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Full text of Gandhi Memorial Lecture, by Dr. Indira Ravindran at Centre for Gandhian Studies, Fudan

Article No. 0087/2017

To commemorate the upcoming 148th Birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and International Day of Non-Violence, a lecture and a round-table seminar on the theme – ‘Gandhian Thought and International Relations Today’ was organized on 28th September 2017 by the Centre for Gandhian and Indian Studies (CGIS), Fudan University, China. The following is the full text of the Gandhian Memorial Lecture delivered at the event by Dr. Indira Ravindran.

Gandhian Thought and International Relations Today 

It is my great honor to celebrate international day of non-violence and Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary at the Centre for Gandhian Studies.  For this I must thank President of the Centre, Professor Liu Zhen, the renowned scholar of Indic Studies, andthe Consulate General of India in Shanghai.  The last time I visited here was for the inauguration of the Centre by PM Mr Narendra Modi, and the leaders of Fudan University. 

Gandhian thought and International Relations today: entire libraries are filled with books and filmsabout Gandhi’s life and philosophy.  In one sense, I find it intimidating to discuss this topic.  On the other hand, I realize that being among friends makes this task pleasant and even exciting.  As a young girl in India, I encountered Mahatma Gandhi everywhere: He is in our currency, the Indian Rupee.  His pictures were installed in post offices, police stations, schools, street corners, cinema halls, and of course in my own home.  His statue stands majestic in every city, town and village in India, and in some other venues around the world.  We were taught that he was an anti-imperialist, who sacrificed much to win Indian freedom from British rule, and that he is considered the father of the modern Indian nation.

Over the years, I moved away from hagiographical narratives of ‘Saint Gandhi’, and I read up critiques of his personal life and political philosophy. This made me reconsider my views.  I also learned to appreciate the other political philosophies that shaped Indian freedom struggle, especially the Socialist and grassroots movements.  Now,the circle is complete.  I find myself coming back, again and again, to Gandhian thought. I have lived in India, the United States and China, and I consider all three countries my home.  Everywhere I go, I find some issue or some area where his message would be relevant.

Gandhi said, “my life is an open book”. He hid nothing.  And he had nothing to hide.His words, actions, decisions, failures, misjudgments, his successes are all available for the historical record. He had nothing to hide, since he believed he was on the right side of truth and the right side of history.  He did not call himself ‘Mahatma’ and he never laid claim to greatness.Here lies his greatness.  Gandhi was a simple human being who accomplished superhuman feats, simply through courage of conviction.  He was remarkably free of ego, and focused only on his mission and on the ordinary man, woman and child yearning for freedom.

Mohandas Gandhi, born on October 2nd, 1869, in Gujarat, British India, studied law in England, practiced law in South Africa, resisted injustice under British rule, experimented with civil disobedience, returned to India and joined the freedom struggle under the mentorship of the great Gokhale.  For Gandhi, it was no longer about injustice under British rule, but the very injustice of British rule, of foreign dominion. Gandhi and his comrades eventually led the most spectacular non-violent mass movement in human history, effectively ending British colonialism, and inspiring other peaceful revolutions during the 20th century, and even until today.

In my address today, I will attempt to link together three thematics.

First, I will briefly consider the essence of Gandhian thought.

Second, I will connect Gandhian thought to international relations in our times.  I will touch upon three topics – worldwide militarization; urbanization as state policy; and resurgent environmentalism in response to climate change and biodiversity issues.

Third and finally, I wish to ‘normalize’ Gandhian thought and to glean practical lessons from his lofty philosophy.  It is important to know that although Gandhi was deeply spiritual and transcendental, he was at the same time, a great pragmatist with impressive political acumen.  For this reason, Gandhian thought will always remain fresh and relevant.


What is the essence of Gandhian thought?

We are all familiar with this bundle of values:

Non-violence or ‘ahimsa’,Truth or ‘satya’, Civil disobedience to achieve clear political goals,

Sustainable economies and lifestyle, Peace,Courage and Freedom. This last word, freedom, is the key to unlocking Gandhian thought.  The political goal was freedom from imperialism, but along with this political freedom he also advocated economic freedom, and above all, freedom from ignorance, intolerance and from fear.  Freedom from the indignity of poverty was an integral part of this vision.

In this journey, Gandhi had able peers and deputies and devotees.  Gandhi had critics too.  Mohandas Gandhi was by no means an unopposed or unchallenged political leader.  In fact, the historiography of Indian anti-colonialism includes an amazing, diverse array of heroes from vastly different ideological backgrounds: Bhagat Singh, the brilliant Communist leader who was executed by the colonial government at just 23 years of age; Babasaheb Ambedkar, chief architect of the Indian Constitution and legal genius who resisted Hindu casteist ideology along with colonial racist ideology; Subhas Chandra Bose who led the Indian National Army after determining that political methods would not sway the Empire; Maulana Azad, principled freedom fighter and democrat who put the nation’s interests above his own; Sarojini Naidu and Subramania Bharati, great cultural and feminist icons and political unifiers, and the brave VD Savarkar, whose controversial ultra-nationalism is nonetheless an integral part of our collective historical memory. Whatever the contradictions, that was our greatest generation, where ordinary men and women became heroes by overcoming their fear.

The genius of this generation lay in their innovative approach to freedom; in how they developed an Indian consciousness and identity by linking together a vast, diverse population.  Simultaneously, they developed international alliances and solidarities. For instance, Gandhi was deeply sympathetic to the anti- imperialist struggle of the Chinese people, and supported the great Chinese nation-building project. In my understanding of core Gandhian thought, Freedom is the operative word: personal, political and spiritual freedom.


The second thematic is the relevance of Gandhian thought to international relations today.

There are several intersecting currents in IR – some of these currents are positive, but many of these are disturbing and disruptive.  There is rising intolerance and extremism, and we are faced with new generation security threats alongside old, persistent human scourges such as war, poverty and disease.  I will focus on 3 currents in international relations today, 1) rising militarization; 2) urbanization as state policy;3) and environmentalism in response to the degradation of land and water resources, biodiversity and climate patterns.

Mahatma Gandhi is associated with peace and non-violence.  Thus, it seems counter-intuitive to discuss Gandhian thought in the context of worldwide militarization and the legitimacy it has gained in recent years. And yet, I would argue that Gandhian thought is invaluable for both analysis and for potential problem-solving.  At the most basic level, the fact that former colonies now exercise their sovereign right to militarize, is a vindication of the Indian anticolonial, anti-imperialist struggle.  Threats to hard-fought freedom and sovereignty do indeed merit legitimate defense forces.  Aside from unresolved territorial conflicts and external state aggression, threats come by way of terrorist groups, or even pirates on the high seas.

Armed conflict is an inherent part of our earliest recorded histories.  And yet, the results for armed conflict have been mixed.  Especially, in the case of aggressive military action, success is indeterminate and uncertain.  Death, destruction and dislocation are certain.  Quite often, militarization becomes an end to itself, not the means to an end.  It is for this reason that the message of peace, negotiation and forgiveness never goes out of style.  At every turn in history, prophets and poets have reminded us to love and to forgive.  Today’s untrammeled militarization of both state and non-state actors does not, in any way, negate this message of peace.

If the history of ideas could be compared to a vast library, a great repository of human thought, then Gandhian thought enjoys a permanent and luminous place there.  Each new generation is free to check out these ideas the way we would check out books at the library.  Someone, somewhere will be inspired to wage peace.  In the half century after Gandhi’s death, history recorded several brilliant peaceful revolutions. Martin Luther King, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela and other greats have acknowledged Gandhianism as an undeniable inspiration.

In India and around the world, hundreds of millions of civil-society activists wage peaceful protests each day in defense of their rights and for the cause of social justice.  Non-violence and peace are enshrined in all the great human documents, including international treaties and national constitutions.  If we were to read the public statements of world leaders, and policy statements of world governments, the word peace features more prominently than war.Peaceful rise is an aspiration for great nations.

From militarization I move on to Urbanization as state policy.  In India, China and other developing powers, urbanization is a top priority for the state.  Up to 60% of China’s population and 30% of India’s population are currently urbanized.  Maximum urbanization would ensure maximum service delivery, together with effective law &order and social controls.  An important part of Mahatma Gandhi’s vision was the model village.  Gandhi celebrated rural life, and believed quite strongly that India’s soul vested in Indian villages and their traditions.  Quite often, Gandhi has been criticized for idealizing and romanticizing village life, and for his anti-developmentalism.  A literal reading of Gandhi’s statements would suggest as much.  However, a nuanced and imaginative analysis would help us understand the underlying concerns.

Gandhi was skeptical towards unbridled development that channels resources away from the forests and mountains and countryside, and towards urban areas. He was preoccupied with the dignity and livelihood of peasants and artisans in villages.  He worked tirelessly for their empowerment.  He believed in the bonds of community, and in shared traditions.  He believed in indigenization of production, in promoting local economy, and in reducing dependency on colonial economy.  His rural vision was about self -help and self-respect.  Gandhi was brave and truthful enough to address the crushing effect of caste and patriarchy in traditional village structures, and insisted that the transformation had to be thorough and multi-dimensional.

Today, the results of unstructured and hurried urbanization are in plain view for all to see – the loss of livelihood in villages, the rise of the casual and informal labor sector in urban areas, the dilution of community bonds and of the dignity of human labor.   What is most intriguing is that 21st century Urbanologists are now revisiting the concept of ‘the village’.  Thus, we hear the terms‘urban village’ or ‘urban oasis’ more and more frequently.  Urban planners are now commissioned to design village-like spaces in large cities to foster a sense of community and interpersonal connection.  Even the vision for smart cities in India and in China includes communal living and village greens.  As PRC restructures its economy, transitioning from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Create in China’, one of the key aspirations was to “revive the spirit of the artisan”. In our search for sustainable urbanization, we would do well to revisit Gandhian ideas on community, connectedness, and on the dignity of peasants, artisans and workers.

Related to sustainable urbanization, is sustainable development.  Sustainable development is undeniably the consensus global policy of the 21st century.  And this is the third international relations trend I wish to discuss.  Reputed historians like Ramachandra Guha have declared that Gandhi was a progenitor of the global environmental movement.  Gandhi was prescient in his reading of stresses to the earth’s resources, and of the dangers of unsustainable development.  A journalist once asked him if India would follow Britain’s development path after winning independence.  Gandhi replied: “Great Britain destroyed half the globe to reach this level of development. How many globes will India need?”.

Long before sustainable development became the buzzword of planet earth, Gandhi and his eco-comrades began advocating for such a balance.  The United Nations has brought together the world’s nations to achieve the targets of SDGs, sustainable development goals.  Transnational collaborations, and learning cum action platforms are converging around climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the need for food and water security.  Although violence and conflict continue to dominate our media space, the rise of environmentalism, and of peaceful demands for environmental security are truly exciting trends in international relations.  The cooperation between India and China and other developing powers around climate change, is a case in point.  At the same time, the vast gap between developed and developing blocs is also closing.


The third and final part of my presentation is an attempt to ‘normalize’and to contemporaize Gandhian thought; to remove Gandhian thought from the metaphysical and philosophical heights, and to put it to practical use in contemporary international relations.  Indeed, Gandhi was himself a great pragmatist and a shrewd political leader who used technology and other resources to communicate his vision.  If Gandhi were alive today, he would most certainly use Facebook and Wechat and Douban and blogs to carry his work forward.  Gandhian thought is one for the ages.  It belongs to history.  It belongs to us all.  Therefore, each of us has the right to interpret, to critique or to draw lessons from it.  My students tell me that these days personalized apps are popular.  In that spirit, I have drawn up a personalized list of Gandhian lessons that are meaningful to me.  I began my talk with Gandhian essence.  And I conclude with lessons.  It is a fairly short list.  “Keep talking”; “Keep moving forward”; “Keep smiling”; “Keep the balance”; and “Keep truth”.

Keep talking

This is lesson number one.  Gandhi was always engaged in conversation with his colleagues, his followers and his adversaries.  He never turned down an opportunity for dialogue.  He willingly talked to the British authorities even during tense situations in the civil disobedience movement, and even when he was imprisoned.Talks and negotiation, listening and understanding: these are incredibly difficult, but incredibly powerful tools in international relations.

Keep moving forward

Gandhi famously walked the length and breadth of India.  He traveled on the great Indian railway built by the British, using Indian labor and Indian resources.  His discipline and speed and efficiency enabled him to maintain forward momentum.  Walking allowed him to observe issues at the grassroots level, and to forge direct connections with people.Modern transportation allowed him to cover vast distances.  He walked alone when he needed to. Usually though, millions walked with him and behind him.The point is, ordinary men and women marched their way to freedom.  Colonial and racist governments had to get out of the way, in India in the 1940s, in the United States in the 1960s, and in South Africa in the 1990s.

Keep smiling

One must remember that Colonialism was an incredibly violent process.  It ripped out the agricultural and industrial base on the Indian subcontinent and uprooted millions of people, initiating overseas export of human capital by way of bonded human labor.  Political domination was complete and thorough.  Most violent of all was the cultural and psychological domination, which destroyed the self-confidence and dignity of generations of colonized masses.  Gandhi’s response to this violence was non-violence.  His response to the racism of colonial ideology was love and compassion.  He was most obviously inspired by Christ and Buddha and Ram and Shakti – all the religious icons who exuded strength in compassion.  It is no coincidence that Gandhi is almost always smiling and joyful in the thousands of photographs available for the public record. Along hisepic journeys, he found time to relax with children and with farm animals and pets.  He found time every day for humor and for friendly banter with comrades.  This conveys a simple lesson: If your life project does not fill you with joy, then it is perhaps not worth doing at all.

Keep the balance

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a right-wing extremist.  This is ironic, but unsurprising.Extremists abhor balance.  Every act in Gandhi’s personal and public life was a constant attempt at balance and symmetry.  He was opposed to thoughtless industrialization; but readily accepted the support offered by leading Indian industrial houses.  He advocated for balance between humans and nature, between humans and machines, between politics and spirituality.  Gandhi rejected a teleological view of history that saw political freedom as occurring first; followed by economic freedom… followed eventually by cultural and spiritual freedom.  He was impatient to achieve total freedom.  All the freedoms could and should be achieved simultaneously.  That would be the way to strike a balance.

And finally, Keep the Truth

If freedom is the North pole in Gandhian thought, then truth is the South pole, holding up the axis.  All else is aligned along this axis.  He was fearless because truth was on his side.  And the truth – historical truth and his personal truth –did set him free.

It has been my privilege and pleasure to share my thoughts with you.  I look forward to more sharing and dialogue, and to your interpretation of Gandhi’s legacy.

[Indira P. Ravindran is faculty member, School of International Relations and Public Affairs (SIRPA) of Shanghai International Studies University (SISU); teaching IR theory and political economy courses at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.  She has lived in Shanghai, PRC, since 2007.  She holds a PhD in Political Science from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA.She is Member, C3S.]

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