Address by Ambassador Suchitra Durai at Gandhi...
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Gandhian Philosophy of Peace and Non-violence :

Address by Ambassador Suchitra Durai

at Gandhi talk series, Gandhi Institute, Rangsit University

on 16 January, 2020

Dr Mano Mettanando Laohavanich, Director of the Gandhi Institute

Excellencies, Distinguished members of the audience

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Sawasdeekha, Sawasdee Peemai,

It is indeed an honour for me to speak to this distinguished audience on the father of the Indian nation – Mahatma Gandhi – his philosophy and his contribution to humankind at a time when we celebrate his 150th birth anniversary.

2. Gandhiji would have been quite bemused by the proliferation of events focussed on him as he considered himself a very ordinary person. Even the title of his autobiography is self-deprecating : The Story of My Experiments with Truth. But he was no ordinary man. He rose to preeminence because he set out on an extraordinary quest for truth and self realisation. And along the journey, led his country men and women free from colonial rule.

3. I propose to structure my talk in the following manner. I shall speak about the Gandhiji’s life and some of his various experiences and on his philosophy. As Gandhiji himself said: My Life is My Message.

4. The journey started in far-away South Africa. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi went to South Africa in 1893 to practise as a barrister, or rather, as a junior official of an Indian firm called Dada Abdulla & Co. Within a few days of his arrival the young and callow lawyer was on his way from Durban to Johannesburg to fight a legal case on behalf of his employer when he was thrown out of a train by a railway guard at Pietermaritzburg, despite having a valid first class ticket. His crime was that he had taken a seat in a “whites only” compartment and refused to shift to the van, the designated compartment for non-whites! He spent the night in the bitter cold at the waiting room of the Pietermaritzburg station. From this experience of personal humiliation grew his deep concern over social and political injustice and he began to fight for the rights of coloured people.

5. Another case which deeply moved him was that of an Indian Tamil Balasundaram – an indentured labourer who turned up in his office in tattered clothes and two of his front teeth broken and his mouth bleeding after being beaten by his white master. The indenture law in South Africa was such that if a labourer left his master without the latter’s consent he could be proceeded against under criminal law in court and upon conviction imprisoned. In other words, the system of indentured labour was no better than slavery. However, Gandhiji realised that he must work within the confines of the law even as he brought succour to the disadvantaged. He contacted the master, a powerful figure in Durban, got him to agree to release Balasundaram and then, with the help of the Protector of Indentured Labour, got Balasundaram’s indenture transferred to another European. Thereafter, the Protector prosecuted the former master and got him convicted. News about this near miraculous ending spread like wildfire among the indentured labourer community and many turned up in his office for help. In turn, the news spread all the way to Madras province in southern India from where most of the indentured labour in South Africa hailed.

6. The real beginning of Satyagraha – the extraordinary movement started by Gandhiji, that ensured the peaceful independence of India – took place on September 11, 1906 at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg. Responding to a call from Gandhiji and the community leaders, several thousand Indians in the Transvaal state stopped working at 10 am and gathered to meet at the Empire Theatre in the afternoon to protest against the imposition of the Asiatic Ordinance by the Transvaal Government. The ordinance was was meant to halt the entry of Asian or rather Indian immigrants and sharply restrict the movement of those already in the Transvaal by making it mandatory for them to give their fingerprints, carry an identity card and prohibit them from entering specific areas so that they did not “contaminate” the ruling whites. The gathering passed several resolutions. Briefly, the objective of the resolutions was to resist the passage of the law and if they did not succeed, then they were determined to refuse to carry identity cards and court imprisonment instead. From then on, Gandhiji also gave a new name to this civil disobedience – Satyagraha.

7. There are three aspects to Gandhiji’s philosophy: firstly, the power of truth or the soul force which comes through a firm adherence to truth – also known as Satyagraha. Secondly, ahimsa or non – violence which is more than the mere absence of violence. It is something more positive, more meaningful and dynamic. Thirdly, he believed in the philosophy of Sarvodaya – the upliftment or the welfare of all.

8. Were these new ideas? Not at all as Gandhiji himself acknowledged. In a sense his upbringing in Kathiawar, Gujarat shaped his predisposition towards ahimsa and sarvodaya. The family followed Hindu Vaishnavism. His mother Putlibai was an unlettered but devout lady and the young Gandhi accompanied her on her visits to the temples and observed her fasting traditions. Vaishnavism laid a strong emphasis on helping the oppressed; further, the influence of Jainism ensured that ahimsa was a cherished principle from childhood. From a very young age, the importance of adhering to truth was also ingrained in Gandhi. As a child Gandhiji recalls listening with rapt attention to the recounting of tales of the mythical hero Raja Harishchandra – a byword for truth and honesty. In his autobiography, Gandhi’s writes of his many trials and tribulations in school due to his truthfulness, including one amusing episode when he refuses to copy from another child despite the strong hints from his teacher (who wishes to get a good name from the visiting school inspector).

9. Three great people had a profound effect on Gandhiji by his own admission: Rajchandra or Raychand the Jain businessman who became a saint and now has a substantial following in Gujarat and elsewhere; Ruskin, the English social thinker who wrote ‘Unto this Last’ and Tolstoy, the great Russian writer who wrote, apart from his famous novels, a philosophical treatise ‘The Kingdom of God is within You’. The importance of adherence to truth, the potent weapon of civil disobedience, universal love, the need to fight against feudalism; the welfare of all – these were ideas which were further strengthened after Gandhiji either interacted with or read the writings of these three great men.

10. Gandhiji was born a Hindu but he was not dogmatic about faith. In fact, he was eclectic in his choice of inspirations. If the Bhagavad Gita became his infallible guide of conduct and the book par excellence for the knowledge of Truth, the Bible and the Sermon on the Mount also became an important factor in his adoption of non-violence as the other pillar of his Satyagraha strategy. Edwin Arnold’s ‘The Light of Asia’ on the life of Buddha and his philosophy made no less an impact on the young Gandhi.

11. In his autobiography, Gandhiji notes the three lessons that he drew from Ruskin’s book “Unto this Last”:

(I) That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all;

(ii) That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s;

(iii) That a life of labour, i.e the life of a tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is the life worth living.

By 1906, he had decided to give up his considerable material possessions as a successful lawyer and move towards life in a commune. He sold his house and with his earnings bought a large piece of land on the outskirts of Durban and started the Phoenix Settlement. You can imagine what a revolutionary idea it would have been at that time; particularly for a married man with four children to suddenly give up everything and move with family and friends to a desolate, uninhabited area with no civic amenities where every one of diverse racial background was expected to farm and live together as one big self-sufficient family.

12. His espousal of the South African question or the plight of Indians in South Africa led to his taking up the issue politically in India and become a household name, particularly initially in southern India, and ultimately led him to return to his motherland in 1915 and to fight for Indian independence.

13. In retrospect, it seems incredible that Gandhij’s philosophy actually prevailed as the preferred mode in the Indian national struggle which had started in the previous century against colonial rule. Consider the fact that the Satyagraha movement was forged in the backdrop of a completely contrasting global (in other words European) and Indian scenario. In Europe, the anarchists and communists dominated nationalist causes; one group believed in bringing about political change through political assassinations, the latter group in organising the working class to revolt. Revolutionary methods also had a following in India itself at that time from Bengal to Maharashtra. The revolutionary spirit resonated with the elite, particularly those who were young who were desperate for freedom from foreign rule.

14. The Indian National Congress itself was dominated by moderates who believed in the power of petitions. Gandhiji himself was supportive of working within the Constitution, but where he differed was that he called on his country men and women to protest against discriminatory laws and court arrest if necessary.

15. When he returned to India, Gandhiji realised that the Indian national movement was essentially a movement of the elite and led by lawyers, doctors and landlords. He felt that for the movement to succeed he must reach out to the masses and take up issues directly of relevance to the vast majority of Indians who were poor.

16. Opportunity came in the form of a farmer from Champaran in the eastern state of Bihar who approached him during the annual Congress meeting in Lucknow in December 1916. The farmer recounted to him the harsh treatment of peasants by British indigo planters, who forced them to cultivate indigo (to the exclusion of all other crops) and imposed taxes and penalties if they did not obey. The cultivation of indigo (which was financially lucrative to the planters and traders) did not benefit the farmers and, worse, led to the deterioration of the soil. Gandhiji shifted to Champaran and spent about a year with the peasants in 1917. The Champaran satyagraha led by Gandhiji and supported by young nationalists from all over India besides the peasants involved several campaigns and mass arrests. Finally, British government conceded the demands and gave the peasants security of tenure and freedom to grow crops of their choice. In 1918, Gandhiji took up the cause of the mill workers in Ahmedabad demanding better working conditions for the workers. This was followed by the Kheda Satyagraha. Following the failure of their harvest, the farmers of Kheda in Gujarat refused to pay taxes imposed by the provincial Government of Bombay. Failure to pay taxes resulted in the confiscation of land and assets by the state and mass arrests which the farmers of Kheda (cutting across all castes and religions) complied with peaceful. While Gandhiji was a spiritual leader for the Kheda satyagraha, the main organiser was Sardar Vallabhai Patel.

17. While these were highly successful, they were still local movements with limited resonance. Gandhiji became a national leader after the Rowlatt Satyagrapha of 1919 when he called for a national strike against the Rowlatt Act (or the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act) which provided for enhanced police powers, a ban on political activity and detention without trial. All of India responded to the call – the protest was particularly intense in Punjab where the army was called in and resulted in the tragedy of the Jallianbagh massacre on 13 April 1919. In an enclosed garden of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar adults and children had congregated to celebrate Baisakhi and protest peacefully on the arrest and deportation to Dharamshala of two national leaders Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchelew. They were fired upon by the troops of the British army led by Gen Dyer. More than 400 innocent persons were killed and around a 1000 injured. The massacre led to an outpouring of grief and outrage all over India on the brutality of the colonial government.

18. Gandhiji was uncompromising when it came to the upholding of his principles. It did not matter if the principles were violated by his adversaries – the colonial masters – or his own followers. For instance, the non-cooperation movement that he launched in 1920 came to an abrupt halt in February 1922 after a group of protesting peasants burnt a police station in Chauri Chaura in eastern Uttar Pradesh resulting in the death of 22 police constables. A disconsolate Gandhiji called off the Satyagraha campaign after this tragic incident as he felt that his followers had not been properly inculcated in the principle of non-violence and were not sufficiently prepared to lead a non-violent movement. Soon after Chauri Chaura, Gandhiji and other leaders of the movement including Pandit Nehru were imprisoned by the British authorities.

19. After a hiatus of around 7 years, the second Satyagraha movement began in 1930 with the Dandi march or the Salt Satyagraha. This was soon after the declaration on 26 January 1930, of Purna Swaraj or complete independence by the Indian National Congress led by its then young President Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Under the Salt Act of 1882, the British government had full monopoly on the production and sale of salt. Under the Salt Law even domestic production of salt by coastal communities was prohibited. It was a law which was universally disliked. Selection of a common, household item such as salt to start a nation wide campaign was a Gandhian master-stroke. Gandhiji and his followers went on a 24- day march from his ashram in Sabarmati (Ahmedabad) to Dandi (about 240 miles away) on the Gujarat coast to make a fistful of salt. Although he had given notice of his march, it was initially dismissed by the British authorities. The international media also wrote disparagingly. But, as the days wore on and Gandhi and his followers trudged 10 miles every day to their destination, collecting more and more people on the way, it became a major issue of media focus. He broke the salt laws on 6 April 1930. This sparked large scale acts of civil disobedience. More than 60,000 persons including Gandhiji were arrested. The Salt march gained world wide attention and Gandhiji who had been a leader of primarily local issues in the 1920s became accepted as a national leader. It was after the Salt march that the British realised that the British raj will not last forever. It also led to the convening of a series of Round Table conferences in London resulting in the Government of India Act of 1935 which gave greater representation to Indians and became the forerunner of the Indian constitution itself. The third phase of the Indian independence movement was the Quit India movement of 1942 which resulted in the imprisonment of Gandhiji. By the time Gandhiji was released in 1944, separatist and communal forces in India had gathered in strength. When India became free from British rule on 15 August 1947 without a war, it was substantially due to the extraordinary leadership and sacrifices made by Gandhiji and his followers.

20. Mahatma Gandhi (the title Mahatma or the Great Soul was bestowed on him by another great Indian Rabindranath Tagore) was a multi-faceted personality. He was a saint but also one of the greatest political strategists of all times. By combining ahimsa with satya he embarked on a highly innovative philosophical construct: as ancient Vedic texts did not mention ahimsa; it was Jainism which elevated ahimsa as the “paramo dharma” (the highest duty). His choice of the charkha or the spinning wheel as the symbol of national freedom was highly unusual. Till then it was considered a female activity and few men would be willing to be seen spinning – but he made it the symbol of economic nationalism (through its advocacy of homespun and handloom and repudiation of foreign textiles) and revival of national industries. The choice of common salt and indigo to rally the masses was ingenious. So was his sartorial choice – a simple dhoti and shawl and slippers not only reflecting his austerity but also his identification with the common man. For the same reason he also opted to travel by third class in trains or by ship. As he became one of the masses, his credibility knew no bounds. He also used fasting as an instrument of protest when all else failed. He was a most effective communicator. His use of simple language, his choice of Hindi as his language of communication in his public meetings, his prolific writings in English and Gujarati ensured that his ideas and opinions reached a wide cross section of people both lettered and unlettered.

21. Gandhiji was a social reformer. He worked tirelessly for the eradication of untouchability, a pernicious social evil which was eventually abolished under the Constitution of free India. He undertook several satyagrahas including the Vaikom satyagraha to fight for the rights of the dalits (who were then called untouchables) to public spaces. It is said that it was at his insistence that a non-Congressman such as Babasaheb Ambedkar, the great Dalit leader and eminent lawyer, was included in independent India’s first Cabinet as the Law minister and head of the drafting committee of the Indian constitution.

22. Women’s emancipation was also espoused by Gandhiji. While women from aristocratic families had participated in public causes, the traditional role of the ordinary woman was in the household. It was Gandhiji’s satyagraha movement which encouraged thousands of ordinary women folk to join in a public cause. The Salt Satyagraha is notable for the being the first nationalist activity in which women participated in large numbers. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Sarojini Naidu became important leaders. Later on in the 1940s, their place was taken up by a young Aruna Asaf Ali and Usha Mehta and the first Cabinet had several women as Ministers.

23. His fight against feudalism which was oppressive and led to a class of rentiers led to the abolishment of the zamindari sytem in independent India in 1951 and subsequent land reforms, ensuring that even the most humble peasant had a small piece of land that was his/her own.

24. The concept of ahimsa also influenced his life style, particularly his eating habits. He was a strict vegetarian. His own inclination for vegetarian food was further strengthened after he was exposed to the views of the British vegetarian society of which he was an ardent and active member as a student in London. He continued to experiment with food throughout his life. There are several essays devoted to dietetics in his writings. He approached every issue scientifically, methodically and dispassionately. He was a great advocate of naturopathy and home remedies. He even wrote on health issues regularly. He had a great interest in nursing. This started as a child when he had to take care of his old and ailing father.

25. He was an environmentalist before the term became fashionable. He famously said that there was enough in the world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed. He showed the world by his own example of austere living. When he died his earthly possessions were two sets of wrap around cotton cloths, a wrist watch, his spectacles, three holy books, two wooden food bowls and spoons, two pairs of wooden sandals and a walking stick.

26. Despite being absorbed in the national struggle, he had a broad world view and keenly followed events all over the world. The time he had spent in England while studying to be a lawyer and his two decades in South Africa ensured that he was well acquainted with world affairs. His comments on world events were carried in the newspapers that he published and the letters that he wrote to world leaders. On the eve of the San Francisco conference which led to the creation of th e United Nations he issued a statement which stated, inter alia (and I quote):

Peace must be just. In order to be that it must neither be punitive nor vindictive. Germany and Japan should not be humiliated. The fruits of peace must be equally shared. Exploitation and domination of one nation over another can have no place in a world striving to put an end to all wars”.


27. Gandhiji’s legacy continued to influence independent India’s foreign policy. The early fashioning of the policy of non-alignment was essentially the Gandhian approach of striving for freedom and justice for subjugated peoples and engaging in non-violent conflict resolution for averting war and safeguarding peace. Independent India was also responsible for inscribing decolonisation on the agenda of the UN. This was also a Gandhian legacy. The end of British rule in India did not result in an acrimonious relationship with Britain. In fact, India agreed to join the British Commonwealth of Nations as an equal partner and the Commonwealth rules were amended to accommodate the Indian republic.

28. Of course, many question the relevance of Gandhiji’s methods in today’s fast-paced and globally interlinked world, where threats to peace, security and social harmony abound. But the essential validity of Mahatma Gandhi’s beliefs has not changed, because human nature itself has not changed. Looking back, if the 20th century was the most bloody in human history, it was also the century where non-violence saw its greatest triumphs, cutting across the boundaries of continents and faiths. Gandhiji influenced many great world leaders – Nelson Mandela of South Africa and Martin Luther King of US. Gandhiji has also inspired many environmental movements across the world including the International Green Movement and the Chipko movement in India.

29. This is why more than a decade ago the UN adopted a consensus resolution to commemorate Gandhiji’s birth day 2 October as the International Day of Non-Violence.

30. Gandhiji said that cleanliness is next only to Godliness. He was passionate about keeping our surroundings clean. His autobiography describes in detail his voluntary action as part of the sanitation committee in Rajkot in 1896 when plague erupted there and his job was to inspect all the latrines in different localities. Later, he undertook sanitary reforms among the Indian community in South Africa and led by example the cleaning of toilets both in his home in Durban and in the Phoenix settlement. Gandhiji was conscious of the strong link between sanitation and health. in In 2014, Government of India launched the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ – ‘Clean India Campaign’ to ensure hygiene, waste management and sanitation across the country by 2019, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. One of the main objectives was to render India Open Defecation Free. That has been achieved as more than 100 million toilets have been constructed by the national and state governments. This would comprise as the world’s largest sanitation programme and implementation of SDG 6.2 which relates to hygiene, open defecation and sanitation. PM Modi has also called on the people of India to eschew single use plastics and by 2022 the ban is expected to be implemented all over India. So, the Gandhian legacy continues.

29. Just in case, all of you think of Gandhiji only as a frugal, stern and a monochromatic figure let me assure that is not quite true. Gandhiji had a great sense of humour and his writings are quite amusing even as they inspire. He was given to wisecracks. So one can only end with a joke: In 1932, while going to attend the Second Round Table Conference in London after which he was to meet the King a reporter asked “ Mr Gandhi, do you think you are properly dressed to meet the King? Gandhiji is said to have replied “ Dont worry about my clothes, the King has enough clothes on for both of us”.

I wish the Gandhi Institute all success.

Thank you for listening. Khap Khun Kha.

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