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Gandhi’s entry into politics:
Some Remarks on Gandhi’s Moral Ethical Politics

Radhakanta Barik

[This paper has been prepared on the occasion of Gandhi’s 150th year]

His autobiography does not speak how he entered into politics. As a Gujarati upper class person there were two alternatives such as business or law. But he was not a good student and those options have been closed further. But his parents decided to spend money for sending him abroad to study law.  Those days students used to study in England as people were aware of a good degree from England would fetch good income.  British rule in India has created the importance of law as a degree and a profession as the colonial laws created a confusion among people of India but the elite wanted to exploit the opportunity for their interest.

By going to study in the city of London made a remarkable change in his intellectual life. As an average student he had no interest in getting good marks or showing brilliance which made society to recognize it as a valuable commodity. Education is an ornamental commodity for an individual in a traditional society. It is a way of providing social mobility for an average middle class people. Those days it was a male dominated profession where one can use ones intelligence or cunningness to earn money.  

Gandhi an introvert entered into the city of London where debates and discussions were a part of popular culture. Different schools of thought used to compete with each other through debates not through war of words. This made him to open his eyes and ears to listen to people.  Once he listens to debates which he started enjoying those ideas. That was the age of domination of the English utilitarian’s who used to argue as everything as a commodity. A commodity is to give a consumer pleasure or pain. He was not happy with these ideas. He was looking for a moral angle where a human being can transform himself as a moral being. He started getting engaged with books written by Thomas Moore a humanist and moralist of 16th century. His traditional approach to morality made him to think in such a credulous line. After debating with some popular moral thinkers of the world he realized the importance of moral philosophy.  After listening to Fast up to death which made him appealing much as he had seen people of Gujarat used to adapt fasting as a means to clean stomach. Here fasting can be used as an instrument for cleaning ones conscience.  Some of the leading figures in spreading the message of nonviolence and community life to defend social peace and harmony shaped his mentality regarding his own political style. Gandhi was a great listener while attending the meetings where these moral philosophers spoke. Slowly he started opening to these new ideas and his freedom to make a choice in preference to these ideas. This helped him to realize his freedom by confronting these people and debating with them.  Gandhi ‘s correspondence with Tolstoy influenced him that "Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills." This made him a much stronger person to confront the world. In making freedom in choosing ideas shaped his political personality. The city of London shaped three important political personalities of India. Gandhi Nehru who got shaped by engaging with the city of London who became the leaders of national movement. Jyoti Basu a Marxist got shaped by the political debates of London. Gujarat has not shaped Gandhi’s political personality. By studying in London Gandhi made a clear break from the Gujarati Bania culture and his moral philosophy guided him to be a political leader.

After making a law degree he returned back to India but he was disillusioned the way law as a profession has taken shape in Indian courts. In the mean time he got an offer from South African Farm which was controlled by a Gujarati Muslim. He joined this organization. His experiences in South Africa made him conscious of his moral philosophy. The importance of moral philosophy can be explained by getting hold of a book by His freedom to protest against the police as he belonged to a different race. This protest further enlarged his freedom to get engaged with “Unto This Last” on Mahatma Gandhi. During a long train journey in South Africa, Gandhi was given a book of John Ruskin (Unto This Last) by one of his friends. About this book, he has written that it brought an instantaneous change in his life and in thinking. Unto This Last" was ... the subversive masterwork of political economy by John Ruskin in 1904.  ... In debating with Tolstoy he got a chance to enlarge his moral philosophy to newer horizon. Community farms got organized with the local labour which needed to help these worker’s family to get material and spiritual benefits.  He worked as a trustee of this community property where he confronted his son who demanded a scholarship to be given to him for his higher studies abroad. Gandhi’s moral philosophy got further tested on the basis of reality. That his own child vs the children of workers working in the farm. This gave him to test his own self as a trustee. He refused to be blackmailed by his own son. He stood on neutral ground to confront himself in proving self and the other where he acted as a neutral self.  His neutrality and objectivity made him aware of weakness of his profession where legal manipulation is a part of his job which he disapproved.

Gandhi got a chance to use his method of observation with a degree of objectivity and neutrality while moving in India for discovering India and himself. By going to the train all over India he found poor people are without any dresses which made him to leave the suits and opted for loin cloth. This is a great break in his personal life style. He took up simplicity to practice what he realized from the city of London. While travelling all over India he confronted reality of India. This made him a strong personality and freedom to confront reality got realized.

He as a liberal moral philosopher joined the Congress Party which was fighting for moral space within the British Empire to achieve freedom for a country.  He was nominated to go to Champaran for handling grievances of farmers who were suffering in the hand of the British plantation owners. There he found the reality as more complex than he expected. There were two crowds came to welcome him: one caste Hindus cum farming community. Another was Dalits who stood aloof from the main crowd which Gandhi could measure distance between two crowds which made him learn from people who are experts. His moral conscience got pinpricked by seeing Dalits standing away from the main crowd. This made him to learn from Jagjivan Ram as a leader of Dalits. He started learning from others regarding the complexities of society.  This made him knowledgeable by observing over social reality. Knowledge is an appropriation of reality into intellectual production. 

His understanding of farming community divided into castes, classes and gender relationships gets enlarged further. He started learning about land relationship and high rent was the root cause of their poverty and backwardness of rural society. He took up the cause of farmers by mobilizing them against rent. That resulted in rent reduction and he was unhappy about the farmers who were very much caste ridden. This made him aware of fighting against high rent by mobilization of farmers and practice of untouchability against Dalits. (See Judith Brown, Gandhi’s Rise to power)

His concern for human rights violation became a serious problem which led him to confront the British rule by telling it as unBritish rule.  His confrontation against the British rule was on the basis of his moral philosophy. This brought him to fight against the rule on the basis of nonviolence and passive resistance which he experimented in the noncooperation movement. His reading of classics helped him to enlarge his freedom to confront the Indian reality on one side and on the other end he was able to confront the British rule and colonial state.  The best example he took up the temple entry movement by encouraging people to speak for it in Vaikum. He challenged the priestly class to show any text of ancient time to prove their point that human being on the basis of caste can be discriminated while others were being allowed to have an easy entry. Once the priestly group could not show any writings, they felt obliged to welcome Dalits into the temple.  This led him to have a constant dialogue with Ambedkar who welcomed his temple entry movement and Jagjivan Ram to fight for social justice. Temples of Varanasi, Gaya and Deogarh faced the problems of temple entry movement for which the priests attacked the car in which Gandhi was going accompanied by Jagjivan Ram. They threw stones at his car and he called them and told them you were so many but throwing stones not destroying his car which meant they were wrong whereas Gandhi was right. This right and wrong issue becomes the centre of his philosophical landscape.

His call for violating salt laws by going against it was an inspiring story. Salt satyagraha is a unique event in history of humanity which has some similarity with Mao’s long march in China. This brought masses into politics and illiterate and educated joined hands together. Large number of people joined the satyagraha which was affecting common people.

Gandhi brought Muslim masses into politics in non-cooperation movement.  He approached the most popular leaders of Muslims Ali brothers for mobilization of Muslims and Hindus into one fold. This was a great experiment for keeping unity of masses. This he experimented ideas elucidated in his book Hindi Swaraj where he argued the ethical basis of Indian society it is not community but family and community who share the same space. This brought them together in politics. This book made him to confront Savarkar in London on the release of the book where Savarkar told Gandhi that he believed in violence which Gandhi replied in a strong word as he did not believe in violence. This confrontation has come to Indian politics after 70 years of Independence in Modi’s regime.

While negotiating with the Britishers in the round table conference demanding for all and that is Self Rule which can provide freedom for each family and community for realizing their potentiality.  He opposed the separate constituency for Muslims and Dalits on the moral basis that all share the same space which would bring together to fight for their rights and justice.

Towards the end of his political struggles at the time of Independence he went alone for fighting against communal riots in Calcutta where he went on fasting to control the situation.  After Independence he along with Nehru and others built a constitutional democracy for all where each community can grow with others. He blended individual, caste and community into one for his political works which resulted in a great constitutional text which guides everybody.  That led him to be a loner in a creative sense that he moved to Noakhali for controlling communal violence. He used to sing ‘akela cholo’ of Tagore.

Gandhi preferred some middle order cities than metropolis such as Allahabad and Poone where he experimented his philosophy that constant negotiation and conversation on the basis of facts and logic would conquer the opponents. He confronted two opponents: Ambedkar and Savarkar.  While negotiation with Ambedkar made a success which resulted in Poona pact. This becomes the basis of constitutional democracy which resulted in reservation for Dalits and tribals which turned into a revolutionary step in the world.  Yes he argued with Savarkar by going to his village but no result.  The RSS turned into a hostile block in opposition to democracy conceptualized Gandhi and Nehru.

Today’s politics is not based on any moral and ethical values of the BJP regime. They are inconsistent with the changing their style and substance without any moral background. From temple politics to Gujarat riots their politics is immoral. Killing of Muslims in the name of beef without any substance and immoral by the Sangh Parivar. Forcing anybody to chant Jai Shri Ram is against ethical politics and constitutional law of the India.

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Jul 26, 2019


Prof. Radhakanta Barik [email protected]

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