A Man out of Time? as India Marks Its 60th Year as a Republic, Jad Adams Goes in Search of the Sometimes Elusive Legacy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the 'Father of the Nation'

By Adams, Jad | History Today, April 2010 | Go to article overview

A Man out of Time? as India Marks Its 60th Year as a Republic, Jad Adams Goes in Search of the Sometimes Elusive Legacy of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the 'Father of the Nation'


Adams, Jad, History Today


The week before Indian independence, in August 1947, Gandhi wrote: 'So long as my faith burns bright, as I hope it will even if I stand alone, I shall be alive in the grave and what is more speaking from it.'

Gandhi (1869-1948) was always proud of his achievements, but how many of his ideas have stood the test of time? His personal philosophy of resistance he called satyagraha--literally 'soul-force' or 'firmness in the truth'. It was criticised at the time as meaning anything Gandhi wanted it to mean and it has not become common political currency in his absence. Even in the opening decades of the 20th century many of Gandhi's ideas looked out of date, particularly to progressives such as Jawaharlal Nehru, who was to become India's first prime minister (1947-64) and was committed to industrialisation. Nehru did not fret about sex, alcohol or diet as Gandhi did.

Yet the 21st century saw the advent of a world in which many of Gandhi's ideas, once considered eccentric, became mainstream. Gandhi would today find common cause among many in the developed world with his intolerance of smoking, which he considered worse than drinking alcohol. Though his dietary experiments were considered odd at the time--he would decide to do without salt, or to consume no more than five different items a day, or to eat only raw food, a fussiness which seemed absurd when many of his countrymen could not afford to eat--millions of people in the West now pay minute attention to their diet.

Such qualities of Gandhi's as thrift and self-reliance have also made a comeback as virtues and are now considered environmentally friendly. He was certainly 'green; in present-day parlance; he wished to economise on consumption and considered that taking more food or clothing than was necessary was tantamount to stealing from others.

His vision for India could be seen as one of self-sufficiency, though critics saw it as merely underdevelopment. He wanted to see a nation of villages devoted to spinning and weaving, producing all they needed by hand. He objected not only to such modern innovations as railways and aeroplanes, but also to hospitals and had little time for the medical profession in general, feeling that illness was the result of insufficient spiritual purity. He would have been disappointed by the industrial growth of India, which is now a member of the G20 group of the world's top economies. Gandhi said:

I do not believe that industrialisation is necessary in any case for any country. It is much less so for India. Indeed, I believe that independent India can only discharge her duty towards a groaning world by adopting a simple but ennobled life, by developing her thousands of cottage industries and living at peace with the world. High thinking is inconsistent with complicated material life based on high speed imposed on us by Mammon worship.

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Gandhi was markedly successful as a labour leader both of miners in South Africa (where he worked from 1893 to 1914) and in India, where he commanded striking mill workers. But no legacy remains today. Gulzarilal Nanda (1898-1998), Gandhi's chief lieutenant in the trade union movement, said some 20 years after his death: 'The whole trade union movement in India was shaped by Gandhi's idea that a worker should not economically blackmail his employer but appeal to his spiritual self to secure higher wages and better working conditions.' Nanda regretted that few still paid lip service to this notion. Most Indian trade unions are connected to political parties and their activities are related to larger political events rather than local disputes. Even in India, Gandhi's engagement with organised labour is largely forgotten.

Gandhi is enduringly remembered for public fasting, a spiritual exercise that he adapted for political ends. He fasted successfully in pursuit of peace in Calcutta at the time of Partition, but he had also fasted when members of his ashram were found guilty of what he considered to be a moral lapse in finding each other attractive. …

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