Tuesday, October 2, 2012

India # 13: Happy 144th Birthday, Mahatma Gandhi

Happy 144th Birthday, Mahatma Gandhi

October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, is a national holiday in India, honoring the man who pulled off the country's independence from Britain in l947.  We know Martin Luther King modeled his non-violent resistance to racism on Gandhi’s boycott’s, marches and civil disobedience.  Westerners have a sense of the man from Ben Kingsley’s remarkable portrayal in Robert Attenborough’s l982 film, “Gandhi.”  But 64 years after his assassination many people like myself need to be reminded of ithe maginative, integral and inspired life he led.

The author of a slim book called “Gandhi’s Outstanding Leadership,” Pascal Alan Nazareth, is speaking about Gandhi at the United Nations today and his cousin, a new friend, gave me a copy here in Bangalore, where I sit down and read it immediately.   

I will skip the too-numerous political events and honor him for his campaign to end the caste system that treated untouchables as not human; his movement to end the subjugation of women, the immolation of widows and child marriage; and his drive to end the feudalism which saw a privileged few rule one-fifth of humanity.

Gandhi was a master in the use of symbols such as taking back the peasants right to harvest salt from the sea, thereby breaking a British monopoly;  the spinning wheel which symbolized a drive to revive honest village life; and adoption of the common dress of the poor, which he wore for 40 years.  After calling on the King of Britain he was asked how he could appear wearing so little.  “His majesty was dressed enough for both of us!” he said.  He was magnanimous to all who hated and opposed him.  

On nationalism he wrote, “My nationalism includes the love of all nations of the earth irrespective of creed….Indian nationalism has struck a different path to find full self expression for the benefit and service of humanity at large.”  A devout Hindu, he often said he was “as  much a Moslem, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Parsee as he was a Hindu,” and added “The hands that serve are holier than the lips that pray.”

Gandhi opposed Partition which split Hindu from Muslim, resulted in millions of death and a destruction of the social fabric of what are now three nations that are still suffering from the way Britain withdrew.  To end early Hindu vs. Muslim bloodshed, Gandhi fasted, offering to die if the fighting did not end.  His assassination came first.  

India still suffers from the same oppressions, corruptions and inequities Gandhi opposed but would surely be worse had he not fought as he did.  Caste has become highly political with jobs and legislative seats reserved for untouchables.  The greatest outrages against women have faded but Indian women under-perform by world standards.  As for religious strife, Gandhi would have reasons to be fasting again today.  But if there is one figure who can still call India to its higher purpose, it must remain Gandhi. 

If not, the non-violent liberation of countries as different as South Africa and Czechoslovakia are a fitting memorial to him.  Violence in all its forms has declined dramatically throughout the world according to “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” by Steven Pinker.  And just yesterday we learned that Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to be the next president of Myanmar after years under house arrest.  Suu Kyi’s attitude toward her enemies, the Myanmar military, echoes that of Gandhi toward the British; her consistent non-violence follows his example.  The world continues to be transformed by Gandhi.

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