Gandhi's ideals a model for Europe

"Europe? Who wants to know? That’s a boring tale, isn’t it?’ This statement by one of the participants in the debate on Europe at The Hague in October 2005 sparked an immediate reaction in me. What’s the matter with the Netherlands? I wondered. First, it's “no” to the European Constitution; next, rejection of a broadly based national debate about Europe “since no one’s interested anyway". Followed by similar remarks in the street, in the workplace, in the media, these remarks bear witness to a Europe in crisis: people are "dispirited", Europe is "nothing but a money-sucking vacuum cleaner and the product of a few politicians who benefit from it".


"Politicians have not managed to make the advantages of Europe clear to its citizens," said CDA chairman Ronald van Bruchem during a speech at the meeting of the European Students’ Parliament in November 2005. This was reported in one newspaper under the heading, "Youth’s pessimism about Europe.” This sceptical attitude, this negativism hits me hard.

The image of Europe which I find in the Netherlands nowadays is quite different from when I left in 1992 for a long stay in India. Yet, this may be the very moment to reflect on the “why” of European unification. For a unification without a profound ideal loses its political and social impetus as soon as the process becomes difficult and demands sacrifices. So the time has come to investigate the original ideal of a one and undivided Europe; to renew its foundations and to give it a shape which is agreeable to its citizens. Only if Europe regains its impetus will it be accepted by its citizens.

To put the ideal of European unification into perspective, we could look at the ideas of three people who have fought to achieve unity in the world: Mahatma Gandhi, Robert Schuman and Pope John Paul II. Their ways of thinking, though different, are timeless and topical. Each of them has caused far-reaching changes in politics and in the socio-economic and cultural fields. In this article I will deal with Gandhi, but first I would like to elaborate on the idea of "unity".

"I believe in the essential unity of man and for that matter of all that live. Therefore I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the whole gains with him and, if one man falls, the whole world falls to that extent…" ~ Gandhi

Unity, and genuine unity

Unity implies that small, separate individuals, groups or societies unite in a larger entity and are absorbed by it. Many different forms are imaginable, varying from unity as a result of increase in scale to unity on the basis of language or ideology.

A common ideology may lead to border-crossing unity, because people feel "one" as supporters of the same vision, not linked with any nationality or social status. We can see this in the development of certain ideologies: communism, materialism, utilitarianism, for example. The danger is that, instead of promoting the dignity of persons, ideologies make human dignity subservient to their own interests. We need only browse through our history books to see what misery and what wars have been the result. Religions, too, which, in principle may bring about much that is good, run the risk of sliding into fundamentalism and extremism. Just remember the jihad. As soon as the dignity of the individual person counts for nothing, repression and conflict follow, and unity is shattered.

Unity may also be the result of an increase in scale. This may be seen as an ongoing process in the history of mankind or perhaps as a consequence of an ideology being imposed. Just remember the reign of the Roman Empire in Europe or the British Empire or the colonial regimes of other European nations which spread across the globe. Yet, in these cases there has not been a straight and uninterrupted line of expansion, but a process of unifying and falling apart.

However, there is also a unification based on increase in scale which results from people making themselves subservient to institutions because this brings them benefits and makes them stronger. Thus the European Union wants to be a unity of states with a European legislative body to which national governments adapt their laws in order to enhance the economy on a European scale. This kind of voluntary unification holds the potential for a genuine unity based on ideals which serve human dignity.

Europe has not yet arrived at this genuine unity. It is, at present, dominated by economic and political interests while the "why" of these interests is relegated to the background. Ideals are found to be "too vague" or "unworkable" and it is assumed that an economic and political Europe will almost "as a matter of course" get the citizens on its side. Now, since this turns out not to be the case, what is to be done?

First, the core of European unification should be confronted and accepted: a Europe serving its citizens, characterised by values such as mutual respect, harmony amongst all, understanding and promotion of self-development as well as the development of others. These are universal values which may serve as guiding principles on a global scale as well as in Europe.

Gandhi's ideals

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) was born to and grew up in a Hindu family in Porbandar, Gujarat, in the west of India. To quote Dr Zakir Husain, President of India from 1967 till 1969, "one of the chief things to note in Gandhi’s life is that he was not born great. He was not born with things that usually help people to become great. He was born an ordinary man, with ordinary capabilities, and that he literally hammered himself into shape.”

He read law in London and his political career took off when, as a lawyer in South Africa, he was confronted with the fact that the citizenship he and other Indians "enjoyed" there was even less than second rate. He resisted this in an effective and non-violent way, which was acknowledged internationally. He used the principle of the satyagraha: Do not regard your opponent as an enemy who has to be vanquished, but as a supporter in trying to find a true and honest solution in the conflict. Instead of getting rid of him, try to "win him over to the truth", "get him to relinquish his error".

Very soon Gandhi was joined by thousands of followers and was able greatly to improve the situation of the Indians vis a vis the white colonists. Back in India he started by surveying the continent in person in order to see for himself the desperate conditions of, in particular, village people. His satyagraha ideals, with non-violent non-cooperation as one of its offshoots, fell on fertile soil there and brought him millions of supporters and sympathisers.

In the long run his movement affected the prestige and the political and economic position of the British to such an extent that they were gradually losing control over the population of the sub-continent. Eventually this resulted in the withdrawal of Britain in 1947 and the rise of an independent India, where Gandhi was soon to become the "father of the fatherland". An India with a central government in Delhi, a number of confederate states, one currency, a constitution in which the caste system is outlawed -- in short, a democratic constitutional state -- was laid down, making it the largest democracy in the world. Yet, Gandhi’s greatest disappointment was that the Indian sub-continent did not remain united but was divided into India and Pakistan. It was also tragic that this fighter for independence and non-violence was murdered by a Hindu fanatic in 1948. 

What were Gandhi’s thoughts on justice, human dignity, solidarity, national distinctions and (world) unity? In the India of his day there existed an age-old caste system, countless political entities, hundreds of languages and dialects and a range of religious communities, amongst which Hindus and Muslims were in constant conflict.

Gandhi wanted to bring this multitude together in a unity based on justice. To him, justice meant the right to have one’s own nation (self-government) in which respect for the dignity of the individual holds a central place, irrespective of caste, religion or political conviction. Starting out from the satyagraha principle, this struggle for self-government also implied the refusal to co-operate with the interests of the occupying nation (Britain), which were damaging to India, by, for instance, promoting national textile production (spinning, weaving) and boycotting foreign textiles, or by refusing to pay the British tax on salt and produce salt of their own.


In his ideas about justice Gandhi’s main focus of attention was on those Indians with the fewest rights, the untouchables, whom he dubbed harijans, "children of God". Reconciliation, bringing religions together and resistance against repression were his chief concerns. In these he started out from the level of individual human dignity and reasoned it through to the level of the world community. A couiple of pithy quotations show his way of thinking:

I would not like to live in this world, if it’s not to be one world….

I do not believe that an individual may gain spiritually and those that surround him suffer. I believe in "avaita”, I believe in the essential unity of man and for that matter of all that live. Therefore I believe that if one man gains spiritually, the whole gains with him and, if one man falls, the whole world falls to that extent…

Gandhi emphasises that there is no distinction among citizens of whatever nation, that man is man and that he has a mutual tie with everyone else and influences them. Concerning India, he states that he could never realise unity there if, at the same time, he were not to feel positively disposed towards the other nations in the world.

During her state visit to India in January 1986, the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix remarked on India’s similarities with and relevance for Europe, and she drew a number of parallels between both “Asian peninsulas”. India's unity, founded on religion and philosophy, is not only experienced by Indians as such, but is also recognisable to the outsider, said the queen. In this, the sub-continent resembled Europe, which also had a large variety of national and linguistic expressions, but which has a common identity for all that, she added. "However, India is also a political unity and it is in this respect that your country may be an example to our continent, which has been striving for augmented political unity for so many years now… “Your country shows that a nation’s individuality may well go hand in hand with respect for religious, linguistic and cultural diversity”.

Indeed, there are many similarities, which are often overlooked, because India is seen as the epitome of poverty and exotic culture. Both continents may be regarded as a patchwork quilt of nations with their own cultures, ethnic identities and languages, but with a shared heart, beating in Delhi or in Brussels. The European Union’s motto, “United in diversity”, is very meaningful in this context.

There is this difference, though: the European process of political unification has not yet been completed and that the union is also expanding geographically all the time. It is, then, the Indian political unity to which the queen refers that may serve as an example to the European Union.

Even more striking, however, is the similarity between the values of the EU and Gandhi’s ideas. The draft constitution of the European Union states:

The values upon which the Union is founded, are respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights, including the rights of persons who belong to minorities. The member states share these values in a society which is characterised by pluralism, absence of discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality of women and men.

Unity can only be genuine if the dignity of the individual is taken into account. Whatever the differences of race, religion or social status, each person or social entity has to respect all the others. Only then can interests be joined together on an increasingly large scale, and national unity flourish and grow into international unity and world unity.

Gandhi may be regarded as the embodiment of this ideal for India, but also for the world. Not only in South Asia, but also in Europe unification must be based on service to citizens, respect for human rights and social, cultural and religious diversity. It is not a coincidence that in both continents society is characterised by the separation of church and state, democracy and a multicultural society. South Asia, where more than a billion people live, is not only a den of poverty or a source of cheap labour to Europe, but also a source of political and social ideas and values from which we can learn a great deal.

Dr Margriet Krijtenburg lectures in Spanish and in the Core Course on Europe at the School of European Studies, The Hague University. The above is an edited version of an article which appeared in the Dutch magazine, De Europese Gemeente, volume 41, nr 1, p.11, 12.



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