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Gandhi: Freedom and Democracy

Gandhi: Freedom and Democracy

Dr. Ravindra Kumar

Being a great statesman, thinker, humanist and an apostle of peace of the 20eth Century, Mahatma Gandhi was one of those personalities whose theory and practice had similarity and one was supportive of the other. The basis of his theory and practice, as all know, was non-violence. You probably know that credit of coining a new word ‘non-violence’, in English goes to him as he used it in South Africa for the first time and was accepted as a synonym of ‘Ahimsa’. Prior to it, non-violence had not been mentioned in any dictionary. I am not going to discuss here why he coined this word and the reason for it, but would like to quote what Gandhi said about it. He has written, “Non-violence is a term I had to coin in order to bring out the root meaning of…‘Ahimsa’. It is the soul force or the power of Godhead with us…therefore; it can never mean passivity…Non-violence demands infinite courage, such a courage that surpasses the bravery of the soldier.”

Non-violence of Gandhi has no parallel. None can remain unaffected by it. Besides, each and everyone, more or less, can catch a glimpse of his own concept of non-violence reflected in Gandhi’s non-violence. Although, non-violence is a permanent characteristic of human nature, it is a social virtue also. Gandhi himself has said, “Non-violence is not merely a personal virtue. It is also a social virtue…” Why is it so? He further argues, “Society is largely regulated by the expression of non-violence in its mutual dealings.” It sounds convincing. Had it not been so, there would not have been any cooperation at any level or in any situation and the progress that we see around us day-after-day would have been non-existent.

Consistency, positivity, activity, coupled with common good and perpetuality are the main characteristics of Gandhi’s non-violence. To realize them, faith in God is essential, for Truth is its other aspect. Non-violence stands diametrically opposite cowardice. For human beings it is a means as well as the goal. There is no alternative to it. That why; Gandhi considered the system based on non-violence supreme and essential. Now, a question may arise. What is the system which is based on non-violence as conceived by Gandhi? According to him, that system can only be the real and pure democracy as Ramarajya. Whatever the basis of the democratic system of governance that exist in the countries all over the world including India may be, the real democracy i.e. Ramarajya is altogether different. This kind of democratic system can be introduced in the present ones by evolving non-violence with all its other facets.

Democracy is the government of the people. In fact, justice and freedom for every citizen are possible only under this system. There is also every possibility of having opportunity for progress. It is a source of general welfare too. Gandhi has also said, “Democracy must be in essence…meaning the art and science of mobilizing the entire physical, economic and spiritual resources of all the various sections of people in the service of common good of all.”

But the common good can be certain when everyone is aware of his or her responsibilities, is disciplined and dedicated to the moral and ethical values. In the absence of these, the freedom of citizens will always remain questionable and the democracy in which freedom is called in question will be a democracy only in name. In such a condition, the possibility of justice, the main pillar of people’s government, will remain veiled in doubt. Therefore, Gandhi holds freedom in prominence in true democracy based on non-violence. All of us know how Gandhi showed the world a unique way to freedom by following non-violence and also gave suggestions for the development of true democracy. Accordingly, he elaborated three main conditions for the application of non-violence. According to him, non-violence cannot be used only against a constituted authority i.e. in the struggle of independence, it is equally applicable during any internal disturbance as communal or caste riots. Besides, it can be used against an external aggression. In 20eth Century, he inspired non-violent movements for independence not only in India, but also in many countries all over the world and explained the value of freedom to millions of people. The Civil Rights Movement inspired and directed by Martin Luther King Jr. in America in sixth decade of 20eth Century, the successful non-violent struggle of the people against the tyranny of Marcos in Philippines, about 40 years’ non-violent action against Apartheid under the leadership of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, people’s resistance against General Pinochet in Chile, the glorious victory achieved through non-violent action against the dictatorship in Latin America are historic examples in view before us that extol Gandhi’s ever remembering, worth emulating and unique achievements and their relevance. They urge us to realize the importance of the lesson of freedom taught by Gandhi time and again and motivate us to develop on its basis the democracy permeated with non-violence.

In fact, complete individual freedom holds a dominant position in the democracy advocated by Gandhi. Without complete freedom a slave is always a slave; and a man with servile disposition can never think of progress in any walk of life. Such a man can do something for society, state or the world is also unthinkable. Therefore, Gandhi has stated, “…if individual liberty goes, then surely all is lost, for, if the individual ceases to count, what is left of society? Individual freedom also can make a man voluntarily surrender himself completely to the service of society. If it wrested from him, he becomes automation and society is ruined. No society can possibly be built on denial of individual freedom…”

How can it be assured that everyone has complete freedom and following the path of progress contributes to the development of true democracy? In this context, before we learn about the views of Gandhi, it is better we discuss what the purpose of freedom is.

Freedom is a concept that has been in the mind of thinkers for ages. Its importance has always been felt by mankind. ‘Freedom’ has been derived from the word ‘free’. When we discuss the word ‘free’ a question naturally comes to our mind-free from what. Defining freedom, Hobbes says, “…freedom signifieth the absence of opposition by external impediments to motion.” A scholar like Carritt regards “free to do what one wills” is freedom, whereas for Taylor it is “free to act for the realization of a coherent rational purpose.” There are many other opinions as there, but I would like to mention one of John Lock. In his opinion freedom is that allows him to do all, not prohibited by law, as he wills. He should not be subjected to others fickle, uncertain and unrestrained wishes. However, it is evident that there are situations when a man is completely free from external impediments and can do as he wills. In spite of it he has a servile state of mind. Contrary to it, another person faces the external and internal impediments out, gets rid of them and thus being free takes his own course. It is now obvious that freedom is associated with mentality. Gandhi himself has accepted that freedom is a mental state.

As far as the question of ‘doing what one wills’ or ‘freedom from any external impediment’, is concerned, the concept of ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ is not clear. To do freely according to one’s own free will is not freedom. How can one enjoy freedom at the cost of others? If one cannot, what is the meaning of freedom then? Gandhi, giving a comprehensible meaning to it, writes, “My conception of freedom is no narrow conception. It is co-extensive with the freedom of man in all his majesty”, and so “Every individual must have the fullest liberty to use his talent consistently with equal use by neighbours, but no one is entitled to the arbitrary use of the gains from the talent. He is a part of the nation or, say, the social structure surrounding him. Therefore, he can use his talent not for self only but for the social structure of which he is but a part and on whose sufferance he lives.” It now becomes clear that for Gandhi freedom, like non-violence, is concerned with an individual as well as the society. Moreover, the feeling of common good is foremost here.

It was Gandhi’s wish that an individual must be at liberty to make progress. He may keep his personal interest in view but at the same time he must realize his responsibility for the society as a whole and use the opportunities in social, economic and political fields equally with others. There is no place for exploitation in democracy. Accepting this irrevocable truth that man is a social being and an inseparable part of society, an individual will feel his presence and importance in every social structure. Furthermore, he would certainly have a role in the system governing a state. In this context, Gandhi emphasized the decentralization of power in economic and political spheres and wrote that it was necessary to assure freedom to one and all and develop democracy based on non-violence. In people’s government no one should feel that he/she is not free and has not got a role in its administration.

Thus, Gandhi has given prominence to freedom in democracy and in human life as well. He has laid emphasis on decentralization of power as guarantee for freedom. Indeed, it is very important and worth giving a thought and acceptable for maturity of democracy.


Dr. Ravindra Kumar is a universally renowned Gandhian scholar, Indologist and writer. He is the former Vice Chancellor of Meerut University, Meerut, India.

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