Mahatma Gandhi: A century of peaceful protest

He's a huge box-office hit. He's at the top of the Indian music charts. He's on the front cover of magazines. One hundred years after Gandhi first called on his compatriots to resist white colonial rule without violence, he is back in fashion once more. Justin Huggler explains why
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The Independent Online

Indians this week have been remembering the day which changed the fate of their nation for decades to come. A hundred years ago, on 11 September, 1906, a young British-trained barrister named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi addressed a meeting of 3,000 Indians in the Empire Theatre building in Johannesburg and asked them to take an oath to resist white colonial rule without violence. It was the birth of the modern non-violent resistance movement- and it has not been forgotten.

Suddenly the Mahatma is back in fashion in India. Two years ago, it was unthinkable that the centenary of a speech by Gandhi, seen as a relic of the past by most young Indians, would be so much as noticed in a country that was obsessed not with figures from its past, but with its headlong rush to embrace modernity.

But today Gandhi has caught the Indian imagination all over again. He appears as a character in the biggest Bollywood hit of the summer - a comedy, but one that even his admirers accept does not degrade his message. His writings are bestsellers again. He is at the top of India's music charts too, with a tape of his Hindu devotional songs, or bhajans. A new Gandhi museum in Delhi is opening its doors to 2,000 visitors a day.

His sayings are visible all over India's cities. People are openly displaying them. The sunshades across the rear windows of cars proclaim "There is no way to peace; peace is the way". Young Indians are wandering around in T-shirts that say "Be the change you want to see in the world", complete with the image of Gandhi's trademark circular-lensed spectacles.

Outlook magazine, India's answer to Time and Newsweek, even featured Gandhi on its front cover this week - which is more often adorned with besuited and self-satisfied looking businessmen. The previous week's cover, by comparison, showed high-flying students at India's business schools leaping in the air.

Something remarkable is happening in India. Just as the world is beginning to see the country as an emerging economy obsessed with copying all things Western, and ever more hooked on consumerism, India has rediscovered another voice from its past, a voice that spoke of a different vision for his country.

When I arrived in India two-and-a-half years ago, it was very different. I tried to ask Indians at a dinner party about Gandhi. "Oh, we don't think about him," I was told. "He's just someone whose statues are around the country and whose face is on the money." Not any more. It's not just on the cinema screens and in the CD shops that Mahatma Gandhi is back. Thousands of young Indians are joining Gandhian youth organisations, or flocking to summer camps at Gandhian ashrams. Teenagers are volunteering to work in slums and poor villages. Not just Gandhi's image, but his principles and the way of life he taught are catching on in India again.

Some are ascribing the sudden renewal of interest in the Mahatma to the movie Lage Raho Munnabhai, or Carry On Munnabhai (the British Carry On films are bizarrely popular in India). The big Bollywood hit of the year, the film depicts Munnabhai, a small-time Bombay goonda, or gangster, and his attempts to win the heart of a radio announcer. After he crams for a radio quiz on Gandhi's life to impress her, the spirit of Gandhi appears to Munnabhai and advises him on how to cope with the obstacles in his life without violence.

The film has won universal praise for its success in incorporating a completely uncompromised protrayal of Gandhi and his teachings into a seriously funny comedy. One reviewer described it as "something to watch before you die".

But other observers say Carry On Munnabhai didn't start the wave of new interest in Gandhi - it was part of it. They say there have been signs of growing interest in Gandhi for some years. Publishers have been astonished to see translations of his books in some of India's regional languages sell hundreds of thousands of copies over the past five years. The number of applications to Gandhi's estate for the rights to publish his works has doubled in the past two years.

The outside world never really lost interest in Gandhi. The British may have mocked him in their cinema newsreels during the early years of his campaign for independence, but they soon learnt to take him seriously. Such is the power of Gandhi's message that, even from beyond the grave, he was able to demand international respect for his country even during the long years when it was an economic basket-case, mired in hopeless poverty.

He inspired Martin Luther King in the American civil rights movement, and Nelson Mandela in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. But in his own country, Gandhi faded into the background. As the English-language Mumbai daily DNA put it in a leader this week, he became "a largely distant and overawing figure" embedded in our collective consciousness but in a non-relevant, non-immediate way. "Yes, we know he is the father of the nation, we see his photographs on rupee notes and we all remember getting a holiday on his birthday, but what exactly did he say or do?" An "open letter" to Gandhi in the Indian Express put it bluntly: "To be honest we got too absorbed in our progress and technology to miss you. Our children never made any reference to you and we were too caught up in ourselves to notice that they were growing up without an idol."

But now Gandhi is back. As to why he has suddenly returned to the popular consciousness, observers have many answers. For some, it was about young Indians disinterring the human Gandhi behind the image that had been preserved in aspic by his followers, more monument than man.

"Gandhi was ill-served by everyone, including the Gandhians," Mushirul Hassan, a historian, told Outlook magazine. "They deified him and buried him in institutions. He was conveniently portrayed as a saint so they wouldn't be threatened by his ideology." A Annamalai, of the Gandhi Study Circle, one of more than 150 Gandhi youth organisations in India, said: "Young people may not be able to relate to a dhoti-clad Gandhi. But tell them how he was a millionaire London-returned barrister who threw away everything to fight for justice and equality, and they begin at once to appreciate him."

Suddenly Gandhi is an alternative voice in an India that has become obsessed with material wealth and advancement. "Corner offices are earned" say the deeply dispiriting billboards above Delhi, next to endless advertisements for mobile phones and cars that 95 per cent of Indians could never dream of affording. For young people in a country that has become so success-driven that sixth-form students who don't get the right grades commit suicide, Gandhi's anti-materialist message still has resonance.

The Rashtriya Suva Sanganathan, a national Gandhian youth movement, has even gone so far as to get rid of the traditional symbols of Gandhianism, the homespun dhoti, or loincloth, and the spinning wheel. People who see these as irrelevant are calling themselves new Gandhians. As one, Leeladhar Manik Gada, puts it: "What does it matter if a man wears pants, shirts, uses a motorbike rather than walk, so long as he gets the job done?" Others credit the new interest in Gandhi to the appeal of satyagraha, the philososphy of non-violent resistance he preached into a world that is racked by violence.

Under the headline "Gandhi is not history", Vinoy Lal wrote in The Hindu: "Many in Gandhi's own lifetime doubted its efficacy. Many more have since claimed that the unspeakable cruelties of the 20th century render non-violent resistance an effete, if noble, idea. [But] the advocates of non-violent resistance who are dismissed as woolly-headed idealists should, on the contrary, ask the proponents of violence to demonstrate that violence can produce enduring good." In its leader, DNA asked: "Will those non-violent tactics work today, say with terrorists? We can't say for sure. But knowing Gandhi, he certainly would have given it a shot."

These are not just questions of far away places on television screens for Indians. In the past 12 months, India has suffered major bombings in Mumbai, Delhi, and Hinduism's holiest city, Varanasi, in which scores of people have died.

There is another possible explanation for Gandhi's appeal: the rise of Hindu nationalism. In a country that has been racked for the past decade and more by communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, often set off by far-right Hindu groups, Gandhi offers a different vision of Hinduism. Only four years ago, in Gandhi's home state, Gujarat, more than 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were massacred in Hindu-Muslim riots. This week, the Bombay High Court has been giving its verdict in the trials over the 1993 Bombay bombings, in which more than 250 people died and which were widely believed to be Muslim revenge for Hindu atrocities in religious riots a year earlier.

On the back of this religious chauvinism, Hindu nationalists are still in power in many states, and make up the main opposition nationally.

In contrast to this stands Gandhi, who amid tensions between Hindus and Muslims in his lifetime, told his supporters: "I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am a Christian, I am a Jew - and so are all of you." It is hard to imagine Tony Blair having the moral courage to stand up and say the same.

It is too early to say whether the renewal of Indian interest in Gandhi will last, or whether it is just this summer's fad, fuelled by a hit movie. But, judging by the enormous sales of his books across India, whatever big city society moves onto next, out there in the vast hinterland of India that he loved, Gandhi's message is getting out again.

When Gandhi summoned those 3,000 Indians to the Empire Theatre, he started a movement that changed the world without a shot being fired. Yet what sparked that meeting is often forgotten: it was a move by South Africa's colonial rulers to have all the Indians fingerprinted, which was seen at the time as tantamount to criminalising them. There is an irony that, amid today's anti-terror legislation, it would barely raise an eyebrow.