AS WE CELEBRATED sixty years of Indian independence there was much debate about the terrible violence of civil war that followed the subcontinent’s partition in 1947. Fewer column inches have been spent revisiting the remarkable man who brought about independence in the first place: Mahatma Gandhi. It was his unique form of nonviolent civil disobedience that persuaded the world’s greatest empire to cede control of what had been described as the “jewel in the crown”, so that India might become the largest democratic state in the world.

Mohandas K. Gandhi grew up under the influence of the British Empire of the late 19th century. An empire that was designed to provide a stable patrician governance of its peoples based upon Victorian moral principles of ‘civilisation’. Gandhi trained as a lawyer, visited England, and worked in South Africa shortly before, and then after, the Boer War. It was here that his vision of a nonviolent approach to home rule and eventual independence for India began to emerge. He saw the futility of taking on a mighty armed empire through violent struggle. However, he realised that the ‘Achilles heel’ of Britain’s power over indigenous populations could be the very moral code around which its hegemony appeared to operate. In trying to obtain civil rights for Asians living in South Africa he advocated forms of nonviolent civil disobedience that were very difficult for an empire that prided itself on the rule of law to counter – that is, without being seen as ‘the oppressor’ instigating violence against the very subject people it had made its mission to protect.

Throughout his life, Gandhi remained committed to nonviolence and truth even in the most extreme situations. However, there is another side to this great man that is less well understood, but very relevant to the 21st century. He was a man who had a keen understanding of the issues that industrialisation, rising population and over-exploitation of natural resources would create in the future for India, its people and the rest of the world. It would only be a very slight exaggeration to say that he was one of the world’s first environmentalists, in that he had a deep philosophical belief in self-sufficiency and the pressures that population would put on resources in the future. He made his own clothes, was a practising vegetarian, and predicted that if the subcontinent developed industrially to the same extent as countries like the UK and the US it would need unsustainably vast amounts of resources in the future. As a result he became an early advocate of alternative and appropriate technologies seventy-five years before the concept became a serious idea on the development agenda.

GANDHI HAS INSPIRED many of those at the front line of liberation: Martin Luther King drew from his work as did Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko and Aung San Suu Kyi. Today Gandhi’s philosophy inspires The Elders, a group of world leaders including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Yunus, Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson and Gro Brundtland who have recently come together to contribute their wisdom, independent leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. Free from political, economic or military pressures, The Elders aim to offer a catalyst for peaceful resolution of conflict around the world. Their approach will be firmly embedded in the philosophy of nonviolence. In his inaugural speech, Mandela said, “This group can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken. Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”

If The Elders only ever have one success in conflict resolution, their coming together will have been justified, and all of us will be able to thank Gandhi for the inspiration to try where others have failed.

Sir Richard Branson is a Founder of The Elders.


“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [the UK] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” – M. K. Gandhi