India: A myth and an idea
From Midnight to Millennium
By SHASHI THAROOR
A Myth and an Idea
India, “Winston Churchill once barked,” is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the Equator.” Churchill was rarely right about India, but it is true that no other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices, and the range of levels of economic development that India does.
And yet India is more than the sum of its contradictions. It is a country held together, in the words of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, “by strong but invisible threads…. About her there is the elusive quality of a legend of long ago; some enchantment seems to have held her mind. She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.”
How can one approach this land of snow peaks and tropical jungles, with seventeen major languages and twenty-two thousand distinct dialects (including some spoken by more people than speak Danish or Norwegian), inhabited in the last decade of the twentieth century by nearly 940 million individuals of every ethnic extraction known to humanity? How does one come to terms with a country whose population is 51 percent illiterate, but which has educated the world’s second largest pool of trained scientists and engineers, whose teeming cities overflow while four out of five Indians scratch a living from the soil? What is the clue to understanding a country rife with despair and disrepair, which nonetheless moved a Mughal emperor to declaim, “If on earth there be paradise of bliss, it is this, it is this, it is this …?” How does one gauge a culture that elevated nonviolence to an effective moral principle, but whose freedom was born in blood and whose independence still soaks in it? How does one explain a land where peasant organizations and suspicious officials attempt to close down Kentucky Fried Chicken as a threat to the nation, where a former prime minister bitterly criticizes the sale of Pepsi-Cola “in a country where villagers don’t have clean drinking water,” and which yet invents a greater quantity of sophisticated software for U.S. computer manufacturers than any other country in the world? How can one portray the present, let alone the future, of an ageless civilization that was the birthplace of four major religions, a dozen different traditions of classical dance, eighty-five political parties, and three hundred ways of cooking the potato?
The short answer is that it can’t be done–at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. Any truism about India can be immediately contradicted by another truism about India. The country’s national motto, emblazoned on its governmental crest, is Satyameva Jayate: “Truth Always Triumphs.” The question remains, however: Whose truth? It is a question to which there are at least 940-plus million answers–if the last census hasn’t undercounted us again.
But that sort of answer is no answer at all, and so another answer to those questions has to be sought. And this may lie in a single insight: the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural. There are, in the hackneyed phrase, many Indias. Everything exists in countless variants. There is no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no “one way.” This pluralism is acknowledged in the way India arranges its own affairs: all groups, faiths, tastes, and ideologies survive and contend for their place in the sun. At a time when most developing countries opted for authoritarian models of government to promote nation-building and to direct development, India chose to be a multiparty democracy. And despite many stresses and strains, including twenty-two months of autocratic rule during a “state of emergency” declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, a multiparty democracy–freewheeling, rambunctious, corrupt, and inefficient, perhaps, but nonetheless flourishing–India has remained.
One result is that India strikes many as maddening, chaotic, inefficient, and seemingly unpurposeful as it muddles through into the twenty-first century. Another, though, is that India is not just a country but an adventure, one in which all avenues are open and everything is possible. “All the convergent influences of the world,” wrote E. P. Thompson, “run through this society: Hindu, Moslem, Christian, secular; Stalinist, liberal, Maoist, democratic socialist, Gandhian. There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind.”
That Indian mind has been shaped by remarkably diverse forces: ancient Hindu tradition, myth, and scripture; the impact of Islam and Christianity; and two centuries of British colonial rule. The result is unique, not just because of the variety of contemporary influences available in India, but because of the diversity of its heritage.
Many observers have been astonished by India’s survival as a pluralist state. But India could hardly have survived as anything else. Pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India’s geography and reaffirmed by its history.
One of the few generalizations that can safely be made about India is that nothing can be taken for granted about the country–not even its name, for the word India comes from the river Indus, which flows in Pakistan. That anomaly is easily explained, for what is today Pakistan was part of India until the country was partitioned by the departing British in 1947. (Yet each explanation breeds another anomaly. Pakistan was created as a homeland for India’s Muslims, but throughout the 1970s and 1980s there were more Muslims in India than in Pakistan.)
So the Indus is no longer the starting point for a description of India’s geography, which underpins the national principle of variety. Instead one might start with the dimensions of the country. India is huge; it is the world’s seventh largest country, covering an area of 1,269,419 square miles (3,287,782 square kilometers). It is also the second most populous nation on earth, with an estimated 1996 population of over 940 million against China’s estimated 1 billion, but with its population–which grows annually by 13 million, equivalent to a new Australia every year–projected to overtake China’s within three decades. Another indication of the immensity of India is the length of its coastline (3,533 miles, or 5,653 kilometers) and its land frontiers with its neighbors (9,425 miles, or 15,168 kilometers).
One figure is particularly revealing. India extends 2,009 miles (3,214 kilometers) from its mountainous northern border with China, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, to the southernmost tip of the mainland, the rocky beach of Kanniyakumari (formerly Cape Comorin). Indeed, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, also Indian territory, are hundreds of nautical miles farther to the southeast, in the Bay of Bengal, which flows into the Indian Ocean. India thus stretches from 38 degrees north latitude, well above the Tropic of Cancer and on a line with Atlantic City or Denver, Colorado, to 7 degrees above the equator, the same as Freetown, Sierra Leone, or Addis Ababa. Few countries on earth extend over so many latitudes.
Looked at longitudinally, the distances are only slightly less imposing. From west to east, India’s western frontier with Pakistan, in the marshes of the Rann of Kutch, is 1,840 miles (2,944 kilometers) away from the thickly wooded hills of northeastern Assam, on the country’s border with Myanmar (Burma). In between, the country of Bangladesh is embraced as an enclave between the Indian state of West Bengal (from which it was partitioned in 1947 as East Pakistan) and the northeastern states. of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura.
The country’s four extremes represent four dramatically different types of ecological systems, but there are still others within the subcontinent they enclose. These range from the Thar Desert of Rajasthan in the northwest, covering about 8 percent of India’s land surface, to the lush alluvial plain of the Ganga River basin; and India also has the largest area in the world covered by snow and ice, outside the polar regions.
While the Himalaya mountains allowed a distinctive civilization to flourish in their shadows, they are remarkably penetrable. A number of passes, some more difficult than others, have allowed curious scholars, intrepid traders, and ambitious invaders to bring their own influences into India. If the phrase “ethnic melting pot” had been coined two thousand years ago, India would have had a fair claim to the title. The “indigenous people,” around 1500 B.C., were probably dark-skinned Dravidians, with aboriginals of Negroid stock in many forests. Then came the great wave of Aryan migration from the Central Asian steppes. The Aryans were pale-skinned and light-eyed nomads whose search for a new homeland branched into three waves, one stopping in Persia, one sweep continuing on to Europe as far as Germany, and the other descending into India. (This common heritage explains why the Nazis in Germany used a variation of the swastika, an Aryan religious symbol still revered by Indian Hindus.) That was not all. Over the centuries, India witnessed the mingling of Greeks, Scythians, and Parthians; Mongols, Huns, and Chinese; and an assortment of mercenary warriors from Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, and even Ethiopia. As they intermarried with each other and with the local population, the Indian melting pot produced a people with a variety of skin colors and every physiognomic feature imaginable, as a look at any Indian cricket, hockey, or soccer team will confirm.
Immigrants, invaders, and visitors, whether their intentions were warlike or peaceful, usually made for the Gangetic plain, the fertile stretch of land that gave birth to the Indo-Aryan civilization over three thousand years ago. The people of “Aryavrata,” the Hindi-speaking national heartland, serve as the stock image of the stereotypical “Indian.” But there are dramatically visible differences among those who live within this “cow belt,” as urbanized anglophones derisively call it, and further differences between it and the farmlands of what remains of the Indus’s tributaries in the northwest of India. To the east, the Ganga flows to the sea in Bengal, part of which is now the independent state of Bangladesh. Beyond Bangladesh rise the hills and valleys of India’s northeast, most of whose people are physically shorter and have Mongoloid features akin to their neighbors in Southeast Asia. The seven states of the northeast–the “seven sisters”–embrace a wide diversity of cultural strains, from the tribal traditions of the Nagas and the Mizos to the mainstream Hinduism of Manipur, home of a major school of Indian classical dance. The people range from Bengali migrants in Tripura and Assam to the Christian hill folk of Nagaland, whose official state language is English; from anglicized tea planters to aborigines with bones through their noses. Tourist brochures usually call the northeast “picturesque,” the kind of euphemism that accurately suggests both charm and underdevelopment.
But diversity does not end with the northern latitudes. The aged and weatherbeaten peninsula of the Deccan is host to an India of darker shades, hotter food, more rapid speech, and rounded scripts; there is Dravidian pride and a rich overlay of Sanskritic high culture. On both sides of the inverted southern triangle, coastal Indians have for millennia looked beyond their shores for trade and cultural contact with other lands. In the west, traces have been found of contact across the Arabian Sea with Iraq, Yemen, and East Africa going back three thousand years. Jews persecuted in the Babylonian conquest of Judea in the sixth century B.C. and Zoroastrians fleeing Islamic rule in Persia in the eighth century A.D. found refuge and established flourishing communities. Travelers ranged from Saint Thomas the Apostle in the first century A.D., who brought Christianity to the lush southwestern state of Kerala, to the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama in 1492, who took away calico (so named for the port of Calicut, where he landed) and spices. The enclave of Goa on the west coast was ruled by Portugal till 1961, and that of Pondicherry in the southeast by France; they still bear a different cultural character from the surrounding states.
Though the Aryans and later the northern rulers never penetrated so far into the south, South Indians cannot be easily stereotyped. Kerala hosts the oldest Jewish community in the world outside of the Middle East, and a Christian community going back to the first decades after Christ (and therefore having a faith and rituals much older than those of the European missionaries who arrived centuries later). In the southeast the travel was all in the other direction, with traders and colonists a thousand years ago venturing to Sri Lanka and as far afield as Indonesia, but receiving virtually no visitors themselves from across the seas.
What makes so many people one people? One answer is the physical realities of the subcontinent–mountains to the north and northwest, water surrounding the rest–which have carved out a distinct geographical space for Indians to inhabit. Through the millennia, the peoples of India have moved freely within this space, the political and territorial boundaries within them ever shifting and always fungible; but they have rarely, if ever, ventured beyond these natural confines without being conscious of entering alien lands. A second, equally revealing, answer may be found in the attitude of generations of foreigners, from Alexander the Great to the first of the Great Mughals, Babur, who consistently saw the peoples of the land beyond the Indus–“Hindustan”–as one. Divided, variegated, richly differentiated, but one.
The history of each of the many peoples of India overlaps with each of the others, but only marginally with those outside the geopolitical space of the subcontinent. Their travails and triumphs, their battles and their blessings, their dreams and defeats, have all been shared with other Indians. History has bound them together as indissolubly as geography.
With diversity emerging from its geography and inscribed in its history, India was made for pluralism. It is not surprising, then, that the political life of modern India has been rather like traditional Indian music: the broad basic rules are firmly set, but within them one is free to improvise, unshackled by a written score.
* * *
The India that achieved its freedom at midnight on August 14-15, 1947, was the product of several thousand years of history and civilization and, more immediately, of just under two hundred years of British colonial rule. Learned British econometricians have tried to establish that the net result of this experience was neutral–that the British put about as much into India as they took out. The negative side of the ledger is easily listed: economic exploitation (often undisguised looting of everything from raw materials to jewels); stunting of indigenous industry (symbolized by the deliberate barbarity with which, on at least two occasions, the British ordered the thumbs of whole communities of Indian weavers chopped off so that they could not compete with the products of Lancashire); the creation of a landless peasantry (through land settlement acts that vested land ownership in a complaisant squire-archy of zamindars created by the British to maintain rural order); and general poverty, hunger, and underdevelopment. The pros to these cons are less obvious. It is true that the British brought in the railways, the post and telegraphs, a national administrative system with a well-planned capital city, libraries, museums, and the English language; but all were instruments of British imperialism, intended in the first place to facilitate and perpetuate British rule, and only secondarily to benefit those among whom these were introduced. It is also true that British rule gave India a political unity it had not enjoyed for centuries; but the British also sowed a variety of political disunity India had never experienced before in its long and tumultuous history, a disunity rooted in sectarianism.
Never throughout all the centuries of rule by Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim kings had any section of the Indian people sought a different political order on the grounds of religion alone; even the most intolerant of Muslim kings, those who razed temples and exacted the jaziya tax on unbelievers, had had Hindu generals and ministers to serve them, including in wars against Muslim rivals. (And the Maratha king Shivaji, idolized by the eponymous but Muslim-hating Shiv Sena party, had Muslim officers in his army, too.) But the idea of dividing Indians by the manner in which they held out their hands to God was born in the wake of the unsuccessful, but multireligious, “mutiny” of 1857, when Hindus and Muslims rose together in revolt against the foreigner. The sight (and the dismaying prospect) of Indians of varying faiths and regions united in a shared struggle against alien rule struck more terror into the hearts of the British than their actual revolt, which was put down by the force of superior arms. Colonial administrators, needing to defend the imperial project, came up with the old Roman maxim divide et impera–“divide and rule.” What the British euphemistically dubbed “communal feeling” was actively stoked; it became a tenet of colonial policy to encourage particularist consciousness among Indians, both religious (so that they would be Muslims or Sikhs first and Indians second, if at all) and regional (so that they would be Bengalis or Dogras rather than Indians). If the structures of British rule tended toward the creation of a united India for the convenience of the rulers, its animating spirit was aimed at fostering division to achieve the same ends. This seeming paradox (but in fact entirely logical construct) of imperial policy culminated in the tragic Partition of India upon independence–so that August 15, 1947, was a birth that was also an abortion.
But despite the mourning in many nationalist hearts at the amputation that came with freedom, despite the refusal of Mahatma Gandhi to celebrate an independence he saw primarily as a betrayal, despite the flames of communal hatred and rioting that lit the midnight sky as the new country was born, there was reason for pride, and hope. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, put it in words that still stir the soul:
Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.
It was typical of Nehru that, at this moment of unprecedented triumph and tragedy for the Indian nation, he should still spare a thought for the “larger cause of humanity.” But this was not merely the soaring worldview of an overeducated visionary; India had always seemed, to the more thoughtful of its leaders, a crucible of human striving, one that offered, in its mistakes and failings as much as in its successes, lessons for all mankind.
* * *
The most striking feature of the first years of Indian independence was an absence. It was the absence of the man whom we all called (though he rejected the phrase) the Father of the Nation, the Mahatma (Great Soul–another term he detested) Gandhi, assassinated by a Hindu fanatic on January 30, 1948. Indian democracy was just five months old, and Gandhi died, with the name of God on his lips, in the capital of the new state he had done more than anyone else on earth to establish. The Mahatma was killed by a young man who thought Gandhi was too pro-Muslim; indeed, he had just come out of a fast he had conducted to coerce his own followers, the ministers of the new Indian Government of India, to transfer a larger share than they had intended of the assets of undivided India to the new state of Pakistan. Gandhi had also announced his intention to spurn the country he had failed to keep united and to spend the rest of his years in Pakistan, a prospect that had made the government of Pakistan collectively choke. But that was Gandhi: idealistic, quirky, quixotic, and determined, a man who answered to the beat of no other drummer, but got everyone else to march to his tune. Someone once called him a cross between a saint and a Tammany Hall politician; like the best crossbreeds, he managed to distill all the qualities of both and yet transcend their contradictions.
In 1983 the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded a rare slew of eight Oscars to Sir Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi. Disgruntled supporters of the competition, which included Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, sourly remarked that the Academy was supposed to be rewarding cinematic excellence, not handing out the Nobel Peace Prize. But Gandhi, of course, had never won the Nobel Peace Prize (a distinction the Swedish Academy has since conferred on a series of self-proclaimed Gandhians, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Adolfo Perez Esquivel). His prize had been something less tangible. Publicity posters for the film proclaimed that “Gandhi’s triumph changed the world forever.” I saw the posters, enjoyed the film (despite its many historical inaccuracies), and rooted for it when the Oscars were handed out. But I never stopped wondering whether Gandhi had in fact triumphed at all.
Much of the international debate sparked by the film, of course, focused on the man rather than his message. There was the inevitable controversy over the portrayal of the Mahatma and the omission of facts and personalities who might have detracted from the celluloid hagiography. Yet amid both acclaim and accusation, few took Sir Richard Attenborough up on his frequent assertion of the film’s contemporary relevance. Gandhi’s life was, of course, his lesson. He was unique among the statesmen of the twentieth century in his determination not just to live his beliefs but to reject any separation between beliefs and action; in his life, religion flowed into politics; his public life meshed seamlessly with his private conduct. The claim emblazoned on those publicity posters for the film suggested that the lessons of his life had been learned and widely followed. But even for the man who swept aside the British Raj, Paul Newman, and Tootsie in his triumphal progress toward a shelf full of golden statuary, this was a difficult claim to sustain.
Mahatma Gandhi was the kind of person it is more convenient to forget. The principles he stood for and the way in which he asserted them are easier to admire than to follow. While he was alive he was impossible to ignore. Once he had gone he was impossible to imitate.
The screen depicted Gandhi as the extraordinary leader of the world’s first successful nonviolent movement for independence from colonial rule. At the same time he was a philosopher who was constantly seeking to live out his own ideas, whether they applied to individual self-improvement or social change: his autobiography was typically subtitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth. No dictionary imbues truth with the depth of meaning Gandhi gave it. His truth emerged from his convictions: it meant not only what was accurate, but what was just and therefore right. Truth could not be obtained by “untruthful” or unjust means, which included inflicting violence upon one’s opponent.
To describe his method, Gandhi coined the expression satyagraha–literally, “holding on to truth” or, as he variously described it, truth-force, love-force, or soul-force. He disliked the English term “passive resistance,” because satyagraha required activism, not passivity. If you believed in Truth and cared enough to obtain it, Gandhi felt, you could not afford to be passive: you had to be prepared actively to suffer for Truth.
So nonviolence, like many later concepts labeled with a negation, from noncooperation to nonalignment, meant much more than the denial of an opposite; it did not merely imply the absence of violence. Nonviolence was the way to vindicate the truth by the infliction of suffering not on the opponent, but on oneself. It was essential to accept punishment willingly in order to demonstrate the strength of one’s convictions.
This was the approach Gandhi brought to the movement for our independence–and it worked. Where sporadic terrorism and moderate constitutionalism had both proved ineffective, Gandhi took the issue of freedom to the masses as one of simple right and wrong, and gave them a technique to which the British had no response. By abstaining from violence, Gandhi wrested the moral advantage. By breaking the law nonviolently, he showed up the injustice of the law. By accepting the punishments imposed on him, he confronted his captors with their own brutalization. By voluntarily imposing suffering upon himself in his hunger strikes, he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defense of what he considered to be right. In the end he made the perpetuation of British rule an impossibility.
Of course, there was much more to Gandhism–physical self-denial and discipline, spiritual faith, a belief in humanity and in the human capacity for selfless love, the self-reliance symbolized by the spinning wheel, religious ecumenism, idealistic internationalism, and a passionate commitment to human equality and social justice (especially in our caste-ridden country). The improvement of his fellow human beings was arguably more important to him than the political goal of ridding India of the British. But it is his central tenet of nonviolence in the pursuit of these ends that represents his most significant original contribution to the world.
The case for the film’s international relevance was typified by the declaration of Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr., the most famous of the many who claimed to have been inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, that the film “will rekindle worldwide interest in nonviolence…. Gandhi’s challenge to the world is once again before the public forum and it is up to all of us to translate it into action.” One did not have to wait a decade to point to the utter futility of both the prediction and the hope that underlay it. But Mrs. King’s comment was particularly interesting because it was her husband, more than anyone else, who had used nonviolence most effectively outside India, in breaking down segregation in the southern United States. King himself had declared that “the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance … became the guiding light of our movement. Christ furnished the spirit and motivation and Gandhi furnished the method.”
So Gandhism arguably helped to change the Deep South forever. But it is difficult to find many other instances of its success. India’s independence marked the dawn of the era of decolonization, but many nations still came to freedom only after bloody and violent struggles. Other peoples have fallen under the boots of invading armies, been dispossessed of their lands, or been forced to flee in terror from their homes. Nonviolence has offered no solutions to them. It could work only against opponents vulnerable to a loss of moral authority–governments responsive to domestic and international public opinion, capable of being shamed into conceding defeat. In Gandhi’s own day, nonviolence could have done nothing for the Jews of Hitler’s Germany, who disappeared unprotestingly into gas chambers far from the flashbulbs of a conscience-stricken press.
The power of nonviolence rests in being able to say, “To show you that you are wrong, I punish myself.” But that has little effect on those who are not interested in whether they are wrong and are already seeking to punish you whether you disagree with them or not. For them, your willingness to undergo punishment is the most convenient means of victory.
On this subject Gandhi sounds frighteningly unrealistic: “The willing sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God or man. Disobedience to be ‘civil’ must be sincere, respectful, restrained, never defiant, and it must have no ill will or hatred behind it. Neither should there be excitement in civil disobedience, which is a preparation for mute suffering.”
For many smarting under injustice across the world, that would sound like a prescription for sainthood–or for impotence. Mute suffering is all very well as a moral principle, but it has rarely brought about meaningful change. The sad truth is that the staying power of organized violence is almost always greater than that of nonviolence. And when right and wrong are less clear-cut, Gandhism flounders. The Mahatma, at the peak of his influence, was unable to prevent partition, even though, in his terms, he considered it “wrong.” Gandhi believed in “weaning an opponent from error by patience, sympathy and self-suffering”–but if the opponent believes equally in the justice of his cause, he is hardly going to accept that he is in “error.” Gandhism is viable at its simplest and most profound in the service of a transcendent principle like independence from foreign rule. But in more complex situations it cannot–and, more to the point, does not–work as well.
Gandhi’s ideals had a tremendous intellectual impact on the founding fathers of the new India, who incorporated many of his convictions into the directive principles of state policy. Yet Gandhian solutions have not been found for many of the ills over which he agonized, from persistent interreligious conflict to the ill treatment of Untouchables (whom he renamed Harijans, or “Children of God,” a designation its beneficiaries found patronizing, for were we not all Children of God? Today they prefer to be known as Dalits, meaning “the Oppressed.”) Instead, his methods (particularly the fast, the hartal, and the deliberate courting of arrest) have been abused and debased by far lesser men in the pursuit of petty sectarian ends. Outside India, too, Gandhian techniques have been perverted by such people as terrorists and bomb-throwers declaring hunger strikes when punished for their crimes. Gandhism without moral authority is like Marxism without a proletariat. Yet few who wish to use his methods have his personal integrity or moral stature.
Internationally, Gandhi expressed ideals few can reject: he could virtually have written the United Nations Charter. But the decades after his death have confirmed that there is no escape from the conflicting sovereignties of states. Some 20 million more lives have been lost in wars and insurrections since his passing. In a dismaying number of countries, governments spend more for military purposes than for education and health care combined. The current stockpile of nuclear weapons represents over a million times the explosive power of the atom bomb whose destruction of Hiroshima so grieved him. Universal peace, which Gandhi considered so central to Truth, seems as illusionary as ever.
As governments compete, so religions contend. The ecumenist Gandhi, who declared, “I am a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Zoroastrian, a Jew,” might find it difficult to stomach the exclusivist revivalism of so many religions and cults the world over. But perhaps his approach has always been inappropriate for the rest of the world. As one of his Muslim critics retorted, to his claim of eclectic belief, “Only a Hindu could say that.”
And finally, the world of the spinning wheel, of self-reliant families in contented village republics, is even more remote today than when Gandhi first espoused it. Despite the brief popularity of intermediate technology and the credo “small is beautiful,” there does not appear to be much room for such ideas in an interdependent world. Self-reliance is too often a cover for protectionism and a shelter for inefficiency in the Third World. The successful and prosperous countries are those who are able to look beyond spinning chakras to silicon chips–and who give their people the benefits of technological developments that free them from menial and repetitive chores and broaden the horizons of their lives.
But if Gandhism has had its limitations exposed in the years after 1947, there is no denying Gandhi’s greatness. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence, and war, Gandhi taught the virtues of truth, nonviolence, and peace. He destroyed the credibility of colonialism by opposing principle to force. And he set and attained personal standards of conviction and courage that few will ever match. He was that rare kind of leader who was not confined by the inadequacies of his followers.
Yet Gandhi’s Truth was essentially his own. He formulated its unique content and determined its application in a specific historical context. Inevitably, few in today’s world can measure up to his greatness or aspire to his credo. No, Gandhi’s “triumph” did not change the world forever. It is, sadly, a matter of doubt whether he triumphed at all.
The India of the first fifty years after independence was therefore a post-Gandhian India. It paid lip service to much of its Gandhian patrimony while striking out in directions of which Gandhi could not have approved. But its central challenges remained the ones Gandhi identified: those of overcoming disunity and discrimination, of ensuring the health and well-being of the downtrodden, of developing the capacity to meet the nation’s basic needs, of promoting among Indians the integrity and commitment he labeled “Truth.” These challenges, modified by the ways in which India has attempted to rise to them in the last fifty years, remain. They will continue to set the defining agenda of the next fifty years.
(C) 1997 Shashi Tharoor All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-55970-384-9