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A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Mumbai
A statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Mumbai

Opinion | May the moral force of Gandhi be with us in today’s day and age

Hope for India lies in our youth carrying forth the flame lit by the Mahatma to usher in change

A burning red speck was moving about a kilometre ahead of me on the road sloping up. At my running speed, I was catching up. In a minute, I could make out that it was a thela, a pushcart. In two minutes, and a few hundred metres closer, I could guess that the burning red was that of ripe red chillies heaped high on the thela, which kept crawling up the slope on its own. No one seemed to be pushing it.

Another couple of hundred metres revealed that the thela was not alive. It was being pushed by two little boys. I don’t stop or slow down during runs in the winter; if I do, my sweat-soaked clothes give me a cold. But it was impossible to run past two little boys pushing up a mountain of chillies up a slope that didn’t seem to have an end. I stopped and put my hands to the cart. Then we pushed, in step, together. The weight of the cart didn’t reflect in their mood. They were giggling when I stopped and burst into loud laughter when I started pushing the cart with them.

Don’t you go to school, I asked. Of course, we do, we are in seventh. School opens at 10; we will leave the chillies in the basti (colony) and then go. Which school do you go to? Government Upper Primary School at Ambedkar Nagar. Where do you live? Ambedkar Nagar. Do you know who is Ambedkar? Yes, of course, he got us azadi (freedom). Do you know who Gandhi is? Yes, of course, he got the whole country azadi. What is the difference? Gandhi got azadi for the whole country from the British, and Ambedkar got us azadi from cruel people.

What can be more wondrously incongruous than talking about Ambedkar and Gandhi with two kids, while pushing a cartful of chillies? It was Martin Luther King Jr’s birth anniversary. The memory of a similar conversation about King and Gandhi was swirling in my head before the sight of that burning red speck broke my running reverie.

Who do you like more, King or Gandhi, she asked. This girl was a force of nature. Gandhi, I replied. She made a face. I like King more, she said. Why? Gandhi was self-righteous and moralizing, and I detest that, she said. Her feisty spirit recoiled from even a whiff of uninvited authority.

That was another winter, another place. But the conversation was with me. So, I asked these two kids, who do you like more, Gandhi or Ambedkar? Both, they said. But who do you like more? Both, because they together got us azadi. We had reached the top of the slope. They had to turn to a side road, the basti was nearby. We parted ways, their laughter wafting away, as I ran on.

On that day last week, and on the following day, I went to five schools. No one had heard of King. It is unsurprising; he is so distant to this country. But ever since that conversation about King and Gandhi, I keep hunting for signs of how close he really is. Particularly on the days between 21 January, King’s birth date, and 30 January, the date of Gandhi’s death, which even more coincidentally is punctuated in the middle by India’s Republic Day, perhaps the great testament to the deep bond of struggle that binds them.

The absence of any recognition of King in almost all the schools I go to is an opportunity to introduce him, and Mandela, too. Both as carriers of the flame that Gandhi lit, together developing a force more powerful than all else, fuelled by an unflinching moral commitment. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s remarkable study, Why Civil Resistance Works, offers empirical proof that it is indeed a powerful force. You must read the book. Here is its gist: Non-violent action is not only right morally, but is also the most effective method to achieve significant change. Assessing more than 300 campaigns over the last century, the study finds that non-violent struggles are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent ones. Though the exact dynamics depend on many factors, it takes around 3.5% of a population’s active participation in protests to ensure serious political change. Once that happens, success appears inevitable and sustainable.

The incandescent eloquence of King communicates the source of this power better than anyone else: “Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change… and one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified with the resignation of power, and power with the denial of love. Now we’ve got to get this thing right. What we need to realize is that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic… it is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time."

In that other winter, I had said: But King was so flawed in so many ways. Who isn’t, she snapped. So then, who was better, Gandhi or King, I asked. It was not a good question, but I had asked it. The switch from rebelliousness to sagacity was instant. It is not for us to judge who is the better of the two, we stand here today because of both; it is for us to carry the fire and pass it on, she said. With her carrying the flame, we will get there.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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