This year India and various world capitals observed the beginning of the fifteenth decade of the birth of Asia’s most illustrious son, Mahatma Gandhi(October 2, 1869 – January30, 1948).
The commemoration took the form of films, video showings, exhibitions, cultural events, seminars and other social activities.
There was also some denunciation and denigration of the great soul both within and without India. That was a relatively small irritant and a sideshow.
Seven decades after his passing, Gandhi’s message of peace, nonviolence, love, forgiveness, moderate lifestyle and deep mutual respect for fellow human beings (and animals) are still relevant although it is being ignored or being adhered to in isolated situations.
There are greater awareness and knowledge of human rights transgressions and infringements due to the wider coverage and digitalisation of news and media communications. From his later writings, it is clear Gandhi intended his message to reach not only the Indian subcontinent of the first half of the 20th century but for all of mankind, particularly the then colonised people and all people in thrall to some form of foreign, imperial control. Specifically, Gandhi wanted Asia and Africa to be free of colonialism.
While these peaceful, respectful nonviolent values had partially guided Civil Rights and Freedom leaders in several countries including the United States and South Africa, in Asia itself his ideas failed to gain traction.
Gandhi was the ultimate, untiring and unrelenting champion of the diminished, destitute, downtrodden and despised segments of the Indian population throughout his life.
The last thing he wanted was for any dominant, decidedly more powerful and well-established group to dictate and determine any situation to the detriment of the weaker or smaller group in society.
In environmental terms, Gandhi commitment was to build the country on the basis of small-scale agriculture, animal husbandry and cottage industries. He was against the earth scorching industrialisation of the West where the larger colonised world had provided the raw material for the crass consumerism, materialism and epicurean needs of a hedonistic society.
He believed in the equality of all religions but his own religious practices tended to be more inclusive, all-embracing, spiritual than sectarian.
In this regard, it was heartwarming to listen to the conclusion of the recent inauguration speech of Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, leader of the world’s largest Muslim nation, which he ended on a prayerful note of cosmic inclusiveness ‘ Om Shantih, Shantih , Shantih.’ It was reassuring and uplifting that Indonesia seeks to uphold and cherish this Gandhian ethos of inclusivity and peace.
Gandhi also railed against greed consistently averring that Mother Nature would provide the needs of all mankind but would not be able to provide enough to satisfy the greed of a few. Adherence to some Gandhian values on modest living would dramatically lighten the carbon footprint of mankind considerably.
The current environmental crisis is entirely the product of excessive consumerism which is a growing burden to humankind.
His messages on the peaceful resolution of differences did not take root in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and other South, East, West and Southeast parts of Asia.
There have been instances of prolonged armed conflict in almost all of India’s immediate neighbours and within India itself.
There were also the wars between India and Pakistan, the Iran- Iraq war, the three-year war in the Korean Peninsula that lasted till June 1953 while that in Indochina lasted until the mid-1970s. Then there was a so-called lesson administered by China against Vietnam in 1979. All these wars had a huge cost in terms of human lives, property damage and the misallocation of resources as these countries needed to sustain and improve the livelihood of poverty-stricken populations.
The ASEAN region, from its inception, has been Asia’s largest oasis of peace. The region has succeeded in not only building mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of disputes but has developed impressively in socioeconomic terms. The only unmitigated disaster spot is the festering Issue of failing to accept and assimilate the Rohingya community in Myanmar.
Five decades after Gandhi’s death the last two vestigial remnants of colonialism in Asia—Hongkong and Macao — became part of a peaceful, negotiated understanding between two imperial powers on one side and the People’s Republic of China. The two territories became partially free and sovereign but the colonial powers (more the UK than Portugal) obtained for themselves some kind of assurance that the system of government in these territories would retain some aspects of individual freedom, administrative law, practices and peculiarities that the people there were accustomed to.
Twenty-two years after this celebrated accord of ‘one country, two systems’ became effective an unprecedentedly untenable and dangerous situation has arisen in Hongkong. That situation goes against everything that Gandhi stood for.
From June 2019 for almost twenty-two weeks Hongkong, for a long time the most vibrant, efficient, prosperous and interconnected part of China to the rest of the world saw violent protests that have disrupted the orderly, optimistic outlook of that territory.
In spite the great inequality in wealth and wellbeing of Hongkong society, the uninhabitable metal ‘ cage’ accommodation for a substantial section of Hongkong’s poor, a high poverty rate of 20 percent, it was still a stimulating, safe and highly liveable city.
Chinese entrepreneurship, the capacity to trade and provide consistent, consummate and creative service combined with old British efficiency, civil service impartiality and its excellent infrastructure provided the ingredients for the immeasurable success of Hongkong.
Hongkong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has, since its formation in early 1974, acted consistently against corruption and action has been taken against both expatriates and Hongkong citizens. No onewas spared as the ICAC has functioned with professionalism, mastery and meticulousness.
Hongkong had the freest newspapers and periodicals in the region and through the Cold War years and the early stages of China’s ‘Four Modernisations Programme’ it was from Hongkong that one could obtain an unvarnished, fresh and frank assessment of a dynamic Mainland China that was largely closed, inaccessible or distant from the rest of the world.
In the 1970s and the 1980s, Hongkong had the largest and most cosmopolitan ‘China watching’ community consisting of diplomats, espionage operatives, journalists, analysts, academics, bankers, tradespeople and businesspeople.
It was Imperial Britain’s most precious jewel long after the glory of Great Britain had faded. It had good universities, the best hotels with a strong tradition of hospitality, the finest cuisines of the region, a well run Jockey Club and Hongkong’s Mark Six lottery from which almost everyone hoped to make a fortune. It has always been a delightful place combining the best of the East and West.
Tunku and Singapore
Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman (February 8, 1903 – December 6, 1990) made a prescient comment about Hongkong in 1952. The Straits Times, Malaya’ s leading English newspaper had carried a report in its July 2nd edition of that year that ‘ the Tunku ‘ was convinced that in spite of all the agitation, Singapore would never be entirely independent.’
In the Tunku’s words “it is too strategic a place for the British to give up entirely. It is like Hongkong.”
It is however, noteworthy that Singapore became independent with the Tunku himself playing a not an insignificant role in that process.
With hindsight, we must realise that the Tunku was prescient on Hongkong. Hongkong is an inalienable part of China. A highly pragmatic government in Beijing committed to a ‘one country two systems’ governance formula for a 50-year transition period following months of negotiation. There is contestation that the details of the transition are not the sole prerogative of China. Protestors are agitating for some nebulous idea of democracy knowing full well that it is anathema to the authorities in Beijing.
Today Beijing’s patience, politeness and prudence are being teased, tested and threatened in Hongkong. Violence has threatened the economic and strategic viability of Hongkong. Some western powers whose identity is easily detectable are being mischievous and playing with fire. At stake is the livelihood and viability of some eight million people directly, millions more indirectly, and a major facilitator and facility for China’s external media, trade and economic relations.
While Beijing has shown unprecedented patience and restraint, it is not acting in a mature, measured, confidence-inspiring way. Hongkong is a tiny part of China (its GDP is less than 3 per cent of China’s) and the Chinese Government would be wise to engage the protesters in a detached, diplomatic and peaceful way. Such engagement would marginalise the role of the Western powers which are encouraging and egging on the violent Hongkong protesters.
On the part of the agitators there has to be greater respect, reserve and responsibility too. They have to renounce their violent tactics and opt for a negotiated outcome as their position is somewhat weak and vulnerable. A devastating strike involving the loss of lives, mass arrests and imprisonment, trials according to the China’s antiterrorist laws might even see the executions of convicted agitators. Historically, China is known to strike hard and devastatingly when Beijing perceives a vulnerable opponent.
Tunku and Gandhi
In October 1962, without warning, India was attacked and China forcibly occupied a substantial part of disputed areas in inaccessible regions between the two countries.
On the day of the attack the then Malayan Prime Minister had arrived in New Delhi for a pre-planned official visit. Tunku, after consulting Kuala Lumpur expressed his full, outspoken and unequivocal support for India as he saw it partly as the Free World’s fight against Communism. This was not wholly accurate as other issues were also involved which did not seem to have concerned the Tunku. Tunku could be categorical in his support as at that time Malaya and the PRC did not have diplomatic relations. Again this lack of diplomatic relations was due to an imposition on the then Federation of Malaya that it had to be in the forefront of the war against Communism on the UK’s behalf in accordance with mutual pre-independence understandings.
Interestingly, Tunku in a public speech to the citizens of New Delhi had spoken of the Chinese attack as an assault on democracy in Asia. He also paid tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, as reported in the Straits Times of October 30 1962(page 16) “ that the largest empire in modern history was shaken and brought down by a frail and humble man- Mahatma Gandhi.”
Gandhi who was opposed to the partition of India had wanted a unified India where every citizen was equal and free to practise their own religion. Gandhi had consistently fought casteism, and favoured inter-religious harmony believing that that the majority community should not overwhelm, dominate and denigrate any of the country’s minorities. India’s Constitutionally guaranteed secularism as preached and practised by the India’s pioneer leaders also sought to guarantee the freedom to practise other religions.
Today some Indian intellectuals have complained openly that some reported instances of lynchings of minorities were going unpunished. Gandhi’s constant plea was that the majority Hindu community should exercise restraint and courtesy in its relations with the non-Hindu minorities.
It is incumbent on India as the world’s largest democracy to abide by the letter and spirit of Gandhian wisdom. It would not only help the image of India but its integrity too.
China must also come clean on respecting the traditional cultural and religious practices of its minorities.
If these two population colossuses could set a good example in their handling and management of their minorities, it would be a boon to the future of not only Asia but the rest of the world. Given the imperatives of globalisation and the international supply chain in modern commerce, trade, education, and culture travel and settlement will become an integral part of a global society.
China cannot realistically treat the relatively free people of Hongkong the way they have treated their dissidents in the past. The unduly harsh treatment of the late Liu Xiaobao, the writer and human rights campaigner who was honoured with a Nobel Peace Prize, in spite of his peaceful, patient, reasoned nonviolent modus operandi suggests that China does not know how to handle disagreements.
It cannot be that great civilisations like China and India cannot handle a difference of opinion from relatively small segments of their population. The resort to diabolical and extreme measures such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, oppression of minorities have been associated with relatively small and insecure countries such as Bosnia- Herzegovina, Cambodia and Rwanda. The world’s most populous and powerful nations should not be resorting to such controversial inhuman practices. Such overkill is completely unnecessary.
Closer home, here in Malaysia, in early October we had a Malay Dignity Congress. It was ironical that the majority Peninsular Malay/Muslim community which has the dominant numbers, nominal, traditional and natural control of the all major state organs of polity was casting itself as a victim.
The principal organiser of the Congress claimed that Malaysia belonged to the Malays. Malaysia has two clearly identifiable immigrant communities and at least thirty indigenous minority groups.
In Malaysia, no one is denying the Malays the right to address every grievance they perceive. To their credit, the Congress was done in a peaceful, nonviolent way although their antagonism and antipathy to certain elected and appointed non-Malay government leaders were scarcely hidden.
The Tunku, again comes to the rescue of the country’s minorities. As early as 1952 he had declared ‘I did not say that I wanted Malaya for the Malays only. I had said that I wanted a Malaya for all Malayans who wished to make Malaya their home.’
The acceptance and integration of minorities have to be a living feature of any harmonious nation of the future. It is not possible to return people to their original home countries of their forefathers or require them to embrace a different religion or depart from their accustomed beliefs and practices.