Why Gandhi wasn’t really the change we’d wish to see in the world
Notwithstanding the horrific shooting in Las Vegas, today is the International Day of Nonviolence in honor of Mohandas Gandhi, born on this day in 1869.
Drawing inspiration from Thoreau, Tolstoy and South Asian religious traditions, Gandhi advocated peaceful mass resistance to the British colonial regime. Over four decades, he and his followers persisted — despite repeated imprisonment and abuse — until Britain finally agreed to leave in 1947.
Gandhi made admirable efforts to build an inclusive movement, but at independence, the former colony nevertheless split along religious lines into India (mostly Hindu) and Pakistan (mostly Muslim). In border regions, interreligious genocide killed about 500,000 people and displaced perhaps 12 million more.
Horrified, Gandhi condemned the slaughter. In January 1948, a Hindu nationalist assassinated him for being soft on Muslims.
Later, leaders like MLK and Desmond Tutu successfully adapted Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent resistance in the US Civil Rights Movement and South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.
Of course, nonviolence only works against relatively decent oppressors that allow some semblance of free speech and the rule of law. It is worse than useless against totalitarians.
Unfortunately, Gandhi utterly failed to grasp that nuance.
In 1938, he suggested that Jews suffering under Nazism should commit mass suicide to “arouse the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” After the Holocaust, he reaffirmed this view:
“Hitler killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. As it is, they succumbed anyway in their millions.”
During World War II, Gandhi offered this advice to the British people:
“I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions… If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
Rejecting this advice, Britain wisely waged war against the Axis and helped save humanity from totalitarian imperialism.
Far from a saint, the real Gandhi comprised a fascinating yet wholly human amalgam of philosopher and fanatic, friend and fraud, peacemaker and provocateur, idealist and hypocrite.
Thus, it is somehow fitting that he never said nor wrote the aphorism most widely attributed to him:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
As with any complex and consequential historical figure, Gandhi’s greatness — and his limits — defy reduction to a mere bumper sticker.