Guest column | Mahatma Gandhi: a leader for the ages

As an Indian in a foreign land, I would inevitably be asked, “Have you heard of Gandhi? Do you know it ? No matter where I was – Brazil, Colombia or Ecuador – everyone was in awe of him.

Of course, as an Indian, I was well acquainted with the role of Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for the freedom of India. However, I was amazed to see his fans follow in distant lands, especially after Oscar winning Richard Attenborough film Gandhi. The eight Oscar winning film took Gandhi to all corners of the world. However, I was tickled by the fact that a Briton had made a film about the man who had dedicated his life to fighting his compatriots.

Gandhi is revered around the world as the messiah of non-violence. His message of non-violence is as relevant today as it was in the 1930s and 1940s, when he led India’s struggle against colonial rule. For Gandhi, the means were as important as the ends, for Gandhi. While defending swaraj (autonomy), Gandhi called on all freedom fighters to peacefully resist colonial forces and never to resort to violence against the police. In fact, it would quash large-scale satyagraha (civil disobedience) movements, in case violence is perpetrated by protesters.

A call to conscience

Every human life was precious to the Mahatma, even the life of those who opposed India’s quest for freedom. Those who respect human life never engage in violence. By following a policy of non-violence, Gandhi appeals to the conscience of his opponents.

As the great physicist Albert Einstein put it succinctly: “The generations to come will hardly believe that such a man ever walked in flesh and blood on this earth.

Gandhi’s teachings have influenced many world leaders. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were both followers of the Mahatma’s philosophy of non-violence and imbibed his teachings in their own struggles.

Gandhi’s vision for India was of a country where people of all religions lived harmoniously. He often proclaimed that he was not just a Hindu. He was Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish all at the same time.

Gandhi practiced, what he preached. In his ashrams, all residents were responsible for cleaning the toilets, a role traditionally given to a group of people considered “untouchable.”

He was against all discrimination and respected all forms of work. So, in his ashrams, people cleaned the toilets on a rotating basis, as Gandhi believed that one had to be the change they wanted to see in the world.

He also prescribed to be truthful in relationships and politics, proclaiming, “The truth is as old as the hills.”

Model for young people

Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiences with Truth, was written frankly and in basic English, which can be understood by anyone. It should become compulsory reading for young people. It is important to expose young people to the leaders, who ushered in significant changes in our world, without any violence or gunfire.

Younger generations would also benefit from reading The Life of Mahatma Gandhi by American author Louis Fischer. The book was my Bible when I was young. Fischer spent seven days with Gandhi at the Sevagram Ashram in Wardha. The author was surprised to see that the Mahatma kept only a black and white photograph of Jesus Christ in his bare bedroom.

While the world has paid homage to Mahatma Gandhi through statues and postage stamps, his message of non-violence has been largely ignored. The world is full of armed struggles like in Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Militant armed movements such as Al Qaeda and ISIS in the Middle East and rebel groups in Colombia and Peru have caused the deaths of thousands in the name of ideological struggles. Many of the besieged may not even have heard of Mahatma Gandhi’s name. If they chose to fight in a nonviolent manner, perhaps it would attract more global attention to their cause.

The world must subordinate religion to economics. We need to provide more money, food and medicine to around 36% of the world’s population, who live below the poverty line. We must rediscover Mahatma Gandhi. To feed, clothe and house the world’s poor is the highest religious duty we can perform.

As Martin Luther King wrote, Mahatma Gandhi “belonged to the ages”.

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(The author is a Mumbai-based management consultant)