| | |

The Legacy of Gandhi in the Wider World

Aruni Mukherjee

Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth [1]

 The very ‘idea of Gandhi’ [2] inspired millions of men and women not only during India’s nationalist struggle against the British Empire, but his visions and actions, according to Brown, had an ‘enduring significance for all times and places’ [3]. True, the modern urban India seems very much in an age of ‘diet Coke, flat screen televisions and super express highways’ [4], but for our purpose, we must concentrate on some areas where Gandhi’s apparitions have been or is at work with success. Gandhi’s influence in post 1948 India and the world can be seen in a range of fields some of which include environmental, religious, social and political issues. The constant factor in most of these cases has been the adaptation of Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha through non-violent measures which has surely been his greatest gift to our world.

 There is little doubt that the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1960s led by ‘one of the greatest American leaders of our time’ was the echo of ‘the forces unleashed by Gandhi in 1930’ [5]. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned Gandhi many times in his autobiography as a response to a comment by Gandhi that ‘it may be that through the American Negro, the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world’ [6]. King’s strict adherence to non-violence, despite various provocations, could be seen as a wholehearted embracing of Gandhian policies practised earlier that century. There were factions within the Negroes themselves and many wanted to resort to violent means but King invariably intervened on each occasion preventing a hideous outburst of bloodshed so much so that Juliette Morgan wrote, ‘The Negroes of Montogomery seem to have taken a lesson from Gandhi....’ [7]. Not only Gandhi’s means of carrying out civil disobedience but also his ideas were greatly influential for King. He thought that civil disobedience was not a ‘do nothing’ method but the ‘method of the resolute’ [8] just as Gandhi thought that it’s ‘practice requires fearlessness and courage of the highest order’[9]. Thus, ‘Dr. King synthesized Gandhi’s method of non violence…to develop a powerful weapon in the struggle of the African-American community for human dignity’ [10]. The success of King’s movement in America clearly marks perhaps the greatest triumph of Gandhi’s ideas and methods after his death.

 In an age marred with wars everywhere, the glowing influence of Gandhi’s ideas remained evident in South Africa, where the Mahatma had first taken it upon himself to challenge the might of the British Empire. Even as the country  was succumbing to raging civil war, Gandhian activists like Dr. Dadoo and Naicker carried on their movement against the Asiatic Land Tenure Act and for the restoration of freedom of the Indians in Natal [11]. The examples set by the Natal Indian Congress were particularly inspirational for the movements of Nelson Mandela, particularly the Youth League and the African National Congress, who took a good part of Gandhian philosophy on board while organising boycotts and other demonstrations. Mandela himself was particularly moved by Gandhi’s 1913 march from Natal to the Transvaal and the 1930 Salt March [12], hailed by many as the Mahatma’s finest hour. Apart from Mandela and his associates, Gandhi’s ideas were also reflected by social activists like Fischer who worked towards a multi racial and harmonious society in South Africa but also firmly believed ‘that it could be done only through non-violent measures [13].

Gandhi’s rebuke of the traditional caste system and his call for helping the Harijans had much effect after his death. The Nehruvian welfare state triggered this off by establishing special provisions and quotas for the Dalits, Schedule castes and Schedule tribes some of which exists to this very day like the SC/ST Act of 1989. Although traditional caste differences do exist in some areas like Bihar, generally much has been done to promote an organised Dalit movement by none more than the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights established in 1998, which makes the voice of 240 million Dalits a significant one for politicians[14]. Dalits have also found their way to the top of the system in India. The elevation of Dr. K. R. Narayanan as the country’s 10th President’ represents ‘a major triumph for Gandhi’s legacy. [15]’ Rambilas Paswan is another such example of a successful Dalit politician. Keeping in mind that much needs to be done, ‘education and growing awareness means that Dalit concerns have to be taken seriously. They are not politically untouchable anymore’ [16].

Perhaps none of Gandhi’s followers have created so many worshippers of Truth and Non-Violence, so many genuine workers as has Vinboa Bhave [17]

The work done towards improving the situation of the Dalits in India did never reach a higher point than the Bhoodan - Gramdan movement of the 1950s led by Vinoba Bhave, a direct disciple of Gandhi. This programme of lobbying the government for land for the landless, encouraging local landlords to give up some of their land to their less well-off neighbours and helping villagers engage in a movement for their rights was instrumental in improving the condition of the downtrodden. ‘Thus, a personal initiative assumed the form of a mass movement, reminding the people of [18] the movements led by the Mahatma.  

One of Gandhi’s main emphasis was on individual empowerment of a human being who acts as part of a society [19]. The Indian society, to him, should have been mainly a village based rural one. Although India’s cities have rapidly taken the shape of an industrialised urban society, the heart of India still remains in its 70,000 villages spread across its 200 districts. Much needs to be done to improve infrastructure, however, the villages of India have improved a lot since 1948 with the government taking significant steps to empower the villagers such as the ‘Operation Flood’ making India one of the world’s largest milk producers [20], NGOs assisting in artisan work, improving health and sanitation (another of Gandhi’s concerns) and establishment of organisations like the Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology has helped too [21]. Health issues in rural India are also been taken care of with programmes such as Pulse Polio and NGOs are also taking an active part in this [22]. Gandhi stood for the welfare of the peasants more than anything else and improved infrastructure, better technology and management of the markets has reduced the severity and frequency of droughts in India and around 70% of India’s population remains engaged in agricultural work and India has emerged as the world’s largest producer of agricultural goods. Recently the government has initiated plans for a Canal Garland System linking major rivers to facilitate irrigation and lessen the effects of drought further [23]. Overall, in rural India, consumption has definitely gone up [24] and, with the Supreme Court firmly establishing rights to private property halting a Nehruvian attempt towards socialism[25] and India quickly liberalising its economy since the mid-1990s, so has inequality with GDP per capita growing at 7% p.a.. The fall of poverty overall since the 1940s in rural India could be seen as a direct consequence of implementing Gandhian policies of constructive work and the government standing by the peasants on the whole through out this time [26].

Embrace the trees and save them from being felled;

The property of our hills, save them from being looted [27]

Gandhi believed very strongly in conservation of India’s natural resources which were often misused and over-used for the sake of India’s industrial development. The Chipko movement in Uttar Pradesh in the 1970s is the biggest Gandhian movement in this direction to prevent reckless felling of trees for commercial purposes. The movement led by leaders like Sunderlal Bahuguna, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Dhoom Singh Negi, all prominent Gandhians, adopted non violent and self sacrificing method of standing before the axes of the fellers challenging them to cut them with the trees [28]. The major success with the ban on tree felling in 1980 led to an ‘increasingly growing voice for conservation and more efficient use of our resources including recycling’ [29]. The Narmada Bachao Andolan led by Medha Patkar is another example of a significant satyagraha to stop building of dams on the Narmada river which could lead to the river changing its course drowning many villages [30]. Influential contemporary conservationists like Meneka Gandhi took inspiration from these movements which have resulted in a great deal of improvement in conservation programmes across India. Environmental concerns remain, but a serious voice is there to raise issues regarding it which is a direct consequence of Gandhi’s ideas and the movements that took it up.

Equality for women within the Indian society was a principle Gandhi passionately believed in and preached. Although the situation of women, especially in rural areas need to be improved a lot more and the Women’s Bill remains stuck in the parliament to this day, significant improvements in the status of women has taken place through out India. Women are now frequently participating at the top strata of society and politics alongside men a few notable examples would be Indira Gandhi, Uma Bharati, Sushma Swaraj, Arundhati Roy, Mamata Banerjee and many others. The sight of women in professions which were restricted to men even half a century ago is now common. The Chipko Movement was led primarily by women both at the grass root level and also at the top by personalities like Gauri and Ganga Devi [31]. Moreover, these leaders were primarily village women acting on behalf of their communities showing a clear reflection of Gandhi’s visions. Since Gandhi, ‘women in India have a stronger voice than ever and have gained a political status that many women can be inspired by’ [32].

Gandhi has been influential to many individuals around the world some notable ones being Jayprakash Narayan, Hallam Tennyson, Louis Fischer, Donald Groom many of whom participated in movements in India that were a part of his legacy and did considerable literary work in their countries too. His death was the single most important event that stopped the communal carnage in India [33]. However, religious harmony is far from being realised in India at the moment and is definitely a place where Gandhi’s ideas have not been influential. Nevertheless, the notion of Gandhi and his ideas ‘endures still today’. His notion of simple living arouses many millions through out India and he remains a uniting factor for India. ‘Crash diet courses and anti wrinkle treatments could be a fad in urban India’[34], but the spirit of Gandhi lingers on very much alive in the heartlands of India. ‘To the people for whom he is the Mahatma, he lives on!.’ [35]


  1. Arnold, David: Gandhi (Harlow: Longman, 2001), ch.1,8

  2. Bartolf, Christian (ed.): The breath of my life (Berlin: Gandhi-Informations-Zentrum, 2000)

  3. Dalton, Dennis: Mahatma Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 196-200

  4. Oates, Stephen B.: Let the Trumpet sound: A life of Martin Luther King Jr. (Edinburgh: Payback, 1998), p. 32-110

  5. Baxi, Upendra & Parekh, Bhikhu (eds.): Crisis & Change in Contemporary India (New Delhi, London: Sage Publications, 1995), ch.4 Gandhi: Guru for the 1990s?

  6. Mandela, Nelson: Long Walk to Freedom, Vol. 1, 1918-1962 (London: Abacus, 2002), p. 147-182

  7. Frankel, Francine R.: India's political economy, 1947-1977 : The Gradual Revolution (Princeton, Guildford: Princeton University Press, 1978)

  8. Edugreen: The Chipko Movement (Accessed on 01-12-2003, 1928 hrs), online at http://edugreen.teri.res.in/explore/forestry/chipko.htm

  9. Sundararajan, Subhashini: Chipko Movement (Accessed on 01-12-2003, 1931 hrs), online at http://www.womenexcel.com/ecowatch/chipcomove.htm

  10. Mehta, Subhash: The Bhoodan- Gramdan Movement- 50 Years: A Review (Accessed on 01-12-2003, 1936 hrs), online at http://www.mkgandhi.org/vinoba/bhoodan.htm

  11. Brink, Andre: Mahatma Gandhi Today: Gandhi Memorial Lecture in 1970 (Accessed on 01-12-2003, 1940 hrs), online at http://www.anc.org.za/andocs/history/people/gandhi/brink.html

  12. CNN Resources on Gandhi, online at http://edition.cnn.com/WORLD/9708/India97/india/gandhi.legacy/

  13. Morrison, James: Legacy of Gandhi, King, The Washington Post, 13/08/2003

  14. Bezabaroowa, Sunit: The Ascetic Journey (Accessed on 01-12-2003, 2047 hrs), online at http://www.lifepositive.com/Spirit/masters/mahatma-gandhi/gandhi-today.asp

  15. National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights online at NCDHR online at http://www.dalits.org/

  16. Lak, Daniel: Dalit’s Political Awakening, BBC News online (Accessed on 02-12-2003, 1214 hrs) at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/459591.stm

  17. Sainath, P. : Everybody Loves a Good Drought (New Delhi, New York: Penguin Books, 1996)

  18. Stiglitz, Joseph E: Globalisation and its Discontents (Allen Lane, London:2002), ch.1

[1] Professor Albert Einstein quoted in David Arnold, Gandhi: Profiles in Power, p.5

[2] David Arnold, Gandhi: Profiles in Power, Introduction

[3] Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: Non-violent Power in Action, p.196

[4] Sunit Bezbaroowa, The Ascetic Journey

[5] James Morrison, Legacy of Gandhi, King

[6] Steven B Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound, p.110

[7] Steven B Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound, p. 77

[8] Steve B Oates,  Let the Trumpet Sound, p. 78

[9] Christian Bartolf (ed.), The Breath of my Life, p.33

[10] Lalit Mansingh, Indian Ambassador to the USA, quoted by James Morrison, Legacy of Gandhi, King

[11] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p.147

[12] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, p. 182

[13] Andre Brink, Mahatma Gandhi Today: Gandhi Memorial Lecture

[14] NCDHR online at http://www.dalits.org/ 

[16]Daniel Lak, Dalit’s political Awakening online at  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/459591.stm

[17] Mahadev Desai quoted in Bhoodan-Gramdan Movement-50 Years- A Review

[18] Bhoodan-Gramdan Movement-50 Years- A Review

[19] Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi: Non-Violent power in Action, p. 198

[21] P. Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought

[22] P. Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought

[24] B. Parekh & U. Baxi, Crisis & Change in Contemporary India, p.89

[25] Francine Frankel, India’s Political Economy 1947-77, ch. 11

[26] Joseph E. Stiglitz, Globalisation & its Discontents, p. 6

[27] Ghyansyam Raturi quoted in Edugreen, The Chipko Movement

[28] Subhashini Sundararajan, The Chipko Movement

[29] Judith Brown, Gandhi: A Guru for the 1990s? p. 88

[30] Narmada Bachao Andolan at the University of Oxford website online at www.ox.ac.uk

[31] Subhashini Sundararajan, Role of Women in the Chipko Movement

[32] Subhashini Sundararajan, Role of Women in the Chipko Movement

[33] David Arnold, Gandhi: Profiles in Power, p.227

[34] Sunit Bezbaroowa, The Ascetic Journey

[35] Omkar Sharma quoted in Sunit Bezbaroowa, The Ascetic Journey

| | |