Albert Einstein was a Gandhi fan. He described Gandhi as “the most enlightened of all the political men in our time” and that “generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this in flesh and blood ever walked upon this earth”.
Sixty years ago, on January 30 1948, Gandhi was gunned down by a religious fanatic. Three shots to the chest extinguished a most extraordinary life.
Despite Gandhi being one of the 20th century’s towering figures, a liberator of hundreds of millions of people, his lessons in the politics of peace seem lost in the haze of history. Yet even the most iconic peacemakers; Nelson Mandela, Dr Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, all acknowledged themselves as following in Gandhi’s footsteps. If these moral giants and a genius like Einstein were inspired by Gandhi then maybe we mortals should take notice too. Indeed, with terrorism on the resurgence, the whole world needs to be reminded of Gandhi’s lessons. As Martin Luther King warned, "If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk."
Gandhi had no wealth or property, he led no army, he held no formal position in any government, and he was no great orator. Garbed in his self-weaved loin cloth, he was just a humble man who voiced simple truths that spoke to the conscience of all humanity.
Gandhi rejected conventional politics as we know it. Instead, his “politics” drew out the best of our human qualities. In contrast to everything we see in contemporary politics, Gandhi proved that political debate can have a supremely enlightening role. As Albert Einstein observed, “Gandhi demonstrated that a powerful human following can be assembled not only through the cunning game of the usual political manoeuvres and trickeries but through the cogent example of a morally superior conduct of life”.
That may sound quaint and romantic, but Gandhi’s politics and his “morally superior conduct of life” brought the greatest empire of the day to its knees.
Gandhi’s famous “Salt March” in 1930 illustrated how he conducted “politics”. The British financed their military domination of India through their monopoly on the salt market. It was illegal for Indian people to even collect salt off the beach.
Gandhi led a mass of people on a 380km protest march to the coast. The climax being Gandhi publicly scraping up a hand-full of beach salt for his personal use. In a grain of salt Gandhi found the perfect symbol of freedom. This led to thousands of Gandhi’s followers literally queuing up to passively submit themselves to being beaten with wooden clubs by the British forces.
For its time this was a shockingly innovative form of symbolic politics. Its logic and political impact was literally beyond the comprehension of the British political establishment. But in front of the whole world’s media, the British destroyed any moral authority they thought they had to rule India.
Gandhi left great historical lessons for oppressed peoples. His main lesson was that nothing of real value can ever be achieved through a politics of violence, but enormous positive change can be won through non-violent politics. Gandhi condemned all forms of terrorism and hate rhetoric. He knew that such strategies were politically unproductive and self-damaging for oppressed peoples. In this sense, Gandhi is the antithesis of Osama Bin Laden.
But Gandhi’s peace-politics had lessons for his oppressors also. His politics forced the British people to reflect on the immorality of their tyranny over India. In the end the British Empire was unable to justify to itself what it was doing to the Indian population. In effect, Gandhi also raised the moral conscience of the British people.
What Gandhi did in the Salt March was a watershed in human history. He kicked off the global de-colonisation process by proving to the whole world the greater value and power of non-violent politics. Without Gandhi’s lead, the latter half of the 20th century may have been a lot bloodier than it was.
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