Mahatma GANDHI, it is sometimes said, was an Indian who is no longer for India alone. He is for the whole world. Yet, it took nearly 60 years after his assassination for the international community to acknowledge that truism in a formal sense and on record. In mid-2007, the UN declared the Mahatma’s birthday, October 2, as the International Day of Non-Violence. The UN had a membership of 192 countries in 2007. Of these, 140 countries came forward to co-sponsor the resolution, which established the annual commemoration in the UN General Assembly. That was more than two-thirds of the UN’s membership, an impressive number considering that some country representatives to the world body live in New York for reasons other than serious practice of any diplomacy. ‘Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind,’ Gandhi’s famous words echoed in the General Assembly Hall as the resolution was adopted. ‘It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.’
His life’s work was fundamentally aimed at ending colonial subjugation. If that scourge has disappeared from today’s world, it is to a very large part due to Gandhi.
It took another 12 years for the UN to issue a commemorative stamp on the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. Foreign governments and institutions representing the ‘establishments’ worldwide have been slower to recognise the universality of Gandhi’s beliefs and practices than peoples and their leaders, men and women who are of the masses and for the masses. Martin Luther King Jr., the US’ apostle of non-violence and civil disobedience, who met his end like Gandhi, is the best example. Nelson Mandela, who became a symbol of the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa and later became a model for all of Africa, is another. Gandhi, who was assassinated 75 years ago today, would have been happier with this legacy than a Nobel Peace Prize, for which he was overlooked. Gandhi’s followers often cite this omission by those who award the Nobel honours as a blot on the Peace Prize. The Mahatma could not have cared less.
The world we live in today is vastly different from the era in which Gandhi lived. It would not be inaccurate to say that his life’s work was fundamentally aimed at ending colonial subjugation. If that scourge has disappeared from today’s world, it is to a very large part due to Gandhi.
Some three years ago, while speaking at the chambers of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in New York, PM Modi was asked what if Gandhi had been born in a free country, what would he have done? Modi’s answer was amplified in greater detail by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar a week later when the US Library of Congress marked the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. In Jaishankar’s words, ‘The answer obviously is not a simple one because Gandhiji’s outlook and thoughts spanned a very broad spectrum of human activity. But to the extent we can define it within sharper boundaries, they are best captured by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the world seeks to achieve today. These range from ending poverty and hunger, securing education, health and employment, achieving gender and income equality, combating climate change and adopting an environment friendly lifestyle, adapting our consumption and production habits accordingly, and undertaking domestic and global partnerships for sustainable development. In fact, each of these themes is reflected in Gandhiji’s writings, advocacy and example. He was truly a figure ahead of his times and the relevance of his teachings has only grown in the modern era.’
There is an important lesson to be learned from the timing of the UN resolution on non-violence, indeed, of the growing worldwide acceptance of Gandhi, be it through the installation of his busts at public places in many cities, issuance of commemorative postage stamps by countries or the institution of lectures in renowned centres of higher learning. All these have coincided with India’s emergence as a major economy and as an aspirational global power. The 2007 UN resolution was the first international commemoration of its kind for India, demonstrating that realpolitik cannot be divorced even from the promotion of human values. It was possible for India to universalise Gandhian ideas and the memory of the Mahatma in the 21st century — not before, in the first nearly six decades after his death — because India was a poor country during those decades and its global standing was low. The acknowledgement of Gandhi as a universal icon by international institutions also coincided with a steady winning streak for India in elections to UN bodies such as the Security Council, judgeships in the International Court of Justice and the rise of people of Indian origin (PIOs) to positions of influence in important countries. Today, the US Congress has a significant number of PIOs, so does Canada’s House of Commons. PIOs have become PMs in the UK, Ireland and Portugal. Indian Americans now head numerous multinational corporations. Whether they realise it or not, each of these PIOs is, in subconscious popular perception, a messenger of Gandhi in a symbolic sense and their presence among the crème de la crème in many walks of life in every continent has catalysed omnitude for Gandhi’s ideas and memory.
Forty years ago, Richard Attenborough’s acclaimed film, Gandhi, triggered a revival of interest in the Mahatma. On the 40th anniversary of the release of this film, which won eight Oscars, veteran UN diplomat Ramu Damodaran wrote in this newspaper about the diplomatic impact of Attenborough’s celebration of the Father of the Indian Nation. He recounted the film’s profound effect on global diplomacy and in initiating significant steps towards eventually dismantling the apartheid superstructure in South Africa. Gandhi was, indeed, an Indian who belonged to the world. There is no other public figure like him in India’s entire history.