The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Committee of Hull organises an annual lecture on a Gandhi related theme. This year it decided to replace it with a panel discussion involving four eminent Gandhi scholars who take different views on Gandhi and his legacy. They were Lord Bhikhu Parekh, Lord Meghnad Desai, Professor Faisal Devji and Dr. Shruti Kapila. This is the first time that Gandhi has been subjected to such a comprehensive inquiry and naturally the event was a great success. The president of the Gandhi Committee, Mr. Ashwin Shah, opened the meeting with an excellent welcoming speech in which he explained to nearly ninety guests why the format had been changed and how Hull intends to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary of Gandhi.
Lord Desai spoke with his characteristic informality. He said that Gandhi was the most famous Indian ever who had honed his ideas during his stay in London as a student. He came into contact with an unusual group of radical people through the Vegetarian Society. As a leader he demanded absolute obedience from his followers from the very beginning of his political career in South Africa when he was still in his early twenties. How he got his self confidence remains a question. He was progressive on the gender issue and brought many women into public life. While he was himself non-violent he inspired direct action from large masses of people which made it an unarmed struggle but had a violent streak. Lord Desai also said that although Gandhi was kind to people in general he could be cruel to his family, including his wife and children.
Professor Devji, professor of Indian History at Oxford University spoke next, concentrating on Gandhi and the Gita.. Gandhi often thought about the nature of moral and political action through his reading of the Bhagavad-Gita. For him Krishna’s advice to Arjuna emphasised the superiority of duty over choice in defining such action. Rather than choice he bases political and moral action on duty, understood as something specific to each person in his circumstances and called swadharma. Gandhi also contrasted duty with rights. Rights could always be taken away and were a gift of the state. By contrast duties could never be taken away and were in that sense inalienable. In Gandhi’s view the Gita taught us that evil depends on goodness and that if goodness withdrew its co-operation, the evil would collapse of its own weight.
Dr. Kapila, fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, spoke next. She said Gandhi’s fundamental contribution was to suggest a new theory and practice of the self. Hind Swaraj was a search for such a new self. In Gandhi’s view modern life and technology broke up the self and the challenge was how to compose an integrated self based on self-discipline. His practice of celibacy, spinning, and days of silence were intended to disrupt the abstract nature of modern life. In politics his concern was to restore sovereign power to the individual not the state. His Hind Swaraj could be more accurately translated as rule of the self.
Lord Parekh, who followed next and chaired the panel, concentrated on how to assess Gandhi’s legacy and importance for post-independence India. There are three dimensions to Gandhi, namely his thought, actions and life. At each of these levels he had his strengths and weaknesses. At the level of thought his great contribution consisted in developing a theory and practice of Satyagraha, opening India to the world, encouraging fusion of ideas drawn from different religions and holding religion sincerely but openly. It is strange that a deeply religious man like him should not have a trace of religious fanaticism or fundamentalism about him. Gandhi’s life and death were examples of the ideals he sought to live by and had a grandeur all their own. He knew not only how to live but also how to die a noble death.
The meeting ended with a lovely vote of thanks by Mrs. Nita Sodha. It was followed by a most enjoyable dinner.