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February 1998
Editorial: India at Fifty and into the Next Century
By Martin Rowe


January 20 this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who named this magazine when he coined the term satyagraha for the kind of non-violent civil disobedience and resistance with which he forced the British to leave India.

Fifty years on, it is a testament to Gandhi's vision, and the extraordinary tenacity of the Indian people, that in spite of numerous languages, religious affiliations, the vastness of its land area and the enormous size of its population (early in the next decade it will become the most populous country on Earth), India can feed itself and remains a functioning democracy with a free press. To be sure, Gandhi's vision of a decentralized village economy has been compromised by his successor Nehru's centralized command economy and the new free market policies of the 1990s. But India is still overwhelmingly rural and village-oriented, a feature that provides the possible wellspring for sustainable livelihoods in the next century. As the articles in this issue suggest, local involvement and solutions remain the key for saving the tiger as well as protecting the mangroves of southern India. In addition, India's enviable philosophical, religious, and human resources offer, as Christopher Key Chapple suggests, the hope that the developing world will bypass the kind of environmental degradation that over the last two centuries has decimated the forests and wilderness of the developed world.

On this anniversary, it is good to remember that Gandhi acknowledged that the tenets of non-violence extended to the other-than-human world. For Gandhi, vegetarianism was a way to return to the Hindu roots he had left behind when he became a lawyer in London. But it was more than a personal creed, it was a political act: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress," he wrote, "can be measured by the way in which its animals are treated." For Gandhi, however, vegetarianism--while rooted in the Jain notion of ahimsa (or non-violence) which influenced him--was at first an area of great internal conflict. When he was young, he fell under the sway of those who saw meat-eating as a sign of strength. They argued that because the British ate meat and ruled the Indians, vegetarianism must, therefore, mean weakness and servitude. In his autobiography, Gandhi writes that he began to think it was essential to eat meat. While he wanted to be a vegetarian, and he considered himself to be one, he began to eat meat secretly so as not to offend his parents.

Ironically, it was only when he arrived in England that he rediscovered his vegetarianism. Gandhi was struggling to maintain a semblance of vegetarianism in the colder climate (he was told that you need to eat meat in a cold climate to survive). One day, his landlady supplied the half-starving and miserable Mohandas with a list of vegetarian restaurants. When he arrived at one he was, he wrote later, "filled me with the same joy that a child feels on getting a thing after its own heart." Inside he bought and read at one sitting the animal rights advocate Henry Salt's pamphlet "Plea for Vegetarianism" and was instantaneously re-converted: "The choice was now made in favor of vegetarianism, the spread of which henceforward became my mission."

Gandhi's story is surely a lesson for all of us who are thinking of making a similar change to vegetarianism. Here was one of the most effective leaders in the 20th century--a man who inspired people from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Burmese democracy activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and who spent 2,338 days of his life in prison defying the might of the British Empire. Yet he too had to go through the same learning and unlearning experience as the most insignificant of us. He had to face the will of his family. He had to unlearn the myth of the power of meat and make the connection between violence against animals and the oppression of the dispossessed. And he had to look outside his own culture in order better to understand who he was and whence he came. That final lesson for Gandhi is the hope for this issue of Satya. As we in the West look about increasingly for alternative values to sustain us in the next century, we would do well to look for insight outside our own culture to Gandhi's legacy and the country for which he gave his life.


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