Sunday, December 31, 2023
One of my most influential and inspiring experiences in 2023 was reading a couple of Ramachandra Guha’s books on Mahatma Gandhi. The first was Gandhi 1915-1948: The Years that Changed the World, which covered Gandhi’s life from 1915 leading up to Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. This book gave me a breadth of Gandhi’s role in India’s struggle for freedom and politics, which I enjoyed reading very much.
But it didn’t answer some of my fundamental questions about Gandhi’s leadership development. So, I picked up Gandhi Before India, which traced Gandhi’s life from 1869 to 1914. I found this book much more insightful than the former. It showed Gandhi’s development as a leader from his humble beginnings, his unsuccessful attempts at being a lawyer, and then his journey to South Africa, where his taste of discriminatory policies of British colonialism triggered his development. This book also highlighted the roots of South Africa’s apartheid, which took 100 more years to resolve with its struggle. This book gives you a front-row seat to watch Gandhi’s leadership development.
These books covered nearly 80 years of India’s history in about 1400 pages (excluding author’s notes) of fluid English. These are not just biographical sketches of Mahatma Gandhi. Based on extensive research, Guha narrated India’s culture, history, and certain facets of geopolitics. I’m not done yet. I’m now waiting for my turn at the King County Library System to read India After Gandhi.
My initial interest in reading these books was to observe how leaders develop. I had several questions in my mind. How did Gandhi become who he was? What led him to pick up the causes he picked up? What experiences shaped his philosophy of non-violent resistance? Who played what role in his life in shaping his philosophy? Through Guha’s books, I learned much more than I bargained for. In addition to giving answers to these questions, Guha’s books strengthened my preference for pluralism.
First, leadership development won’t happen unless you force yourself into situations that demand solving ambiguous problems requiring change and dealing with people of different viewpoints. You can read many books on how to influence others. Still, you won’t get to learn to influence without putting yourself in situations that demand you to develop the ability to influence. This is precisely what Gandhi did in his years in South Africa when confronting the discrimination of British colonizers against the so-called “Asiatics” — these were the peoples that British colonizers brought from India, China, and other Asian countries on indenture to South Africa. Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance and pluralism evolved during this time. Gandhi, as we know now, might not have happened if he had not put himself in those situations.
Of course, to lead change, you have to have courage to form opinions, stamina to hold your ground, tenacity to keep pursuing the cause with different tactics, patience to influence others, humility to be brutally self-critical and acknowledge mistakes, willingness to do the hard work of organizing and mobilizing people, and presence to reiterate messages again and again through writings and speeches. You see Guha describing all these behaviors in these books.
Second and most important, religious and political pluralism is the only viable path to peace and harmony. That was true during India’s struggles in the 1900s, and it is true today. Pluralism recognizes and permits different interests, convictions, and lifestyles to coexist peacefully. Per Guha, by the 1920s, Gandhi saw the “sustenance of religious and linguistic pluralism was central to the nurturing of nationhood.”
We have ample historical evidence of what happens when we don’t embrace pluralism. Not recognizing and permitting the interests, convictions, and lifestyles of others brought us near-extinction of the natives in the United States, racism and genocides in many parts of the world, the apartheid in South Africa, and even the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. It also got Gandhi assassinated in 1948 as the person who shot Gandhi on January 30, 1948, was a Hindu fanatic who got upset by Gandhi’s pluralistic views on Muslims. Though Gandhi persevered with his pluralism to a large extent till his assassination, India had begun drifting towards monoism, which is why Gandhi is less popular now in India than before.
Pluralism is hard. It requires you to check your judgment of others and your religious and political views. Pluralism may force you to give up your beliefs. For example, initially, Gandhi viewed native peoples in South Africa as inferior to Whites and Browns. Later on, he gave up that belief. Monoism, on the other hand, is easy. With monoism, for you to be right, the other person must be wrong. For your way of life to prosper, the other way must be stopped by all means. Unfortunately, monoism gets you clicks and generates anger.
Guha’s books broadened my perspective. I’m glad I read his books. I strongly urge you to read those. Remember that the other side does not need to perish for your side to exist.