How liberals lost Gandhi?

By Barun S. Mitra

Was Gandhi a liberal? For the past couple of years, I have been making the case that among the major political leaders in the world, Gandhi was perhaps the last classical liberal or the first libertarian[1]. Here, I use the word liberal in one of its earlier meanings to depict the political ideal that calls for greater civil, political and economic freedoms for the individual, and less government control or minimum government.

In the process of this exploration of the man, his methods and his mission, Gandhi made me review the state of liberalism in the world today. More pertinently, he made me ask what many of us who claim to be liberals today may need to realize before they could count someone like Gandhi as their own. This essay is a journey to find some answers to these questions.

My interest in Gandhi was reignited more than five years ago, not so much because of his political philosophy, but because of his capacity to reach out, organize and mobilize millions of people. In the context of the shrinking political space for liberals across the world over the past few decades, Gandhi, the greatest mobilizer of people holds a natural appeal.

Before Gandhi arrived on the Indian political scene in the later half of the second decade in the 20th century, the Indian National Congress was primarily an association of enlightened citizens petitioning the colonial British government for various political and economic reforms. Gandhi transformed Congress into a mass movement of a kind the world had not seen before—or since. He engaged with capitalists and peasants, industrialists and workers, the rich and the poor, the socially privileged and the discriminated, the elite and those at the margins of society, and helped build a national movement that shook the political and moral foundations of colonial rule. Gandhi attracted the highly talented; equally, he inspired many ordinary people to rise and claim their place under the sun.

Non-violent Revolution

Gandhi, the non-violent revolutionary enabled the participation of the marginalized, and women in the political struggle against colonial rule, reaching out to more people than any of his contemporaries.

Seven decades after his assassination, Gandhi’s legacy continues to resonate today with vigorous claims, counter-claims, and contests over his impact on India and the world. While it may seem that his political principles have not found much favour among the dominant ideologies of today, the Gandhian methods of non-violent mass mobilization and actions such as boycotts, pickets, strikes, hunger strikes, etc., for political goals continue to fascinate the world and have an appeal across the political spectrum.

An empirical analysis of efficacy of civil resistance in the 20th century from across the world shows that non-violent methods have been twice as successful in changing authoritarian regimes as violent revolutions (Chenoweth and Stephan 2008). Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s study questions some of the common perceptions that non-violent struggles succeed only in a liberal democratic polity or that political struggles ultimately necessitate coercion and violence in some form, implicit or explicit, when all other forms of actions and protests for reforms fail.

Understanding the centrality of non-violence holds the key to appreciating the scope of Gandhi’s political activities. Violence primarily affects people, and can seek to replace those in power, while leaving the institutions of injustice and oppression in place. The focus on people rather than on the nature of the institutions, inevitably raises the personal stake, entrenches the divisions, thus intensifying the conflict. This approach of escalating conflict, on the one hand institutionalizes violence, and on the other normalizes violence in society.

Gandhi, therefore, sought non-violence, not just as a moral force, but looked at its strategic and tactical possibilities as well.

This enabled him to integrate principles and practices of politics in a very creative yet effective way. It helped to keep the focus on reforming the nature of politics, while looking at those holding power as legitimate political opponents, but not as enemies, thus nurturing an environment of possible cooperation with the political opponents.

Satyagraha or Civil Resistance

Gandhi’s first experiment in Satyagraha[2] was in South Africa in 1908, on behalf of the migrant and indentured labourers from India against racially discriminatory laws against Asians. Although, greatly influenced by Henry David Thoreau’s (1849) more passive and personal “Civil Disobedience”, Gandhi turned it into active civil resistance.

Involving more people in political action, however, required better control over the nature of the protests, and the passions of the protesters. The distinctive aspect of Gandhian Satyagraha was the central role of the individuals engaged in political action to suffer and sacrifice, moving towards self-mastery and self-discipline. This was intended to help the volunteers turn the focus inwards, to the moral values underlying the political protests, rather than just the object of the protest. The staging of the non-violent protests with discipline and dignity rendered the instances of civil resistance into a more persuasive form of direct action, than either physical violence or other kinds of overt coercion and intimidation involved in traditional forms of mass action (Mantena 2017).

Reforming the self was a key component of social and political reforms, because Gandhi saw society as a sum total of the individuals. This was important since Gandhi sought to engage the people into political movement, rather than organize movements using the masses as mere numbers or props.

Gandhi’s approach to political protests evolved as he experimented with ways of initiating narrower localized issues focused on relatively smaller clearly identified groups of people, like in South Africa and Champaran, to a much larger canvas seeking to engage almost every section of society. However, irrespective of the scale and scope of political action, Gandhi always sought to highlight the justness of the cause, and convert political opponents for the cause of justice.

Gandhi valued political reconciliation to ensure justice and peace in society and, consequently, he was always willing to negotiate once the principle at stake was recognized. He would settle for incremental progress if that helped in placating former critics in the process of reforms.

Satyagraha had its share of critics. There had always been apprehensions about civil disobedience that took the modes of protests beyond the institutional and constitutional frameworks. At the dawn of independence, B.R. Ambedkar[3] and others had argued that while civil resistance had a role under colonial rule, it ought not to find any place in independent India.

Other critics look at the public defiance of the law as a recipe for anarchism and breakdown of social and political order. Some point to potential for criminalization by surreptitiously avoiding or breaking the law for personal gain under the cover of civil resistance.

Gandhi was aware of these criticisms. His strenuous rules of Satyagraha were evidence not of disregard for laws but of upholding laws that are ethical and effective. Thus through the rules of Satyagraha, he sought to uphold the institutions of laws that were just. This differentiates Satyagraha from an anarchic disregard of laws or wilful avoidance of laws by criminals. Satyagraha was therefore the means to Swaraj, or self-rule, which was the ultimate goal.

An ideal satyagrahi, Gandhi (1959) wrote in his autobiography, is one who “obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will, because he considers it to be his sacred duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge which particular laws are good or just and which unjust or iniquitous. Only then does he accrue the right to civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances.”

Mechanics of Mass Movements

As Gandhi ventured into his first major national campaign in 1920, he claimed not to be a visionary, but a ‘practical idealist’. He wrote, “The religion of non-violence is not meant merely for the rishis and saints. It is meant for the common people as well. Non-violence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might.”[4]

Gandhi drew from the daily experiences of people where the overwhelming majority interacted with each other peacefully, in the belief that their interactions are just and proper. Conflicts are an exception, rather than the norm.

The continuous stress on non-violence helped create a conducive environment that encouraged and enabled participation from a wide section of society who earlier would have been daunted by the thought of participation in political processes to confront the power of the state.

The exemplary behavior by the core volunteers, trained for Satyagraha, added a moral halo, helping to diminish the fear of political power. The satyagrahis inspired many more and provided a guide map for the path people could follow. With the decline in fear bolstered by righteousness of the cause, more and more common people came out to claim ownership of the movements locally, and the campaigns went ‘viral’.

Increasing participation in the campaigns provided opportunities to deepen engagement with the specifics of the particular issues, and enhanced awareness of the fundamental principles at stake. The combination of participation, practices, and principles rapidly built a sense of citizenship along with the attendant rights and responsibilities. No formal education process could have hastened or deepened such claims of citizenship to such large numbers as these mass campaigns did.

Gandhi was very aware of the hazards of passions released once a large number of people began to participate in the political campaign. His organizational genius lay in designing constructive programs to channel those passions. His stress on rules such as celibacy, hygiene and food habits, honesty and civility, and spinning the charkha[5], or spinning wheel, were to impart self-restraint. Such practices helped breed a sense of discipline, deepened awareness and commitment, producing a sense of dignity and confidence to take on the might of political power.

Gandhi laid out a strenuous set of rules of engagement for satyagrahis participating in various movements. Hartal, typically a day of stoppage or strike, was a common instrument deployed locally and nationally since the Non-Cooperation Movement in the early 1920s. The day of stoppage was announced well in advance to allow the people to prepare for possible inconveniences, even while the volunteers campaigned among the public to drum up support for the cause. But on the day of action volunteers were asked not to forcefully stop anyone from going about their work, or from keeping their establishments open.

Political actions are always pregnant with the possibility of violence. Such restraints on the part of the organizers of the protests significantly helped reduce tension on the actual day of action, thus lowering the potential for provocation and violence.

While the idea of non-violent protest movements have spread far and wide, the gulf seems to have widened between the way Gandhi sought to leverage civil resistance and many of the later generation leaders of non-violent movements[6].

Gandhi saw civil resistance as a way to accept suffering and sacrifice in order to make the other side realize the justness of the cause, and potentially ‘converting’ to the side of justice.

Many of the contemporary movements on the other hand attempt to force the hands of the authorities to concede the demands by stressing the force of numbers on the streets. Most of Gandhi’s opponents trusted him, even while disagreeing with him. In today’s politics, trust will find hardly any place.

Politics of Gandhi

Gandhi was a deeply spiritual person, yet he rarely visited any temple nor worshipped any deity. He followed no rituals, and his prayer meetings were always interfaith stressing on the common bonds of truth and love. Gandhi saw God as Truth, but preferred Truth as God, since that allowed him to reach out not just to believers, but also to the non-believers, because “not even atheists had demurred to the necessity or power of truth.”[7]

Among the nationalist leaders, across the world, Gandhi was perhaps unique in that he never relied on history to underscore his various social and political battles in terms of any historical narrative.

On a few occasions, he pointed to Emperor Ashoka[8] as someone who had adopted non-violence after realizing the futility of imperial expansion through violence. Nevertheless, Gandhi stressed that his case for non-violence “does not become weak even if it is shown that Ashoka’s State was not based on non-violence. It has to be examined on its merits.”[9]

Gandhi saw politics as a way to manage and mitigate such differences; not by hammering the differences away by claiming any absolute truth, but by finding ways of reconciling the differences through tolerance, enabling all the different shades to seek their truth, without trampling on anyone else.

Today, politics is primarily about accentuating the differences— real or imaginary—and polarizing opinion. It has become merely a tool to capture the levers of the state and use that power to patronize some sections of society—at the cost of others. Polarization of political opinion has become the new normal and consequently a sense of intolerance and dissent has seeped into almost every section of society.

Democracy, rather than providing a platform for debating and managing political differences, has been twisted into an arena where claims of the ‘majority’ are used to steamroll over minority, dissenting opinions.

Gandhi was fully aware of the abuse of state power, under democratic as well as authoritarian regimes. He stated that “while apparently doing good by minimizing exploitation, [state power] does the greatest harm to mankind by destroying individuality, which lies at the root of all progress.”[10]

These were not mere preachings; Gandhi found ways of practicing his principles. Following the age-old debate over the protection of cows illustrates how far society has deviated from his ideals.

Gandhi strongly believed in protecting the cow both on economic and ethical grounds. “Cow protection to me is not merely the protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world.”[11]

Yet, he added, “I would not kill a human being for protection of a cow.”[12] Nor would he advise legislation to prevent cow slaughter, “legislative prohibition is the smallest part of any program of cow protection. …People seem to think that, when a law is passed against any evil, it will die without any further effort. There never was a grosser self-deception.”[13]

This approach of always seeking to integrate both principles and policies in his politics was consistent in Gandhi’s life. Not that he was always right; he acknowledged many of his mistakes, but always sought to learn and prepare his next steps. Gandhi’s attitude towards issues of gender, caste, and race went through a sea of change from his early days in South Africa. In navigating these challenges, Gandhi had a constant guidepost—the search for truth and justice, with the aid of non-violence.

Just as Gandhi saw no contradiction in reaching out to capitalists by integrating ethics and economics, he had no problem claiming to be a socialist while rejecting their negatives like the adoption of violence.

While Gandhi admired the self-denial and spirit of sacrifice of his socialist friends, he acknowledged, “I have never concealed the sharp difference between their method and mine. They frankly believe in violence and all that is in its bosom. I believe in non-violence through and through….”[14] He notes that under socialism “there is no individual freedom. You own nothing, not even your body.”[15]

Gandhi wrote a year later, “the prince and the peasant will not be equalized by cutting off the prince’s head, nor can the process of cutting off equalize the employer and the employed. One cannot reach truth by untruthfulness.”[16]

Rejecting the socialist belief in class warfare, Gandhi looked at capital and labor as complementary. “If both labor and capital have the gift of intelligence equally developed in them and have confidence in their capacity to secure a fair deal, each at the hands of the other, they would get to respect and appreciate each other as equal partners in a common enterprise. They need not regard each other as inherently irreconcilable antagonists.”[17]

Even while agreeing to the Congress resolution in Karachi calling for nationalization of some industries, Gandhi (1959) had noted that he didn’t really visualize what it would mean. “Nor do I want all the means of production to be nationalized. Is even Rabindranath Tagore to be nationalized? These are day dreams.”[18]

Gandhi, of course, had befriended many socialists in the labor movement, and counted many capitalists amongst his friends. He sought to reconcile apparently irreconcilable differences by engaging in dialogue respecting intellectual or political differences, but still building a personal relationship of trust.

Whether in economics or politics, Gandhi was wary of centralization “I do not share the socialist belief that centralization of the necessaries of life will conduce to the common welfare, when the centralized industries are planned and owned by the State. The socialistic conception of the West was born in an environment reeking with violence.”[19]

According to Gandhi, “The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form. The individual has a soul, but as the State is a soulless machine, it can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.” He continues to explain that, “It is [his] firm conviction that if the State suppressed capitalism by violence, it will be caught in the coils of violence itself, and will fail to develop non-violence.”[20]

Gandhi called for federalism, as a way for democracy to grow its roots at the local level, as well as to prevent centralization of power. His call for Khadi[21] meant a “mentality of decentralization of the production and distribution of the necessaries of life” (Gandhi 1948). Not merely for economic sustenance, ‘charkha’ was to instil a sense of dignity in labor, which India had substantially lost with social stratification. Politically, the colonial regime had sought to leverage the divisions on caste, religion or ethnic lines. Gandhi attempted to reconcile the social divisions through his political initiatives.

Ideas of the “village republic” and the self-sufficiency of Gandhi have often been seen as anachronistic, being against modernity and machines as well as isolationist. But Gandhi, in the context of the colonial state dominant at his time, saw through the essence of economic and political interventions that favoured some at the cost of others.

In the context of the present—centralization of the power of the state and its attendant consequences, corruption, cronyism, social divisions and violence—Gandhi seems far ahead of his time!

Just a couple of months before his assassination in 1948, while the state was failing to meet its fundamental obligation of providing basic security to people in the aftermath of the communal violence that followed the decision to partition India, Gandhi (1948) noted in his diary, “Government control gives rise to fraud, suppression of Truth, intensification of the black market and artificial scarcity. Above all, it unmans the people and deprives them of initiative, it undoes the teaching of self-help.”

The various social and political campaigns that Gandhi undertook highlighted the essentials of his politics—non-violence as the means, securing justice for all as the goal, seeking reconciliation between opponents, thus opening the door for possible peace and progress.

Today, politics is a mere instrument to capture the levers of state power, ignoring the intrinsic nature of the state. The endless search for power is fracturing society across innumerable lines, as political combatants look at their opponents as mortal enemies to be vanquished. Consequently, politics has degenerated from the noble vision of Gandhi, to a bottomless pit, where citizens are sinking deeper as their own governments bear down on them unceasingly.

How Liberals Lost Gandhi

Over the past few centuries, liberals have played a key role in shaping human history. They were amongst the first to stand up against religious dogma and bigotry. They were undaunted by the temporal or religious authorities and chose to stand their ground against injustice. They cherished the renaissance and saw the birth of modern science by breaking many taboos. They oversaw many political revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. Liberal paradigms of tolerance, justice, democracy, pluralism and market economics dominated much of 20th century. With access to political power, liberals increasingly relied on the state to pursue their policies, thus losing their original anti-establishment apprehensions about the nature of the state. As the 20th century rolled on, politics had degenerated into a game of capturing the levers of the state, and liberals found themselves on the margins of society.

The above hypothesis, which is open to correction, vividly illustrates the reasons why liberals lost ground. This is evident also looking at the range of their responses to Gandhi.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his apparent religiosity, failing to distinguish his spirituality from their own conception of religion. Gandhi held Truth as God, was devoted to non-violence, and looked at politics as a vehicle for human upliftment for his path to salvation. Gandhi did not claim absolute truth, but only a quest for truth, which provided him an opportunity to claim the true spiritual values of a universal religion of man. Instead some liberals chose to surrender religion to sectarian charlatans and showmen.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his commitment to non-violence. Gandhi was not a pacifist[22], he was an aggressive civil resister, who repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the state and defied its diktat. He endorsed non-violence as a matter of moral principle based on self-suffering and self-restraint, instead of aggression towards others. It was a strategy to mitigate political conflicts and make political gains and a tactic to invite the masses into political action, who could afford to participate only in an environment of peace. Gandhi offers ways of principled political mobilization, but many liberals seem to be interested neither in principled non-violence nor in its practical application in mass mobilization.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his politics. Gandhi, the political activist, focused on regaining the principles of politics and putting them into practice. Gandhi, who was not a political scientist, acted as a true scientist, drawing up hypotheses, experimenting to test their validity, learning from mistakes, refining them, and then trying again. He sought to bring politics back to the people through the principle of non-violence. Many liberals, by the time Gandhi died, had lost political ground and preferred to closet themselves and their principles. Devoid of state power, liberals lost the means to practice their principles, leading many to conclude that liberal principles were too precious and fragile to practice.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his involvement with the masses. Politics to Gandhi was a vehicle to reach out to people, help secure justice, reconcile differences, and inspire them to claim their space as active citizens. Gandhi sought to legitimize politics by involving people. Some liberals wanted to protect their politics from the people, believing the masses to be irredeemable. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the liberals find themselves so ill-equipped to face the current challenge posed by populist politicians of every ideological shade, who specialize in politically mobilizing the masses. So many liberals seem to have concluded that their principles are too sophisticated for the common man on the street.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because he was a democrat, who refused to surrender the individual to the mob in the name of majority rule. Gandhi chose to stand his ground to uphold his ideal in the face of majoritarianism, because to him the essence of democracy was not majority rule but the protection of individual rights and freedoms. Democracies can survive only when this egalitarian aspect is preserved, without which majoritarian democracy will inevitably degenerate into mobocracy. Some liberals have failed to appreciate this essence of democracy, as a result they find themselves in the margins of majoritarian politics.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his insistence on decentralized government. Gandhi was apprehensive about his incumbent’s tendency to centralize political power. It would turn politics into an instrument for disbursing patronage and privileges to the few at the cost of many others. Gandhi was fearful that this approach to politics would turn into an arena for power games with people reduced to mere props to preserve the façade of democratic normalcy. Gandhi wanted democracy to grow at the grass roots with self-governing ‘village republics’, where people could hold their own government accountable. Some liberals continue to cherish the dreams of capturing power at the top and then changing the nature of the game for the sake of the people. But this approach has only entrenched the power game further, enabling the worst of the lot to capture the levers of the state.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his view that the means are everything and his warning “that violent means will give violent Swaraj that will be a menace to the world and to India herself.” Gandhi held that the state represents concentrated violence, and therefore must be restrained to the bare minimum, if it was not to devour its own people. Decentralizing the state was a way to limit the threat of an all-powerful centralized government. “Real swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of the capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused,”[23] said Gandhi in 1925. Some liberals continue to believe that the power of the state can be leveraged to do some good.

Some liberals lost Gandhi because of his stress on ethics in economics, and decentralized modes of production. Gandhi stressed on the spinning wheel as a mode of imparting self-discipline and a sense of dignity of labor. He looked at ways of igniting the entrepreneurial spirit of the people at the grass roots by getting the state to withdraw from economic interventions that skewed the market for the benefit of the few. In today’s terminology, Gandhi called for the withdrawal of the state to allow businesses to operate successfully. Some liberals continue to call on the state to improve the ease of doing business oblivious to the fact that state interventions created the chaos in the first place. The state may have no interest in improving the situation, except in some cosmetic sense or by gaming the system for the advantage of the elite. After all, those in power profit from their position and use state power to grant favours.

Liberals may have lost Gandhi along the way as they lost their own intellectual moorings, but Gandhi still provides a way for the liberals to rediscover their own roots and reclaim the lost political ground.

Conclusion: Reclaim Gandhi, Forget the Mahatma[24]

On his 70th anniversary in 1939, Gandhi had hoped, “Let these lines serve as a warning to those who want to honour me by erecting statues and having portraits of my figure, that I heartily dislike these exhibitions. I shall deem it ample honour if those who believe in me will be good enough to promote the activities I stand for.”[25]

Today, by deifying or demonizing Gandhi, the real Gandhi is being lost. The loss is ours, not his, for he showed the true potential of a man, who learned from his follies, turned weaknesses into opportunities, and scaled heights that may seem beyond reach today.

Einstein (2015) famously wrote in 1939: “Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Mohandas K. Gandhi was real, it is us who may have lost touch with reality. Yet, it should be possible to reclaim him as our own, not as a historical legacy, but as a beacon of light pointing to the possible road ahead.

References

Chenoweth, Erika and Maria Stephan (2008). Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/IS3301_pp007- 044_Stephan_Chenoweth.pdf

Einstein, Albert (2015). Out of My Later Years: The Scientist, Philosopher, and Man Portrayed Through His Own Words (Philosophical Library/Open Road; Reprint edition, 2015).

Gandhi, M.K. (1959). Autobiography, An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Translated from Gujarati by Mahadev Desai. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House. p.347.

————. (1959). My Socialism. p.10, Compiled by R.K. Prabhu. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

————. (1948). Constructive Programme: Its Meaning and Place. Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House.

————. (1948). Delhi Diary (November 3, 1947), Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House. March, pp.68-70.

Mantena, Karuna (2017). The Theoretical Foundations of Satyagraha, http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/ uprising1313/karuna-mantena-theoretical-foundations-of-satyagraha/

Acknowledgement

Barun Mitra is a free thinker and commentator on current affairs. He was the founder of the Liberty Institute, New Delhi, an independent think tank (1996-2016).

Barun Mitra contact: [email protected]

This essay, originally titled “Was Gandhi a Liberal?”, is reprinted from the book ‘How Liberal is India? The Quest for Freedom in the Biggest Democracy on Earth’ with permission from Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, New Delhi (Published by Academic Foundation 2019). The PDF file of the book is available on the FNF website here. 

https://southasia.fnst.org/content/how-liberal-india-0

And the hard copy of the book can be purchased from the publisher Academic Foundation (2019). 

http://academicfoundation.org/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=859


[1] Looking at Gandhi primarily as a political leader in the 19th century and 20th century, there may hardly have been anyone like Gandhi, so influential and yet so fundamentally and so consistently cautioning against the ills of a expansive government. A sharp contrast to the most major political figures of the day.

[2] Satyagraha is a term coined by Gandhi, which literally means the quest for truth or the love of truth. Gandhi also translated it to as the “soul-force” or the “truth-force”. Active civil resistance conceived by Gandhi had to be not only non-violent, but required participants to completely eschew hate towards their opponents. 

Gandhi showed that this was possible when the participants in the civil disobedience instilled an absolute sense of love for truth, only then can the critics and opponents be won over by helping them to grasp the truth, and therefore the justness of the cause. Gandhi didn’t see his political opponents as enemies to be vanquished, but friends to be won over.

[3] Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who came from the socially ostracised and economically oppressed lower caste Dalit community, was a member of the Constituent Assembly and the first Law Minister in Independent India. He was the chairman of the committee that drafted the Constitution of India in 1949.

[4] Young India, 11 August 1920, p.3

[5] A charkha is a traditional spinning wheel on which cotton would be spun in to thread or yarn. Gandhi adopted the spinning wheel as a symbol of protest against oppressive British laws that deprived India of cotton, and enabled Britain to sell higher value textile in India. It was also Gandhi’s way of inculcating the dignity of labour, in a highly stratified caste ridden society. It was also a way to provide a constructive activity that necessitated a sense of self-discipline, and allowed people to participate in a wider movement from the confines of their home. This was a critical component of preparing the key volunteers who would be at the forefront of many of the civil disobedience campaigns that Gandhi would launch. Spinning was a part of Gandhi’s daily routine as well.

The spinning wheel was typically operated at home, and provided the input for the textile industry before industrialisation. The spinning wheel is believed to have originated in the Islamic world around 1000 AD, and spread around the world. Variations of the spinning wheel was developed in many different parts of the world.

[6] The Dalai Lama, Dr Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela would be among the leaders who were attuned to Gandhi’s way of peaceful civil resistance, as a moral force, rather than merely the force of numbers.

[7] Young India, 31 December 1931, pp.427-8.

[8] Ashoka was an Emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty who ruled India between 268 BCE and 232 BCE. He was the first ruler whose domain covered almost the whole subcontinent of India. Once known as a brutal king, he went on to become a Buddhist, and gave up violence. He sought to establish rule of law and is seen by many as one of the greatest emperors in history.

[9] Harijan, 12 May 1946, p.128.

[10] The Modern Review, October, 1935, p. 412.

[11] Young India, 7 May 1925, p.160.

[12] Young India, 18 May 1921, p.156.

[13] Young India, 7 July 1927, p.219.

[14] Harijan, August 4, 1946, p. 246.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Harijan, July 13, 1947, p. 232.

[17] Harijan 3 July 1937, p. 161.

[18] Tagore is India’s national poet, and was the first Asian to be awarded the Noble Prize in 1913. Tagore and Gandhi were two of the stalwarts of pre-independent India. They had enormous mutual respect, even as they publicly differed on some of the political strategies. Gandhi is quoted as making this comment on Tagore in the context of a question on nationalisation of all industries asked by some of the early socialists in India in 1933.

[19] Harijan, 27 January 1940, p. 428.

[20] The Modern Review, October, 1935, p. 412.

[21] Khadi is the hand woven cloth made from hand spun cotton yarn. In 1918 Gandhi launched the movement for Khadi as programme to provide relief for the poor living in India’s villages. Gandhi elevated spinning and weaving to a political and social ideology for self-reliance and self-government. He sought to use spinning and weaving as a practical way in which ordinary people could participate in the national movement from their own homes, and yet cultivate discipline and become aware of the deeper significance of equality, dignity and freedom.

[22] Gandhi didn’t support violence, but at times, when he felt that a war was inevitable, he offered his services as a non-combatant. When he was in South Africa, Gandhi volunteered for the Ambulance Corp during the Boer War. He saw that as someone who was seeking equal citizenship in the British Empire, it was his duty to support the war efforts. He had encouraged Indians to support the British during World War I.

Till the early 1920s, Gandhi hoped that ultimately the British sense of justice will prevail, and that people in the colonies will be accepted as equal citizens of the British empire. The Congress Party and Gandhi sought self government under dominion status similar to the one granted to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, at that time. By the end of the 1929, the Congress had called for independence from British rule.

[23] Young India, 29 January 1925, p.41.

[24] Mahatma is an adaptation of Sanskrit word that literally means the great-soul. In South Asia, it typically refers to a person who is highly regarded and loved. Traditionally, the term would be applied to a holy man, or a sage. But in today’s usage, when capitalised, it would mostly refer to Gandhi.

Gandhi was very wary of adjectives used to address him. He wrote in his journal in 1928,  “Truth to me is infinitely dearer than the ‘Mahatmaship’, which is purely a burden. It is my knowledge of my limitations and my nothingness which has so far saved me from the oppressiveness of the ‘Mahatmaship.'”

A few years earlier he chided those who used terms such as the Mahatma. “Their use can do good neither to the writers nor to me. They unnecessarily humiliate me, for I have to confess that I do not deserve them. When they are deserved, their use is superfluous. It cannot add to the strength of the qualities possessed by me. They may, if I am not on my guard, easily turn my head. The good that a man does is more often than not better left unsaid. Imitation is the sincerest flattery.” (1925)

[25] Harijan, 11 February 1939, p.1.