Recently I was in a conversation with one of my friends about ‘doing right things at the right time’ in our careers. Interestingly he made a statement ‘Procrastination is also a very important factor. While in some cases procrastination is considered to be a delaying or lazy act, it is important for us to spend quite a lot of time on few critical roles, develop deeper understanding about right things’. Upon pondering deeper I started asking few questions to myself — Can procrastination be a strategic act? If yes, what are the benefits of that? Has anybody done it successfully in the past? Has it yielded significant results? Accidentally I started connecting this thought process with many of the key events happened in Mahatma Gandhi’s life. Let me delve into few historic facts and derive some interpretations.
For most of us, who understand Indian history to a decent extent think Gandhi and his Satyagraha strategy is key behind India getting independence from the British. After being ruled by British for more than a century (by foreign rulers for more than one thousand years), India has become the largest democracy in the world. However very few of us understand the roots of Satyagraha and how Gandhi stumbled upon this strategy. The root of Satyagraha traces back to 1893 when Gandhi, a young barrister from India travels to South Africa being employed by an immigrant Indian to fight a civil case. The same year another very significant incident happened Gandhi’s life, when he was thrown out of the train at Pietermaritzburg station, citing his skin color as the reason. As a shy barrister with so much of self-doubts, Gandhi couldn’t digest this incident. At the same time he didn’t take any immediate decision (say complaining to the local police station) to address this issue. Rather he procrastinated and wanted to understand the deeper aspects of the ‘skin-color’ issue.
Upon deeper discussion with Indian immigrants (who were mainly labor class) in South Africa, Gandhi understood the discrimination issues of fellow Indians. Even though he understood the issues relatively better, he was not sure about launching fight against the British that too in an alien country. The only option left with him was to unite all immigrant Indians (with support of some locals) under one umbrella, device a strategy and then fight against the British. This lead Gandhi to another logical question – How to unite all Indians, who are so different by design? Just by looking into the smaller chunk of immigrant Indians he could clearly see multiple religions (mainly Hindu, Christian and Muslim) and languages (Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Gujarati and Urdu) which differentiated them at elementary level. However Gandhi considered them all to be Indians, taking a lifetime view that ‘Indianness’ transcended religion and caste, before which the concept didn’t even exist in most of the people’s wildest dreams. He believed he could bridge historic differences, especially regarding religion by taking care of the broader ‘Indian’ view. The South African experience also exposed handicaps to Gandhi that he had not known about. He realized he was out of contact with the enormous complexities of religious and cultural life in India, and believed he understood India by getting to know and leading Indians in South Africa.
Gandhi came across multiple such issues and challenges during his stay in South Africa. It took him a long period of 21 years (1893-1914) to systematically strategize, experiment and implement various aspects of Satyagraha. Since his vision was to find out a sustainable yet effective fighting mechanism with diversified set of people (as mentioned above), he felt nothing other than taking the non-violent approach could help. Before taking every small step, Gandhi deliberated a lot, internalized many key points and then went ahead executing them. For most of them it looked like Gandhi was wasting his time (rather procrastinating) by not taking a few critical decisions on time. However, over a period of time the Satyagraha strategy manifested as a mammoth civil rights moment in South Africa, which made the all the difference to immigrant Indians.
In summary it took 21 years for Gandhi to find out the ‘right thing’ for Indians where he developed his political views, ethics and political leadership skills which were critical for him to re-build Indian National Congress from the scratch back in India. After returning back to India in 1915, he implemented the same approach which eventually resulted in Indian independence in 1947. In total Gandhi spent 53 years for Satyagraha, which almost occupied his whole life. By looking into Gandhi’s life and his political struggle clearly indicates me that what is perceived as procrastination from many of us, can very well be a powerful strategy. The very fact that India exists as a single piece, in spite of so many issues talks the power of Satyagraha’s effectiveness.