Forgive Them, O Mahatma, for They Do Not Know What They Say

This past week, Indians celebrated Gandhi Jayanti, the birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi., known with loving reverence as Mahatma Gandhi. Today’s Indians are emotional and every article we found was about one quasi-emotional appeal or another. We saw a Reuters article discussing whether non-vegetarian food, like liquor, should be banned on Gandhi Jayanti. Other articles talked about other symbolic ways of celebrating Gandhi’s legacy.

Gandhi has also been mis-characterized and used for their own anti-Indian agenda by many US newspapers. The quasi-Indian “intellectuals” like Pankaj Mishra who cater to western think tanks echo these false characterizations.

We call Gandhi the greatest Good man of the 20th century, bar none. In fact, his level of ‘Good’, his work justifies the title of the Greatest Saint for of the 20th century for all religions. But these accolades, however valid, do grave injustice to Gandhi. Because Gandhi was far greater than any Saint.

A Saint can provide religious leadership, teach people to uplift their minds, hearts and souls. But Saints do not create nations, they do not defeat empires, let alone the mightiest global empire of their era. Gandhi did so because Gandhi was also the greatest strategist of the 20th century.

Most people believe that Gandhi fought against the British empire, the British rule in India. Analysts of  Europeans- descent praise his virtues but give greater credit to what they call the essential civility of the British. Their caveat is that Gandhi’s methods would never have worked against Hitler and his Nazis. An Indian-descent writer scoffed at Gandhi’s non-violence method in the Washington Post by pointing at the  failure of the Dalai Lama to defeat the Chinese by non-violence.

Forgive them, O Mahatma, for they do not know what they say

Gandhi was not the first or even in the first generation of the leaders or thinkers who fought the British for India’s Independence. The man credited with defining the freedom movement is Lokmanya Tilak, who said “Swa-Rajya is my birthright and I shall have it“, words that have become immortal. The Congress Party  was already a nationwide party with a cadre of leaders and activists engaged in resisting and fighting the British. These leaders failed and were sent to jails in remote Burma or Andaman Islands for years. The British were as brutal in India as the Nazis were in Eastern Europe or Russia.

The fight of these leaders against the British was doomed to fail because the British were simply not the rulers the common Indian saw or felt every day. The army was Indian, the police force was Indian, and the civil administration was Indian. India was governed by an overwhelmingly Indian structure. Yes, it served British masters and reported to them. India has been ruled by foreigners since about 1,300 CE. So living under British rule was not a new experience. True, the British were far more evil in their brutality, true that the British looted India far more than any other previous foreign invader. But that was a question of degree.

Gandhi was not only realized this but he also saw that the strength of this British-Indian model was also its fatal weakness. Gandhi based his entire strategy on exploiting this weakness. This simple yet extraordinarily profound strategy was summarized in his comment in the movie Gandhi (minute 1:36:56):

  • “100,000 Englishmen simply cannot rule 350 million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate”

Not only did Gandhi create this strategy, he built a brilliant tactical campaign to implement his strategy.

We may not have not been crystal clear so far. Gandhi’s strategy was NOT to fight the British. His strategy was to wake up the supine Indian people, that huge mass of humanity that remained dormant under several centuries of foreign rule. Gandhi knew India as on one else did. He understood that Tilak’s movement had failed to move the common Indian because it was based on logic. Gandhi knew that the common Indian is moved not by logic or analysis but by belief and devotion. He knew that the common Indian responds to renouncement and not economics.

So Gandhi gave up his British suit and donned the simple dress of a common Indian. His entire message was draped in India’s immortal scriptures, the simple path of Bhakti that dominates today’s Indian mind.

Every one of his tactical campaigns was designed not just to hurt the British but to wake up the common India by giving them something simple they could do. That is why the British did not care so much initially. In fact, his campaigns were scoffed at by the British and by ‘educated‘ Indian leaders. But the campaigns worked and with each campaign he woke up Indians to their reality. The series of campaigns seemed so small and gradual in scope that the British never understood how the earth was shifting under their rule with each seemingly irrelevant tremor.

Think of his famous Salt March. The economic impact on the British was trivial. But it galvanized the entire nation. My own mother told me once that she & her schoolmates cut school to go make salt on the Mumbai Chowpatty beach during that agitation.

By the time the British understood, it was too late. Gandhi had awakened the huge dormant Indian mass. The people who did not react to the torture and banishment of any other Indian leader would rise in anger if Gandhi were so treated. Remember the fatal flaw of the British-Indian model. If the Indian mass rose up and if the Indians in the British administration refused to serve, British rule would collapse.

To this day, analysts, especially the European-descent analysts, think of Non-Violence as the key to Gandhi. And so they wonder whether it would have been successful against the Nazis and they criticize its lack of success against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. That is just dumb, utterly stupid.

Gandhi’s methods would have worked in China IF a few million Tibetans had occupied and ruled over a billion Chinese with an overwhelmingly Chinese army police and administration. But the reality in Tibet is diametrically opposite. Today, the few million Tibetans are occupied and ruled by a billion Chinese. The army is overwhelmingly Chinese, the police force is overwhelmingly Chinese and the administration is overwhelmingly Chinese. Non-cooperation by the few million Tibetans is simply not a meaningful threat to China. The story of Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe was similar.

Non-Violent Non-Cooperation was not Gandhi’s strategy. It was the tactic within his strategy to wake up the vast supine Indian mass and strike at the fatal fault line underneath the Anglo-Indian structure of few British at the top of a huge Indian administrative core.

No Indian leader of his time understood Gandhi’s strategy. It was “kutil” or diabolically brilliant in its conception, something the Indian mind had forgotten for 20 odd centuries. Forget Indians. Even the British, hailed as the most devious people of all, failed it understand it. And this “kutil” strategy was cloaked in the supremely simple austere aura of renouncement that the world knows to be truly Indian.

This greatness of Gandhi, this absolutely amazing blend of superlative strategic genius and brilliant tactical
genius, persuades us to call Gandhi the Greatest Strategist-Tactician of the 20th Century. This is no hyperbole. The most pivotal event, the event of greatest global significance of the 20th century was the end of the British empire. And the foundation of the British empire was their occupation of India. The man who destroyed it was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Greatest Strategist-Tactician of the 20th Century.

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