The Tale Of Two Gandhiji Quotes

Updated: Jul 8 2004, 03:56am hrs
As I share with you the priorities of our government, I am reminded of the Father of our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji had said that his mission in life was to wipe every tear from every eye. Think of the poorest person you have ever seen, Gandhiji would say, and ask if your next act will be of any use to him. That message of Bapu resonates in our ears as we settle down to the business of government.

No one has to be reminded that this is a quote from the Prime Ministers address to the nation on June 24, 2004. Both these quotes ascribed to Gandhiji have become standard quotable stuff and are excellent guides to policy action, with an almost Rawlsian flavour about them.

Take the second quote first, the one that is invariably described as Gandhis talisman and has now also entered textbooks. Quoted in the fashion it has been quoted in the Prime Ministers speech, it tends to suggest that the talisman was meant for policy-makers and that the test of best policy should be benefit to the poorest person that you have ever seen. Also used in the way it is used in the Prime Ministers speech, the implicit suggestion is that Gandhiji would often say this.

Gandhijis actions were indeed driven by this motive, implicitly if not explicitly. However, to suggest that Gandhiji would often say this, in the plural, is incorrect. For that matter, to suggest that Gandhiji ever said this, even in the singular, is incorrect. There is no record that Gandhiji ever made this statement. What we do know is that Gandhiji left a note, dated August 1947. Here is what this note said. I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.

As this complete quote makes clear, there is no suggestion that this was ever addressed to a policy-maker. If anything, it seems to have been addressed to every individual. More importantly, the quote has nothing to suggest that it was used to justify State intervention, however beneficial that might be.

One can enter into a debate about how important State intervention was in the Gandhian framework and that debate will inevitably lead to the conclusion that Gandhiji was against State intervention, even in matters of swadeshi and self-reliance. But let that debate pass. For the narrow purposes of the quote, note that control over life and destiny by the poor is often constrained by State intervention, rather than its lack.

Lets now move on to the first quote, about Gandhiji having said that his mission in life was to wipe every tear from every eye. As far as I can make out, and I will be happy to be corrected, there is no record of Gandhiji ever having said or written anything like this. Rather remarkably, a similar phrase occurs in the Book of Revelation (21:3-5). And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their god. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Why do we have the impression that Gandhiji actually said this The original source seems to have been Jawaharlal Nehrus Tryst with Destiny speech, one of the best speeches ever drafted and delivered. Here is the relevant section. That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means, the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and poverty and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

Notice, factually, this speech doesnt say anything about Gandhiji having used that particular expression. All it says it that Gandhiji had that particular ambition, which is absolutely true. Also note, expressions from the Book of Revelation are far more likely to figure sub-consciously in Jawaharlal Nehrus writings than in Gandhijis ones.