His face is on every bank note; politicians mark each anniversary of his birth and his passing, but in modern India, does anyone pay anything more than lip-service to the life and deeds of Mahatma Gandhi?

A revolutionary life

Having been trained as a lawyer in London, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi rose to prominence in South Africa, where he led civil disobedience to the apartheid regime, using nonviolent means to promote the Indian community’s rights across the British colony.

Gandhi then championed the Indian independence movement, for which he earned the honorific Mahatma, which means venerable. His assassination by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fanatic, on January 30, 1948, prompted mourning across India, and led to the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to declare that ‘the light has gone out of our lives.’

At the time of his death, Gandhi was revered as the ‘Father of the Nation’; his values were values that all of India strived for. But what exactly were those values, and are they still relevant seventy years later, in modern India?

Gandhi’s values

For many Indians, Gandhi is seen as the simple man who fought off the British Raj, not with swords or guns, but with words and diplomacy. His teachings of equality, toleration and non-violence continue to strike a chord with many.

Mumbai skyline at night gandhi
The Mumbai skyline at night. Modern India’s globalised economy is vastly different from the one envisaged by Gandhi. Photo credit: Cididity Hat

His economic teachings of self-sufficiency, and not relying on foreign investment – looking within before abroad – also still hold merit in today’s rapidly advancing India.

“Peace is its own reward”?

Cross border violence in Kashmir, the increasing divide at home between Hindu nationalists and moderates, and endemic corruption, have all posed challenges to the values that Gandhi preached.

The Indian government has certainly used heavy handed tactics to quell demonstrations in Kashmir, but Gandhi is nevertheless employed as a symbol by the government to inspire and create hope for the millions of people there who do not yet benefit from being fully integrated into the Indian economy.

In civic society, Gandhi’s example of non-violent protest has drawn many emulators. Most recently this included the journalists who formed a human chain in the aftermath of Gauri Lankesh’s murder, protesting against the intimidation of the media by the government.

Sustaining the values of tolerance and non-violence may be difficult in an increasingly militarised society, especially when there are viable terrorist threats to the safety of the nation and ever-present tensions with its nuclear-armed neighbour, Pakistan. But despite that, Gandhi’s maxims still resonate with the majority of the population.

The economy: closing the door on Gandhi, opening it to the world

Modi’s government has used Gandhi as the propaganda tool behind its push for dignified labour. This is one of the key themes in Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (the Clean India Mission) that Modi has championed. It is designed to clean the streets in much of rural India, and encourage people to defecate in public toilets. Part of this campaign has seen Modi himself emulating the simplicity of Gandhi’s lifestyle by personally cleaning streets with a broom.

He has also copied Gandhi’s famous use of the spinning wheel. Gandhi had encouraged Indians to spin cotton (or Khadi) for themselves rather than simply buying garments. The latter was an important part of Gandhi’s campaign for India to be economically self-sufficient. Today’s Indian government is now making a push to export this handspun cotton worldwide.

gandhi spinning wheel india
Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

That said, despite the esteem in which the figure of Gandhi is held, as India strives to grow into a world power, the values he stood for are being forgotten. India’s economy has been subjected to the turbulence of global financial markets since it opened itself up to free trade in 1992.

Gandhi’s chief economic aim was to make everyone as equal as possible and that included what he called ‘voluntary poverty’. Gandhi’s concern was that post-independence, the wealthy would grow wealthier whilst everyone else would be left behind.

For a time, successive governments adopted a socialist model not far from Gandhi’s policy, but the lure of a free market ensured that this model was abandoned. More and more people from the villages and the countryside have moved to the cities since India’s economy was opened to try and achieve a piece of the economic dream benefitting their fellows in the city. Yet they find little, and are left behind.

The growth of India has been heralded as one of the greatest events of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but it has come at a high cost. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing faster than India’s economy. The wealth has ceased to trickle down; Oxfam reports that in 2017, the richest 1% kept 73% of the wealth created, with the poorest half of the population earning just 1%.

As Pulin Nayak writes in the Hindustan Times, “If Indian politicians at least ritualistically remember the contributions of the father of the nation, the tribe of Indian economists, fairly large today in numerical strength, does not feel compelled to exhibit any such routine fervour.”

The verdict

To conclude, Gandhi’s influence in India is mixed. On the one hand he is used by the government as propaganda for their policies, and by certain groups when wishing to garner support for their protests, whatever they might be.

That said, India has increasingly moved away from the ancient philosophies that influenced Gandhi toward a more commercially driven society. That has, in turn, divided the nation between the haves and the have nots. Gandhi is still relevant, but his relevance is decreasing as time goes by.


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