Mahatma Gandhi and his message: It is more relevant today than ever before

Lalit Shastri

Today the nation celebrates the 148th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Every year on October 2, we remember the Mahatma and recall all that he stood for. Question arises do we also try to assess how far we been able to follow his footsteps.

Mahatma Gandhi was absolutely clear in his concept that India should go back to the self-sufficient and sustainable village economy and not enter the rate-race for industrial progress. He was also fully convinced that the future of the country and the welfare of its people could be guaranteed in the best possible manner only by giving power to the people at the level of the village panchayats. In this regard, he was not in favour of rushing through but was clear in his approach that first the people, without any gender discrimination, should be educated and empowered.

Caste System and Untouchability

All through his life, Mahatma Gandhi preached “ahimsa” (non-violence) and fought an unceasing battle against the scourge of untouchability and the caste system. He was of the view that the economic status of the vast majority of those living in the countryside could be improved only by strengthening the village economy and his perception was that it was possible to lift the village economy by developing and supporting the growth of villages and small-scale industries.

Path of Progress

Mahatma Gandhi with Pandit Nehru

Mahatma Gandhi had his own priorities as far as the country’s welfare and progress was concerned. He had sharp differences with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was all out to pursue a policy which was focused entirely on speedy industrial development. On the issue of development, Mahatma Gandhi felt that if the country was to go solely for industrial development, majority of the people would end up suffering from poverty, illiteracy and lack of even the basic amenities. The Mahatma did not want to compromise the interests of the vast majority of successive generations of Indians by taking a path that was promising a quantum leap in terms of industrial growth but at the same time was also going to open the floodgates that he knew would drown a large part of the value system of the Indian society. He knew the pitfalls and was against people chasing materialistic goals. His big caution was that human greed will become the order of the day and there would be reckless exploitation of natural resources to meet the growing demand for energy and goods – most of it from the ever expanding urban centres.

Lopsided Development

Before becoming the leader of the masses, Mahatma Gandhi had toured the whole country and acquainted himself with the problems and challenges of the rural population. It was his desire that the country should follow a policy of grass-root all-round economic growth, which he strongly felt was necessary for the larger good of the people. Contrary to the cherished dream of the Mahatma, our leaders, led by Pandit Nehru, who had risen from the Freedom Movement, selected a path that largely catered to the interests of the urban population. During the last 70 years since Independence, we all know that the country has made tremendous progress in the field of science and technology, space research, and the nuclear arena. The country has also become a leading industrial power. But all this has been at a great cost. While the rich have become richer, the poor have continued to languish in utter poverty. Social inequality in India is a huge curse and it is a pity that our planners have failed to prioritise strategies and ignored the development needs of the countryside. As a result, there has been a constant influx of people from the villages to the cities in search of employment. In the process, while our cities have grown at a chaotic pace, the villages have remained devoid of even the basic facilities – the gravity of the issue gets reflected by the fact that even several decades after the Government of India launched the Sanitation Mission, people defecating in the open is one of the biggest problems. The Narendra  Modi Government is now combating it on war footing. Notwithstanding the government’s commitment in this regard, the challenge is huge and the desired results continue to evade us as the poor, who are struggling to meet both ends – more so after the country’s economy went in for a nosedive in the post demonetisation period – have their own priorities.

The State of primary health and school education facilities, availability of water (as per WHO standards),  roads, child care, nutrition, maternal and child mortality, access to government services, rampant corruption, law and order and general policing in the rural areas are issues that have failed to get due attention. Since our vast countryside is afflicted with chronic infrastructure deficit, the economic condition and living standards of the people at large remains a matter of serious concern.

With the advantage of hindsight, we are now in a position to analyse where we went wrong and how we have failed to live up to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. Presently, there exist widespread social tensions, economic disparity, poverty and social inequalities due to political devaluation and lopsided development. The social tensions, caused by economic disparities and also since we have outstretched the reservation regime based on caste lines, could have been avoided by putting into practice much of Gandhian principles and ideologies.

The Reservation System

The British had announced the Communal Award in 1932 as a tool to divide and rule India. Mahatma Gandhi treated this as an attack on Indian society. Protesting against the decision by the then British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald to give separate electorates to Dalits for electing members of provincial assemblies, Gandhiji went on a hunger strike and opposed the provision of a separate electorate. Babasahab Bhimrao Ambedkar, on the contrary, was pressing for separate electorate for Dalits but Mahatma Gandhi was steadfast in his stand that the Hindu society would get divided if this was allowed. In this backdrop, the Poona Pact was signed between Babasahab Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi on 24 September 1932. This agreement provided for separate constituencies but not electorates for the Dalits.

As per the terms of the Poona pact, the system of seat reservation for the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) was to come to end in 10 years. This provision was incorporated in the Constitution after Independence. But the irony is that the 10 year clause has been ignored by political parties of all hues and colours that treat the Dalits as a vote bank and in the process reservation of seats for SCs and STs in State Assemblies and Parliament continues without end.

Mahatma Gandhi also wanted to reform the society and end the caste system by following Guru Nanak Dev who had introduced the great tradition of eating together at the “langar”. The sufi saints also promoted the same spirit. However the caste system, has got deeply entrenched due to the quota system for SCs/STs and OBCs for filling government jobs and seats in institutes of higher education on caste basis. Matters got worst confounded as our leaders went a step further and also institutionlised the system of reservation for providing reservation in promotion to the SCs/STs. As a consequence of this, while the deserving among the youth who belong to the general category, are being sacrificed on the altar of the quota system, the suppression of merit and seniority of those belonging to the general, other backward classes and minority categories is taking a heavy toll in terms of administrative efficiency and this is against the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

We all know that the reservation system in its present form is greatly flawed. The quota for SCs, STs and OBCs is fixed on the basis of the population of the respective categories – up to a maximum limit of 50 per cent as defined by the Supreme Court of India. The provision of creamy layer applies to the OBCs but not the SCs and STs. The creamy layer ceiling has recently been raised from Rs. 600, 000 to Rs. 800,000 per annum. Hence the reservation guaranteed to the OBCs does not benefit the economically deprived sections within the OBC category as they have to compete with the more affluent among them. Similarly, the vast majority of the Dalits also get nothing out of the reservation regime as the poor, illiterate and economically weak among them are no match in comparison with the other Dalits who are already enjoying the fruits of reservation and are from the creamy layer.

The Challenges

It is a tragedy that in spite of all progress we see around us, the fact remains that we have not been able to build a proper economic infrastructure to create productive jobs for the teeming millions of our youth that are either getting wasted or getting sucked into the unorganised sector that offers much less than the minimum economic wages.

We are facing the problem of cross-border terrorism and infiltration in Kashmir in a big way. Organised violence is also posing serious threat to the unity and integrity of the country. The Maoists, terrorists, secessionist and communal forces have kept raising their ugly head in different parts of the country. What also has been adding fuel to fire is that some political parties even have been using the communal card to stay in power.

Despite all that’s bleak, there is also room for optimism. The country has successfully gone through the process of devolving power to the people at the grass-root level by appropriately amending the Constitution. The Panchayati Raj system is now deeply entrenched and working. It is certainly gratifying that our leaders and planners took into perspective the vision of the Father of the Nation and successive Five Year Plans started giving maximum priority to the villages and small-scale industries and the welfare of the people.

Today, when Kashmir remains disturbed and a section of the misguided Kashmiri Youth has to be brought back into the national mainstream, when the Maoists are holding vast areas across several States to ransom and blasting targets at will, when corruption has spread its tentacles across all levels of government functioning, and crime syndicates are threatening the normal life of the people, we find that the message of peace, non-violence and brotherhood, inclusiveness and all-round progress, probity and purity of means, and sustainable development that Mahatma Gandhi had preached all his life is more relevant for the people of India and the entire world than ever before.

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