Gandhi and strategy of procrastination

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.

Two smart things that Gandhi did…

Last week myself, along with two like minded individuals met during lunch. As usual our conversation took multiple directions and eventually hit upon Gandhi when the first one asked ‘ I really don’t know how Gandhi  galvanized such a diversified Indian population against a single goal of freedom from British Raj!’ . The second friend, who is a well read intellectual gave a very convincing answer, which I would like to share in this post, especially tomorrow marks another Gandhi Jayanthi.

Here are the two smart activities, well planned and executed by Gandhi. These two eventually made all the difference.

Organization Building

During 1915 Gandhi retuned back to India after spending 22 years in South Africa, where he conceived, experimented and achieved success with the concept called ‘Satyagraha’. While he understood the Indian diversity to the larger extent, India was relatively different when he returned back. Briefly coming out of mainstream politics, he went around the country and understood grass-root level issues before putting up the fight against the British. During his journey he understood the need of building next level leaders in order to drive the independence moment across the country.

During this period he found out people who were having larger influence in the local people. For example, C Rajagopalachari (popularly known as Rajaji) was president of Salem municipality in Tamilnadu. In similar lines he found people like Sardar Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, Rajendra Prasad and Nehru who came from different parts of the country. He eventually folded them under Indian National Congress which eventually changed the face of the party.

In summary, understanding India’s diversity, identifying leaders from each region and binding them under one common vision was done remarkably well by Gandhi. If not for this approach Indian independence moment would have remained as a smaller moment restricted to a particular state. Gandhi was an excellent organization builder.

Salt – A powerful weapon

Salt Satyagraha - Gandhi

While the top layer got built with such leaders, the equally important aspect is to build a followership by uniting the large volume of Indian population. However India was in a different situation, where the educated, upper-caste elite Indians were very happy serving under the British Raj as they enjoyed multiple benefits. The lowercase people and ladies (which was the major chunk of population) were busy fighting a different battle against the local landlords and upper caste, for gaining basic rights. They hardly felt the pinch to fight against the British.

While exploring options, Gandhi eventually hit upon salt as a weapon to unite such people against the British. During that time about 8% of the revenue for the British Raj was coming from salt tax, which was the basic ingredient in every Indian food. Whether you are an upper caste or a lower caste individual salt played was something that people just can’t image to ignore it.  Explaining his choice, Gandhi said, ‘Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life’. This resulted in Dandi March on 1930, played a significant role in uniting the lower caste people against the British. This eventually went on becoming the biggest civil disobedience moment, thereby salt becoming the strongest weapon.

The phrase  ‘The more you know then you know how less you know’ – lingers my mind when I think about Gandhi. In my opinion, his deeper understanding about India and approach taken for Indian independence are research topics.

Related links:

Indian Independence – Gandhi way
Hey Ram – A transformational experience

Indian Independence – Gandhi way!

India, my mother will be celebrating her 64th Independence Day tomorrow. As an adherent fan of Gandhi, I thought of writing this post which might help fellow Indians to understand the thinking process of Mahatma. Also, I am seeing lot of half-backed information floating around Gandhi and his non-violent movement in the media. After watching movies like ‘Rang De Basanti’ and ‘Black Wednesday’ our yuppie Indians feel taking a gun and shooting down the enemy is the best way to solve India’s current problems. They also feel Gandhi has failed to plant such thinking process among Indians during our long fought freedom struggle against the British. There is a strong argument that India would have been a different (read it as better) country if we would have taken the approach suggested by Subhash Chandra Bose or Bhagat Singh. As a proud Indian I cannot even think of sacrifices made by these great leaders. However, had our forefathers followed that approach, not sure if India would exist in its present form. Let me put forward my perspectives in support of Gandhi and his way of achieving Independence.

India – Is it a country?

It is very easy to forget what we have studied in History text-books. Before British occupied, demographically there was no concept of a country called India.  Previously to the British (during 18th century) it was Mughal Empire primarily ruling Northern part of India.  Under no king or dynasty the whole real-estate came under a single ruler. Added to that, long debated topic of ‘Aryan (North Indians) Vs Dravidian (South Indians)’ was making the India equation even more complex. How can we think of getting independence to such a diversified country with has so many different languages, customs, history, food habits and ideologies? In its 3000 years of history it was never ruled under a single king, even though the idea of ‘Greater India’ (or Akand Bharat) is a concept even today.

The crux of Gandhi’s thinking process lies here. He clearly understood the diversity of India along with its challenges. He got real taste of this diversity when he spent good 22 years (1893-1914) of his life in South Africa, fighting for immigrant Indians against the British rule over there. Slowly and steadily he launched protest against the British by bringing Indians under one common umbrella called non-violence. It was not only the political war against the British, but also an internal war fought within him, where he transformed himself from a lawyer to an inspirational leader.  With so much of difference among Indians, if he would have chosen to equip them with arms, it might have resulted in the British leaving India sooner than 1947. At the same time, India would not have remained a single country by now.

On contrary, the 1857 first war of Independence never had such thinking process behind it. It was triggered by Hindu and Muslim soldiers whose emotions were tampered when their rifle were greased with pork and beef fat. It was never an organized war of political independence and the concept of united India was not even a concept during that time frame.

Resurgence of Indian national congress

The Indian National Congress was founded by Octavian Hume in 1885. The original idea for creating it was to obtaining a greater share in government for educated Indians, which was primarily restricted to elite class (read it as upper caste) of people, who were nothing short of British, but  in the form of Indians. This scene changed when Gandhi took over as the president of INC after coming back from South Africa. He used Congress as a strong political organization by including everybody. It doesn’t matter if an individual is Rich or poor, North or South Indian, Men or Women, upper or lower caste, Hindu or Muslim, every individual can be part of INC, thereby fuelling Indian nationalism as the topmost priority. Every normal individual felt they are part of a movement, lead by a common man with extremely high amount of determination and compassion. It was the first time ever the whole nation got united under one single ideology, where Gandhi played a significant role.

What is independence?

Even today, most of us feel war of Independence was launched against British to gain political freedom, which was not the only agenda for Gandhi. With its long history, India has embraced certain practices (like sati & untouchability) where a majority of the sector of population consisting ladies and lower case Hindus were denied basic human rights. Added to that, un-imaginable division between Hindus and Muslims was growing over centuries together. Gandhi’s idea was to use the political fight as a vehicle to bring ladies, lower-caste and Muslims to the mainstream. It was not only for the external battle with the British but also for the internal battle we have been facing in the name of caste, creed, gender and race. Put in software professional’s lingo – Gandhi attempted to lead one of the most complex system integration projects ever done in human history. Today all the issues he had thought of solving not solved in its true sense, but definitely huge progress has happened over the past 64 years. Also in my opinion this was the weakness and strength of Gandhi. While his inclusive and compassionate approach needs to be appreciated to a larger extent, he tried to solve too many problems in too short time.

Constitutional democracy

In its 3000 plus years of long history, India was always ruled by multiple forms of rulers which consists of  Mughal, British, Dutch, French, Portuguese  and a bunch of local rulers. The land was ruled by their heirs for generations together. The concept having a constitution and democratic governance was one of the top contributions which came is as a logical next step of inclusive approach that Gandhi had taken. Of course many other great leaders contributed to creating and implementing the constitution.  Even today we are still evolving where changes are applied whenever there is a strong case.

Closing words

When India got its independence in 1947, most of the political commentators around the world commented as an ‘artificial country’, which would break in no time. It’s been 64 years; we are existing together as a country itself is a miracle. There might have been issues and problems because of which we might not have become a developed nation in the similar lines of Singapore, Malaysia and many other Western countries. But think about it – those countries never had such a complex, unique, diversified set of people with a 3000 plus years of history occupying 2.3% of the land in the planet. Today, the success (if you want to call it) of India is not in its economic reforms, fast growing consumers, educated knowledge workers or its vibrant stock market. In my opinion it is the fact that we are existing as a country together in one form. The root of this result came from this simple, half-naked yet powerful man called Gandhi. It is time for us to think, reflect and understand the ‘Gandhi way’ of Independence and take pride in what we have done in the past 64 years.

Jai Hind!

BOOK REVIEW : Smoke and mirrors

BOOK REVIEW : Smoke and mirrors

Price: 300 INR

Author: Pallavi Aiyar

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte said ‘Let her sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world’ referring about China. The very statement become a reality today, as the dragon country literally started shaking the world in all dimensions – be it economical, political or social. None of us can imagine to ignore ‘Made in China’ phrase, given the fact that we use Chinese goods day-in and day-out – ranging from shirt button to iPad. The topic of China becomes all the more interesting, looking from Indian perspective. Both countries have  long history and tradition, but poles apart the way they are operating today. In her book ‘Smoke and mirrors’ author Pallavi Aiyer has attempted to explore many unknown aspects of China from an Indian point of view. The beauty of the book lies in the way she represented China – based on her personal memoirs, travel experience and interaction with tons native chinese people.

The storytelling starts when Pallavi, relocates to China (Beijing) for taking up her teaching profession in Beijing Broadcasting institute. Her first surprise comes in form of her students who are programmed to think in a pre-defined way. It is way different from what she has seen among journalist students in India, where journalism starts with freedom of expression. India is a country where ‘Aishwarya Rai is on her family way’ hits the mainstream media in no-time and people start doing ‘page-3’ research on it would affect Bollywood. China is way different, where the freedom of expression is limited to a larger extent. Whatever comes out the media, everybody is forced to believe it as truth. In another words – truth is not in its real form, but how the Chinese government wants it to be. For example, during her interactions, Pallavi finds all her students saying ‘Mao was 70% correct and 30% wrong’ and she later understands that’s how they were thought during school days. Since there is no other source to validate this statement, students are forced to believe it as a truth. The main theme for this book emerges from the same topic – Is freedom of expression (in the name of democracy) is more important than financial development ? Is it worth having a vibrant media over poor infrastructure? Does economic growth mean happy people?

No doubt! China has emerged as the economic powerhouse of 21st century by threatening every other developed country in the world (read it as USA). This large scale, aggressive globalization with a strong communist government has definitely brought a whole lot of good by lifting its one third of the population out of poverty. Thanks to unmatched execution capability, China can literally make anything happen. For example, the Zhejiang province has emerged as the hub of manufacturing with every damn thing we can imagine takes it shape. For example in 2004 alone 3 billion pairs of socks where exported this province, which really talks about the scale and execution speed. China stunned the world by building 4300 KM Shanghai-Lhasa train route which is situated at 3600M above sea level, surrounded by snow mountains. Pallavi was one of the lucky passengers to travel in this ‘dream-train’ during its first journey. She vividly explains how China has built this marvel by taking care of smallest things (ex: installing cold water pumps near the rail track for nullifying the snow effect). Thanks to its robust infrastructure (mainly roads), the supply chain has become really world class. Goods can be moved from one and to other without any major hazzles, thereby aiding smooth exporting of its manufactured goods.

The above mentioned growth has come with its own cost. The never-transparent Chinese government always operates with a bunch controversies. When China stretched its muscles by hosting 2008 Beijing Olympics, countless number of ancient Chinese houses were demolished ruthlessly. Called as ‘hutong’ in Chinese, there ancient houses given a red mark called ‘chai’ (destruction) and vanished overnight to give urban makeover to the Beijing city. Not only buildings, people also do vanish, when they voice against Chinese government. Pallavi stayed in one of these hutongs and explains how the ancient Chinese way of living got affected in the name of urbanization. She also gives deeper social insights of China (ex: unbelievable change in the way sex is perceived among the youth, local passport system called hukou, aping the western way of living , copying anything and everything etc..) which is really interesting. In each case, Pallavi compares with India which makes it all the more fun to read.

Given the fact that even Google not able to crawl many sites in China, it is extremely difficult for a normal individual to understand China.In such scenario, Pallavi’s ‘Smoke and Mirror’ comes out as a relevant account, which gives realistic perspective about contemporary China. The style she has adapted in this book, would really interest both fiction and non-fiction readers.

BOOK REVIEW : SriLanka – From war to peace

Sri Lanka

Price: 395 INR
Author: Nitin Gokhale

Given the fact that I am a Tamilian, Sri Lankan civil war and struggle of Tamils has been very special for me. After 25 years of fiercely fought battle, the LTTE story came to an end when their supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran’s dead body was found in Vanni forest on 19th May 2009. Of course! There are still rumors floating that Prabharakan is alive, but nobody can deny that LTTE has been completely washed out of the country. As far as the Sri Lankan army is concerned their ‘mission impossible’ has become a reality. There is a long history of three ‘Eezham wars’ (1983, 1990 and 1994) before this one, where LTTE literally drove out the army from North-eastern (Vanni)part. But this time it was different. Popularly known as ‘4th Eezham war’, what did the army do differently? How come the Sri Lankan army, which was perceived as a weaker side, eventually able to conquer the most dangerous gorilla group? Did Prabhakaran overlooked the options for peace when he was in complete control of Vanni? In his book titled ‘Sri Lanka – From war to peace’ author Nitin Gokhale (an NDTV journalist, who spent significant amount of time in war-field) provides deeper insights to the 4th Eezham war and subsequent fallout of LTTE.

During the formative years of LTTE (especially during 80s), India (especially Tamilnadu) was providing lot of support for their activities in multiple forms. LTTE leaders were able to move freely into various areas of Tamilnadu and politicians (especially MGR, who was born in Sri Lanka) were backing them up strongly to create their training camps in various parts of the state. However the mistake from LTTE came in form of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, that too in Tamilnadu, which not only ruined their relationship with India but also blocked support from Tamilnadu. The snowball effect of this single event has played a significant role in LTTE’s fallout.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected as the president of Sri Lanka during 2004, he did two important things. First he extended the term of Commander Sarath Fonseka, less that 30 days before he was scheduled to retire. Second he recalled his bother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa from the US and appointed him as a Defense Secretary. The Fonseka-Gotabhaya duo was instrumental in coming up with a master-plan with deeper understanding of the LTTE, which systematically launched attacks for 33 months. On the LTTE side the same year marked a another important turning point when their eastern chief commando Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (popularly known as Colonel Karuna) had a major spat with Prabhakaran and eventually joined the Sri Lankan politics. It was the second costly mistake from Prabhakaran.

The Sri Lankan army might have lost first three Eezham wars, but Fonseka learned a lot about LTTE. Apart from war strategies, he clearly understood the actions need to be taken internally for strengthening the army, both in physically and mentally. Thanks to Colonel Karuna’s exit, the ‘Eastern Province’ (consisting Maṭṭakkaḷappu, Ampara and Trincomalee) became more vulnerable, which became the first target point for the army. The initial strategy was to create a ‘task force’ of 8 people, who will initially infiltrate into the LTTE regiment. When enough disturbance and panic situation is created, army will switch into traditional approach thereby capturing the land by killing the militants. This mixed approach was never expected by the LTTE, who initially under estimated the army operations. Eventually the eastern region came under the army’s control on 19th July 2007. It was really a significant milestone for the army, who would never imagined getting such a victory for decades together.

Having said that, moving further into the Northern side (known as ‘Vanni’ consist of Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Kilinochchi) is not that easy. It was under LTTE’s control from 1983, where Prabhakarn had a strong hold. During the first three Eezham wars, Vanni remained as a distant dream for the army to capture. Fonseka was very well aware of this, hence created attacks from multiple ends across all districts of Vanni. Due to multi-sided attacks LTTE’s veteran Colonel Balraj lost his life due to heart attack. During such crunch times, LTTE has relied on Eastern Province from where Colonel Karuna used to send troops. This option was completely ruled out this time, where the higher level LTTE leadership was forced into the front line. With systematic approach and pushing army leaders to give more than 100%, eventually army was able to completely capture Vanni. With this significant milestone, followed by the death of Prabhakaran marked the end of 4th Eezham war during 2009. Through multiple chapters Gokhale provides finer details on how the Sri Lankan army captured each LTTE regime in Vanni, which is too difficult to summarize here. One of the notable points to ponder is the way Sri Lankan government handled the media. Unlike previous wars, they clearly understood that LTTE had a great deal of coverage in the media, mainly thro’ TamilNet website. In order to counter attack a brand new department was created for handling media and reporters across the globe, which also provided regular updates via their Defense website.

Primarily I read the book to understand the details of the 4th Eezham war, which was well covered with finer level details from the Indian journalist point of view. Gokhale also touches upon India’s stand in this war. With central (congress) and state (DMK) had opposite viewpoints in supporting LTTE even though they are part of UPA. However both of them could do little to prevent the genocide happened against Tamils during the fag and of the war.

Leaving the political view apart, I would like to conclude with the following questions to ponder:

  • This ‘military victory’ of the Sri Lankan army means end of terrorist activities from LTTE? Will this rule out all possibilities of future resurgence?
  • Will the concerns of Sri Lankan Tamils will be addressed by creating an inclusive society? Are the so called ‘humanitarian operations’ will result in betterment for civilians who lost everything in this war?
  • Did Prabhakaran took the right step by keeping thousands of civilians in hostile during last phase of the war? Were civilian’s interests protected during the war time, as far as LTTE is concerned

In the current world order, weapon aided militant activities in the name of getting freedom might not yield any long term solutions. However it is very critical to provide peaceful living for affected Tamils, which they rightfully deserve.