In spite of millennial domination by rulers of non-Indian denominations that came to rule India from across the seas and from across the formidable Himalayan frontiers, India's ancient civilisational heritage remained largely intact. Similarly, despite large-scale conversions at the hands of its foreign occupiers the vast majority of Indians continue to adhere to the faith of their ancestors. The ancient Rishis of India in the mists of antiquity revealed to the world the nature of Brahman Chaitanya (Cosmic Consciousness) several millennia before the rise of the Abrahamic religions that spread across much of the world in the last two millennia. Vedic inspired denominations had also spread beyond Indian shores prior to that, mostly in the East. But, as distinct from the spread of Christianity and Islam, the sword had no part to play in the Eastward expansion of Vedic thought and Buddhism. Nor did the pacific expansion of Indic thought lead to bitter interdenominational strife in the regions where it spread. It is important to keep this subtle but important difference in mind when examining the influence that an economically resurgent India might wield as the world moves deeper into the 21st Century.
An aspect that needs revisiting is the manner in which India got its Independence in 1947, at the time when the 20th Century after having seen two world wars was nearing its mid-point. Historians in India have attributed the country's independence to Gandhi's satyagraha; while it may be soulfully satisfying in an age sickened by violence to believe that India marched to freedom on the frail shoulders of the Mahatma's philosophy of non-violence, such attribution strays considerably from reality. India got its freedom as a result of Britain's exhaustion after the two world wars and its replacement as a global power by the new superpowers, USA and Russia. There is no way that Britain could have held on to its Indian empire much longer. The British Indian armies had played a significant role in the allied victories in the two world wars. Post-1947, had the British delayed the granting of independence, the battle-tested troops of the Indian Army – the Army that had underpinned Britain's world dominions for well over a century – would have soon rebelled, forcing an ignominious retreat on the British. There had already been a rebellion in the Indian Navy and the trial of returned INA (Indian National Army) prisoners of Subhash Chandra Bose had rekindled the spirit of fervent nationalism. The tinder being dry the call for an armed insurrection by a national leader would have led to a number of mutinies across the length and breadth of India. Had law and order broken down it would have engulfed the British. The two-century edifice of the British Raj would have crumbled overnight. It would have led to large-scale massacre of the British, something which was visited instead on the Hindu and Muslim communities when partition of India took place with the announcement of the Radcliffe Award in 1947. Because they left when they did the British went home in a blaze of glory with abundant goodwill for the Crown. They even saw their last Viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten appointed as the first governor-general of independent India. Such was the goodwill that obtained at the time of relinquishment of the colonial empire, that the leaders of free India went on to become the architects for the formation of the British Commonwealth of nations.
Ironic as it may seem it was the British who put a Hindu on the throne of Delhi for the first time after one thousand years of foreign rule. The Hindus never fought for it. In a manner of speaking it was bequeathed to Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India by an act of the British Parliament in London. Meanwhile, M.K. Gandhi, the apostle of peace, who had propounded ahimsa for nearly half a century, could only watch with horror the large-scale killings that took place when the subcontinent was divided – into the nations of India and Pakistan. Gandhi died not long after from an assassin's bullet at a prayer meeting, hardly more than a mile from where Nehru, the anointed Prime Minister ruled the new nation. Had Gandhi not been killed by Nathu Ram Godse's bullet, he would have died of a broken heart, unable to bear one of the worst slaughters in Indian history, possibly the largest non-war slaughter in world history.
A brief introduction to modern India's birth pangs becomes necessary to understand the psyche of its leaders when evaluating India's projected rise to the status of a world power in the 21st century. To what extent would India's economic might lead to military might commensurate to its geographic size and population base? Will it emulate China's search toward hegemonic parity with USA, the unchallenged superpower of today? Are there limits to India's military power projection in the current century and beyond? If so who and what set those limits? These questions need to be addressed in the framework of the present global scene and its likely projection for the coming decades. Although Gandhi continues to form an important part of the ongoing political and economic discourse taking place in the country it has to be said that in spite of the ideals of the Mahatma being quoted reverently at most forums where the future course of the country is debated, his economic and political philosophy has not found acceptance in so far as its practical application goes. Yet, at the end, it is difficult to think of an India that completely dissociates itself from the beliefs of the Mahatma, whether they relate to governance, sustainable development, harmony in pluralistic societies, or for the conduct of nations in the global arena. It is not surprising that Gandhi continues to attract the attention of so many people around the world, both as the man and the ideals that he stood for. Unfortunately, the debate around the Mahatma rages mainly around elements that were never put into practice in the land where they took birth.
Looking back on the events of the 20th century, both before and post-independence in India, one cannot fail to get the impression that although he did not lose hope or his faith in his ideals Gandhi might have died a disillusioned man; if not disillusioned, certainly heartsick at the turn of events. Did the bloodletting that took place at the time of partition in the land where for decades he had preached ahimsa indicate that his philosophy had failed? It did not end with partition. The bloodletting continues to this day in every part of the subcontinent where the 'father of the nation' travelled.
The increasing hiatus between Gandhi's tenets and the policies followed by Gandhi's successors in India, regardless of their political leanings, raises fundamental questions. For the people of India and for people around the world there can be no perception of India, real or imagined, where the ideals of the Mahatma do not loom large. How is this contradiction to be reconciled? Because, if it is not addressed and is merely glossed over at every public place within the country and without, where the name of Gandhi is taken, India will not be able to emerge unscathed from the troubling dissonance between the precept and its practice.
India having veered so far away from the Gandhi's teachings it should have been possible to reject his philosophy out of hand and move on without a backward glance at an ideal that was considered impractical; or one that could not be put into effect in a land were hollowness, hypocrisy and untruthfulness have become the order of the day in public life. In which case, getting rid of the baggage of Gandhi's legacy and getting on with the governance of the country in the non-Gandhian pattern that prevails should have been easy.
This has not been the case. At the same time that untruthfulness and venality are in full cry, the very leaders who have propelled the country in that direction have not been able to dispense with the trumpeting of Gandhi's legacy because of a lurking fear that should it be discarded altogether India would not only have lost its way, it would have lost its soul. Then there would be no turning back.
The thought of that final break, even shedding the pretense that is, troubles these people. They know that without the pretense they would not be able to face their countrymen, not at the hustings, not in public, possibly not even in private. At a deeper level they are not unaware that a final abandonment of Gandhi would be tantamount to condemning themselves to a karmic descent too horrid to contemplate. For, no matter how immoral the lot that governs the nation, in their heart of hearts they are deeply religious, albeit in a very warped sense of what their understanding of being religious should be. They also know that in India the vast majority of their countrymen revere the Mahatma and in spite of their poverty, deprivation and misery still closely adhere to the thoughts and ideals of Gandhi. For they are the ideals of Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and so many other sages and seers who moulded the character and destiny of India through the ages. The destiny that awaited India at midnight of 15th August 1947 has eluded the country. Beneath the despair and turmoil that afflicts the land that destiny still awaits the country. India many hope might yet produce the leaders who would take it to the pinnacle that the Mahatma and the sages before him dreamed of in their quest for global harmony. The ideal, therefore, cannot be lost sight of. The ideals of Mahatma Gandhi are far too important for the redemption of India, if it is to find its feet and its true destiny. For the very same reason it is important for the world as well.
It is necessary to go a step further. The reasons as to why when the majority of Indians believe in it and the political leaders profess to believe in it, Gandhi's teachings have not prevailed in the country of its origin have to be gone into. The main reason could be the difficulty of transplanting the Gandhian ideal of the early 20th century. An alien dispensation that ruled the country, because of it being alien, was instrumental in uniting the country ideologically (toward freedom) in the earlier decades before independence. The circumstances that obtained post-independence after the partition of India were not the same. As the years went by – after the failed decades of socialism – leading to the market economy in most parts of the world, the implementation of those ideas became even more difficult. Firstly, as brought out earlier, the conditions had altered radically, and secondly, having moved so far away from the Gandhian philosophy and its economic derivatives it became increasingly difficult to retrace the steps. Having said that, the attempts at strengthening panchayati raj and the adherence to the principle, if not the practice, of sustainable development would qualify as a bow in the direction of Gandhi.
Meanwhile a fundamental change has taken place in the make up of the people of India and the world. Nearly sixty years after Gandhi's death, the capitalist model and the morality that goes with it have become the norm. Even countries most staunchly opposed to it earlier have embraced it whole-heartedly, notably Russia and China. Could people of those days when Gandhi was popularizing the charkha have anything in common with Deng Xiaopeng's famous exhortation to his countrymen that, 'it is glorious to be rich '. If it were glorious to be rich there would be nothing left of Gandhi's philosophy. If not the masses, at least the political class and the elites of modern India have embraced Deng's dictum as fervently as the Chinese in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong; in many cases as strongly as the Americans themselves. Whatever be the reason for this departure from socialism to capitalism, it is undeniable that going back to the economic idealism contained in Gandhi's writings would relegate India to an economic abyss from which there would be no recovery in the world of today. Maybe, when consumerism that is fast overtaking the globe makes life itself unsustainable on the planet, people across the world will start reappraising the economic philosophy of Gandhi. That is why the world is not going to forget Mahatma Gandhi in a hurry. By association India, rightly or wrongly, will benefit from that grand reversal, whenever it takes place on a global scale. If India is to remain part of the global economy, without completely shedding some of the desirable aspects of its socialist past, it must start its own reappraisal for benefiting from the vision of Gandhi wherever it is possible to transform that vision on the ground under the prevailing conditions in the country and the world. If the world has to save itself from self-destruction Gandhi's non-violence must become the leitmotif of a globalised world, and a reformed UN structure that would make non-violence between states the norm for the 21st century. The United Nations has adopted October 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi as World Harmony Day. It was possibly Mahatma Gandhi who said: 'for my worldly needs my village is my world; for my spiritual needs the world is my village'.