Sixty years after his death, Mahatma Gandhi is still a major presence on the world stage. Since his assassination on Jan. 30, 1948, at the hands of a Hindu extremist, Gandhi has had a global impact.
Gandhi has fascinated me ever since childhood. An iconic figure in India, he was part of my upbringing and schooling. Neither his deification by the government nor scorn from certain segments of society can take away the power of his message, which reached me through my family when I was barely eight or nine years old. In the decade I’ve been with the Progressive Media Project and The Progressive, I’ve done a whole lot of research and writing on him—work that has further confirmed for me what an amazing person he was.
He was all too human. He was starkly puritanical in his morality, and self-righteous to boot. As a result, his family life was difficult, with his oldest son forsaking him. He was so protean and capacious that he has been attacked from all sides—for being too Hindu, for not being Hindu enough, for being business-friendly, for being anti-capitalist, for trying to destroy the Hindu social structure, and for not trying hard enough to destroy it.
His worldview was deeply imbued with Hinduism, which led his main detractor, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, to (successfully) argue that he was at heart a Hindu leader. Activists for the deprived castes in India contend to this day that his efforts to eradicate untouchability were filled with condescension and didn’t go far enough. His notion of rich people acting as trustees of the community wealth in his vision of an ideal economy was certainly naïve. There have been questions raised about why he didn’t try harder to reach out to blacks during his two decades in South Africa.
But, still, what a positive legacy he has left behind! For just one person, he did so much and on so many fronts—from nonviolence and religious tolerance to anti-imperialism and social uplift.
In all the media attention that wars get, and the consequent relative neglect of nonviolent movements, it is easy to overlook the inspiration that Gandhi’s ideas have provided worldwide.
To start with the United States, Gandhi influenced two of the most important mass mobilizations in this country—the civil-rights struggle for equality for African Americans and Cesar Chavez’s advocacy for Latino farmworkers.
“Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale,” King remarked. King took a month-long trip to India in 1959 to get better acquainted with the land of his inspiration. It is not for nothing that a section of the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta deals with Gandhi.
But the influence of Gandhi on the civil-rights movement predated King. African-American leaders such as Howard Thurman and Benjamin Mays undertook long voyages to India on ocean steamers to meet Gandhi, while W.E.B. Du Bois corresponded with him. King was himself introduced to Gandhi’s vision by African-American Gandhians such as Mordecai Johnson and Bayard Rustin.
Gandhi had a great effect on Chavez, too. Chavez traced his political awakening to a newsreel he saw at the age of 11 or 12 showing that “this half-naked man without a gun had conquered the might of the British Empire.” Chavez modeled many of his tactics on Gandhi, from boycotts to hunger strikes. “Not only did he talk about nonviolence, he showed how nonviolence works for justice and liberation,” Chavez said.
Outside the United States, Gandhi has had a similar effect. Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, imprisoned Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu—all these giants of our time have acknowledged Gandhi as a guiding light.
Gandhi’s vision helped inspired movements that toppled dictators from Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1989 to the communist regimes in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in 2000.
Gandhi also made a big impact on the Muslim world. During Gandhi’s lifetime, a good friend of his, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, founded a movement for nonviolence and social reform among the Pashtuns on the border of current-day Pakistan and Afghanistan that had at its height more than 100,000 adherents. In the 1990s, Ibrahim Rugova led a movement for independence and social change in Kosovo that drew inspiration from Gandhi. And several activists in Palestine have adopted Gandhi’s message to offer nonviolent ways of resisting Israeli occupation.
But so much more needs to be done.
The world is torn by strife, caught between states that are too eager to use force and guerrilla armies drawn to the fatal lure of violence. The planet’s sole superpower has sent a terrible message to the world by engaging in a devastating preemptive war in Iraq. The nihilistic, ultraviolent philosophy of Al Qaeda has tainted the image of an entire region and religion. And in Africa, violence in the pursuit of cynical political ends scars the lives of millions from Darfur to the Congo.
Gandhi understood that his vision of nonviolence had mass appeal, and that his own leadership was of lesser importance. Gandhi himself said, “There go my people; I must run to catch up with them for I am their leader.”
More than half a century after Gandhi’s death, we need more leaders such as Gandhi who want to catch up with people engaged in trying to make the world a better place.