Gandhi, the champion of the right to dissent5 min read . Updated: 01 Oct 2019, 10:32 PM IST
The ekla chalo Gandhi is more relevant today than the magician at whose call people came to the streets
Everyone will have his or her summary of Gandhi’s legacy. Some will allege that the Mahatma’s non-violence emasculated India. Others will view history differently. As I see it, the following were among the gifts and lessons he left for us:
One, the weapon of satyagraha, or non-violent resistance, against injustice or discrimination. Two, an example of not hating anyone—not even your enemy, not even your potential or actual killer. Three, an admonition to remember the weak.
Four, he passed on a certainty that God is one and remains the same, whether called Ishwar, Allah, Khuda, Ek Onkar, God, Jehovah, Ram, Rahim, Karim, Krishna, whatever. In other words, Ishwar Allah Tere Naam.
Wasn’t picking a broom and cleaning your lane also a Gandhi legacy? It was, but Gandhi, who kept his minimal clothes and the space around him scrupulously clean, did some other things too.
You don’t have to be an Indian to recognize what I’ve listed. Another legacy was more national, if also meaningful for a world beyond India. This was the legacy of an independent and democratic nation where, in law if not always on the ground, all had equal rights. That “India for all" was influenced by a distinctive freedom struggle in which large numbers of known and unknown Indians participated. Individually and as a team, remarkable persons contributed to the spirit of the freed nation: Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, B.R. Ambedkar, Chandra Shekhar Azad, Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari, Sarojini Naidu and many others, as well as people such as J.B. Kripalani, Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia, who never exercised state power.
Yet, no one looking at the critical years of 1946-48, when the course of independent India was set, can miss the clarity, passion and persistence with which Gandhi wrested a pledge that India would be a society for all, led by a state that would protect everyone.
In 1946-48, Gandhi possessed no office in government or party. Physically far from decision-making spaces, he was apt to be found in Noakhali, Bihar or Kolkata, or in Delhi’s refugee camps, instilling courage into devastated hearts.
Even so, he achieved his goal of a secular state. He achieved the goal despite the horrific killings that marked Partition, despite calls in neighbouring Pakistan for an Islamic state, and despite currents of ill will within India. Nehru and Patel supplied invaluable support, but the unremitting resolve was Gandhi’s.
After six decades, that Gandhi legacy, a state for all, is in the ICU—and there seem to be few surgeons who can save it.
Gandhi created another legacy by underlining the right to dissent. To remain in a minority was often his fate. During his student years in London, when he involved himself with the Vegetarian Society, Gandhi backed one of its members, Dr Thomas Allinson, when the society’s head, the industrialist Arnold Hills, wanted the doctor removed for having written a book advocating artificial birth control.
Arguing that excluding “anti-puritans" was not one of the Vegetarian Society’s declared aims, Gandhi opposed Hills’s resolution for expelling the doctor. However, “Dr Allinson lost the day", and “in the very first battle" of this kind Gandhi found himself “siding (as his autobiography puts it) with the losing party".
Some years later, when a 36-year-old Gandhi was again in London, lobbying for the rights of South Africa’s persecuted Indians, a 30-year-old white South African named Symonds assisted Gandhi in the imperial capital, taking down dictation, typing letters, writing addresses, affixing stamps and posting envelopes. Later, Gandhi would recall in his book Satyagraha In South Africa that Symonds “toiled for us day and night without payment". Symonds died not long thereafter. Remembering the “sad parting" beside a steamer in December 1906, Gandhi would also recall that earlier in Johannesburg, Symonds had “often humorously assured" him that “he would withdraw his support" if Gandhi was “ever found in a majority" (Satyagraha 112-13).
When, many years later, the Congress, meeting in Mumbai voted overwhelmingly in favour of his Quit India call, Gandhi took care to stress the importance of dissent. In his speech following the vote, Gandhi started with the dissenters: “I congratulate the 13 friends who voted against the resolution."
Always striving to impart new ideas of individual freedom to his old nation, Gandhi also said in his 1942 remarks: “If you want real freedom you will have to come together and… create true democracy—the like of which has not been so far witnessed… I have read a good deal about the French revolution… Pandit Jawaharlal has told me all about the Russian revolution. But I hold that though theirs was a fight for the people, it was not a fight for real democracy... My democracy means every man is his own master (Collected Works 76: 381)."
And every woman her own boss. Today, 77 years later, individuals in India are bluntly told—by a mob or a political leader—that they cannot decide for themselves. They must utter a slogan as ordered, eat or dress as ordered, speak a language as ordered. Millions living in a particular state are told they cannot choose the nature of their relationship with the Union of India. They must lump what is chosen for them.
How India gets out of its present coercive climate is not easy to see. That climate is not confined to India. Ethno-nationalist authoritarianism, where a racial or religious group uses nationalism and state power to coerce other groups, appeals to people in many lands today.
History does not offer a clear road map for bouncing back to liberty and equality. But embracing the dissenter in Gandhi—the ekla chalo Gandhi—can only help. That Gandhi is more relevant today than the magician at whose call people came to the streets, or left their jobs, or entered prisons.
I suspect that Gandhi may also want us today to study other great dissenters, including individuals who faced authoritarianism and totalitarianism of an extreme kind, even if these are yet to descend on India. Dissenters, for instance, like the Soviet Union’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Nazi Germany’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in 1934 almost came to India to spend time with Gandhi.
Rajmohan Gandhi is a peace builder, historian and biographer. He is the grandson of Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari