What would Gandhi think of our world today?


Recalling Gandhi’s legacy, Marina Mahathir calls on us to make use of the power that we all have to insist that we be ruled only by those who wage peace at all times.

To many people, the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Mahatma Gandhi is of course his doctrine of non-violence. I think by far this is his greatest contribution to the world, that rebellion against injustice can be achieved through non-violent means. That to protest against such injustices is a human right, because injustice itself is a violation of human rights. And because injustice is often violent, to protest in a non-violent manner is also a statement in itself.

Not that the world, despite its admiration for Gandhi, has been able to follow his doctrine in practice at all. When we look at the amount of violence today all round the world, we have to wonder what the Mahatma would have thought. Violence today has become more widespread, more sophisticated and more diversified. We are seeing every day different types of violence perpetrated by different people using different means. Are any of them justified and would all of them merit the same non-violent responses?

Violence in the world

In Gandhi’s day, his main concern was the sort of violence perpetrated by colonisers against the colonised. This included both the British government’s colonisation of India and the demand by Indians for self-determination as well as the social colonisation of the haves in Indian society over the have-nots, especially those from the untouchable classes.

Perhaps less well-known is that Gandhi was also an opponent of the formation of the state of Israel. Although he sympathised greatly with the plight of Jews who were being persecuted in Germany, nevertheless Gandhi thought the answer was not the setting up of a Jewish state in Palestine. “The Palestine of the Biblical conception,” he said, “ is not a geographical tract. It is in their (Jewish) hearts. But if they must look to the Palestine of geography as their national home, it is wrong to enter it under the shadow of the British gun. A religious act cannot be performed with the aid of the bayonet or the bomb. They can settle in Palestine only by the
goodwill of the Arabs. They should seek to convert the Arab heart.”

As we know, nobody listened then to Gandhi and the Palestine issue is still with us today. As indeed colonialism still is, and taking on more violent forms than ever before. Today we have at least two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, with hundreds of foreign soldiers on their soil attempting unsuccessfully to bring peace to those countries. Instead of development, both Iraq and Afghanistan have been laid waste to violence and are unable to govern themselves for some time to come. Furthermore the violence perpetuated is today much more sophisticated, operated from a distance and causing many more deaths and injuries on civilian populations than ever before. How many times have we seen reports of drone attacks causing many civilian deaths in Afghanistan or suicide bombers killing and injuring innocent people?

Weapons of war

Today too we have seen more diverse forms of weaponry, not just more technologically sophisticated ones but also chemical weapons, even those declared illegal by the international community. In Gaza, doctors treating the injured reported the use of white phosphorus, which burns the skin as long as oxygen is available. These doctors also reported the use of Dense Inert Metal Explosives (DIME), a type of bomb fired from Israeli planes, which hit the ground, bounce up again and then explode sending out hundreds of sharp blades and shrapnel. The injuries caused by these shrapnel include amputated legs, arms and heads; needless to say, DIME does not differentiate between adults and children, soldiers and civilians.

Let us not forget that the threat of nuclear weapons still looms over us today. Despite the global anti-nuclear movement, today there are still several countries that insist on having nuclear weapons including the United States and Israel. Additionally, the conventional arms trade is today estimated to be valued at USD1.5 trillion yearly or 2.7 per cent of the world’s GDP. The United States alone accounts for 42.8 per cent of the world’s defence spending and 4.8 per cent of its GDP. It is also the largest exporter of armaments, thus spreading violence and death all round the world.

As the director Michael Moore pointed out in his documentary Bowling for Columbine, in an environment where it is not considered unusual to manufacture, buy and sell weaponry, violence becomes an idea that seeps into the community and the minds of individuals, with fatal consequences for many innocent victims.

The Nobel peace laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, former President of Costa Rica, a country without an army, noted the same phenomenon: “When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness. We have produced one firearm for every ten inhabitants of this planet, and yet we have not bothered to end hunger when such a feat is well within our reach.

“Our international regulations allow almost three-quarters of all global arms sales to pour into the developing world with no binding international guidelines whatsoever. Our regulations do not hold countries accountable for what is done with the weapons they sell, even when the probable use of such weapons is obvious.”

Thus the world in 2011 is much more awash in the means to violence than in the days of Gandhi, even though he lived to see the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and was a sharp critic of the use of nuclear bombs. In 1946, he remarked: “I regard the employment of the atom bomb for the wholesale destruction of men, women, and children as the most diabolical use of science.” Sadly this diabolical use of science continues unabated today.

Causes of violence

What about the causes of violent conflict today? No longer is it just colonisation that is causing conflict but different issues have arisen of late that may not have existed in Gandhi’s day. Globalisation has linked the countries of the world as never before but its benefits have not been evenly distributed over all countries. The divide between rich and poor nations remains large; developing nations still suffer a bigger share of the world’s poverty, illiteracy and ill health. They are less able to cope with shocks in the world’s economic system; if the developed world to which they export suffers a recession, they suffer worse from the effects of those cutbacks.

These types of economic inequalities lead to a new phenomena, human migration, where people move from their own region or country to another to seek a better life. If badly managed, this can lead to conflicts with the native people of the host countries. Migrants now make up 214m people who leave their countries for work or to seek refuge from crises in their own countries, including conflicts. According to the International Organisation for Migration, this means that one in every 33 people in the world is an international migrant. As displaced people and refugees, or even simply as foreign workers in a country, these migrants become vulnerable to violence as well as other disadvantages such as lack of access to health care.

Additionally there are the effects of relatively new phenomena such as climate change. When people are displaced by environmental disasters caused by climate change such as drought or floods, they encroach on other people’s land. Conflicts arise when more people are forced to find food from the same limited resources. Refugees forced to live in deplorable conditions invariably rebel and start to fight with both fellow refugees and their unwilling hosts. What is happening in Somalia is a case in point where hundreds of thousands of famine-stricken people have been forced to move in search of food, sparking an immense humanitarian crisis.

In many cases, compared to Gandhi’s day, the perpetrators of violence have also diversified. Where before it was often states that inflicted violence on people, today there may be non-state actors or even communities that may cause such violence. For instance, the existence of networks of people who believe that violence is the only response to injustice, thus leading to events such as 9/11, the Bali bombings and other violent events such as the suicide bombing of houses of worship. Gender-based violence has also been well-documented for example in Bosnia, in Indonesia in 1998, and more recently in the Congo and in Libya. The targets of such violence are also diverse; sometimes it is certain communities, sometimes the more vulnerable sections of the population such as women and sometimes targets are randomly picked.