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Events  >  2006 > Gandhi Jayanti - Speech by Prof. Dr. Dietmar Rothermund

Gandhi Jayanti - Speech by Prof. Dr. Dietmar Rothermund: Mahatma Gandhi's Relevance for Our Time


Mahatma Gandhi has influenced the course of world history in the 20th century by his leadership of the Indian freedom movement. This is a historical achievement which no longer has a direct relevance for our actions today. However, the main principles of his thought and action can still guide us. The most important principle is the unity of thought, speech and action. Jawaharlal Nehru once remarked that before Gandhi assumed its leadership, the Indian National Congress often passed grandiloquent resolutions without giving any thought to their implementation. Gandhi then saw to it that resolutions would be phrased in such a way that everybody could see how they could be operationalised. Word and deed must reflect each other. Gandhi had applied this principle in his Satyagraha campaigns in South Africa. Satyagraha - holding on to truth - did not mean that one claimed to possess the truth but that one tried to reach it by the right kind of action. In order to do this one had to spell out what one believed to be true and how one would try to achieve it. Political intentions had to be openly stated. Gandhi rejected secret conspiracies. He proclaimed his plans for action well in advance. He wanted to convince his adversary. This presupposed non-violence; with violence one could at the most vanquish the adversary but not convince him. Gandhi's "Experiments with Truth" - as he called his autobiography - applied both to the political sphere and to very personal affairs. The unifiying element was Gandhi`s religiosity. Religion meant something different for Gandhi than for those who believe in a revealed religion. He once said that there are as many religions as there are people. This implied that salvation can only be reached by individual endeavour. Gandhi referred in this way to the Indian idea of moksha. This kind of salvation is actually a very private affair, but Gandhi so to speak "socialised" it. In keeping with this idea he also paraphrased the collective idea of political freedom (swaraj) as "rule of one's self". Only he who can rule himself can achieve political freedom. Accordingly Gandhi's campaigns were conducted by satyagrahis who bound themselves by vows to keep the discipline ordained by Gandhi.

The "socialisation" of moksha also implied that nobody who was striving for it could forget about the injustice suffered by his fellow men. The greatest injustice in Indian society was untouchability and it was against this that Gandhi reacted by means of his own deeds. The origin of untouchability could be traced to the "unclean" activities such as cleaning toilets on which all members of society depended who nevertheless despised those on whom they relied in this way. In the settlements and ashrams which Gandhi founded he therefore participated in the cleaning of toilets and thus aroused the ire of many orthodox Hindus. The unity of thought and actions which Gandhi stressed was expressed in this way. Gandhi once said: "Be the change that you want to see".

The autonomy of man and the duty of of responsible action are incompatible with deterministic social doctrines which postulate that the fate of man is influenced by social forces which are beyond his control. Gandhi sometimes called himself a socialist, but he was against "scientific socialism", he was also sceptical about the teachings of economics. He once stated: "The law of supply and demand is a law of the devil". He thereby wanted to emphasize that he rejected purely economic calculations as the guiding principles of human decisions. But at the end of his life, Gandhi very surprisingly adopted liberal economic principles and called for the abolition of wartime economic controls, particularly those concerning the trade in foodgrains. His old companion Rajendra Prasad, who later on became India's first president, was the minister in charge of this subject in the interim government. Gandhi prevailed upon him to abolish these controls. The government feared that prices would rise after this, but Gandhi predicted that prices would fall as hoarded grain would come into the market. One year before Ludwig Erhard abolished wartime controls in Germany against the wishes of the powers of occupation, India did so at Gandhi┬┤s request. The prices of foodgrains did fall- and Gandhi triumphed. However, this did no apply to all goods. After Gandhi's death the controls of cotton textiles were also lifted and it was believed that he would have welcomed this. The millowners had warned against the lifting of controls at this stage because their machines had been worn out during the war and could not yet be replaced. Prices rose when the controls were abolished inspite of these warnings; they had to be re-imposed after a few months. This time they lasted for a long period and contributed to the ruin of the Indian textile industry.

Gandhi's constant quest to transform his thought into action could occasionally also lead to the making of a fetish out of his practice. This was particulary true of hand spinning. Gandhi did it wherever he went - even when he sat one the dais at political meetings. He referred to it as "the language of the hands". It was his reply to those who had pointed to rural unemployment an complaied about the flooding of India by British textiles. Hand spinning was supposed to signify self help. But the symbol soon transcended its original meaning. Clothing made of handspun and handwoven material became a kind of uniform of Congress politicians. It was often worn by people who did not share Gandhi's views at all. In independent India this emphasis on handspun and handwoven cloth became a guideline of economic planning. This led to the decline of the textile industry which was subjected to the regime of control mentioned above. The government did not take note of the fact that most "handloom weavers" had shifted to the operation of powerlooms. They were spreading in the informal sector of the Indian economy which was not encumbered by labour laws and hardly paid any taxes. The "organised" textile industry could not compete with the powerlooms in the long run. Only a few mills survived which relied on special products. Many mills turned "sick" and were taken over by the government which maintained them as it feared the wrath of unemployed labour. Since Gandhi was no longer alive, it is impossible to know what he would have said about this development which was due to a rigid interpretation of his earlier recommendations. Gandhi was a realist who had always made it a point to study in detail any problem on which he was supposed to take action. He always insisted on adopting the right means in order to reach an end.

With all his political and social actions, Gandhi aimed at convincing others. He strove for an "overlapping consensus" - a term introduced by the American philosopher John Rawls. After a long time of the neglect of ethics in modern philosophy, Rawls had once more introduced this subject. He should have been an enthusiastic admirer of Gandhi, but instead one notices a strange silence regarding Gandhi in his works. He even does not mention him in the important chapter on the right of resistance in his famous book The Idea of Justice. Gandhi had not only articulated the right of resistance but had also found ways and means to put it into effect. It is hard to believe that Rawls was ignorant about Gandhi, there must be a systematic reason for his avoiding even to mention him. Actually this reason is obvious, although Rawls does not refer to it. He argues that an "overlapping consensus" can only be attained by those who do not appeal to "comprehensive doctrinces" as he calls the articles of faith of established religions. Anybody who appeals to such doctrines must reject those of other faiths, this makes consensus impossible. In our times this is of particular relevance. Terror based on an appeal to a "comprehensive doctrine" would be incompatible with an overlapping consensus. It seems that Rawls saw in Gandhi a religious leader attached to "comprehensive doctrines". Much of what has been written about Gandhi could have confirmed this opinion. It is a pity that Rawls misunderstood Gandhi and was therefore unable to include his ideas in his treatment of political ethics and the right of resistance. This sevice has been done for Gandhi only by the German law scholar, Dieter Conrad, in his book Gandhi und der Begriff des Politischen. Staat, Religion und Gewalt. Conrad has not discussed the reasons for Rawls' silence, but he has dealt with Gandhi's approach to human rights and has shown that the concept of self-respect played a crucial role in Gandhi's interpretation of human rights. For Gandhi a denigration of self-respect was a worse violation of human rights than physical injury or the denial of freedom. Self-respect could be a central concept for the establishment of an "overlapping consensus". Gandhi was sceptical about human rights which were not derived from human duties. But the right of self-respect is fundamental, because without it there cannot even be a recognition of human duties. If Gandhi would have had to comment on "overlapping consensus", he could have argued that self-respect and implied by it the respect for the self-respect of others would be the starting point for such a consenus.

In all his politicans actions Gandhi pressupposed that his adversary also had self-respect and could therefore not deny it to others. It was Gandhi's non-violent strategy to challenge his adversaries on this ground. But, of course, this was possible only if the adversary had a human face and could be addressed by Gandhi. This is why Gandhi experienced the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan as an existential challenge. This was inhuman violence in a anonymous form triggered off by remote control. Gandhi was overwhelmed by a feeling of helpless impotence. Moreover, he was afraid that an American-British condominium could be established in India and the Indian freedom movement could be obliterated by the threat of unleashing this weapon. Everybody expected him to make a statement. Some statements were even attributed to him. So he sent a telegram to the Times in London saying that he had made no statement on the atom bomb. To an American journalist who inssisted on his reply he wrote that he could not say anything unless he could act. This showed that Gandhi felt constrained by the bomb in the field of political action. It was only one year later when the British showed that they intended to grant independence to India that Gandhi finally came out with his verdict on the bomb. He called dropping it on Japan "the violence of cowards". He also said that mankind would once curse the ma who had invented the bomb. The American government argued that dropping the bombs had cut the war in Asia short and had helped to avoid further suffering. This meant that the end sanctified the means - a principle which Gandhi had always detested.

Thinking about the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi for us today we should highlight his admonition that the end does not sanctify the means and that only good means can lead to a desirable end. An end achieved with the help of wrong means will in due course reveal its flaws. An aim reached by devious subertfuges will not be a good one. Violence is the worst of all bad means and lies and deception the essence of devious paths to an aim. Gandhi's insistence on the unity of thought, speech and action should also concern us today. He detested lipservice, but nowadays he is often honoured by the lipservice of those who no longer respect his thought and actions. Much of what he has said and done is understandable only in the context of his time. But it is the maxim of his thought and actions - as Kant would have called it - which can still be a guideline for us.

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