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60 Years After Gandhi's Death, India Ponders His Legacy

  • Raymond Thibodeaux

India's Mohandas Gandhi is regarded as one of the most important figures of the 20th century and the father of modern India. But 60 years after his death, many Indians are divided over whether he would have approved of the new India. Raymond Thibodeaux reports for VOA from Ahmedabad, in Gandhi's home state of Gujarat.

Afternoon traffic roars through Gujarat state's financial capital. Business is booming here, as it is in much of India. Ahmedabad's skyline is dotted with luxury hotels and upscale shopping malls.

Mohandas Gandhi's small, square, white house sits on the bank of the Sabarmati River, shaded by neem trees.

One of the home's caretakers says an upscale shopper's paradise is probably not what Gandhi had in mind for his hometown. Eighty-one year old Vijay Bhai says Gandhi promoted "simple living and high thinking".

"Gandhiji was a qualified lawyer trained in England, but when he saw the poverty in this country he gave up his luxurious life. That's why he only wore a loincloth and had a very simple life," Bhai said. "Have a look in the house, that's how he used to live here. He was promoting village industry and farming. That was his message, you know - less stress. But here, because of all the high living, it puts a lot of stress on people."

Gandhi was shot and killed by a Hindu extremist on January 30, 1948. He was 78 year old.

His campaign of peaceful resistance is credited with freeing India from British rule the year before. His principles of non-violence also inspired Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement in the United States and Nelson Mandela's anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Sixty years later, though, some Indians wonder whether the country is veering away from Gandhi's most-cherished principles, including communal harmony and economic justice.

Although millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in the past two decades as India implemented economic reforms, the gap between the wealthy and the rural poor appears to be widening.

Isha Vora is a 20-year-old college student having lunch with friends at one of Ahmedabad's trendy new cafes.

"I would probably say that he would be very discouraged by seeing India's position today," Vora said. "He wanted equality among the people, and no disintegration between the rich and the poor. But right now, everywhere, we see that the rich are getting more rich (richer) day by day and no one looks after the poor people, like how are they staying (living) and what are they eating. No one is concerned about them today."

For many, modern shopping malls are a symbol of India's status as an emerging economic superpower. Others say they are a symptom of a nation losing its way.

University Professor N.S.R. Krishnayya says Gandhi's teachings and economic development can peacefully coexist.

"Shopping malls coming and not respecting Gandhiji - they do not go together," Krishnayya said. "We respect Gandhiji equally and we do enjoy whatever shopping malls are coming about. He's not a person that can be replaced by simple, materialistic kinds of things."

Mansi Shah, a 23-year-old banker, agrees.

"We are what we are because of him today. One of the factors is that we are living in a free India right now. People over here and in the whole of India would be thankful to him and what you are seeing right here is because of him, probably," Shah said.

Gandhi's message of tolerance and compassion helped shaped human rights and independence movements around the world. Yet even the residents of his home state, Gujarat, struggle to follow his example. Gujarat has suffered some of the worst sectarian violence between India's Hindu majority and Muslim minority. Yet progress has been made - since the early 1990's, the state poverty rate has fallen to about 14 percent of the population, from about 24 percent.

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