The great contribution which Mahatma Gandhi made in the 20th century is well known. The struggle against colonialism was a very important feature of a greater part of this century. It was of the greatest importance from the perspective of justice and democracy.
Mahatma Gandhi not only made a very important contribution to this struggle against colonialism but in addition blazed a new trail by insisting with all his moral force that struggles for justice and truth should be based on non-violence. This proved to be an inspiration for many other struggles against injustice in various parts of the world including those led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
The other most defining feature of the 20th century related to the two world wars. As the world belatedly realized the importance of avoiding such disasters in future the importance of Gandhiji’s insistence on nonviolence as one of the most basic precepts of life became even more important.
It was also realized by perceptive observers that the roots of colonialism, as well as world wars, can be traced to never-ending greed and the conflicts created by this greed. Here again the insistence by Gandhiji on simplicity and voluntary frugality as a way of life and as one of the basic principles of life tied up very neatly with his commitment to non-violence.
Unlike other political leaders of the world he never tried to promise more and more to the people of his country but instead devoted himself to spreading the principles of nonviolence, simplicity and limited needs as a desirable way of life. He moved the economic debate beyond the narrow and familiar capitalism versus communism debate and instead concentrated on basic principles like simplicity, justice, prioritising the needs of the poorest, decentralisation, creation of local self-reliant economies and villages to the extent it is practical, respecting labour, protecting sustainable livelihoods while discouraging avoidable luxuries and parasitic pursuits and protecting livelihoods.
The danger of jobless growth does not exist in the Gandhian scheme of things with its insistence on technologies being in tune with the needs of protection of local livelihoods and skills instead of following the ruthless logic of unencumbered capitalist growth. Gandhiji may not have used the words environment protection but the kind of economy he visualized is the one in which the base of environment protection can be created.
If the root cause of colonialism (or neo-colonialism and continuing imperialist ambitions) and wars lies in greed, then it follows that to avoid these we need an economy and a way of life based on limited needs, voluntary and happy acceptance of frugality and commitment to nonviolence. Thus in the Gandhian vision we have a framework in which a wide base for realizing the most important objectives of peace and environment protection can be realized while at the same time meeting the essential needs of all people in sustainable ways.
Mahatma Gandhi would have made many great contributions with these ideas and thinking in the emerging post-colonial and post World War II world if he had lived for another 15 years or so but his life was very tragically cut short by an extremely stupid and narrow-minded assassin and his co-conspirators who had absolutely no understanding of how much the world, and not just the nation, needed the broad vision of Gandhiji in those critical years.
It would have been very interesting to see Gandhiji with his far-reaching ideas and tremendous moral force reaching out to the world troubled by the Cold War and the arms race. In independent India he would have had the support of his nation and its government in reaching out to the wider world which he did not have under the colonial government.
All that is the history of lost opportunities. But coming to the present times the most defining feature of the 21st century is that there is nothing less than a survival crisis caused by a number of very serious environmental problems on the one hand and accumulation of weapons of mass destruction on the other.
As the world gropes without much hope and with an increasing sense of futility for the entrenched leadership to find solutions for these pressing problems before it is too late, genuine hope can emerge if there are strong grassroots efforts for peace and environment protection.
To reach out to more and more people these grassroots efforts should also be based on meeting the needs of all people on a sustainable basis. In this effort to reconcile the three objectives of peace, environment protection and justice based on satisfaction of needs of all people, the ideas of Gandhiji can be very useful, particularly as these are supported by his impressive record of living a life based on these principles and leading several struggles and campaigns based on these.
Hence while his contribution during the century of his life was great indeed, his contribution in the next century when the world is threatened by a man-made survival crisis could be even higher as a well-thought-out application of his ideas to resolving present-day serious existential crisis could be of great value.
The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.