“Mahatma”: Gandhi’s Lingering Influence on Indian Foreign Policy

2 years ago Alger Mag Editor 0

gandhi and nehru

“Mahatma,” they called him. And it fit. It fit the grandeur and glamour that surrounded the idea of a simple lean man, with a self-woven white cloth covering his body, who single-handedly shook the entire British Raj with his words, actions, and even inactions. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known to the world as Gandhiji, was a preeminent leader in the Indian freedom struggle against the British Raj in India. He mobilized the masses with ease, employing his modest yet tactful strategies of non-violence and civil disobedience to fight the Raj and claim freedom for India. There were others who helped him with the cause, not to mention the never-faltering support of his disciples, but it was him who did the nigh impossible job of brining it all under one umbrella and directing the effort towards the common goal. The religious and ethnic diversity in India made the task even more difficult, especially in light of the “divide and rule” policy that the British so skillfully employed. In the face of all this, against the seemingly insurmountable pressure from the British opposition, he stood strong and helped India cross the finish line, fulfilling a tryst with destiny.

Gandhiji’s ideologies centered around the idea of nonviolent resistance. He believed that the hearts of one’s enemies could be won over with nonviolence. He lived modestly, fought for equality between all castes, and played a major role in deciding the future of a then-colonized India. However, the future of this country was more complicated than it seemed at the moment. Every action taken by either side had widespread effects and caused major shifts in shaping the future of this country, or countries, as history would have it. These shifts weren’t just about freedom or government, but about domestic and foreign policy, allies and enemies, and about there being one nation or three.

Weighing these variables, not all of which were visible at the moment, Gandhiji had to make several crucial decisions. Many people would agree with the Indian history textbooks’ portrayal: that he was successful in making those calls; that he made the right choice at every turn; that he helped shape India in becoming the bustling commercial hub it is, and the world power it will soon be. But even in an ideal situation, which was far from the case for India during the British Raj, leaders don’t get every decision right. This realization is not to discredit their efforts, but simply to remind the world of their mortality. And Gandhiji was no exception.

67 years after his assassination, Gandhiji’s legacy still dictates many of the decisions that are made in New Delhi, especially at 7 Race Course Road (Prime Ministerial Office and Residence). While most PMs succumbed to this concealed, yet undeniable pressure of utilizing their authoritarian powers in foreign military matters, Modi is putting up a fight. Known for his knack of shifting the status quo, Modi is pushing the boundaries for Indian military action, in and out of the country. Although still very peaceful in his actions and rhetoric, coinciding with Gandhiji’s ideology, he is ushering in a new era, one that shapes up the bigger idea of India’s role in governing the world.

Gandhiji broke on to the political scene in the 1900s in South Africa after facing several incidents of injustice, inequality, and discrimination. He helped the British fight the Boer and Zulu wars in Africa by recommending Indians to serve in the military ranks. Although laughed at by the British at first, he successfully changed their minds, protesting to help the black people in Africa getting the right to vote.

After his success in Africa, he came back to India with a reputation as an Indian nationalist. He joined the Indian National Congress where he was introduced to the Indian national struggle for equality, rights, and later freedom. In the latter stages of World War I in early 1918, he was summoned by the British Viceroy to a War Conference in Delhi, where he agreed to help conjure military support for the British in the war. He wrote and published a leaflet called the “Appeal for Enlistment,” which urged Indian men to join the British war effort.

This was the first time that Gandhiji showed inconsistency in his words supporting non-violence. Besides the fact that he was directly urging and supporting violence, he was also garnering support for the British, the enemy in the fight for Indian independence. Little is known about why Gandhiji supported the British War Effort in a war that in no way affected or benefitted India directly. This fuels the argument that many Gandhi critics make about him trying to impress the British leadership.

Photograph by Chetan Karkhanis

After that, there came a time of mixed results for Gandhiji and the Congress. After several key wins and defeats in the struggle, Gandhiji was quickly making a name for himself in the country. In 1920, he became a major leader in Congress. The non-cooperation movement and Khilafat movement both started off promisingly but failed. Even with the aforementioned failures, the Indian struggle for freedom was growing. Gandhiji’s followers grew in numbers, and he was becoming a force to be reckoned with.

The civil disobedience movement proved to be the first real threat to be acknowledged by the British, who initiated negotiations to end it. Lord Irwin, the British Viceroy to India at the time invited Gandhiji for a set of talks to his presidential palace. The two men met for a total of 24 hours over a period of several days and negotiated a truce, which became famous as the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. The pact had several components to it. Irwin asked Gandhi to discontinue the Civil Disobedience Movement. In return for Gandhi and Congress would have a seat at the next set of Roundtable Conferences in London. Besides this, all imprisoned Congress leaders, as well as protestors who didn’t commit violent crimes, would be released from prison.

The deal came under criticism from the British leadership. One of the outspoken personalities on this pact was Winston Churchill who expressed his unhappiness as disgust “at the nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one-time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy’s palace, there to negotiate and parley on equal terms with the representative of the King Emperor.”

Although this deal ended up infuriating the British leadership, it included several major concession on the part of Congress, and is yet another example of Gandhiji’s unassertiveness on the political scene. The Civil Disobedience Movement was the first strategy that had managed the upset the balance of the British Raj in India. Shutting it down caused a major disruption in the spirit of the Indian people. As a trained lawyer, the biggest mistake that Gandhiji made was to not get the assurance that a future Viceroy would hold up this pact. After Lord Irwin’s successor, Lord Willingdon came to power, he didn’t honor the deal, and when Gandhiji tried to reignite the Civil Disobedience Movement, he and other Congress leaders were jailed again, snuffing out the civil disobedience movement.

The end of WWII and the election of the Labour Party in Britain led to the beginning of the discussions for a Free India. However, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, had other plans. The Muslim League had become prominent in the freedom struggle because most Congress Leaders were jailed during the latter part of WWII. Jinnah wanted a separate state for Muslims. During September 1944, Jinnah and Gandhiji met several times, in an aim to look for a convenient solution. In the negotiations, Gandhiji failed to demotivate Jinnah’s dream of a separate Muslim State. So when independence was declared, it was declared for two separate nations: India and Pakistan. During the partition, a mass migration movement took place and provoked horrible riots on both sides. Women were raped and children murdered within the first few days of independence in both countries.


Many still blame the partition on Gandhiji, though historian Stanley Wolpert argued and defended Gandhiji on the topic of partition. He stated that the “plan to carve up British India was never approved of or accepted by Gandhi…who realized too late that his closest comrades and disciples were more interested in power than principle, and that his own vision had long been clouded by the illusion that the struggle he led for India’s independence was a nonviolent one.”

Although the partition wasn’t Gandhiji’s fault, it was lunacy to walk in to those negotiations with Jinnah without his two foremost political advisors (Nehru & Patel). Although the leader of a freedom struggle based on his saintly ideologies, Gandhiji was no political expert. He failed horrifically at assessing the moral, monetary, and nationalistic costs of partition. He took it even further when he misused his position and fame by fasting to force the newly formed Indian Government to pay more money to the Pakistani Government while splitting assets. This highly unnecessary move was one of the main reasons for his assassination on 30th January 1948 at the hands of Nathuram Godse, a Hindu radicalist. Nathuram Godse believed that Gandhiji was partial when it came to the partition and sided on a number of issues with Jinnah over Nehru.

The assassination of Gandhiji was a notable milestone in the deteriorating relationship between India and Pakistan. The number of notable wars and conflicts grew between the two states after that point. Four major wars were fought in 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999. Even today, hundreds die on each side every year in trivial border skirmishes.

But Gandhiji’s death didn’t mean the death of his ideologies. His closest companion and follower, Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi became a Prime Minister when she came of age. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi came next in line. Nehru gave birth to the most successful political dynasty the region has ever seen, with his great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi contesting the latest, 2014 General Election as the Prime Ministerial candidate on behalf of Congress.

The retention of the Gandhi philosophy isn’t just limited to the Indian National Congress. A heavy trace of it still remains in the working of the Indian Government as a whole on foreign policy matters. More often than not, India has failed to answer strongly to provocations made by other countries, especially Pakistan. In 1972, after the announcement of Independence by Bangladesh, the constant dispute between India and Pakistan over Jammu & Kashmir (which legally, according to the partition agreement, belonged to India), led to the emergence of an unofficial but mutually respected Line of Control (LoC) to make sure that such disputes don’t happen again.

But then in 1999, in what came to be known as the Kargil War, Pakistani insurgents (who were later found out to be Pakistani military officers) crossed the LoC and illegally occupied the district of Kargil. India successfully retaliated and retook the district. The Indian army evicted the insurgents, but no further action was taken against Pakistan for provoking a military response from India or for breaching the sovereignty of a state.

Again in 2008, after the attacks of 26/11 in Mumbai, the interrogation of the sole surviving terrorist, as well as reports from RAW, CIA, and other foreign intelligence agencies, pointed to Pakistan’s ISI for training of the terrorists as well arming them with weapons. A border military standoff ensued, but no serious actions were taken.


There is an unspoken uneasiness related to wars and disputed lands. Both the major parties in the country have demonstrated a certain unnecessary restraint in military action on several occasions, even though India has a strong army (3rd largest in the world). Although, that’s no justification for using excessive force, India desperately needs to put a foot down and project a message that it is not to be messed around with. With strides in economic development and a positive, youthful, and intelligent workforce, India is right behind Russia and China in helping realize the vision of a multi-superpower world.

But much work needs to be done. Amongst the several issues weighing it down like poverty, corruption, and dependence on other countries, the issues of terrorism and international bullying loom large. India shares its borders with six countries, two of them nuclear powers. India has had several issues regarding the definition of its borders with China and Pakistan. China is currently pushing aggressively for more autonomy in the South China Sea. It is only a matter of time, before it turns its full attention to the west, where India is quietly yet steadily growing. Having already lost a war to China in 1962 and major disputes over Akshai Chin, India under Modi is trying to make an ally out of China. But even if that succeeds, the questions of terrorism still persist from its western border with Pakistan.

If India ever hopes to be a world power, it needs to be stern and quick in addressing and answering threats. It needs to stop reminiscing about Gandhiji’s legacy and ideologies and adopt a more assertive foreign policy. Times are changing and extremism, in all forms, is on the rise. Civil war is tearing nations apart, and the current military super powers are picking sides. There couldn’t be a more interesting juncture for India to leave its overly pacifist past behind and break onto the international political scene.


by Abhishek Doshi

(photo credit: gqindia.com, davecito on flickr.com, sandeepachetan.com, and Alosh Bennett on flickr.com)