How Has Gandhi Influenced Indian History Since His Death?

Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948. As India has changed, so has his place in its history.

Mahatma Gandhi eats in preparation for a fast, c. 1940. Dutch National Archives (CC0).

‘Gandhi’s ideas seem consigned to the past’

Anindita Ghosh is Professor of Modern Indian History at the University of Manchester

Once a powerful persona and concept, Gandhi is largely a lonely and forgotten figure in today’s India, awash with its new found wealth and assertive national pride. The fifth largest economy in the world, with a young and skilled population, sparring for a central place on the global stage, Gandhi’s ideas on non-violence and self-sufficient economy (epitomised by the spinning wheel) seem consigned to the past. And yet his legacy in India is evident to those who care to look. 

To begin with, his immediate influence on the country after independence in 1947 was phenomenal. Not only did he leave a mark on the Nehruvian state, with its focus on agrarian India, he also shaped the actions of several generations of politicians thereafter, most prominently Morarji Desai (on non-violence) and Jayaprakash Narayan (on village self-government). Gandhian thought on secularism – however much a caricature in its current form – remains the bedrock of the Congress Party. Though he was not directly involved in the Indian constitution, its core principles draw on Gandhian ideals. 

Gandhi had started to strongly advocate the drawing of linguistic borders to replace the old British administrative divisions just months after August 1947. The creation of linguistic states at the behest of the States Reorganisation Commission in India after 1955 was very much a legacy of that initiative. Similarly, the institution of Panchayati Raj, or local self-governance in Indian villages, was directly inspired by his vision of village republics, Gram Swaraj. 

But the emphasis on communal harmony is without doubt the aspect of Gandhi’s legacy that has been most undermined in recent times. As India’s secular fabric is stretched and tested – and towering statues of Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel commemorate the more militant strands of India’s independence struggle – Gandhi’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, opined that India ‘has abandoned Gandhian ideology’. Recent accusations around his attitudes to race and caste, as well as his private practices, continue to split opinions and challenge his ‘Godlike’ status. But that would not have surprised the man himself, who once remarked: ‘I do anticipate that a time may come when my large following may throw me overboard.’

‘He appears a more troublesome character today than he did in 1979’

Jagjeet Lally is Associate Professor of the History of Early Modern and Colonial India at University College London

Whether it’s his life or his thought that’s placed under scrutiny, the Mahatma appears a more troublesome character today than he did in, say, 1979, the year Philip Glass immortalised the ‘half-clad fakir’ (Churchill’s words) in an operatic trilogy about men who changed the world. Try as I might not to open that Pandora’s box, Gandhi’s ideas find their way out nonetheless. For example, Gandhi’s salt march (the ‘salt satyagraha’ of 1930) is the point of departure for very recent research into the relationship between commodities and colonialism in South Asia, for the very simple reason that Gandhi was highly prescient about something few others could put into words or deeds: the link between a vital substance such as salt and the exertion of political control. 

If the salt march has only lately served as an entry point for historians curious about the material dimensions of colonial power, one of Gandhi’s other causes célèbres has long been a mainstay of historical research. By championing khadi (often coarse, homespun cloth), Gandhi tapped into a long-standing set of debates around the negative impacts of British rule on India’s economy. Much of the focus rested on ‘crafts’ and what were called ‘traditional industries’; their fate was studied and described by Indian historians of the post-independence period, spawning the so-called ‘deindustrialisation thesis’. Only from the 1990s and 2000s was this thesis bravely re-evaluated by economic and social historians more critical of nationalist historiography (and the ideas of national heroes, like Gandhi) and more attentive to the resilience of the traditional sector in the face of machine-made goods from abroad. 

Gandhi’s interest in khadi linked his ideas for India’s post-colonial future with his curious misconception of India’s pre-colonial past as revolving around ‘village republics’, in this respect sharing much in common with contemporary British historians. Gandhi was a creature of his time, therefore, shaped by his understanding of India’s past and present. Like it or not, his ideas, actions – and various misunderstandings – remain incredibly generative.

‘Gandhi’s legacy has been a steadfast part of Indian diplomacy’

Amish Raj Mulmi is author of All Roads Lead North: China, Nepal and the Contest for the Himalayas (Hurst, 2021)

In 1947, as India was breaking free of British colonialism, Nepali workers shut down a jute mill in a border town. Nepal’s first industrial strike, it was modelled on Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha. The end of the British Empire in India had inspired Nepali democrats too, because the autocratic ruling Rana dynasty was in a symbiotic relationship with British India. Several Nepalis, including the country’s first elected prime minister B.P. Koirala, had participated in Gandhi’s civil disobedience movements against the British. The anti-Rana democratic movement in Nepal was fuelled by similar ideas as a result.

The Nepali Congress (NC) in particular was inspired by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. Its leader Koirala once remarked on his political leanings: ‘I began with Gandhi, had an interlude with Marx and then returned to Gandhi.’ But Koirala was equally cognisant of the limitations of Gandhian politics. As he later recalled, Gandhi favoured ‘class conciliation rather than conflict’, which put the socialist in him at odds with the Gandhian. Nonetheless, Koirala held Gandhi in high regard, even seeking his help with Nepal’s democratic revolution two days before his assassination in January 1948. At that meeting Gandhi had despaired, telling Koirala: ‘I cannot help you in any way. If my own people will not heed me, will the Ranas listen?’ Riots had just broken out following Partition.

In the years since, Gandhi’s legacy has been a steadfast part of Indian diplomacy. But even though Narendra Modi asked ‘How do we ensure the ideals of Gandhi are remembered by future generations?’ in 2019, the Hindu Right in India has revered and celebrated Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin.

While Gandhi’s anti-colonial political mobilisation inspired many in South Asia to rise against autocracy, his conciliatory approach towards caste inequalities and opposition to B.R. Ambedkar’s progressive social reforms has tarnished his historical legacy, not least his racist attitudes towards African people while in South Africa. If Nepali leaders had emulated Ambedkar as much as they did Gandhi, would Nepal’s own inequalities have been lessened? This question, perhaps, is at the heart of Gandhi’s legacy today.

‘His presence looms over the Western imagination of India’

Sumita Mukherjee is Professor of Modern History at the University of Bristol

Posing a question about the influence of Mohandas Gandhi on Indian history reveals how his presence continues to loom over the Western imagination of India. Without being facetious, Gandhi was a man who only lived for 78 years across the millennia that ‘Indian history’ covers. Indian history spans a region larger than four million square kilometres, at least five climate zones, over a hundred languages and dialects and more than five major religions. How much influence, really, can one man have?

In the 1980s the Subaltern School collective revolutionised the discipline of social and nationalist history for India and beyond. They encouraged Indian historians to move beyond focus on nationalist elites like Gandhi, arguing that full understanding of Indian ‘national’ history requires attention to ‘subalterns’, such as peasants, and forms of resistance including everyday defiance as well as overt protest.

If we consider critiques of the work and ideology of Gandhi, there are ways that the discipline of Indian history has developed in interesting and important directions. Historians are working sensitively and imaginatively to recast traditional narratives. Focus on women – who Gandhi sidelined and pigeonholed; on dalits – who Gandhi infantilised and ignored; and on sexuality – which Gandhi had excessive phobias about – have been areas of important research in recent years.

Conversely, Gandhi’s tactics of non-violence, although not always successful, influenced activists around the world from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King. Gandhi was also a migrant who lived and worked in Britain and South Africa. The global history of Indian migration and the role of Indians in transnational solidarity movements are some of the most exciting areas that Indian historians are currently working on.

Features of Gandhi’s life, politics and philosophy can be found in the way Indian history has developed since his death in 1948. But historians have responded to his looming figure by thinking beyond him and his politics. Indian history is not a narrow discipline that focuses merely on the fight for independence. It is a multi-disciplined subject that is much more varied and interesting than focus on Gandhi suggests.