Mahatma's view of corruption was all encompassing- total probity in one's thoughts and deeds. He believed that the thoughts are precursors of deeds and, therefore, it was necessary not only to be honest in one’s deeds but also to eliminate desire for unnecessary hoarding of material goods beyond one’s necessities. In his many writings Mahatma did not dwell much on corruption possibly because he took honesty in one’s dealings for granted for anybody in public life. His wider view of honesty becomes manifest in one of the rules that he made for anybody wanting to become member (guest) in his Ashram.
The Vow of Non–thieving
Mahatma Gandhi enunciated ten rules that had to be observed by anybody wanting to become member of his Ashram. The fifth among them called ‘The Vow of Non-Thieving’ encompassed in it all aspects of corruption. It was far wider in its scope and meaning than the usual meaning of the word corruption; in effect, it amounted to Non-Possession. In Mahatma’s own words:
“I suggest that we are thieves in a way. If I take anything that I do not need for my own immediate use and keep it, I thieve it from somebody else……………..I am no Socialist, and I do not want to dispossess them who have got possessions; but I do say that personally those who want to see light out of darkness have to follow this rule……………….I do not want to dispossess anybody, I should then be departing from the rule of Non-Violence (one of the vows)………………In India we have got many millions of people who have to be satisfied with one meal a day…………….. You and I have no right to anything we really have until these many millions are clothed and fed. You and I, who ought to know better, must adjust our wants, and even undergo voluntary privation, in order that they may be nursed, fed and clothed”
In an affluent society this view may look rather outlandish, but if it is judged keeping in view the all-round poverty and want prevailing in this country during Gandhi’s times, it would emerge as the most humane view. Any poor society must reduce consumption and hoarding if it wants to cater to the needs of the maximum. Gandhi considered superfluous consumption and hoarding to be an act of dishonesty towards the poor and needy.
There is no doubt that this rule becomes regressive, if applied to a properly fed and clothed society. And, I think, if Gandhi Ji were born in an affluent society, he might have not objected to every kind of hoarding.
Mahatma’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ of Dishonesty
Mahatma Gandhi's life was of continuous experimenting, learning and improving. That is why he named his autobiography 'My Experiments with Truth'. He put his ideas about truth on the anvil of real life situations to experiment and draw conclusions to improve one's knowledge, beliefs and conduct. However, little does one find in his writings or writings of others on him about his experiments with monetary corruption! The reason behind this unique absence seems to be the fact that the Mahatma had little doubt that there can be no other rule on corruption than the rule of ‘Zero Tolerance'. The following outburst of the Mahatma caused by the anger that swelled his veins when he found that many Congress leaders elected to state assemblies in 1935 were indulging in corruption makes out that point amply clear:
"I would go to the length of giving the whole congress a decent burial, rather than put up with the corruption that is rampant." - Mahatma Gandhi May 1939
In fact the Mahatma was so aghast with corruption indulged in by some Congress leaders that even after attainment of independence he suggested that the Congress should be disbanded as it had served its purpose and a new political party should be formed to contest election.
Indifference towards Corruption
Mahatma considered it to be the duty of those in authority to deal with corruption with a heavy hand. In his view an indifferent attitude towards corruption was criminal. He felt highly disgusted with the persons in power not only for indulging in corruption, but also for lack of vigilance and moral courage towards curbing it among those who were themselves free of taint.
“It (corruption) has now become worse than before. Restraint from it has practically gone. Corruption will go when the large number of persons given unworthily to it realizes that the nation does not exist for them to exploit but that they exist to serve the nation. This requires morals, and extreme vigilance on the part of those who are free of the taint. Indifference will be criminal…” - 27 January 1948. From the pages of The Hindu.
Morality and Ethics
Mahatma believed that no form of government will be able to cleanse itself of corruption unless morality and ethics are imbibed and observed by the society- and particularly those in power. His views published in ‘Hindu’ in 1947 make the point amply clear.
“I hold that self-government is not an end in itself, but only a means to good government. And true democracy is that which promotes the welfare of the people, the test of good government lies in the largest good of the people with minimum of controls. The test of autocracy, socialism, capitalism, etc., is also people’s welfare or good government. In themselves, the various approaches are of no value. Any system of government can fail if people do not show scrupulous honesty and a feeling of brotherhood. There may be work; there may be men to do the work and also the tools with which to do it: yet in my view, any system which admits poverty and unemployment is not fit to survive even for a day… (Hindu. 31/12/1947)
Gandhi placed the major responsibility for upholding probity in public life and keeping the dignity of our nation on the shoulders of the leading men of the society. He declared,
“It is the duty of all leading men, whatever their persuasion or party, to safeguard the dignity of India. That dignity can’t be saved if misgovernment and corruption flourish. Misgovernment and corruption always go together. I have it from very trustworthy sources that corruption is increasing in our country. Is everyone then going to think only of himself, and not at all of India?….(Hindu. 16/12/1947).
Unfortunately for this nation of ours after attainment of independence some leading men in all wings of administration had become either corrupt, or non-vigilant, or indulgent, or too democratic to deal with corruption with a heavy hand. The moral and ethical society of his dreams was fast vanishing.
Mahatma died at the right time to escape the spectacle of indignity that he would have been forced to witness, had he survived.
1. Mahatma Gandhi - His life and Ideas by Charles F. Andrews
2. Gandhian Thoughts - An Overview by Ravindra Kumar