Mahatma Gandhi was introduced to us in school as someone who cultivated and shaped the Indian nationalist movement in the early decades of the 20th century.

In years since, and for most time even now, a careful reading of Gandhi’s own writings and those writing on his life (views and contributions), present a critical need to draw a distinction between who was ‘Gandhi’ and what it means to be ‘Gandhian’.

The latter aspect (i.e. being ‘Gandhian’ and the related ‘isms’ that follow) have allowed generations around the world, even after his assassination, to imbibe a selective basket of values or methods, that were promoted by Gandhi in his lifetime, and put these into practice-especially as part of people-led, social resistance movements.

In times that we live in, when the person (‘Gandhi’) himself has become more of an object and subject of constant economic appropriation (either on a bank note) and political (or in populist right-wing sentiments) appropriation, what means to be ‘Gandhian’ may require one to explore, nurture and cultivate ‘Gandhi’ from within.

We can perhaps identify two core constitutive elements (amongst others), that as part of a ‘Gandhian’ conduct, can require one to make a conscious effort to persistently evolve and experiment with one’s own self in serving the community, nation (or entire humanity) at large.

To learn and listen

The first element is an insatiable quest to constantly remain open to learning and listening to others and expanding our own perception, especially when hearing out someone who holds opinions contrary to ours.

In this regard, the subtle influences of B. R. Ambedkar on Gandhi warrant special attention though it is common knowledge that Gandhi and Ambedkar could not agree on certain issues. Ramachandra Guha’s second biographical volume edition GandhiThe Years That Changed The World brilliantly helps establish this ‘subtle’ influence that Ambedkar had on Gandhi, that allowed him to further acknowledge and revise his own views on fighting for the rights of deprived and discriminated sections of a deeply stratified Indian society.

Devanoora Mahadeva, a renowned Kannada writer, further expounds on this, when he says, Ambedkar had to awaken the sleeping Dalits and then make the journey. Gandhi had to make the immense effort of uplifting, correcting, changing those who were drowned in Hindu caste religion, in caste wells, to take a step forward… When you see all this, maybe Gandhi would not have traversed far without the presence of Ambedkar…”

To invoke an altruistic self

Gandhi’s actions (and preachings) emphasised putting the well-being of community (and society at large) above one’s self.

Drawn from an accommodative spiritual stance, nurturing an altruistic self remained central to Gandhi’s vision (and conduct), both, from the experiences of his own life, and in what he wished others to do.

Today, when a constant ‘othering’ of those around us has become common, and as one continues to become increasingly blind to the sufferings of others, developing an identity that altruistically perceives another remains more vital than ever. For Gandhi, this was perhaps the only way a pluralistic and deeply fragmented nation such as India could hold itself together.

Illustratively, Gandhi demonstrated such an identity by fasting, writing and speaking (even if perceived for political or social pay-offs) on sufferings inflicted upon Indian Muslims, both, before and after Partition of India. These acts developed deep imperfect sympathies between Gandhi and his relationship with the RSS.

As Guha highlights, the RSS ‘mocked’ Gandhi’s efforts to restore peace between rioting Hindus and Muslims. In the Organiser, an RSS magazine, an article titled “Nero Fiddled When Rome Burnt” stated: “History is repeating itself before our very eyes. From Calcutta Mahatma Gandhi is praising Islam and crying Allah-o-Akbar and enjoining Hindus to do the same, while in the Punjab and elsewhere most heinous and shameless barbarities and brutalities are being perpetrated in the name of Islam and under the cry of Allah-o-Akbar.”

As he goes on to further say, Gandhi was pretty much aware of the extent to which RSS detested ‘what it means to be Gandhian and Muslims’. In a speech to All India Congress Committee later, Gandhi said (as quoted from here): “I hear many things about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). I have heard it said that the Sangh is at the root of all this mischief. Let us not forget that public opinion is a far more potent force than a thousand swords. Hinduism cannot be saved by orgies of murder. You are now a free people. You have to preserve this freedom. You can do so if you are humane and brave and ever-vigilant, or else a day will come when you will rue the folly which made this lovely prize slip from your hands. I hope such a day will never come.”

Unfortunately, driven by BJP’s hegemonic Hindutva force, a dogged ghettoisation of Indian Muslims remains underway—whether seen from recent events in Kashmir or in other parts of the country and ‘the day’—which Gandhi so precariously alluded too, seems not thus far.

A tunnel-vision concept of a ‘religious-identity’ based nationalism is deeply contrarian to one that is based on a more accommodative, altruistic (or more inclusive) value-based nationalism, that Gandhi (and other nationalist leaders) underlined.

‘Gandhi’, as a person, for his deeds and actions, may be subject to debate and critical reflection, and may perhaps continue to be appropriated—by political groups for vested interests. One may benefit perhaps by going beyond ‘the person’ himself and make a sincere effort to actually understand what it means to be ‘Gandhian’. As Guha very recently wrote: “He (Gandhi) had this rare ability to identify an individual’s talent, to bring that person close to himself, to nurture and develop that person’s character and abilities, and then set them free to live their life as they themselves chose to do.” A few of these elements may help us invoke the ‘Gandhi’ from within.

Views are personal.

The author is associate professor of economics, and director, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.

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