Gandhi’s timeless inspiration to Mission Leaders” with Ramachandra Guha

Dec 08, 2020


This is an edited version of a conversation with Ramchandra Guha and Rohini Nilekani. They discuss how Gandhi shaped his intent and life to fulfil his various goals of individual freedom and agency, a true Swarajya, and how he achieved impact at scale. Many of the choices he grappled with are relevant to us today.


Ordinary Beginnings

When Gandhi began his life, he was an ordinary man. As a lawyer, he wasn’t particularly good at his profession, he was scared to speak, and he had no self-confidence so he couldn’t even defend his own cases. He made his way to South Africa since he had some family issues, and what happens to him over the next 50 years that turns him into a kind of saint. Ramchandra Guha explains to us the value that his story holds for ordinary people like us. He points out that before he was a failed lawyer, Gandhi was also a mediocre student. One of the discoveries that Guha made over the course of his research was an obscure book published in the 1960s by the former headmaster of Gandhi’s school in Rajkot, the King Alfred High School. His mark-sheets were very revealing – in the Mumbai matriculation, he came 404th out of 800 students. And for someone who would become a great writer in English and Gujaraiti, his marks in the subject were 41% and 43% respectively. So his beginnings were extremely unpropitious.

What was interesting was his quest for both the truth and for learning. It was significant that he, as a baniya boy in the 1870s in a small town in Gujarat, had a Muslim as his best friend. He also had the moral courage or the reckless ambition to travel to London, which meant that he was excommunicated from his caste because baniyas were very conservative and were not supposed to travel overseas. So although he was not particularly good in his studies, he had a desire to learn, explore, experience new lands, and make new kinds of friendships. We often talk about intellectual curiosity being important in any sphere of life, but this was perhaps a personal, emotional, and moral curiosity, suggests Guha. That is something which was marked in him, but then he came back and failed as a lawyer, and was rescued from professional oblivion by an invitation from South Africa.

This is where the journey begins. If he had succeeded as a lawyer in Bombay, India today would be a completely different place. He probably would have settled into a comfortable practice servicing other Gujaratis, having a home in Santa Cruz or Khar, rearing a family, and that would be the end of Gandhi as we know it. But luck and circumstance often play a part in the making of greatness. So he went to South Africa and the people who called him were a Gujarati Muslim family having a dispute. This is quite common among business families in India today, where two brothers are fighting, and this family decided to bring in a lawyer who knew the English law but also could read in Gujarati. So he was called and for his first night in Durban, he stayed in the home of his client who was a Muslim. This would have been inconceivable in Rajkot, so it may be here, Guha notes, that the diaspora is formed where previous boundaries are broken.

Although it was a Gujarati family who had called him, the dominant sections of the Indian community in South Africa were Tamil workers, plantation workers, and mining workers. So he immersed himself in the lives of poorer Indians who spoke a very different language. It’s a striking fact that when Gandhi started a magazine called Indian Opinion in 1904, in Durban, to proselytize for the cause of the Indian Community there, the magazine was printed in four languages – Hindi, English, Tamil, and Gujarati. This ability to learn about other kinds of communities, faiths, languages, and social backgrounds became central to Gandhi’s early journey, which shaped him as he matured.  

Inspiring Followers By Leading Well 

In South Africa, Gandhi had a monopoly. There were 150,000 Indians, and he was the only qualified lawyer. In fact, at one stage the burden of cases on him was so great that he ironically reached out to Jinnah, another Gujarati lawyer, to join him. Here he was, a successful professional, a well-known lawyer and an acknowledged leader of his community, and he gave it all up to come back to India. Gandhi himself never really tells us why he came back, but as his biographer, Guha speculates that he had exhausted the challenges that faced him and had already achieved what he could. He was the most respected, influential, and admired Indian in South Africa, but there were only 150,000 Indians in South Africa. He wanted a larger stage for his ambitions. Ambition, says Guha, is not necessarily a bad thing if the ambition is moral and political. 

When he returned to India, the Congress was 30 years old and it already had leaders like Tilak and Gokhale. He may have sensed that he could prove himself under them. Gokhale, who was already his mentor, told him to spend a year traveling around India. He said, “Don’t jump into politics straight away. And keep your mouth shut for a year. Don’t speak on any social or political subject for a year.” This is actually quite extraordinary because it’s a discipline to do a proper apprenticeship until you have soaked yourself thoroughly in the landscape, the people, and the context. And that’s what he did. He started slowly and in 1917 he was called to Champaran. In Champaran, Indigo tenants were facing enormous suffering and exploitation by European landlords. Unlike the other Congress leaders, Gandhi got down from his pedestal and fought for their cause. The first day he went, he was arrested and almost deported, and this news reached the Gujarat Club in Ahmedabad where Vallabhbhai Patel was playing bridge. He was impressed that this Gujarati has the guts to be arrested by the British and decides to give up his law practice and joins him. It’s in these early years that Gandhi also gathers a group of outstanding colleagues and co-workers.

Many people go to help him in Champaran including J. B. Kripalani and Rajendra Prasad. He had started a peasant movement, which succeeded and so an agreement was worked out with the British landlords and planters, with better terms given to the peasants. Then in Ahmedabad, where he already has his own ashram, Gandhi got involved in agitating for better wages and working conditions for workers. In 1919, there was a Rowlatt Satyagraha, against a particularly draconian piece of colonial legislation, which he launched and that made him an all-India leader. Through the course of the Rowlatt Satyagraha, he came to Chennai and acquired C. Rajagopalachari, later to be India’s first Governor-General, as his devoted follower.

He also traveled to Allahabad, where he acquired Motilal and Jawaharlal Nehru as part of his group of committed political activists. So, he found a cause, expanded the horizon of his activities from peasants in Champaran, to workers in Ahmedabad, to a full fledged all-India movement against a draconian act, and built a team along the way. Then came the Non-cooperation movement, which he called off after an incident of violence in Chauri Chaura where some protesters burned a police thana with several policemen in it. This is where the question of means and ends comes in, because at that stage in 1922, the Non-cooperation movement had engulfed all of India.

If we contrast Gandhi in this regard, to India’s three most successful Prime Ministers, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Modi. Despite their differences in ideologies and styles of governance, all three of them don’t make leaders out of their followers and instead everyone has to report to them. Gandhi was a great leader in that regard, not only because of his own achievements but because he gave India Nehru, Patel, Rajaji, Kripalani, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Maulana Azad, Zakir Hussain, Mirabehn, and hundreds of other politicians, social workers, and institution builders the opportunity to become leaders in their own right.

The Importance of Accessibility and Inclusion

One of the things that Gandhi did was to transform the Congress party itself. He entered the organisation which was already well established but had major weaknesses – its proceedings were only in English, its members were all male, and its members were all professionals. He transformed it by bringing in women, ensuring every provincial unit conducted its proceedings in the language of that region, and by moving beyond the urban middle class and professionals to peasants, workers, and artisans. Amongst his great achievements is this transformation of an organisation. To enter an organisation and transform its scale, scope, vision, membership, philosophy, and instruments like starting new newspapers and journals as a vehicle for its use, and expanding its team. This is one of Gandhi’s under-appreciated achievements as a leader.

Another part of Gandhi’s greatness is that while he was expanding the Congress, making it a mass movement, and launching campaigns to pressurise the British for independence, he was also scrutinizing Indian society for its own failures and weaknesses. He was challenging the British morally, by saying “If you believe in freedom, if you say Westminster is the home of democracy, what about democracy for colored peoples?” But he was also telling Indians, “You have to be fit for freedom. Can you be fit for freedom if you treat one fifth of your population as untouchables? Can you be fit for freedom if women do not get equal rights?”

Gandhi’s campaign to abolish untouchability is well known. At the time, he was the most alert upper caste Hindu to recognize the terrible injustice that upper caste Hindus commit on untouchables but he was also trying to bring women into public life. By the standards of 2020, Gandhi is not a feminist. He himself tells us how he treated his wife and was ambivalent about women working outside the home, but in the context of his own time, he was extremely progressive.

In 1922, he went to jail because of Chauri Chaura. When he was released in 1924, the Belgaum Congress was being held in December of that year and he named Sarojini Naidu as president, because a woman must get a chance. But since he had just been released from jail they made him president, the first and last time Gandhi is the president of Congress. The next year, he makes sure that Sarojini Naidu is president. We see the United States applauding Kamala Harris as the first woman to become Vice President. In 1925, there was no woman member of the US Congress, the US Senate, and even a municipal body in San Francisco had only all male members. So, to appoint a female president of India’s most influential political party 100 years ago was a revolutionary and radical step. He did this because he recognized that Indians treat women and Dalits badly. While he was battling the British, he was also calling Indians to their better, more noble self. He didn’t just believe in a jingoistic nationalism which says Indians are great, Hindus are great, we just have to go back to the Vedas and we’ll be all fine. We need to keep this in mind when we think about how to keep inclusion at the heart of what we do. 

Allowing Missions to Evolve Over Time 

Gandhi recognized that every religion, every society, every nation, and every individual is fallible. This includes himself. When he went to South Africa, he was 24 years old and he held certain prejudices that Indians hold even today. He grew up in a society where the customary sentiment among educated Indians was that Indians are Aryans, like the British, but Africans will always be at the bottom of the heap. And he expressed these racist prejudices in his early writings during his 20s and 30s, however he slowly overcame it after living there and admiring their sense of morality. When he returned to India, he evolved from being a non-racist to an anti-racist. Over the last 30 years of his life, he urged Indians in South Africa to make common cause with the Africans for a joint program to end racial inequality of all kinds.

His evolution with regard to caste is also incredibly interesting. In his Ashram in Ahmedabad, he admited a Dalit couple which resulted in funders stopping their funding because they said that it was against their Dharma and he couldn’t have people of different castes mixing. He was rescued by Ambalal Sarabhai, a progressive philanthropist. But he didn’t prescribe what he was doing in his Ashram to society at large because he thought they were not ready to accept it. He said, “In my Ashram, Dalit and Savarna eat from the same plate but I am not saying that you should practice that in your kind of environment.” He then met the great Kerala social reformer, Narayana Guru, and the great Maharashtrian social reformer, BR Ambedkar, and these two individuals radicalised Gandhi. They confronted and challenged him to take a more critical and direct position in attacking caste. So Gandhi organised a temple entry movement in Vaikom, Kerala. From saying untouchability is bad, he moved to saying that Dalits and upper castes can go together into the temple and worship right in the sanctum sanctorum, because God is equal for us. He then advocates inter-dining and inter-marriage. From the 1930s onwards, the only marriages that Gandhi personally supervised in his Ashram were between Dalits and Savarnas. So over 25 years, he evolved his position on caste from saying untouchability is bad but varna in theory is fine to actually advocating what Ambedkar wanted, i.e. the annihilation of caste in everyday life.

Another example of Gandhi’s evolution is his attitude towards his children. He was a disastrous father to his first two children, but much better and more caring towards the younger two. If an unknown person wrote him a letter of criticism and he felt that criticism had some merit in it, he would print it in his journal and answer it. For example, Gandhi had made a comment about the harassment of young women by men, suggesting that women should not wear fancy dresses and jewellery. When 11 women from Bengal wrote him a rejoinder, he printed the letter in his journal and sought to answer it, conceding some ground. He had this exceptional quality which was the willingness to engage in debate and dialogue, and transform his opponents but also himself if they were saying something valuable, says Guha. Gandhi debated with Jinnah over 20 years about whether Hindus and Muslims could live together in a single state, and he didn’t give up right till the end. But his language was always impeccably courteous, there was no innuendo, no sneer. He debated on principle, he could respectfully disagree, and it was always possible to change his mind.

When it came to technology, Gandhi’s views also evolved over time. Many people only read Hind Swaraj, the book that he wrote in 1909 where he demonises railways and modern medicine, as the first and last word on everything he said about technology. But Hind Swaraj was written when Gandhi had not experienced life in India and he still had 40 more years to live. The longer he lived and the more he saw science and technology in action, the less hostile he became towards it. However, he was opposed to centralisation and the dispositional agency that big technology can bring about, which was a risk.

The charkha (spinning wheel) was a type of technology he was very on board with. He told every Congress member to spin every day and produce yarn. He knew that India’s flourishing textile industry was destroyed by the East India Company and the destruction of handicrafts was a step towards the consolidation of colonial rule.  But he also used the charkha to break down the boundary between manual and mental labor, because in our caste systems Brahmins thought, Baniyas did accounts, but only the Shudras worked. He wanted everyone to do manual labor and appreciate the dignity of labor. Gandhi’s third reason was to promote a sense of solidarity. Everyone in the Congress is doing the same thing. In contrast to fascist parties, Gandhi was thinking about how to cultivate social solidarity in a creative, non-violent way. Guha argues that his Charkha program should not be seen through the narrow prism of Gandhi reviving 18th century technology and rejecting 21st century tech. Any technology that was emancipatory, liberating, non-violent, and did not destroy the environment would meet with Gandhi’s approval.

The Beauty of Compromise 

In trying to implement Gandhi’s values and insights into our lives, we must also realise that we may not have the kind of moral force to take the kinds of actions that he did. What we must focus on is how to be civil in civil society. A few months ago, a very great American Gandhian died – Representative John Lewis. He spent his whole life fighting for civil rights and he greatly admired Gandhi. He visited India several times and started a Gandhi trust in the States as well. And he said, “We must learn to disagree without being disagreeable.” Further to that, we must leave open the possibility that a person, younger than us or junior to us, can have a voice, be heard and persuade us, even if they have less experience. Working in an organisation, it’s important for leaders to not look for that kind of absolute servitude. We all have a burning desire, an ambition, or a sense of mission, with which we do our work, but Guha suggests that dialogue is absolutely crucial and people must feel like they can speak directly and have their voice heard.

Gandhi also spoke about the beauty of compromise. In the late 80s and early 90s, there was an inspirational non-violent Gandhian movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan led by Medha Patkar, who was Gandhian in every respect. But there was one Gandhian element she missed, says Guha. In our experience with large dams in independent India, we know that people who were dispossessed by them were never compensated properly or rehabilitated properly. There were questions about the longevity and the ecological implications of the dam. Cost-benefit analysis studies suggested that a series of smaller dams would be less destructive and more profitable than large dams. So there were major questions being raised and this inspirational non-violent movement brought the case to the attention of the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court was hearing the case, two engineers in Pune developed a compromised solution which suggested a reduction in the dam’s height from 456 to 430, which would also reduce displacement by 70%. They urged the Narmada Andolan to tell the court about the compromise and to let the dam be built at a lower height, to minimise the suffering to the displaced people. But the Andolan refused.

There is something to be learned from the Gandhian principle of the beauty of compromise, and it’s a lesson that every organisation leader should heed. Don’t be dissatisfied if you don’t meet all your dreams and expectations, because you never will. Small, incremental change is still a huge service to society. The drawback of a utopian thought is that by trying to transform all of society at once, you will most likely leave wreckage behind you, says Guha. This ties into what we call Societal Platform thinking, where we are not so concerned with change makers scaling their own organisations, but rather how all of us can scale our societal missions. If everyone was to take that one step, we would certainly see change happening at scale.

We can learn a great deal about growing as individuals, developing organisations, collaborating, cooperating, improving, and self-questioning from Gandhi, even if our sphere of work is relatively modest compared to his. Unlike religious fundamentalists or  Marxists, Gandhi did not believe in a perfect society. He was not a utopian, he was a reformist and an incrementalist. As he said, one step is enough for me. If you can revive a degraded water tank in a village in Karnataka and restore its ecological and social integrity, in Gandhi’s eyes you would be a hero. You don’t have to have a situation for all of Karnataka, or South India. One step is enough. 



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