In troubled times, Gandhi’s legacy endures
Monday 18th February 2013, 5:00PM GMT.
More than 60 years after his death, Mahatma Gandhi’s method of non-violent social protest is still being used in the nation he helped to create. On a visit to India, Tim Earl witnesses a peaceful demonstration in Mumbai and is moved by the power of the rallies that followed the gang rape of a woman in New Delhi…
RIOTS in New Delhi in December were preceded by a protest rally in Mumbai – which helps explain what followed.
I was returning with a group from Elephanta Island, a popular excursion with Indians and tourists, when we encountered hundreds of protesting women.
They were angry at their government’s failure to stop the illegal abortion of female foetuses.
India’s main television stations were filming the protest, with scores of newspaper cameramen and journalists in attendance too.
Banners stating ‘Save Girl Children’ and ‘Boy & Girl are the Two Wheels of the Life Cycle’ were being waved, while more static displays said ‘Save Girl, Save World’.
My group and I were filmed talking to the protesters and may well have been on national television.
The protesters explained that in India, thousands of girl babies are aborted each year as boys are more economically advantageous to their families.
But, they told us, that means that increasingly, there are many more young men than women and huge numbers cannot find wives or girlfriends.
In a country that accords far less importance to the rights of women than men and treats rape as a minor offence at best, frustrated men take by force what they cannot get legitimately.
Most offences go unreported and police routinely fail to investigate many of those that do result in a complaint.
Victims of sexual assault are often blamed for the crime, forced to keep quiet and discouraged from going to authorities for fear of exposing their families to ridicule.
Even when they do get to court, a rare outcome, the cases drag on for years and sentences are derisory.
So, against this backdrop, the horror of the December gang rape and subsequent death of a 22-year-old woman in New Delhi proved to be the final straw for many women.
The assault garnered world attention – both for the viciousness of the crime and for strength of the reaction it has invoked throughout the country.
The victim was raped, beaten and assaulted horrendously by six men, one of whom was thought to be a 17-year-old bus-driver’s assistant. (This is a common job in India – every bus and lorry has an assistant who aspires to qualify as a driver one day.)
The woman was first treated at a New Delhi hospital before being moved to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth hospital, which specialises in multi-organ transplants. She died two weeks after the attack.
Following her death, thousands of Indians lit candles, held prayer meetings and marched through cities and towns to express their grief and demand stronger protection for women.
They also want the death penalty for rape, which is currently punishable by a maximum of life imprisonment.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress party, were at the airport to receive the woman’s body when it was returned to India. They met family members of the victim who were on the flight. Security was tight, with no access for the public or media at the crematorium.
Sonia Gandhi is daughter-in-law to one of the most powerful female figures in Indian history, former prime minister Indira Gandhi. She heads the Congress Party and her son, Rahul, is tipped as their 2014 prime ministerial election candidate.
But many protesters expressed disappointment at the low profile of younger politicians such as Rahul Gandhi, who could have helped bridge the gap between the demonstrators and the political establishment.
His first public comment, extending sympathy to the victim’s family and urging respect for women, came only after the student had died.
If found guilty, the six men arrested will face the death penalty for murder.
In a sign of how pervasive such crimes are, police in West Bengal state are investigating another suspected gang-rape and death.
Six men attacked a woman and her husband as they returned home after working at a brick factory, the woman’s family said.
They dragged the woman into a nearby farm after pouring acid into her husband’s mouth, the family claims.
The woman was found dead with multiple injuries, according to a police spokesman.
In the Mumbai demonstration, dozens of protesters tried to break through a police cordon and march to the parliament building but were pushed back.
The protesters, belonging to the student wing of main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, shouted anti-government slogans as they marched.
Hundreds of policemen sealed off the high-security area, where the seat of India’s government is located, in anticipation of more protests.
The area is home to parliament, the president’s palace, the prime minister’s office and several ministries.
The protesters were using the method of ‘Satyagraha’, laid down by the late Mahatma Gandhi, a believer in peaceful, non-violent protest.
Coincidentally, we had visited Porbandar, the birthplace of perhaps the greatest modern Indian politician, a couple of days earlier, an excursion that got me thinking about the great man.
Mahatma Gandhi was one of the foremost spiritual, political, moral and cultural leaders of the 20th century, honoured by the people of India as the father of their nation.
He helped free India from British control using his unique method of non-violent resistance.
Slight in build but with great physical and moral strength, he was assassinated by an Indian who resented his programme of tolerance for all creeds and religions.
It was the Indian people who called Gandhi the ‘Mahatma’, meaning ‘Great Soul’.
His life was guided by a search for truth. He believed truth could be known only through tolerance and concern for others and that finding a truthful way to solutions required constant testing.
Gandhi believed in non-violence and taught that to be truly non-violent required courage.
He developed a method of direct social action, based upon principles of courage, non-violence and truth, which he called Satyagraha.
In this method, the way people behave is more important than what they achieve.
Satyagraha was used to fight for India’s independence and to bring about social change.
It is being used today in the fight for more just women’s rights.