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Mahatma Gandhi
Source: Daily Express

Mahatma Gandhi was born on 2 October 1869 – 150 years ago. I write this in honour of this great man; and make a brief assessment of his life and philosophy, and the enormous legacy he left behind.


By way of introduction

In 2015, a controversy over the statue of Cecil Rhodes blue up, like a storm in a teacup, in Oxford, United Kingdom.  The precursor to this was at the University of Cape Town in South Africa where, in March 2015, students demanded the removal of the statue of arch-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes. The University authorities at first resisted, but on 9 April 2015, the statue was removed. The winds of change spread from Cape Town to Oxford. On 13 April 2015, African students (joined by others) demanded the removal of the Rhodes statue from Oriel College. This sparked an interesting debate among students, staff and the University authorities for the best part of the year.  On 19 January 2016, the University decided that the statue would remain. It could not dispense with the huge largesse left behind to it by Rhodes.

This led to a debate on Gandhi. Nigel Beggar, professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford, suggested that Gandhi’s statues should also be brought down. Nothing happened.

Three-and half years down the road, on 14 September 2019, a 6ft 4in bronze statue of Gandhi was unveiled at the Ayr Town Hall in Scotland to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.

This should give us an idea of the profound influence that Gandhi had not just in India, but in the whole world.

Gandhi’s legacy in South Africa 

Civil rights movements are major political phenomena in our times. Of course, they have a long ancestry, going back to the days of slavery. The political struggles leading to Africa’s independence began with workers’ strikes and popular resistance prior to and following the Second World War.

We will discuss Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance in the next section. But first it is important to examine his experience in South Africa.

Gandhi came to South Africa, then aged 23, and was active in the struggle there for the next 21 years. He was 44 years old by the time he returned to India where he employed the ethics and tactics of non-violent resistance he had developed in South Africa.

In a short article like this, it is impossible to do justice to Gandhi’s twenty-one years’ struggle against the British Raj in South Africa. So, I will quote from Nelson Mandela’s apt appreciation of this legacy.

“Gandhi threatened the South African government during the first and second decades of the century as no other man did. He established the first anti-colonial political organisation in the country, if not in the world, founding the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. The African People’s organisation was established in 1902, the African National Congress in 1912, so that both were witnesses to and highly influenced by Gandhi’s militant satyagraha which began in 1907 and reached its climax in 1913 with the epic march of 5000 workers indentured on the coal mines of Natal. That march he evoked a massive response from the Indian women who in turn, provoked the Indian workers to come out on strike. That was the beginning of the marches to freedom and mass stay-away-from-work which became so characteristic of our freedom struggle in the apartheid era. Our Defiance Campaign of 1952, too, followed very much on the lines that Gandhi had set. So, in the Indian struggle, in a sense, is rooted the African.” [[i]]

For nearly half a century after that, the people struggled through non-violent means. The youth opposition to apartheid in the 1970s led by Steve Biko and others was non-violent, in spite of apartheid regime’s brutal suppression, as in Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. Then in the mid-1980s, the liberation movements decided to go for armed struggle. I have often wondered why. My short answer is that the armed wings of the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress, which operated from outside South Africa, came under the influence, respectively, of the Soviet Union and China.

Gandhi’s politics and philosophy: Satyagraha and non-violent resistance 

In 1931, Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi exchanged letters in which Einstein expressed the hope that Gandhi’s non-violent struggle for India’s independence “will help to establish an international authority, respected by all, that will take decisions and replace war conflicts.” To this, Gandhi replied: “It is a great consolation to me that the work I am doing finds favour in your sight. I do indeed wish that we could meet face to face and that too in India at my Ashram.” [[ii]]

The following is a brief account of the main ingredients of Gandhi’s political and moral philosophy.

For Gandhi, ends do not justify the means.  Gandhi’s answer to imperial violence was not to offer counter-violence, but to sublimate it by offering oneself as “willing” victims of violence and overcoming it with “soul force” (satyagraha).  Whilst fighting against the British Raj, this strategy, despite occasional lapses, was remarkably successful.   But Gandhi failed to stop the human carnage following the partition in August 1947.  And, ironically, he was himself killed on 30 January 1948. The irony is even greater in view of Gandhi’s position that in the cause of freedom, he was prepared to die. “They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me, then they will have my dead body. But not my obedience!” [[iii]]

How does one compare Gandhi with Marx? Both were revolutionary in their own ways. Gandhi’s struggles in South Africa and in India were revolutionary. The difference between him and Marx was on the question of violence to bring about revolutionary change. Also, in his advocacy of village-based economy and local communal governance – “Gram Rajya” – he was revolutionary, though again, not as a “communist”.  However, just as Marx’s communism is a vision of the future so is Gandhi’s Gram Rajya.

Gandhi called anti-Semitism “a remnant of barbarism.” He supported German Jews’ right to be treated as equal citizens and admired their centuries of refusal to turn violent. He proposed that the Jews should assert themselves wherever they happened to be, as citizens of that country first. “If I were a Jew and were born in Germany,” he said, “I would claim Germany as my home … I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment.” [[iv]]

Whilst sympathetic to the plight of Jews in Europe, Gandhi was opposed to the creation of the state of Israel. A Jewish cry for a national home, he argued, would in fact provide justification to the Nazis to expel them. Palestine, he said, belongs to the Arabs in the same way that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. [[v]]

Coming to our times, Gandhi would be turning in his grave with the current regime in India. As Sarang Narasimhaiah argues in his article, “Everywhere is Kashmir: Unravelling Weaponized, Corporatized Hindustan in India’s Northeast” makes Modi’s India a counter-model to Gandhi’s. [[vi]]

It is interesting that very few people in Britain know that in 2013, Jeremy Corbyn was awarded the Gandhi International Peace Award for his “consistent efforts over a 30-year parliamentary career to uphold the Gandhian values of social justice and non-violence.” [[vii]]

Gandhi’s relevance to Africa and the global South 

Africa came into the capitalist system through colonisation. Whether Africa could have developed a capitalist system of its own is anybody’s guess. I would contend that there is no way Africa could take the route England took. Africa still remains the Empire’s neo-colony. Gandhi’s thinking is even deeper than this. He said that if the countries of the South were to emulate the developed world’s consumption and production systems, they would need to colonise ten worlds - not one!

Today, Africa’s people are thrown out of their lands and rural homes by global corporate vultures. Many young men and women take to the boats to cross the Mediterranean to escape to Europe.

Of course, Gandhi is not the only hero in the global South. There are many others, such as Mao, Guevara, Cabral, Le Duan, Giap, Steve Biko, Patrice Lumumba, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. They left behind a rich legacy of strategy and tactics for engaging in struggle against more powerful and dangerous adversaries. They followed their own routes, but they were all anti-imperialist revolutionaries. They all lived over decades of pro-active, tumultuous lives - at the village, community, national, and global levels.

Gandhi was killed on 30 January 1948. I was then ten, living in a small town in Uganda. I never knew him, but I was influenced by him from an early age. I knew Nyerere for many years - during my stay in Tanzania in the 1970s and 1980s. One thing common between Gandhi and Nyerere was that they were not greedy for power or wealth. They lived modest, self-disciplined, abstemious lives. They were both eternal teachers - walimu - with very high level of moral and political integrity, teachers who taught by example. That is their one common legacy. Gandhi never assumed state power. Nyerere was obliged to take over from the British. When the time came, he stepped down and retired to his village - still wielding considerable influence without state power.  In a sense, then, this too is their common legacy - influence not power, what the Americans call “soft power”.

Gandhi advocated “Gram Swaraj” - village self-rule. Nyerere initiated Ujamaa villages - to bring scattered peasant communities together in order to encourage production and provision of social services. In their different ways, Gandhi and Nyerere were committed to the principle of non-violent transformation of society.

Gandhi’s relevance to the global system

Gandhi was fighting not just British colonialism but the whole system of economics of capitalism and imperialism. Gandhian economics was part of the economics of liberation. He said: “A country remains poor in wealth, both materially and intellectually, if it does not develop its handicrafts and its industries and lives a lazy parasitic life by importing all the manufactured articles from outside. … care had to be taken not to make the definition so narrow … or so wide as to become farcical and Swadeshi only in name.” [[viii]]

In a famous quote, when Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he said that it was a “good idea”. He advocated the charkha (mini spinning wheel) to produce hand-spun cloth (khadi). It was the physical embodiment and symbol of Gandhi’s programme of self-sufficiency. He was neither “luddite” nor atavistic but a smart political activist against the British rule. 

We can extend Gandhi’s wisdom to our times. Let’s take just one example - that of the global financial crisis since the leveraged debt-created financial bubble burst in 2007-08.  Despite some claims to the contrary, global finance is still in deep crisis - especially since the Trump Administration put sanctions against a number of countries - including, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Venezuela.  Gandhi’s advice to these countries, and to the global South generally, would be to invent a “financial charkha” (to coin a term), and to create national or regional currencies to reduce (and ultimately, to eliminate) their dependence on Western currencies and gold reserves.

Some concluding remarks 

Like Marx, Gandhi was anti-capitalist.  But he had a different view of a non-capitalist state. He was against big industries – whether in private hands under capitalism, or under state-controlled socialism. He was in favour of cottage industries under a kind of communal system - Gram Swaraj.  I advocated something like this under the title From Here to There: A Thousand Boats on the Ocean in my book. [[ix]]

My second concern is the increasing risk of nuclear war in our times. Daryl G. Kimball, the Executive Director of Arms Control Association says: “Over the long course of the nuclear age, millions of people around the world, often led by a young generation of clear-eyed activists, have stood up to demand meaningful, immediate international action to halt, reduce, and end the threat posed by nuclear weapons to humankind and the planet”[[x]].  

And so, I end with Gandhi’s advice on the way forward: “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children” [[xi]]. 

*Professor Yash Tandon is from Uganda and has worked at many different levels as an academic, a teacher, a political thinker, a rural development worker, a civil society activist, and an institution builder.


[i] Nelson Mandela, “Gandhi, the Prisoner of Compassion”, in B. R. Nanda (ed.), Mahatma Gandhi: 125 Years, page 8.

[viii] Young India, 20-8-1931. Swadeshi, roughly translates to National Independence.

[ix] Yash Tandon, Trade is War: The West’s War against the World, OR Books, 2015, 2018, pp.192-193.