By Kanti Mehta
The second of October returns once more reminding us of the person we all refer to as the father of the nation. But having immersed his ashes in the sangam and having paid tribute to him and proudly recorded the encomiums received from all corners of the world it seemed the debt we owed to him had been repaid. Nevertheless a nagging fear persisted that we had still not done full justice to him. So we decided to declare is birthday a national holiday, erected statues all over the country, named hundreds of roads after him and hung up his portraits in thousands of government buildings and felt that we could relax and get on with the task of concentrating all power in the Delhi Darbar, enriching the courtiers around the masnad and building the brahmastra to frighten all our enemies. For a while we remembered that somewhere he had spoken about the poor and so we loudly proclaimed that after angrez hatao (remove foreigners) we will take up the task of garibi hatao (remove poverty). Soon we discovered that garibi hatao was too intractable a task so we thought garib hatao would do just as well. If poverty could not be eliminated it could at least be put out of sight. As time went by we decided to abolish the word poverty itself and it hardly figures in the discourses of the very important people who are privileged to debate important issues. To build or not to build grandiose temples, to buy or not to buy huge aircraft carriers, to send or not to send our own satellite to the moon were and are some of the issues that now occupy our attention. But what about the Mahatma, what did he have to say of such things? Never mind that he died long ago and the world has changed since then. Of what relevance could his thoughts be in today's high tech world and in a country, which now has the nuclear capacity to kill millions of people in less than minutes.
But like a phoenix the Mahatma seems to have risen from the ashes. Not those who claim to worship him but those who gloated in his murder have resurrected him. A spectre is haunting them, the spectre of the Mahatma. The ideas he promulgated, ideas of peace, of non-violence and truth, of a society based on love and not hate, of the importance of the village where the bulk of the Indian people live, of the decentralisation of the power structure, of the removal of social ills like untouchability, of the importance of organic farming, have suddenly begun to surface. They are emerging not from the portals of the prestigious Yojana Bhavan or from the so many other massive Bhavans that now dot our rajdhani but from the depths of the soil, from out of the experience of the many hundred million Indians who still live in huts or under the trees or on the pavements of our glittering cities. Somehow the people of this other India are not amused by the nuclear bombs and the mighty aircraft carriers that we already possess or are toiling hard to buy, and are not thrilled by the thought that our own Indian spacecraft will land on the moon five years from today.
Then as cities and states are rocked by riots or by carefully engineered programs and as thousands languish in refugee camps, as untouchability and social ills such as gender inequality banished by the Constitution make their way back there are some who recall the vision of the Mahatma, a vision of an India where diverse cultures would exist side by side in harmony like flowers of different hues in one fragrant bouquet and where the touchstone for every action would be the effect it would have on the poorest of the poor.
Frightened by the ideas and the vision, which it was thought had been immersed with his ashes in the sangam, returning to haunt them, a campaign has been launched by the very forces that murdered him, to assassinate the Mahatma all over again. They are finding that they had destroyed the body, but had failed to destroy his thoughts and his teachings which are still attracting and offering hope to millions of our countrymen. Even more terrifying for them is the strange phenomenon being witnessed―the oppressed and the persecuted all over the world are finding in the Mahatma's ideas the weapon that they need to pursue their struggle for freedom and dignity. The spirit of the Mahatma emerges again in a Martin Luther King (Jr.) in America, in a Nelson Mandela in Africa.
What then are the ideas and the vision that have become a source of inspiration to so many all over the world? Shortly before independence the Mahatma felt that he would try to share his vision of a free India with those who were expected to take over the reins of power when the British left. So he wrote to the person whom he had named as his heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, "I want to write about the differences of outlook between us... if the differences are fundamental then... the public should be... made aware of it" he wrote and then spelt out some of his ideas. ''I am convinced that if India is to attain true freedom and through India the world also, then sooner or later the fact must be recognised that people will have to live in villages, not in towns, in huts, not in palaces. Crores of people will never be able to live in peace with each other in towns and palaces. They will then have no recourse but to resort to violence and untruth. I hold that without truth and non-violence there can be nothing but destruction of humanity. We can realise truth and non-violence only in the simplicity of village life...
''The essence of what I have said is that man should rest content with what are his real needs and become self-sufficient... While I admire modern science I find that it is the old looked at in the light of modern science which should be reclothed and refashioned aright. You must not imagine that I am envisaging village life as it is today... My ideal village will contain intelligent human beings. They will not live in dirt and darkness as animals. Men and women will be free and able to hold their own against anyone in the world. There will be neither plague nor cholera nor small pox, no one will be idle, no one will wallow in luxury. It is possible to envisage railways, post and telegraph and the like...''
Pandit Nehru replied in his usual non-committal manner but was evidently not very enthusiastic about Gandhi's ideas about the village and referred to the backward environment that characterised village life from which "no progress could be made". The discussion remained inconclusive owing to the fast mutating political changes in the country and the outbreak of communal disorders.
However Gandhi's secretary, Pyarelal, has reconstructed from Gandhi's writings an outline of his ideas and on the basis of that we can consider their relevance in today's India and in today's world.
We can straightaway point to his prophetic words about the dangers of crores of people living in densely packed towns. The growing concentration of people in towns and cities as a result of urbanisation now regarded as an index of progress and the ever widening gulf between the few very rich and the many very poor has resulted in a milieu in which crime, drugs, violence, exploitation of women as a commodity, growing incidents of rape and murder of women, are a regular feature of urban life. And this is a phenomenon which is not peculiar to India but is prevalent the world over, not excluding the United States, the major towns and cities of South America and in towns and cities all over Europe. The larger the city the greater the incidence of crime, violence and the other attendant ills and vices of urban society. One shudders to think what is in store in the coming years when according to all forecasts urbanisation is going to gather momentum.
It has been pointed out that while colonialism in the sense of exploitation of one country by another through political control may have disappeared with the break up of the old Empires, "the colonial system is however still practised in its essence by countries aspiring to effect a quick entry into the modern era vis a vis their own rural population. Industry imposes manufactured goods on the villages in quantity and at the price it desires and makes them produce raw materials in the quantity and at the price the industrialist wants". Is not the sugar industry, for example, a glaring example of the exploitation of the farmers who are made to sell sugar cane at a price the millowners want while the millowners are able to manipulate the market to sell the finished product in the market at prices they consider most profitable?
A social order founded upon vigorous self-governing communities of peasant-craftsmen, Gandhi held, would prove a veritable bulwark of democratic freedom and provide a natural guarantee against any aggressive or expansionist tendency on India's part. It would be a tremendous asset to world peace. Is it not worth pondering over today when increasing reliance on arms including nuclear weapons has caused tremors in the world and isolated us from the overwhelming majority of people and countries who genuinely desire peace and refuse to accept that the way to peace is through bigger stockpiles of arms and missiles equipped with nuclear weapons.
Some of the other ideas about the importance of organic farming and the dangers of using chemical fertilizers sounded weird and impractical at the time Gandhi propounded them. Till the forties ecology and environment were not issues that were considered worth worrying about in India. Gandhi's ideas on the need for a cattle based rural economy were ridiculed as a reversion to the 'cow-dung' era and 'bullock cart mentality' and even as a reversion to medievalism. Today when in the developed countries of Europe and America a powerful movement against the use of chemical fertilizers has emerged and when in some countries such as Germany import of food products not bearing the green label (as a guarantee that no chemical fertilizers or pesticides have been used in heir production) is banned we need to realise that far from a reversion to medievalism Gandhi was far ahead of his times.
"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need but not for every man's greed" said Gandhi. So long as we cooperate with the cycle of life, the soil renews its fertility indefinitely and provides health, recreation, sustenance and peace to those who depend on it. But when the predatory attitude prevails, nature's balance is upset and there is an all round biological deterioration. Upon a proper relationship between man and animal and animal and plant-life, depends the health of the soil and of society. The health of man, animal and plants depends upon that of the soil, the healthily fed soil controls the fury of the rivers in spate or the destructive action of wind and rain that sweep over unprotected soil. Millions of tons of top soil are thus blown away by dust storms in a matter of days ruining thousands of acres of land at the site of erosion. Do all these Gandhian ideas smack of medievalism? Are they not rather post-modernist and prophetic. Today more than half a century after his martyrdom and after our rejection of his ideas, is not what is happening in our country and large parts of the world exactly as he had warned?
Today international conferences are being convened to debate how the alarming deterioration of the world's environment, which has not only turned once fertile areas in to dust bowls, which is also changing the world's climate and threatening the very existence of life on this planet, can be arrested. Again it is the country that claims to be the "most developed" and has made the maximum contribution to the de-spoilation of the environment, that is refusing even to accept the modest proposals put forward at the Kyoto conference to prevent the disaster that threatens the world. In a desperate bid to try to eat the cake and have it, there is talk of sustainable development which is only an attempt to carry on exactly as they are doing and only add some pollution control machines to control the damage. This of course incidentally provides opportunities to manufacturers of pollution control equipment to profit from the all round pollution that is taking place.
In recent weeks we have seen a big out cry in the media and in the parliament because tests have revealed that the levels of pesticides and other chemicals in the bottles of the world's two most famous companies marketing soft drinks were above the limits required to make them fit for and safe for human consumption. Considering the clout of these companies it is unlikely that any real change will be effected to improve the quality of the drinks. Meanwhile there are already attempts being made to counter the public concern over the matter by pointing out that all our vegetables and fruits, almost all the water available in the country and even the fish and meat contains residues of chemicals that are hazardous for human consumption, which is of course true, because fertilizers, pesticides and chemicals are being used for the production of all our food and these are sinking into the soil and polluting the rivers and even our underground water tables. Clearly there is no short cut solution to the problem of the deterioration of the environment, it is only the long and dusty road back to the ideas of the Mahatma that can lead us to safety.
Gandhi was not against machinery as such but against mass production that renders large numbers of people unemployed and takes away that joy of work from even those who work on these machines. The alienation of the worker and its effect on his psyche has been well illustrated by Charlie Chaplin in his film "Modern Times". There is little one can say to add to the statement he has made in that film. It is no doubt because of this and similar films ridiculing and lambasting the modern life style of the rich, their mad rush for gold and the modern methods of machine production that was hounded out of America. TRUTH is something that the modern capitalist is too frightened to face and hence the hurry to banish it from sight.
Elaborating on the ideas of the Mahatma, Pyarelal exposes the myth that mass production has enabled us to get quality products at cheaper rates. "Mass production has cut down paper costs. But for every problem that the machine has solved, it has created many more that did not exist before and which even the majestic march of science has not been able to cope with or has been able to cope with only in part. Can any wonder drug or wizardry of modern surgery make up for the alarming spread of cancer, diabetes, hyper-tension and heart diseases due to modern living? To this we may add that "modern living" has now brought into being the other dreaded disease AIDS to which no cure has yet been found despite the huge resources deployed for research on the subject.
We first deprive the people of the benefits of natural life, fresh air, sunshine and fresh whole foods by uprooting them from their natural environment and aggregating them in specialised areas and then try to provide them with artificial ultraviolet light, concentrated vitamins, public parks, air-conditioning and suburban workers' settlements as substitutes. And what poor substitutes they are! Apart from the social costs resulting from the deterioration in physical health and fitness and the need to create the infrastructure needed for industry, there is the biological cost and the cost in terms of social unrest, class conflict and mental ill health; reckless squandering of natural resources and the resulting deterioration of man's inheritance which are even heavier. But as these are all "long term bills collectable in the indeterminate future", and do not enter into the balance sheet of the money cost of production, nobody bothers about them and the illusion of "prosperity" and "cheapness" continues. "Oh yes, mass production certainly" said Gandhi... "...but mass production on individual basis in people's own homes. If you multiply individual production millions of times, would it not get you mass production on a tremendous scale... Your mass production is ... production by the fewest possible number through the aid of highly complicated machinery... ..My machinery must be of the most elementary type which I can put in the homes of millions". Gandhi wanted man to be restored to his proper place in the scheme of things and production to be geared to the primary well being of man instead of men being used as expendable material to increase production. Where men and mechanism rule, said Gandhi, “capital exploits the labour of a few to multiply itself, but the sum total of the labour of the crores, wisely utilised, automatically increases the wealth of the crores”. He wanted labour to be so used that production should itself be a source of life, joy, and freedom, instead of anyone of these being sacrificed to production and all to money values. Therein lay the key to true democracy.
Indeed the dehumanization of the human being that occurs when mass production of commodities takes place in centralized locations far from where the products will be used, is so palpable, that only those memorized by the power of the machine and the glitter of the profit that it produces for its owners will fail to take note of it. Where production becomes an end in itself and has no relation to people for whom it is meant or for the purpose for which it is to be used but only bears relation to profits.