Leadership Lessons from Gandhi
Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Historian and Chancellor of Ashoka University, remembers Gandhi on his 149th birth anniversary.
When India celebrated independence on the midnight of August 14-15, 1947, Gandhi was not in Delhi. He was in east Calcutta among poor Muslims, working to heal the trauma of communal violence. He was unable to accept the independence that had come with partition and in the wake of terrible Hindu-Muslim strife. He chose to stay away from celebrations, saying that the day was one for fasting and prayer. Yet he was the architect of India’s freedom struggle.
Before he had arrived in India from South Africa in 1914, the Indian National Congress was a faction-ridden body that met once a year after Christmas to pass a few innocuous resolutions. Gandhi had transformed this forum into a vehicle of mass mobilization. He did this by giving the Congress an organizational structure that linked the village to the district to the province to the nation. He inspired people to join the Congress and raised funds for it by making Congress volunteers ask the common people for small sums of money as donations. Thus a mass base for the Congress was created and this enabled Gandhi to launch the Non-Co-operation Movement in the early 1920s and the Civil Disobedience Movement in the early 1930s. Thousands of Indians cutting across age, gender, class and creed joined these movements defying the despotic powers of the British government.
These movements and all that Gandhi did through his life were anchored to certain principles. These were ahimsa, abhay and the unity of India and Indians. Whatever the compulsions, personal or political, Gandhi refused to compromise on these principles. He said once, ”Non-violence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed.” Jawaharlal Nehru noted in The Discovery of India that Gandhi had taught Indians to fear not.
Gandhi was also convinced that real India lived in the villages where people followed a pattern of life that was not only timeless but also uncontaminated by the pernicious influence of industrial civilization that the West had spread across the world. Industrial civilization was morally degrading and therefore evil, according to Gandhi, because it was based on greed, competition and conflict. Violence was embedded in industrial civilization. India if she were to be genuinely free – not just politically independent — would have to totally reject the civilization of the West in all its many manifestations.
The isolation that Gandhi felt on August 15 grew out of not only the disappointment that India had failed to preserve its unity but also the growing realization that independent India had failed to reject the legacy of Western/industrial civilization that had arrived in India piggyback on British rule. He could see that independent India as she would develop under the leadership of his own handpicked men would be far removed from his vision, from the Swaraj (self-rule) that he had set out to achieve. He described himself in early 1947 as “a back number’’, someone who had ceased to be of any relevance to the new India. He had been reduced to be India’s failed prophet. It is difficult to imagine what he would have done if he had actually seen independent India beyond January 1948. As it happened on the 30th of that month, a Hindu fanatic, who wanted India to be a strong and powerful state, killed Gandhi by shooting him at point-blank range. The apostle of non-violence, a frail old man fell, with the name of God on his lips, a victim of violence.
Gandhi had nothing of his own save his spectacles, his fob watch, his shaft and the cloth that he wore. Everything else he had given away to India and his commitments. His life, he was fond of saying, was his message. His life was also his legacy — a legacy that India steadfastly refuses to claim.
Rudrangshu Mukherjee is the Chancellor and Professor of History at Ashoka University. He is a renowned historian and author, and was most recently the Editor of the Editorial Pages, at The Telegraph, Kolkata. Prof. Mukherjee has taught history at the University of Calcutta and held visiting appointments at Princeton University, the University of Manchester and, the University of California, Santa Cruz. Prof. Mukherjee studied at Calcutta Boys’ School, Presidency College, Kolkata, JNU, New Delhi, and St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. He was awarded a D.Phil in Modern History by the University of Oxford in 1981. He is internationally acclaimed as a historian of the revolt of 1857 in India. His first book Awadh in Revolt, 1857-58: A Study of Popular Resistance has become a standard reference on the subject. He has also authored and edited several books on other themes, including The Penguin Gandhi Reader, Trade and Politics and, the Indian Ocean World: Essays in Honour of Ashin Das Gupta, Remembered Childhood: Essays in Honour of Andre Beteille, New Delhi: The Making of a Capital and Great Speeches of Modern India. His latest book is Nehru & Bose: Parallel Lives.
*The views expressed are the author’s.