Modi and Gandhi: Didn't the world know about Gandhi till the Attenborough film?

Modi should just know that today there are a large number of universities in the world where Gandhian studies are a part of their curricula. Many schools are trying to teach his values. Nearly 80 global cities have Gandhi streets and Gandhi statues installed in prominent places.

Dr Ram Puniyani Jun 05, 2024
Einstein quote on Gandhi

In an interview to ABP on May 29, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated "In the last 75 years, wasn't it our responsibility to make Mahatma Gandhi known across the world? Forgive me, but nobody knew Mahatma Gandhi''  till the Attenborough film on him was released in 1982.

When he was saying this the ABP journalists interviewing him sat with stony expressions. They did not react to this elementary falsehood being dished out by Modi. The aim of this statement towards the fag end of the prolonged general election campaign is not hard to guess.

Severe criticism of his ten-year regime on issues of employment, rising prices, plight of farmers, paper leaks, Agniveer army recruitment scheme etc. was getting traction. How to divert the attention from these core issues of people was his major concern. This outpouring on Mahatma Gandhi served another function apart from distracting attention from people's issues. It targeted Jawaharlal Nehru and earlier Congress regimes for ignoring the popularisation of Gandhi in the global arena.

More than criticism of Nehru or earlier Congress regimes, actually it shows Modi’s ignorance about the life and works of Gandhi, his international prestige and his role in being a beacon for major figures of the world. It shows Modi’s ignorance about Gandhi’s influence on global politics from the decade of 1930s itself, much before Richard Attenborough came out with this biopic on him, based on the biography written by Louis Fischer.

With Gandhi’s struggles in South Africa he came to be recognized as a major leader against apartheid. With his coming to India and leading the Champaran movement for farmers, his friend Charlie Andrews spread to the world the unique nature of Champaran Satyagraha. His unique tool of Satyagraha based on truth and non violence began to draw the attention of the world towards the problems of the weak and exploited.

Global media attention 

Later other movements launched by him, civil disobedience and the salt march, were widely covered in the global media. The attention paid to him was mainly a source of inspiration for the struggle for justice and the involvement of people around the concerns of society. His lifework and messages spread with lightning speed on a global scale. On one hand, the British rulers intensified the repression in India and on the other, those respecting peace, justice and nonviolence started noticing Gandhi’s contribution to principles of humanism at the global level.

While Modi may not know the real contribution of Gandhi and his great popularity in the world since that time, he needs to know that the English newspaper, The Burlington Hawk-Eye, September 20, 1931, carried a full page feature on him, “Most Talked about Man in the World”. The renowned American magazine Time carried him on the cover as ‘Man of the Year in 1931’ and on two other occasions, he was on the cover of this coveted magazine. Similarly, Time’s companion magazine Life also carried a feature on him.

The global personalities contributing to the process of peace and justice through their works and ideas started getting attracted to him. The scientist Albert Einstein wrote in 1939, “I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men of our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil,” He said of Gandhi after his assassination: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Sir Charles Chaplin, inspired by Gandhi’s movement, ensured a meeting with him and the reflection of Gandhi’s values is very much there in his films, ‘Modern Times’ and ‘The Great Dictator’. In the latter Chaplin contrasts Gandhi with Hitler. Similarly, French dramatist Roman Rollain in the French edition of Young India wrote, “If (Jesus) Christ was the Prince of Peace, Gandhi is no less worthy of this noble title."

Inspiration for King and Mandela

Two of the major activists of the twentieth century, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, drew  inspiration and direction for the path of their struggle from Gandhi. In an article for Hindustan Times in 1959 King wrote, “I came to see at a very early stage that a synthesis of Gandhi’s method of non-violence and the Christian ethic of love is the best weapon available to Negroes for this struggle for freedom and human dignity.”

The prolonged struggles of Nelson Mandela had the underlying values derived from Gandhi’s life and teachings. He lauded “Mahatma Gandhi combined ethics and morality with a steely resolve that refused to compromise with the oppressor, the British Empire.”

Gandhi's fame and reputation

Modi should just know that today there are a large number of universities in the world where Gandhian studies are a part of their curricula. Many schools are trying to teach his values. Nearly 80 global cities have Gandhi streets and Gandhi statues installed in prominent places.

As far as films are concerned, India's Films Division had come out with a documentary film made by Vithalbhai Jhaveri much before Attenborough. Attenborough saw this film twice and advised the lead actor of the film Ben Kingsley to watch it to understand Gandhi’s mannerisms etc.

As for the Modi allegation that the previous regimes did not do anything to popularize Gandhi in the world, even in the making of the Attenborough film, the Indian government through the National Films Development Corporation, contributed a major sum to making this film. The Attenborough film is dedicated amongst others to Nehru also. It was Nehru who had advised him not to present Gandhi as a superhuman being, but as the one with all his weaknesses and strengths as he led the nation. Gandhi’s international reputation is not due to films but films have been made due to his fame and reputation. The number of books written on and about him is astounding. 

As the long election campaign in India has ended, the diversionary statement on Gandhi became an occasion for many to revisit the "Father of the Nation" whose teachings on harmony and peace are far more relevant today than when he preached and practiced those.

(The writer, a former IIT Bombay professor, is Chairman, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Views expressed are the author's own) 

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