Monday, January 09, 2023

Mahatma Gandhi and the meaning of being a Pravasi Bharatiya

Since 2003, the Republic of India has marked January 9 as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. Here is a piece on the overseas Indian whose journey it commemorates.

Today, January 9, marks the anniversary of the greatest homecoming ever by an Indian, one now celebrated in India – the mother country of perhaps the largest and most farflung diaspora in the world – as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, or “Overseas Indian Day”.

On January 9, 1915, a lawyer and community organiser from Gujarat called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (at 46, already in late middle age) stepped off the ship SS Arabia at Bombay Harbour. Gandhi had spent the previous two decades in South Africa, where he had made a name for himself representing the civil cases of the prosperous merchants of Indian origin there and the struggle for political rights of indentured labourers of Indian origin in a society divided on racial lines. Before that, he had also spent a few years as a (fairly mediocre) student in England.

In between these two stints abroad, Gandhi had already made one brief, unsuccessful attempt in the 1890s to return to India and set up his own legal practice. One reason for his failure then was his own diffidence; another, the fact that, as an Indian who had travelled abroad across the “black waters”, he was seen as having lost caste in a highly stratified and cloistered social world. Indians of that time preferred to deal with somebody uncorrupted by contact with the great unknown.

Though he returned to India a successful and even wealthy man, Gandhi’s travels had not made him arrogant, but rather more curious and more humble, even at the age of 46. It’s worth noting that he had promised his political mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, that he would not speak or write on India for a year, till he had travelled around the country and acquainted himself with its problems.

During his sojourn in South Africa, Gandhi had discovered something enormously liberating about the life of émigrés. The boundaries drawn by Indians at home between themselves were blurred, and sometimes entirely abandoned, by the solidarities and hardships of being Indians abroad – which experience, for the rest of his lifetime, was to be expressed in Gandhi’s optimism about the ability of Indians to transcend their differences and work together.

Gandhi’s early life in Gujarat, then, and his outlook as a devout Hindu, were orthodox; his life experience for an Indian of the time, unusually heterodox. Among the protagonist in the movement for Indian independence (which he transformed within a decade from a primarily upper-class, small-scale campaign to a mass movement), no one possessed a sophisticated sense of the possibilities and civilizational blind spots of both India and the West – or such a willingness to turn the harsh light of criticism upon his own country (and indeed himself).

Through his capacity to combine homegrown ideas with those from around the world, Gandhi forged, first abroad and then at home, a creative new political philosophy called “satyagraha”, or “truth-force” – a compound of nonviolence, active resistance, and demanding self-scrutiny that was to become part of the basic vocabulary of modern political resistance. He came to it by way of the theories of Tolstoy and Ruskin, as also the Bhagavad Gita. To this day, Gandhi's thought holds a prominent place in the world’s sense of what it means to be Indian (even if its ideals are today under siege in India itself).

South Africa, as many have argued, was the making of Gandhi. The scholar Judith Brown put it well when she wrote, “Gandhi's twenty years in South Africa were not just his apprenticeship as a political mobilizer. They also provided the time and circumstances in which he formulated his attitude to India and the West; and this, far more than his political capacity and experience, was to mark him out on his return to India.”

One might even say Gandhi's travels had ennobled him. Having fought for the cause of Indians in South Africa, many of them Muslim, he could not bring himself to divide Indian society reflexively into Hindus and Muslims, as so many of his companions in the independence movement did explicitly or privately. He sought an independent Indian nation-state that would be home to all the faiths of the subcontinent.

Having grown up reflexively obeying the codes of Hindu social life – including marriage to a child bride – Gandhi returned to India transformed by his experiments in thought and morality. From now on (as we see in his autobiography, one of the twentieth century’s greatest books), he was determined to move the giant edifice of Hinduism back in dialogue – and if necessary in conflict – with the call of the individual conscience. He was eventually to pay the price for this with his life.

What can Indians today learn from Gandhi’s attitude to travel? From the time of Gandhi’s return to India onwards, a great change has come about in the size and character of the Indian diaspora. Indians began to leave the country in ever-greater numbers, on terms more amenable than those of indentured labour; no longer were they resented for their departure, or rejected on their return.

Everywhere they went, they came together to form small replicas of the beloved world they had left behind. Some lapsed into conservatism, nostalgia and a partitioned mental life, while others, like Gandhi, embraced the challenge of refashioning many of their values and beliefs in the light of their new experiences–and often brought the results home. 

The story of the homecoming, more than a hundred years ago, of the greatest overseas Indian in history makes for an eternally resonant parable. As Gandhi proved, sometimes the best way of knowing oneself and one’s civilization is by going away.

A version of this piece was first published in Bloomberg Opinion