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Mahatma, Obama and India

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Despite his tribute to Gandhi, it is obvious that Obama is promoting skewed development which grinds down the poor, observes Asghar Ali Engineer.

Obama on his recent trip to India paid glowing tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and even said he belongs not only to India but to whole world. Needless to say it is easier to pay tribute but very difficult indeed to act in conformity with his philosophy. Anyone who becomes Mahatma meets with the same fate. We pay rich tribute to him and ignore his teachings in practice. In fact, the more we ignore his teachings, the richer tends to be our tribute.

There are very few exceptions to this rule. We Indians are guiltier of ignoring Mahatma’s teachings than others. All our politicians ritually pay tribute to Mahatma; we name roads after him, install his statues and, what is ironical, print his photograph on currency notes of all denominations. Similarly all heads of states who visit India are ritualistically taken to Gandhiji’s Samadhi to lay wreaths of flowers.

Obama’s tributes to Gandhiji, I must say, was not merely ritualistic; it was more than that. It seems it came from his heart. Obama after all is a follower of Martin Luther King Jr., who was greatly influenced by Gandhiji’s philosophy of non-violence. What is the distinguishing feature of Martin Luther is that he practised non-violence and won rights for African-Americans through non-violent means.

Martin Luther King had to sacrifice his life for his ideals but he liberated African Americans in the 1960s. Obama is also Martin Luther’s follower; so what he said in India was more than mere formality and had a ring of truth. But having said this, some questions would be in place. Martin Luther practised what he believed and empowered the African-Americans. Though Obama too believes in Gandhiji’s philosophy of non-violence, since he contested the election and won the US presidency, he is far from practising this philosophy.

What Gandhi stood for

It is very important to note in the case of Gandhi that he never involved himself in any kind of power struggle. He never entertained the ambition to become President or prime minister of India. The day India became independent and when government formation was taking place in Delhi, Gandhiji was far away in Navakhali putting out the fire of communal violence. He did not even celebrate Indian independence, which came at a heavy cost of partition, on one hand, and, mass killings, on the other. And his priority was establishing communal harmony. So he chose to be in Navakhali, which was burning in communal fire.

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Secondly, anyone who takes Gandhi seriously and claims to be his follower must practice non-violence which is not possible without practising truth – ahimsa and satyagraha (non-violence and truth) go together. Any country which is armed to the teeth to the extent that it can destroy with those arms this earth 10 times over cannot practise non-violence. America wages wars in so many countries of Asia and Africa in the name of security. In fact, the more arms it possesses, the more it feels insecure.

It has several hundred of the most disastrous nuclear arms. Gandhiji was totally against nuclear arms. Thus, the first thing Obama can do is to prepare an authentic programme to eliminate nuclear arms and then acquire the moral right to ask other nuclear powers to destroy all nuclear arms. Today, even under Obama, the United States is practising double standards. While it pressurises Iran not to manufacture nuclear weapons, it directly or indirectly justifies Israel’s possession of more than a hundred nuclear heads. How can it exercise any moral authority to ask Iran not to go for nuclear arms? Such double standards are totally against Gandhji’s philosophy of truth and non-violence.

Thirdly, under Obama, as a true follower of Gandhiji, America must bring about genuine peace in Palestine and get Palestinians their rights. Gandhiji had said that Palestine belongs to Palestinians as much as India belongs to Indians or England belongs to the English. I hope Obama has read these words of Gandhiji and as his follower, he should do everything possible, resisting all pressure, to restore Palestine to Palestinians as per the UN resolutions of 1948 and 1967.

Yet another question is that of liberalisation and globalisation. Gandhji had said that real progress and development is one which benefits the least person in the society or the poorest of the poor. What we see in the world in general and in India in particular is just the opposite of that. The poor are getting horribly poor and the rich are getting vulgarly rich. It is a well known fact that more than 75 per cent people in India are living on Rs25 a day which cannot even buy a single meal.

It is obvious that Obama too is promoting this kind of skewed development, which results in extreme polarisation between the rich and the poor and grinds down the poor. Gandhiji would never approve of such ‘development’. It is this kind of unjust development which results in more and more violence. America also invades other countries not only for its security but for its economic ‘prosperity’. Only a just society can be a truly non-violent society.

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Violence the result of injustice

Today India is also witnessing so much violence – be it Naxal violence or communal violence or ethnic violence or caste violence only because there is no justice. Tribal areas are being plundered by multinationals for minerals for so-called development earning billions of rupees whereas tribals go hungry. Would Mahatma Gandhi approve of such loot resulting in gross injustice?

Gandhiji laid down his life for the protection of and justice for minorities. A Hindu fanatic shot him dead accusing him of favouring Muslims. Today political parties directly or indirectly organise communal riots to win elections. Can this be a just democracy? Agreed, no blame can go to Obama for this state of affairs but often communal violence also takes place to hide the ugly reality from gross injustices. Communal solidarity is promoted to break class solidarity. The poor of one community are made to kill the poor of another community.

Poverty and development favouring the rich becomes the cause of violence, which then takes different forms including communal violence. Even in western societies, racial feelings go up during economic downturns. Just imagine the extent of violence in India where almost 75 per cent people live either on or below the poverty line. Such a developmental model simply cannot be acceptable by any admirer of Gandhi.

Gandhi stressed simple living with a stress on spirituality and truth. A non-violent society is not possible without simplicity, truth and spirituality. A high standard of living such as the Americans and the Indian elite have will inevitably lead to violence as such high standards are based on exploitation and injustice which inevitably result in the genesis of violence. Modern economies are based on generating artificial needs and high levels of consumerism.

President Obama was, on the one hand, admiring Gandhi and, on the other, was all praise for the high rate of growth of India which, as pointed out above, benefits only the upper class elite. Both admiration for Gandhi and his philosophy of truth and non-violence cannot simply go together. President Obama had come to India mainly to create jobs for Americans through collaboration with the economic growth of India – not so much to express his admiration for Gandhian philosophy.

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We are aware that it is not easy for Obama or for any American President to bring about change in the economic model and bring down the level of consumerism. It is easier said than done. No American president can survive such change. The American president cannot even reduce conventional armaments, let alone nuclear armament as there are strong linkages between military and industry.

But it is also true that as long as America follows such a pattern of economic growth and high standards of living at the cost of poorer countries, there will be no peace in the world. Also, it seems to be a compulsion of the American military-industrial complex to sell armaments and provoke violence in some or the other part of Afro-Asian countries. Bush had said with all conviction that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the US then destroyed Iraq with their own weapons of mass destruction and now he admits in his own book ‘Decision Points’ that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

This lie was spoken deliberately and the entire media controlled by the elite who benefit from such lies readily obliged and propagated the theory of weapons of mass destruction. All this is necessary for sustaining unjust patterns of economic growth. A Gandhian with any measure of sincerity cannot be part of such unjust economic growth. A true Gandhian has to be spiritually-oriented and has to equally concentrate on his or her spiritual richness as much as the material one.

The modern economy is such that the more one consumes, the more one needs and the more one becomes hollow spiritually. No growth deprived of morality and spirituality can bring any joy to the people. It can bring only stress and tension. Many of Gandhiji’s economic theories also need to be critiqued as he was writing and theorising during colonial times. A Charkha (spinning wheel) economy cannot work today but some of Gandhiji’s insights are valid even today as much as they were during those days. There are eternal truths and contextual ones. We need not stick to contextual ones.

Asghar Ali Engineer is associated with the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.

Source: Secular Perspective, 16-30 November 2010.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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24 Jan 2011 7.18pm

Ghandhiji Politics was relevant and went to the heart of his followers in fact most of the indian nation at his time
– they were poor, those gave to protest in non violent way
eg ,they could spin, pray and when all else fail give protest. H

Operation Mahatma
18 Jan 2011 9.40pm

63 years back he was sacrificed for truth,he is coming back, will u stand by him? Operation Mahatma http://on.fb.me/f1LdeV Join us

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