Saturday, October 2, 2010

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

When I was in school, my favorite freedom fighters were Bhagat Singh, Veer Savarkar, and Subhash Chandra Bose. As a young boy, their courage was raw and palpable.

They refused to bow their heads, even before an empire that easily outmatched them. They possessed the ability to send shivers of fear down the enemy's spine, however temporarily.

The idealism of Mahatma Gandhi on the other hand, was outlandish. Nonviolence seemed like a cloak for impotence. The "turn-the-other-cheek" mantra was very hard to understand, let alone practice.

Passive civil disobedience and satyagraha seemed like self-flaggellation.

Why would you take injustice with a smile?

Well into my 20s, I believed that Mahatma Gandhi's leadership and India's independence from Britain were not causally connected. It was pure coincidence. And perhaps there is a grain of truth to that. Many countries got their independence post-WWII. Most did not have Mahatma Gandhis.

It was not until grad-school, that some of my long held beliefs against the man, slowly started softening. The trigger was a particular MLK day talk in Ann Arbor given by Prof. Rajmohan Gandhi (grandson).

I realized that anyone who could just land from South Africa, and integrate a fractured independence movement had to be special. Before Gandhi, the movement was essentially a fringe operation. Most people would grumble and complain, and stop there.


There must have been something mysteriously powerful about him, to persuade ordinary people to give up their comfortable enslavement, go on fasts, burn their clothes, and court arrest. He harnessed the collective idealistic zeal of men and women, young and old, and sculpted it into a potent force.

Non-violence itself is a pretty sophisticated concept. I had completely misunderstood it.

The key idea, which my school textbooks overlooked, is that non-violence appeals directly to the conscience of the oppressor. As Gandhi remarked, real "strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will."

Many oppressors are not heartless (there are exceptions, Hitler comes to mind), and you turn the mirror towards them, and force them to take a good hard look at their own misdeeds. Chances are, the oppressor will be shamed into guilt. Thus, you win the war against the oppressors, without really making enemies out of them. In fact, you make the oppressor himself feel good about the whole affair.

Gandhi knew war and violence are poor means even when directed towards exalted goals.

As he once said, "What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?"

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

very good article

Sachin Shanbhag said...

thanks.

The Omniscient said...

I think this finally explains the principle.. amazing.. thanks for the explanation, I was otherwise unable to recognize the speciality of the technique.

Sachin Shanbhag said...

thanks. the concept is actually more sophisticated than most people give it credit for.