political philosophy called ‘satyagraha,’ or ‘truth-force’—a compound of nonviolence, active resistance and demanding self-scrutiny that was to become part of the basic vocabulary of modern political resistance. He came to it by way of the theories of Tolstoy and Ruskin, as well as the Indian treatise on ethics, the Bhagavad Gita. To this day, Gandhi’s thought holds a prominent place in the world’s sense of what it means to be Indian (even if its ideals are today under siege in India itself).

South Africa—as many, including Nelson Mandela, have argued—was the making of Gandhi. “Gandhi’s 20 years in South Africa were not just his apprenticeship as a political mobilizer," scholar Judith Brown wrote. “They also provided the time and circumstances in which he formulated his attitude to India and the West; and this, far more than his political capacity and experience, was to mark him out on his return to India."

One might even say Gandhi’s travels had ennobled him. Having fought for the cause of Indians in South Africa, many of them Muslim, he could not bring himself to divide Indian society reflexively into Hindus and Muslims, as so many of his companions in the independence movement did. He sought an independent Indian nation-state that would be home to all the faiths of the subcontinent.

Having grown up reflexively obeying the codes of Hindu social life—including marriage to a child bride—Gandhi returned to India transformed by his experiments in thought and morality. From then on, he was determined to move the giant edifice of Hinduism back in dialogue—and, if necessary, in conflict—with the call of the individual conscience. He eventually paid the price for this with his life.

What can Indians today learn from Gandhi’s attitude toward travel? From the time of Gandhi’s return, a great change has come about in the size and character of the country’s diaspora. Indians began to leave the country in ever-greater numbers, on terms more amenable than those of indentured labour; no longer were they resented for their departure, or rejected upon their return.

Everywhere they went, they came together to form small replicas of the beloved world they had left behind. Some lapsed into conservatism and a partitioned mental life; others, like Gandhi, embraced the challenge of refashioning many of their values and beliefs in light of their new experiences. Few other world economies match India’s today for the size of remittances from abroad, and foreign-returned, or returning, Indians are a significant influence on life in India today.

The story of the homecoming, 100 years ago, of the greatest overseas Indian in history makes for an eternally resonant parable. As Gandhi proved, sometimes the best way of knowing oneself and one’s civilization is by going away. Bloomberg

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