The Relevance of Gandhi in the 21st Century


67 years on from Indian Independence

At midnight on 15th August 1947, exactly 67 years ago, India and Pakistan gained independence from the British Empire. Many gave their lives in the fight for freedom, a million more died during Partition itself, and tens of millions were displaced in both countries. The celebrations for Independence Day on either side of the border are much more bittersweet than either country would ever care to admit, and the scars from that birth of two nations are yet to heal.

Amongst the people who sought a diplomatic means towards Independence were Jinnah and Gandhi, and whilst the outcomes that they both sought were entirely different, they are considered to be the respective fathers of Pakistan and India.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a true figurehead for the independence movement, albeit a very divisive figure even in his own lifetime. He was very well respected by all Indians in pre-Partition India, including those who vehemently disagreed with his ahimsa (non-violence) approach towards seeking Indian freedom.

The freedom movement in India allowed for great diversity of opinion, and the fact that non-violence advocates such as Gandhi and those who supported all-out war against the British Empire such as Subhas Chandra Bose were willing and able to call each other friends shows the extent of this unity in diversity.

Much has been said recently on the proposal of a Gandhi statue in Parliament Square, and there has been vocal opposition from some people. However, it is important to ensure that historical figures are seen in context. Parliament Square, and in fact central London as a whole, is home to many statues of people who in the modern age may be considered to be abhorrent in their views or behaviour.

For example, General Smuts’s statue is in Parliament Square and yet he set the ground for modern apartheid in South Africa. Trafalgar Square is home to statues of General Napier and Lord Havelock, both of whom led British troops in India and subdued Indians through violent and bloody means.

There are many leaders who have had a blemished history and yet are honoured on the streets and squares of Britain. To remove those statues would be to dishonour modern society’s covenant with the past and whitewashing history. Instead, such statues should serve to remind us of the dichotomy of greatness and human frailty.  

British Asians today owe much to Gandhi for his strong diplomacy, which helped many of their grandparents and great-grandparents to get the freedom they deserved  and subsequently to come to Britain and settle here. They are British today because of the sacrifices of people such as Gandhi as well as the revolutionaries who used other means to seek freedom from the Empire.

Gandhi’s impact goes much further than just the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora. He influenced the civil rights movements of Dr Martin Luther King Junior and Nelson Mandela. His ideas have permeated modern conflict resolution, interfaith, environmental and political movements. As a result of all of this, Gandhi, like Lincoln and Churchill (and unlike Jinnah and Bose) is among the handful leaders who are of truly global relevance, and in this way, Gandhi belongs to all people regardless of background, race or religion.

Many British Sikhs today are proud to be British and are proud of their heritage from the Indian subcontinent. They remember the sacrifices that were made for their freedom, be they peaceful or otherwise, and many fully support the proposed statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square and look forward to seeing it being unveiled in early 2015.

A statue to Gandhi in Parliament Square shows Britain’s maturity and confidence.  Which other nation would pay such a tribute to a major political adversary? Where else would one see statues to two figures such as Churchill and Gandhi so diametrically opposed politically to one another standing side by side?

By The City Sikhs Network, an organisation run by British Sikhs to create positive change within Britain


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