“Gandhi’s timeless inspiration to Mission Leaders” with Ramachandra Guha
Through his interaction moderated by Rohini Nilekani, we hope you will come away with a deeper understanding of how Gandhi shaped his intent and life to fulfil his various goals – of individual freedom and agency, a true Swarajya and how he achieved impact at scale. Many of the choices he grappled with are relevant to us today.
0:00:01.3 Ramchandra Guha: Ramachandra Guha is a notable historian of the this century, a writer, a biographer, a famous columnist, having many great pieces of work to his name. His most recent work being a two volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi. He’s an awardee of very many prestigious awards like the Malcolm Adiseshiah Award for excellence in social science research, the Ramnath Goenka Prize for excellence in journalism, the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Daily Telegraph, Cricket Society Prize and many, many more. Thank you very much for your time today with us, Ram.
0:00:33.9 Vijyawanthi: Thank you.
0:00:34.4 RG: Rohini Nilekani is the Founder-Chairperson of Arghyam, the Founder-Chairperson of Pratham Books, co-founder and director of EkStep, board of trustees of ATREE, foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Wellbeing project. As a journalist, she has written for many leading publications, author of notable books like Stillborn, Uncommon Ground and many, many books for children like Annual Haircut Day, which was a big hit. She’s a committed philanthropist, signatory to the Giving Pledge, core partner of Co-Impact, above all she’s the force behind Societal Platform thinking. Thank you so much for joining us today, Rohini. We have the Aspire fellows and some of their senior leadership team members joining us today in on this call. We all look forward to the session. I now hand it over to Rohini to take us forward. Over to you Rohini.
0:01:26.2 Rohini Nilekani: Thank you, Vijayanthi. Thank you, Sanjay. Ram, I’m so delighted to have you here for this session because I thought, it would interesting for… It would be really interesting for our fellows to be able to understand from you who understands Gandhi’s lives so well and so deeply, how can we be inspired by Gandhi, but also what are the other lessons of both caution and you know, important questions that we can put from the table, put on the table based on his life, so, shall I just get straight into the questions, Ram and just let it flow.
0:02:01.9 Vijyawanthi: Absolutely, absolutely.
0:02:03.8 RN: So the first question, Ram, I’d like to ask you, and all of us need to think on this, that Gandhi when he began he was quite an ordinary man, and in fact, when he started out as a lawyer, he wasn’t a particular good lawyer, he was scared to speak and he had no self-confidence, couldn’t even defend his own cases in the beginning very well, and then he goes to South Africa to… Because he has some family… I mean family issues etcetera, how does he find it in himself to have the courage to take to that humiliation that night when he’s thrown off the plane, stay there all night, I think, without a coat or whatever. And then how does he find… What happens to him over the next 50 years that turns him into some kind of saint. What does it hold out for other ordinary people like us. What would you say to that?
0:02:54.6 Vijyawanthi: So well before he was a failed lawyer, he was also utterly mediocre student. So one of the discoveries that I made in the course of the my research was of a little obscure book published in the 1960s by the former headmaster of his school in Rajkot, the King Alfred High School. And there was a headmaster called Upadhyay who had been there many years after Gandhi was a student, but had found the mark-sheets of Gandhi, and they’re very revealing. So in the Mumbai matriculation, he came 404th out of 800 and something. His marks in Gujarati and English were 43% and 44%. Someone who was to become a great writer in Gujarati and in English. So the beginnings were extremely unpropitious. Now, I think what was interesting however was his quest for both the truth and for learning. So the friendships he made, you know, for a baniya boy in the 1870s and ’80s in a small town in Gujarat to have a Muslim as his best friend. It’s an act of translation, of course, he writes in his autobiography about how this Muslim boy, Sheikh Mehtab wanted him to eat meat and so on and so forth but still that to go out of your comfort zone, out of your caste and befriend someone from another community.
0:04:18.3 Vijyawanthi: And also then, of course, the moral courage or the almost, you could even say a reckless ambition to travel to London. He said, “I want to go to London” and the caste excommunicated him because both baniyas were very conservative, they were not supposed to travel across the seas. So although he was not particularly good in his studies, he had a desire to learn, to explore, to experience new things, new lands, make new kinds of friendships, and that’s a… So in a sense, we often talk about intellectual curiosity, it being important in any sphere of life, but this is you could say personal, emotional, moral curiosity. What is to someone who’s not a Hindu be like, what would it be to go to a foreign country. So I think that is something which is was marked in him, but then of course, he comes back and fails as a lawyer, as we say and he is rescued from professional oblivion by an invitation from South Africa.
0:05:24.2 Vijyawanthi: And again, that’s where the journey begins. So if he just for argument’s sake, Rohini, supposing he had succeeded as a lawyer in Bombay, we would not be having this conversation today. India may not have been formed in this way because he would have settled into a comfortable practice servicing other Gujaratis, having a home in Santa Cruz or Khar or places you know very well, rearing a family and that would be the end of Gandhi, as we know it. But luck and circumstance and often sometimes plays a part in the making of greatness. So he goes there and the people who call him are a Muslim family, Gujarati Muslims who were having a dispute, it was a family dispute. Now that also is quite common among business families in India today that the two brothers are fighting or the two cousins are fighting, has happened. But they bring in a lawyer who knew the English law, but also could read in Gujarati. So he was called and the first night in Durban, he stayed in the home of his client who was a Muslim. Now this would be inconceivable in Rajkot that you spend the night for a Muslim to stay in a Hindu’s house or vice-a-versa. So I think it’s here there where is it at and the diaspora formed in because in the diaspora he also broke the boundaries of class.
0:06:45.2 Vijyawanthi: Though it was a Gujarati family who had called him, the dominant sections of the Indian community in South Africa were Tamil workers, plantation workers and mining workers. So he immersed himself in the lives of poorer Indians, Indians who spoke a very different language. And as someone who started your life as a journalist Rohini, it’s a striking fact that when Gandhi started a magazine called Indian Opinion in 1904, in Durban, to proselytize for the cause of the Indian Community there, that magazine was printed in four languages, four scripts, Hindi, English, Tamil, and Gujarati. And every language is a new world. I mean, you know you yourself are a… You’re someone who knows many languages. So I think it’s this extraordinary ability to learn about other kinds of being, a people who practice different faiths, who speak different languages, who belong to a social background different from yours, that I think is central in Gandhi’s early journey, which shapes him as he goes along around.
0:07:55.1 RN: Yeah, thank you. For our purposes, I take away very importantly from you that… And many of our fellows do have this, of course, that’s why they are where they are, and that is curiosity. Like a completely open mind, openness to the human condition and a curiosity about it, experiencing perhaps early failure and persisting through it, which is what many of the people here on this group do, and of course, then there is circumstance and luck, which has to be there to get to where we are, so thank you for that. Let me… I don’t even know whether to do this chronologically or not, but let’s use what you said to…
0:08:40.9 Vijyawanthi: Rohini, one second, can you put on your video? It’s just easier for me to see you and then… Yeah.
0:08:44.9 RN: Oh, my video has gone off? Oh, I didn’t realize it had gone off, sorry. Oops. Here I am, sorry, sorry about that.
0:08:52.1 Vijyawanthi: It’s okay. Perfect.
0:08:52.4 RN: So I’m not sure if I should do this chronologically, but… So here is Gandhi and then he has sort of become reasonably successful in South Africa, and then that event happens, and then of course he gets into this whole spotlight and eventually comes to India, and then we have, of course, a lot of his engagement with the freedom struggle, we have Champaran. So I want to quickly move quite forward in history to say, between Champaran and Chauri Chaura, and the Salt Satyagraha, there’s a lot of time, in between. And what happens in that time for him to consolidate his thinking, to consolidate his ability to do bigger and bigger things. What consolidates his ability to think very clearly about means and ends? Because all of these people whom you’re talking to, they face these questions every day as they try to do their work across communities. So can you talk, for as long as you want, on some of these topics.
0:09:57.6 Vijyawanthi: Sure, sure, absolutely. But first, let me explain or try to explain why Gandhi came back to India, because that’s relevant to many of our personal journeys.
0:10:10.7 RN: Yeah.
0:10:11.6 Vijyawanthi: He was a huge… He was the most… He had a monopoly. There were 150,000 Indians, and he was the only qualified lawyer. In fact, at one stage, the burden of cases on him was so much that he reached out to Jinnah, ironically, to join him, another Gujarati lawyer, because he needed a Gujarati speaking lawyer, and Jinnah could not go, but there is an interesting kind of… Interesting… What could have been in history. But here he was, a successful professional, a well-known lawyer, the a acknowledged leader of his community, and he give it all up to come back. Now, by the way, he never tells us why he came back. I, as a biographer, I speculate that he came back because he exhausted the challenges that faced him, he had already achieved what he could. He was the most respected, the most influential, the most admired Indian in South Africa, but there were only 150,000 Indians in South Africa. He wanted a larger stage for his ambitions. I think ambition is not necessarily a bad thing, if the ambition is moral and political, not to be the richest, or most powerful, or have the most houses, or whatever, so actually it was you could say professional ambition.
0:11:27.9 Vijyawanthi: He had exhausted what he could do in South Africa, and said, “Let me try a larger stage.” And there’s already, when he comes back, the Congress is 30 years old, it already has leaders like Tilak and Gokhale. He may have sensed that he’s younger than them, so he can prove himself under them. So I think that’s a question I have tried to answer in my book because it’s never been posed. Why did he come back? Why would he give up such a comfortable, prestigious life for an uncertain future? And because he wasn’t was a… You could call him, a political entrepreneur, he wanted to try something new, something exciting, something more daring, something that he hadn’t done before. So he comes back, and Gokhale who was already his mentor, tells him something very wise, “Spend a year traveling around India. Don’t jump into politics straight away. And keep your mouth shut for a year. Don’t speak on any social or political subject for a year.”
0:12:23.1 Vijyawanthi: Now, that’s actually quite extraordinary because it’s a discipline. When you’re starting something new, when you’re going into something new, “Don’t pronounce,” which in his case, a career in Indian politics, “Don’t pronounce on what needs to be done until till you’ve done a proper apprenticeship, until you have soaked yourself thoroughly in the landscape, the people, the context.” And that’s what he does. And he would start slowly, as you say, in 1917, he’s called to Champaran. Again, it’s very interesting. I mean look at the lessons for leadership of Gandhi’s journey and the role chance plays. In Champaran, in Bihar, Indigo tenants are facing enormous suffering and exploitation by European landlords. There is a man called Raj Kumar Shukla, who goes to the Congress to get a Congress leader to help them and Tilak and others are too big. They say…
0:13:19.6 Vijyawanthi: “We don’t want to go to some remote part of Bihar”, but Gandhi said, “Let me try, let me try.” So, he actually, unlike the other Congress leaders, gets down from his pedestal and goes and finds a cause. And the first day he goes, he is arrested, and almost deported, and the news of his deportation, threatened deportation, reaches the Gujarat Club in Ahmedabad where Vallabhbhai Patel a prosperous lawyer is playing bridge, and he’s impressed that this Gujarati has the guts to be arrested by the British. He said, “I’m gonna give up my law practice and join him.” Now, this is interesting because, in these early years, Gandhi is also gathering around him a group of outstanding colleagues and co-workers.
0:14:03.8 Vijyawanthi: So, your grandfather, for example, goes and helps him in Champaran. J. B. Kripalani, a very distinguished Indian freedom fighter and quite a remarkable man, also goes to Champaran to work with Gandhi. Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India is also first acquainted with Gandhi through Champaran. So he starts this peasant movement, which succeeds and there’s an agreement worked out with the British landlords, planters, where much better terms are given to the peasants, which I describe in my book. Then in Ahmedabad where he already has his own ashram, and which is his home base, he gets involved in better wages and working conditions for workers. There also he leads a relatively successful struggle. And then in 1919, of course, there is a Rowlatt Satyagraha, which is against a particularly obnoxious, draconian piece of colonial legislation, which he launches and that makes him an all India leader. And in the course of the Rowlatt Satyagraha he comes to Chennai or Madras as it was then known and acquires C. Rajagopalachari, later to be India’s first Governor-General, as his devoted follower.
0:15:12.1 Vijyawanthi: He also travels to Allahabad, where he acquires Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru as part of his group of committed political activists. So, he is, finding a cause, expanding the horizon of his activities from peasants in Champaran, to workers in Ahmedabad, to a full fledged All India movement against a draconian act and building a team. Then of course, comes the Non-cooperation movement, which after… Which he calls off when there’s a bloody incident of violence in Chauri Chaura where some protesters burn a police thana with several policemen in it. And that’s where the question of means and ends. Because at that stage, in 1922, the Non-cooperation movement had engulfed all of India. One of the things that Gandhi did was to transform the Congress party itself. So he enters an organization and transforms it. So, when he enters the Congress in 1915, it is already 30 years old. It’s quite well established. It has very important leaders like Tilak, Gokhale, Lala Lajpat Rai, Dadabhai Naoroji. It has branches in every province of India. But it has a major weakness.
0:16:32.2 Vijyawanthi: Its proceedings are only in English, its members are all male, and its members are all professionals. So, he takes over this organization and then transforms it by bringing in women, by saying every provincial unit should conduct its proceedings not in English, but in Tamil or Marathi or Kannada or Telugu or whatever is the main language of that region, and by moving beyond the urban middle class and the professionals to peasants, workers, artisans and so on and so forth. So the chances… So, among amongst his great achievements is a transformation of an organization. To enter an organization and transform it in scale, in scope, in vision, in membership, in philosophy, in instruments like starting new newspapers, new journals as a vehicle for its use, and of course, this building of a team. I’ll just… In many ways, Gandhi’s… One of Gandhi’s… As a leader, one of his really under-appreciated achievements.
0:17:38.9 Vijyawanthi: If I may, just move rapidly forward for a minute. If you contrast Gandhi in this regard, to India’s three most successful Prime Ministers, who are Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Modi. Now, I’m not… This is not the occasion to discuss their relative achievements and failures, their ideologies and their styles of governance, but what is common to Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Modi on the one side, is that they don’t make leaders out of followers. They can’t… Everyone has to report to them. They’re the… They’re… It’s… Of course they’re charismatic, they’re influential, they’re inspirational, they inspire people to give their lives for them, but Gandhi built a team.
0:18:30.7 Vijyawanthi: Gandhi was not only the greatest Indian of the 20th century but he gave India Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, Kripalani, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Maulana Azad, Zakir Hussain, Mirabehn, hundreds of other politicians, social workers, institution builders who went on to become leaders in their own right. So this is what he’s doing while he is building this movement. The last thing I’d say it, then I’ll… We’ll… As a response to this particular question of yours Rohini, is that, also part of Gandhi’s greatness is that while he is expanding the Congress, while he is making it a mass movement, while he is launching campaigns to pressurize the British for independence, he’s also scrutinizing Indian society for its own failures and weaknesses. So Gandhi is fighting the British but he’s also fighting Indians, non-violently. He’s challenging the British morally, by saying “If you believe in freedom, if you say Westminster is the home of democracy, what about democracy for colored peoples, right?” But he also telling Indians, “You have to be fit for freedom. Can you be fit for freedom if you treat one fifth of your population untouchables? Can you be fit for freedom if women do not get equal rights?” Now Gandhi’s campaign to abolish untouchability is very well known.
0:20:00.7 Vijyawanthi: We know he’s by far the most alert upper caste Hindu at that time to recognize the terrible injustice that Hindus, Upper caste Hindus commit on untouchables but he’s also in his own way bringing women into public life. Now, by the standards of 2020, Gandhi is not a feminist. He himself tells us how he treated his wife, he was ambivalent about women working outside the home, but by the likes of his own time, he was extremely progressive. In 1922, he goes into jail because of Chauri Chaura and then he’s arrested. He comes out of jail in 1924, and the Belgaum Congress is going to be held in December of 1924, and the President has to be chosen. He says, Sarojini Naidu must be the president, a woman must get a chance, but since he’s just come out of jail they said, “No, you must be president.” So in 1924, in Belgaum in our state of Karnataka is the first and last time Gandhi is the president of Congress.
0:21:11.3 Vijyawanthi: But the next year, he makes sure that Sarojini Naidu is president. Now in United… Kamala Harris has just become Vice president of the United States, but in… That’s in 2020. In 1925, there was no woman member of the US Congress, the US Senate, even a municipal body in San Francisco had only all male members. So to appoint a female president of India’s most influential political party a 100 years ago was a revolutionary and radical step. And that’s because he recognizes that Indians treat women badly, they treat Dalits badly, and of course he had… Between the even religious differences he’s conscious of and so on. So he’s not only battling the British, he’s battling India. He’s calling Indians to their better, their more noble self. And that’s part of his greatness that he… He doesn’t believe in a jingoistic nationalism which says Indians are great, hindus are great, we are perfect, we just have to go back to the Vedas and we’ll be all fine.
0:22:17.2 Vijyawanthi: He recognizes every religion, every society, every nation is fallible and every individual too. I can say a little bit maybe later about how he grew as an individual, how he overcame his own fallibilities. But this, he’s doing so many things between 1915 and 1922, much more than just fighting for freedom, he’s building a party, building a cadre and scrutinizing Indian Society for its own weaknesses and failures and saying, “If you oppress one section of your own population, what moral right do you have to demand political freedom from the foreigner?”
0:22:56.9 RN: Yeah, that’s… Yeah, thank you. That’s huge for us to think about over here is, one is, of course, how does the… How do we as hopeful change makers learn from this about first of all, expanding our teams, bringing in more and more people, and keeping inclusion at the heart, whether it’s bringing in women, or bringing in Dalits, or bringing in any other excluded categories to welcome them into a broader coalition with a very commonly accepted goal of both Swarajya that is the winning over yourself, the inner journey and the outer journey of getting India freed from the colonial power. So bringing people, how do we all bring people like he did together on a common platform, but never forgetting that inner journey, which creates the moral undeniability that on which the whole impact of the journey will rest.
0:24:06.8 RN: I don’t know if all of us would be lucky enough to have Ghokles and Patels and Nehrus and Rajagopalacharis to help us along the journey. But the point being very well made about how he’s thinking ahead, so you can link that Ram to your point which you were just wanting to make, which is that, how does he go past his own… So how does he go past his own chauvinism? At one point he didn’t say very nice things about colored people, and had some confusions, how did he… How do we all learn to keep evolving towards higher and higher humanitarian goals and not just articulate them? First of all, do it by your own example, but also by creating some processes by which other people can do the same. How does he do that? Can you give us some instances of that?
0:24:58.6 Vijyawanthi: So, as I said from very early on in life, he’s curious, he’s questing, he’s enquiring, he’s engaging. Now when he goes to South Africa, he’s 24 years old, he’s a young man, so he’s overcome some prejudices, but others he hasn’t. You know skin color is… Indians are inherently racist, culturally Indians are racist. You just have to look at our marriage advertisements to know Indians are racist, even in 2020. And so he grew up… Gandhi grew up in a, milieu in a household, in a part of India where white was superior to black, and the customary sentiment among educated Indians were Indians are Aryans, like the British. We lost ourselves but one day we will equal the Britishers. So one day we will be as civilized, as respected, as powerful, as prestigious as our rulers but the Africans will always be at the bottom of the heap. So, he went to Africa with those prejudices and he expressed that in his early writings, he was a racist. And he, between… In his 20s and 30s, he was a racist but he slowly began to overcome it. He saw Africans at work, he grew to admire their sense of morality, their truthfulness and he became a non-racist in South Africa but still he kept his movement separate from that of the Africans. He said the Indians have their own battle to fight, the Africans have their own battle to fight.
0:26:38.5 Vijyawanthi: He comes back to India and he moves from being a non-racist to an anti-racist. So, over the last 30 years of his life, he’s a principled anti-racist and he tells the Indians who are back in South Africa, “You have to make common cause with the Africans for a joint program to end racial inequality of all kinds.” In his Ashram in Sevagram, he’s visited by many African-Americans including a quite remarkable couple called, the Thurmans, who were later mentors of Martin Luther King, and they come to meet him in 1936 in Sevagram. And he tells the Thurmans, “It’s through you, it’s through the Negroes or the African-Americans, that the message of non-violence will reach the whites.” So he… And the other people who visit him, there are African soldiers in the Second World War, who come to Sevagram and have an audience with him and so on. So he moves from racist to non-racist to anti-racist in his attitude to cult. His evolution with regard to caste is also incredibly interesting. It’s described over many hundreds of pages in my book, but let me try to briefly to summarize. So, Gandhi abhors untouchability, but he’s nervous, so he says untouchability must go, but he is nervous about attacking it frontally.
0:28:03.8 Vijyawanthi: So in his Ashram in Ahmedabad, he admits a Dalit couple. It turns out that when he admits a Dalit couple, the funder stops funding. I don’t know how many of you have been to Ahmedabad, some of you would have been to Ahmedabad, there is a beautiful heritage hotel called House of MG, near the Sidi Saiyyed Mosque, some of you might know it. Gandhi’s original funder in Ahmedabad, original patron was MG, Mangaldas Girdhardas. But when Gandhi admits a Dalit couple, MG says, “I won’t fund you, because it’s against our Dharma and you can’t have people of different castes mixing.” So his enterprise will fail, but he’s rescued by Ambalal Sarabhai, a progressive philanthropist who says, “Okay, doesn’t matter. You can take a Dalit couple and I’ll keep your execution going.” But at the same time, what he’s doing in his Ashram, he doesn’t prescribe to society at large because he thinks society is not ready to accept it. So he says, “In my Ashram, Dalit and Savarna eat from the same plate but I am not saying that you should practice that in your kind of environment.”
0:29:13.4 Vijyawanthi: He meets, first, the great Kerala social reformer, Narayana Guru, and then of course the great Maharashtrian social reformer, BR Ambedkar, and these two remarkable individuals radicalise Gandhi. Confront him, challenge him, compelling to take more critical and direct positions attacking caste. So, because of Narayana Guru’s influence, and you could say provocation, Gandhi organizes a temple entry movement or blesses a temple entry movement in Vaikom in Kerala. So, from saying untouchability is bad, now Gandhi is saying Dalits and upper castes can go together into the temple, worship right in the sanctum sanctorum, so God is equal for us. Then he advocates inter-dining and also inter-marriage. So, from the late 1930s onwards, the only marriages that Gandhi personally supervises and organizes in his Ashram are between a Dalit and a Savarna. So over 20-25 years, he steadily radicalises his position on caste from saying untouchability is bad but varna in theory is fine.
0:30:26.7 Vijyawanthi: Different castes have different responsibility, different occupations, different traditions, we won’t rank them hierarchically but they’ll be different, they won’t inter-marry, they won’t inter-dine, towards actually advocating what Ambedkar wanted, the annihilation of caste in everyday life. But it’s because of Narayana Guru and Ambedkar. So they challenge him, they confront him, they critique him, and you could complain perhaps that it takes him quite a long time to digest these criticisms and respond to it, but finally he does. Many of us won’t, we’ll be so entrenched and confirmed in our positions that we won’t change. Now another example of Gandhi’s evolution is his attitude towards his children. He was a disastrous father to the first two children, but much better and much more caring towards the younger two. Again, he learnt. Unfortunately, the two elder children, particularly the eldest Harilal paid a horrible price for his father’s unfeeling, uncaring, arrogantly paternalistic attitude. So Gandhiji’s evolution, and I think another aspect of his evolution, Rohini, and I’ll just, is that he adds… If an unknown person wrote him a letter of criticism and he felt that criticism had some merit in it, he would print it in his journal and answer it.
0:31:55.9 Vijyawanthi: He would say, “Okay, so and so has written from Bengal” for example, in my biography, I talk about something which is very current. Gandhi had said about what we call eve teasing, what is known as eve teasing, harassment of young women by young men. He had said something very silly, very prudish, he had said something like, young women should not wear fancy dresses and jewellery, they should not attract the… So, 11 women of Bengal wrote him a rejoinder, a brilliant rejoinder showing how mistaken he was, how he was blaming the victim and he printed that letter in his journal, and then he sought to you answer it and conceded some ground. So this willingness to engage in debate and dialogue in a way in which you are transforming your opponent, but you are also transforming yourself, if the person whom you are arguing with is saying things that you should be listening to. This is a exceptional quality that Gandhi had. That is why, of course, some of his adversaries or… Not adversaries, some of the people he was debating with were… He could convince, like Jinnah.
0:33:08.4 RN: Yes.
0:33:08.7 Vijyawanthi: But he debated with Jinnah over 20 years about whether Hindus and Muslims could live together in a single state, he didn’t give up right till the end. And always his language was impeccably courteous, there was no innuendo, there was no sneer. I mean what Gandhi would have done with the trolls on twitter [chuckle] I don’t know, I mean it’s like… But absolutely he debated on principle, he could disagree but respectfully, politely and it was always possible to change his mind in the way in which Ambedkar and Narayana Guru did.
0:33:42.5 RN: Yeah. Thank you. That’s a big lesson, and unfortunately, the times today for people in civil society is that civil spaces themselves are shrinking for such public discourse. And so today we have to make extra efforts to be able to talk beyond the divides, across divides and yet not turn that into… And learn how to keep that as a civil discourse, which is becoming so hard. I have 10 questions and we have only six minutes left before we go to the audience for their questions. Let me just take two more questions and then open it up and then see if we can come back to my last two questions later. But something I must ask you, Ram, is, see Gandhi is such a moral force and he… And I find this difficult to answer, should people on mission, all of the people you are meeting here today have a mission, they want to solve issues of education or health or so many other things, can they afford to take a high moral stance like Gandhi does?
0:34:48.7 RN: For example, he says, if there’s any violence, we just shut down this Satyagraha, we just don’t take this forward, we just wait and how can the non-profit leaders here… Can they afford to take all this so personally or should they be more detached from immediate outcomes and say, but the thing must go on. How do we continue our work and yet keep our moral stance, but still we can’t afford to be like Gandhi. So, what do we learn from the way he used his moral force? He would go on fast unto death, he would shut down any movement if one person was violent, he could… So, how, what… We can’t do that. So what should we all do?
0:35:34.9 Vijyawanthi: No you are right, we clearly can’t… Firstly, none of us have that kind of moral force to do it and we shouldn’t do it also. We shouldn’t… Occasionally people found Gandhi’s fast cohesive too. In the ashram, he was like he could be cohesive, even the Poona fast in 1932, Ambedkar found cohesive very now. But I think to go back to what you said about civil, how to be civil in civil society. Few months ago, a very great American Gandhian died, Representative John Lewis, who spent his whole life fighting for civil rights who actually admired Gandhi, came to India several times, started a Gandhi trust in the States and so on. And there’s a beautiful line of John Lewis. He said, “We must learn to disagree without being disagreeable.” Now, I think that’s something… And further to that, we must leave open the possibility that a person, younger than us, junior to us, less experienced than us can persuade us that they are right and we are wrong or open our mind that much. So, working in an organization, I think it’s very, very important for anyone, all the chain makers who are here, who will work in organizations, not to have that absolute servitude. Of course, you have to have a burning desire, even an ambition, which I’m calling it as a sense of mission, a kind of a passion with which you do your work, but I think dialogue is absolutely crucial and taking people along is absolutely crucial and to speak clearly and directly.
0:37:14.9 Vijyawanthi: One of Gandhi’s… Gandhi was a beautiful writer because he was so clear and direct. There was no jargon, there was no obfuscation, there was no drawing attention to himself, it was always the issue, clearly and precisely stated. And I think that’s something he learned to do maybe because he was a lawyer and the law teaches you to be precise and so on, but certainly obviously, we can never have… We can learn a great deal about growing as individuals, developing organizations, collaborating, cooperating, improving, self-questioning from Gandhi, even if our sphere of work is compared to his relatively modest. Gandhi by the way… A very important aspect of Gandhi’s thought was that unlike religious fundamentalists, and unlike Marxists, he did not believe in a perfect society.
0:38:15.2 Vijyawanthi: He was not a utopian. He was a reformist and an incrementalist. As he said, one step is enough for me. If you can revive a water tank, a degraded water tank in a village in Karnataka and restore its ecological and social integrity, in Gandhi’s eyes you would be a hero. You don’t have to have a situation for all of… A solution for all of Karnataka, all of South India, all of Deccan. One step is enough for me and which is of course a line from a English hymn. But there is another line of Gandhi which I like very much, which is the beauty of compromise. And if I may give a concrete example about this Rohini, which is relevant to all of us. In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a inspirational non-violent Gandhian movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan led by Medha Patkar, who was Gandhian in every respect, in her personal being, in her courage, in her non-violence, in her compassion, and in her suffering. But there was one Gandhian element she missed which I’m going to talk about. So there was this movement, again because our experience with large dams in independent India had been that people who were dispossessed by them were never compensated properly, never rehabilitated properly.
0:39:41.6 Vijyawanthi: There were questions about the longevity over the dams, about the siltation, about the ecological implications. Economy said that cost-benefit analysis studies suggested that a series of smaller dams would be less destructive and more profitable than large dams. So there were major questions being raised and this inspirational non-violent movement came. It took the case to the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court was hearing the case, the dam, the projected height of the dam was 456 feet. It had already reached 240 feet. Two engineers in Pune called Joy and Paranjape, developed a compromised solution which said, if you reduce the height from 456 to 430, you will reduce displacement by 70% and they urged the Narmada Andolan, “Tell the court, there is a compromise solution for this particular dam. And let this dam be built at a lower height by minimizing the suffering to the displaced people and then you can have a commission to investigate whether there should be future dams.” But the Andolan said.
0:40:50.4 Vijyawanthi: “Not one inch less.” Now, I think, in my view, even then I said it, and I’m not using the words in hindsight, I wrote about this 20 years ago, that was a tragic mistake, because if the court is confronted with a plea, “Demolish this dam.” Well 5000 crores have already been spent. Rescue what is there, minimize the adverse impact it could have on displaced people and two outstanding engineers had designed a compromise solution. So, I think this is something, one step is enough for me, the beauty of compromise I think are lessons that every organization builder can heed. Don’t shoot for the moon. Don’t be dissatisfied if you don’t meet all your hopes and dreams and expectations, because you never will. Small incremental change, one human being helping 100, 200, 500 people is amazing. It’s a huge service to society. And I think that’s one lesson. That’s why what Gandhi did was to send people to different parts of India to say, you run the Khadi workshop in Muzaffarnagar, and that is enough to give you a sense of idealism and zeal and fulfillment if you can have a weavers cooperative that generates 5000 jobs. I think it’s a fantastic achievement. So you have utopian thought, because if you try to transform the whole of society, you will most likely leave wreckage behind you.
0:42:20.1 RN: Yeah, so I think this ties into what we call Societal Platform thinking in some few ways which is we are not so concerned with all of these change makers scaling their own organizations, but we are concerned about all of us scaling our missions, which are societal missions, which are about more equity and more inclusion. So, but if everyone were to take that one step or if not everyone many, you would still have a lot of steps and you will have a plus one shift and change happening at scale regardless. So, and of course, a lot to learn about compromise and trade offs which are really at the heart of social change. So thank you for that. I don’t have any time but I have to ask one. I wanted to ask you about Gandhi as a political strategist but I hope someone else asks that. But Gandhian technology before I open it up to the audience, many people have this misconception that he was almost a Luddite etcetera. But even the charkha is a technology.
0:43:13.7 RN: And can you just enlighten us, because many of civil societies leaders today struggle with this question of, say, especially digital technologies today. Though I think Gandhi would have been super successful on SMS or on social media, but can you enlighten us on how did he see this struggle with technology? Was it mostly about not allowing technology to reduce agency, which we talk about a lot in the societal platform course?
0:43:40.9 Vijyawanthi: So, as with caste, as with race, as with gender, Gandhi’s use on technology are evolving. And too many people take Gandhi’s book, Hind Swaraj written in 1909 as the first and last word on everything he said on technology. There he demonizes railways, then he says sarcastic things about doctors. That’s not true because Hind Swaraj was written when Gandhi was only 40 years, he had another 40 years to live. Hind Swaraj was written when Gandhi had not experienced life in India. For example, his whole attitude to modern medicine changed dramatically when two modern doctors saved his life. One in an appendicitis operation, one who cured him of piles. So, the longer he lived, the more he saw science and technology in action, the less hostile he became. Of course he was opposed to centralization. He was opposed to the dispositional agency that big technology can bring about, which was a risk.
0:44:42.7 Vijyawanthi: But, for example, technology that liberated women from drudgery like the single sewing machine which he famously placed, so if he had a… I don’t think by the 30s and 40s he was so hostile to either science or technology, as he may have been when he was a young man, young radical in South Africa. The charkha, I’d say something, I’d like to say something about charkha. Why did Gandhi make a fetish of the charkha? The charkha was important for Gandhi for three reasons. Firstly, because he felt that rightly that we had a flourishing community of weavers.
0:45:22.9 RN: Just in case, just in case, the charkha is the spinning wheel, which, because there are people from around the globe. I’m sure you know. But it’s the spinning wheel that he used to spin yarn, cotton yarn. Yeah, please go ahead.
0:45:35.1 Vijyawanthi: So, Gandhi made a fetish of the charkha. He said, every congress member must spin every day and produce so much yarn. Why did he make a fetish? Firstly, because it was true that the flourishing textile industry of India was destroyed by the East India Company, and cotton was exported from here, and finished goods were made in the Manchester textile mills and sent back here. So, the destruction of handicrafts was a step towards the consolidation of colonial rule per se. The second reason Gandhi promoted charkha was to break down the boundary between manual and mental labor, because in our caste systems Brahmins thought, Baniyas did accounts, but only the Shudras work. Everyone must do manual labor, everyone in the Congress must learn the dignity of labor. And the third reason he promoted the charkha was a sense of solidarity. Everyone in the Congress is doing the same thing. Now contrast Gandhi’s mandate that every Congress man and woman must spin, Nehru, Patel, everyone must spin with what fascist parties do. How do you cultivate solidarity? March up and down in the uniform.
0:46:50.8 Vijyawanthi: That’s how we are part of the same group. So he’s cultivating social solidarity, but in a incredibly creative non-violent way. So I think his charkha program has all these dimensions, and it should not be seen through the narrow prism of Gandhi is reviving a 18th century technology and rejecting a 21st century. Not at all. Not at all. So any technology that was emancipatory, liberating, non-violent and did not destroy the environment would meet with Gandhi’s approval.
0:47:23.6 RN: Thank you, that was so inspiring and it should trigger so many creative thoughts among all of us as to how will we look at similar problems and come up with equally marvellous symbolic gestures to counter certain societal threats that loom ahead of us.