Mahatma Gandhi
© Global Look Press/Olaf Krüger
Portrait of the old Mahatma Gandhi, painting, Aga Khan Palace, Pune or Poona, Maharashtra, India, Asia
One hundred and fifty years on from the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, what lessons can we draw today about the way he helped achieve Indian independence?

He was the 'great soul', a modest, saintly man whose campaigns of 'satyagraha', non-violent civil disobedience, shook what was then the largest Empire in history to its foundations.

Gandhi took on the might of the British Empire with 'soul-force' and won. Does that prove that non-violent civil disobedience is always the way to achieve political goals?

The answer to that question is, "time and place and the international context is everything."

The British Empire today gets a pretty bad press. But if we stay cool and objective, we have to admit there was a significant difference between the way British rule in India functioned in its earlier days and how it was in the 1930s.

Put simply, if Gandhi had been operating a century or even half a century earlier, he would have been shot by those who ruled his country. As it was he spent five and a half years in jail in British India on account of three major civil disobedience campaigns, but he wasn't murdered by the authorities. As he would have been, without a shadow of a doubt, in 1930s Germany had he publicly advocated mass civil disobedience against the Nazis, or if he had vocally opposed the government of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union at the same time.

That doesn't mean we should sanitise British rule in India from 1918-47, or minimise the risks Gandhi ran. Around 400 were killed in the Amritsar (Jallianwalla Bagh) massacre of protestors in 1919. Following the salt tax protests which Gandhi led in 1930, it was estimated that over 60,000 resisters were put in jail. Yet despite this repression, the British were pursuing a policy of reform. An analogy with late Imperial administration can be made with 'goulash communist' Hungary in the 1980s. In 2009, Imre Poszgay, Hungary's minister of state in 1989, made a startling admission to the BBC - and one which backs the view that the end of communism was decided from above: "For a long time," he said, "I believed in communism. But from the early '80s I realised it was unreformable - and the only thing to do was to change that system."

While the Hungarian 'communist' government of the late 80s was dominated by people who didn't believe in communism, similarly there were people administering the British Empire in the 1930s who believed less in old-fashioned empire and more in colonial self-rule, albeit in stages. The problem as B.R. Nanda in his biography 'Mahatma Gandhi' (as cited in 'Mahatma Gandhi and his Apostles' by Ved Mehta), highlights, is that each British reform/concession "tended to become out-of-date by the time it was actually granted."

It also helped Gandhi's cause that he was admired greatly in the colonial power.

That die-hard Empire loyalist Winston Churchill may have infamously described him as a "seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir," but thankfully there were more enlightened views in the British Establishment, and in society at large.

On a visit to Britain in 1931, Gandhi met with Lancashire cotton mill workers, whose jobs had been threatened by the Indian boycott of British cotton goods. "He met and charmed everyone, low or high," says Roderick Matthews, author of 'Jinnah vs. Gandhi'.

The international situation was also on Gandhi's side. The 'anti-imperialist' US was keen to see the end of the British Empire, so they could move into its lucrative markets. Britain's withdrawal from India was expedited due to the financial pressures following World War II and the enormous debt owed to the US.

Tragically, Gandhi was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu nationalist just five months after Indian independence was achieved in August 1947.

His enduring influence could be seen in the US civil rights movement of the 1960s, and in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, where Gandhi had also been involved in anti-racist campaigns earlier. Again, these campaigns, for civil rights and against apartheid, succeeded not just because of the methods used but because of who was on the other side and the international situation. White America realised segregation was wrong. Enough white South Africans too came to the same conclusion about apartheid. But it's worth remembering that apartheid only ended after the Berlin Wall came down, and there was no longer any 'threat' of a communist, Soviet Union-allied post-apartheid RSA.

While it would be overly simplistic to say that Gandhism can work anywhere, it would be equally wrong to dismiss what can be achieved by 'soul-force', even on what appears to be infertile ground.

Violence does beget violence. There is so much hate in politics today and ironically some of the most hateful people around are those who claim to be countering hate! Just consider the video of masked 'anti-fascist' protestors screaming 'Nazi scum' in the faces of an elderly couple trying to cross the road in Canada to attend a public meeting.

Could you imagine Gandhi behaving in such an aggressive and repellent way?

Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the Mahatma in the over-heated, highly polarised political climate of 2019 is how noble ends cannot be achieved through ignoble means. Personal integrity is paramount, however righteous we believe our cause.

Let me end with an anecdote from the Earl of Halifax, who as Lord Irwin, served as Viceroy of India from 1926-31. In his autobiography 'Fullness of Days', Halifax paid generous tribute to the man who caused him so much trouble. Gandhi appealed to Halifax to pardon a young man called Bhagat Singh - who Halifax says "had been recently condemned for terrorist crimes." Halifax told Gandhi he could not grant a reprieve and felt that postponing the decision (until after a meeting of the Congress Party in Karachi), and building up hopes would not be honest as there was no chance of a reprieve. Gandhi asked the Viceroy if he had any objection to him saying at the meeting that he had pleaded for the young man's life. Halifax said he did not, but he asked that Gandhi could also tell his audience that the Viceroy could not see what other course he might have taken. Gandhi was roughly received, but he kept his word to Halifax.

"I should think of no person whose undertaking to respect a confidence I should ever have been more ready to accept than his. Measured by human standards, the abrupt cutting short of his life was a tragic deprivation for the country that he loved."

And indeed for the world at large.
About The Author

Neil Clark is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and blogger. He has written for many newspapers and magazines in the UK and other countries including The Guardian, Morning Star, Daily and Sunday Express, Mail on Sunday, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Week, and The American Conservative. He is a regular pundit on RT and has also appeared on BBC TV and radio, Sky News, Press TV and the Voice of Russia.