The Relevance of Gandhi's philosophy today

Gandhi was in himself a legacy of philosophy. The longer-term impact of the man warrants every comment on him in its own right. If all those individuals and movements that have been influenced by Gandhian ideals were to be listed it would read like a roll-call of the great moralists of the twentieth century, and of its great crusades. The careers of men like Danilo Dolci and Martin Luther King or the numerous civil rights campaigns and peace movements were inspired by the ideal of passive disobedience and non-violence. Gandhi has inspired operas like Philip Glass's 'Satyagraha', and novels, such as R.K.Narayan's 'Waiting for the Mahatma'. Very briefly, the questions raised here will concern only the continuing influence and relevance of Gandhi's ideas to the world and to those two countries with which he was mainly concerned, South Africa and India.

It is often assumed that within India Gandhi suffered the fate of all political saints - he was placed on a pedestal and forgotten. This is untrue. The ideas of Gandhi continued to be debated among Gandhians, his opponents, especially the Indian communists, and the ruling elite, particularly during the Prime Ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru. Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi's heir-apparent, took over the Gandhian constructive movement, giving it a more radical edge through his attempt, in the Bhoodan Movement, to bring about a voluntary redistribution of land to the poorer peasantry, above all, to the landless. He was to be strongly supported by Jayaprkash Narayan, whose socialism took on an increasingly Gandhian complexion, and who began to devise sophisticated programmes for the modernization of Indian villages but still inspired by the Gandhian anarchist vision of decentralisation and self-sufficiency. Narayan, or J.P., as he was familiarly known, exerted enormous moral influence by the 1970s and became the leader of national opposition to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (Nehru's daughter, no relation of the Mahatma) during the Emergency period of 1975- 77. His leadership does much to explain the astonishing defeat of the Congress Party in the 1979 elections.

The impact of Gandhi's ideas on government policy is striking. Indian manufacture remained subject to Gandhian practice to an extraordinary extent. The hand-loom textile industry in 1968 was producing 45 percent of cloth output. In total, small-scale enterprise continued to produce 40 percent of all output and employ three-quarters of the labour force. One commentator has characterized the successive five-year economic plans as 'a curious amalgam of Stalinist and Ruskinian views'. Attempts to inject Gandhian ideals through the village upliftment programme, or Panchayati Raj, were less successful, but are further proof of Nehru's continuing deference to Gandhi's beliefs. There is even the fascinating possibility, in a quite different sphere of policy, that Nehru was inspired by the satyagraha ideals of non-violence in his response to the Chinese invasion of 1962, and that the confrontation between the poorly armed and clad Indian troops and the Chinese in Aksai Chin was the belated indication of how the Indians would have confronted the Japanese in 1942.Yet the continuing plight of the untouchables and of women in India (one notices in particular the repressive caste communal conflicts in Ahmedabad in 1985 and the Hindu-Muslim communal riots in Ayodhya and the Northern India in 1992) point to the limited success of Gandhi's ideals in terms of social change.

Gandhi's South African legacy introduced two themes in particular: the fate of South African Indians and the debate on whether to pursue a non-violent or violent strategy against apartheid. Gandhian-style resistance to apartheid was part of the wider struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism. With India being the first colonial society to acquire independence, it was inevitable that Gandhi's method should be keenly studied within the Third World and, as Nehru became increasingly important in international affairs as the moving spirit behind the Non-Aligned Movement, India's example became all the more influential. Nkrumah, for instance, was seemingly to adopt Gandhian methods in leading the Gold-Coast (Ghana) to independence by 1957. Gandhi was a world historical figure. It has not been enough to assess him by his own standards and ambitions; he has become a part of twentieth century history and his impact has to be measured as much by the consequences of his actions as by his intentions. This short study of Gandhi has stressed a historically contextual rather than a biographical approach. Gandhi has been seen through the eyes of his contemporaries, as someone caught up in the ebb and flow of events, sometimes taking a central role, sometimes on the periphery. It is an approach that, while emphasising Gandhi's role as a catalyst to events, has also drawn attention to the shortcomings of his actions, to the way they deflected or even disregarded alternative solutions to problems.