Gandhi: the apostle of nonviolence

January 27, 1995|By Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

ANNAPOLIS — Atherton, Calif. -- JANUARY brings the anniversary of the violent end of Mohandas K. Gandhi, called the Mahatma, at the hands of one who today would be characterized as a crazed Hindu fundamentalist.

As 1995 begins, world peace becomes ever more illusionary with ethnic and territorial clashes overtaking the global community. One cannot but feel nostalgia for the man who reinvented nonviolence to help the cause of beleaguered people everywhere.

To many Indians, Gandhi symbolized the second coming of the Messiah in his austerity, love of fellow humans and his mission of peace.

Gandhi fell to a bullet while headed for a prayer assembly at the famed Birla House in New Delhi on Jan. 30, 1948. If he were alive today, he would be a disenchanted observer of the world scene.

The hypocrisy of contemporary colonialism, garbed as free-trade and globalism, would not have fit into his vision of a true democratic, nonintrusive, international code of behavior.

Gandhi was too much of a believer in the right of all people to determine their own destiny to endorse or celebrate a process that reduces nations and peoples to the status of puny pawns on the hegemonic chessboard.

Both as activist and warrior for peace, Gandhi was the zTC quintessential epic hero. He harnessed his energies and talents to lead his portion of humanity to uncharted territory.

Charismatic in his plainness (many say even ugliness), profound in his simplicity, ethically rich in his austerity, militant in his advocacy of peace, he took on the unprecedented Moses-like task of leading his people to a new mental and psychological level.

Indian minds and souls became liberated well before India became free in a political sense.

Between an oppressed, frenzied and easily provoked people and the hammer blows of colonial rule, Gandhi found his energies and skills fully tested to keep the Indians disciplined observers of nonviolence.

It was ironic but perhaps typical in the inexplicable order of things (a la Lincoln, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King) that his life ended with an assassin's bullet. And his life's work stood negated in the brutal ethnic warfare that followed in the wake of the Indian subcontinent's independence.

Gandhi was not always an adversary of the British, or for that matter of war. On Oct. 19, 1899, in a letter addressed to the colonial secretary on behalf of Indians settled in Durban, Gandhi graciously offered "their services to the government or the imperial authorities in connection with the hostilities now pending between the imperial government and the two Republics in South Africa."

"We do not know how to handle arms," he said. "It is not our fault; it is perhaps our misfortune that we cannot, but it may be there are other duties no less important to be performed on the battlefield and . . . we would consider it a privilege to be called upon to perform them."

He put the Indian freedom movement on hold during the two world wars.

Finally, when Gandhi turned away from the British, he did not turn his back on the civilized form of dissent. Winston Churchill was Britain's prime minister in 1942 when, after an eruption of violence in India, he accused Gandhi of eschewing nonviolence.

Gandhi blamed it instead on a British decision to pre-emptively arrest the majority of Indian leaders. Five years later, in 1947, India gained its freedom but, ironically, at heavy cost to Gandhi's nonviolent beliefs.

Gandhi's associates and biographers readily affirm how in every situation he would have thrown his weight against violence.

As biographer B.R. Nanda notes, "He knew how to bring unruly mobs to order; when appeals failed he could bring them back to sanity by undertaking a fast."

Neera Kuckreja Sohoni, affiliated scholar at Stanford University's Institute for Research on Women and Gender, is a free-lance writer.

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