The pop of champagne may be more familiar to much of the world than a crop in Champaran that rattled an empire. But that does not alter the facts. It was a response to the plight of indigo farmers in Bihar about a century ago that first kindled the idea of satya- graha—truth force—in India. It was a firm conviction in truth and its power to prevail against the odds that animated the call for self-rule, which led us to our tryst with destiny in 1947. And it was he who showed the way. He unified us, gave us a national purpose, and sparked a global revolution of hope—for justice, equity and peace by means of non-violence. Today, a century-and-a-half after the birth of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869–1948) in Porbandar, Gujarat, his spirit lives on. Evoked by the subtlety of blue denim, the mood of a campus festival, the eloquence of Martin Luther King’s dream, the get-up of a Beatle, the sight of a currency note, the jaadu ki jhappi of Munna Bhai and, above all, by every little act that relieves someone of misery, Mahatma Gandhi lives on. An inspiration, he certainly is. What’s less clear, alas, is the extent to which he inspires our collective conscience.
The world is not rubbing along well. In the sphere of geopolitics, it is nukes that get rattled now, not empires, and backing off is taken as a sign of weakness. For all of Mahatma Gandhi’s exertions against ill-will and enmity, we still tend to judge ourselves by our best ideals and others by their worst deeds. Worse, views have diverged so widely and threats been made so casually that life under the shadow of a mushroom cloud does not even seem strange anymore. That’s just the way it is, goes the refrain, as if it deserves no more than a shrug.
In the arena of domestic politics, Gandhi arguably looms less over the conduct of our political parties, and more over the sound and fury of our TV screens each time his legacy is contested or sought to be pushed aside in favour of his assassin Godse (as seen in Bhopal during the polls this summer). The controversies that erupt over the country’s founding father betray a hoary unease with some of his thinking, especially his emphasis on what’s common to humanity over superficial divisions of caste, creed and cultural traditions. Towards the end of his life, he devoted himself wholly to reversing a communal rupture that, to his horror, could not be prevented for reasons beyond his control. Sadly, some of the schisms he fought so hard to consign to the junkyard of history continue to threaten Indian unity. Despite appearances, the risk of civil strife persists. Thankfully, Bapu’s public profile is still on the rise in India. The government has taken his ideals of cleanliness far and wide across the rural landscape with the Swachh Bharat Mission, for example, with his spectacles serving as a symbol for behavioural reforms. That iconic pair is also on our redesigned rupee notes, even if his actual vision remains something of a blur to the over-busy and the under-read. For a snap recap, they need to look no further than the country’s national emblem. Satyamev Jayate, it says. Truth alone prevails. Naa anritam, we could well add. Not falsehood. For the sake of generations to come, we must never give up on what Mahatma Gandhi strove for.