Mahatma Gandhi's death anniversary on January 30 is a sombre occasion to remember once again not only his exemplary life but also his martyrdom that conveys a deeper meaning. Gandhiji's violent end at the hands of a fanatic was, ironically, the sublime culmination of a life that saw the evolution of an ordinary Mohandas into a world-renowned Apostle of Peace.
From his birthplace, Porbandar, to England, South Africa and then back in India, Gandhiji undertook the journey of life as an experiment. In this journey, he never lost sight of his lodestars, truth and non-violence, to guide his path. As he admitted himself, the two values were not his inventions; they were as old as hills, he maintained. Indeed, he always spoke of a wide variety of sources which strengthened his resolve to walk the path of truth and non-violence. Though a devout Hindu, he liberally borrowed from scriptures of different faiths in his tenacious search for self-realisation. Dogma and bigotry had no place in Gandhiji's religion as any divinely ordained edict that fails the test of reason and larger social good was unacceptable to him.The Bhagvad Gita was the prime among a host of Hindu spiritual texts that guided his quest. The figure of Jesus Christ moved him to tears; the Sermon on the Mount was his manifesto.
He named Leo Tolstoy, John Ruskin and Henry David Thoreau, apart from Shrimad Rajchandra, among "the moderns who have left a deep impression on my life and captivated me". If there ever was one key moment in his transformation, it was his reading of Ruskin's Unto This Last. What he had been "pining and striving to achieve" was self-realisation. But, on finding confirmation of his deeply-held convictions in his readings, his path "to attain Moksha" involved, above all, selfless service to humanity at large.
In the true sense, he belonged to the world. The global community, too, has made him its own. Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela are only a few of the many great leaders who courageously walked the Gandhian path. Gandhiji's teachings, Dr King Jr wrote, revealed to him the true meaning of Christ's message, "love thy neighbour". The precept is age-old, but Gandhiji showed us the way to put it into practice — in personal as well as political domains.
It is a difficult way to tread, from moment to fraught moment. "The path of Truth is as narrow as it is straight," Gandhiji wrote, echoing the Upanishadic adage. Non-violence, for him, was not mere absence of violence but an active force of love: Love towards all, especially your enemies. Redressing injustice and fighting evil, then, needed a superhuman effort — "strength to love", in Dr King Jr's touching words. Campaigning for the rights of the Indian community in South Africa, inspired by Thoreau among others, Gandhiji forged the invincible weapon of satyagraha, "insisting firmly on truth", which made an appeal to the better angels of the oppressor's nature, and added a moral dimension to the political campaign.
After his return to India, it was in Champaran where he not only put his technique of satyagraha to use, but also taught it to thousands of oppressed farmers. His first lesson was fearlessness. When I served as Governor of Bihar, I realised that, a century later, the magic of his presence in 1917 is still palpable and his teachings are still relevant.
Critics view this way of civil resistance as a mere tactic, and even question its efficacy in more hostile circumstances. They ignore the moral aspect, which for Gandhiji and his followers entailed a thorough training in self-discipline through 11 vows, which made it remarkably effective as the world witnessed in the Salt March of 1930. If that is a tall order, it is still preferable to make a beginning by deploying non-violence even as a strategy. After surveying political movements around the globe, scholars have concluded that non-violent resistance has more chances of success than militant campaigns.
There can be setbacks in this path, given the way the world is. The Mahatma too had his moments of doubt and despair. There were times when, engulfed by hate and violence, he subjected himself to profound examination, searching for any remnants of evil within. Instead of retiring to a hermetic life in the Himalayas, as many of his critics advised him to do, he preferred agonising introspection, which ultimately delivered one true miracle of our times. With the shadow of the tragic Partition looming large, amid the horror of sectarian slaughter in Punjab and Bengal, Gandhiji walked barefoot from village to village in Noakhali district (now in Bangladesh), preaching his gospel of peace to the murderous mobs. He succeeded in dousing the fires of riots and achieved an impossible feat. The last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, described it memorably: "While the 55-thousand-man Boundary Force in the Punjab was swamped by riots, the One-Man Boundary Force brought peace to Bengal."
Gandhiji died 72 years ago, killed by a misguided man who confused compassion for cowardice. In his final sacrifice, he left a constant reminder for us: Unconditional love, especially for The Other.
We are celebrating the year of the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhiji. During my visits abroad, I feel glad when I find that his name evokes hope. In 2018 during my visit to Zambia, I met the first Zambian President, Kenneth Kaunda, who described how people of his country were inspired by Gandhiji's ideals in their struggle for liberation.
Today amid greed, hatred, climate change and uncertainties, the humankind has more reasons for existential anxiety. But in more and more parts of the world, I believe, a realisation is growing that the only way out is the one pointed out by Gandhiji. In the future, I am confident, more and more of us will discover Gandhiji's true message and make it relevant for our times, in our day-to-day lives.
Ram Nath Kovind is the President of India.