One Little Mistake Cost 10 Million Lives

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world”
– Mohandas K. Gandhi

As much of an ardent admirer as I am of Mohandas Gandhi–his philosophy of life, learned by me as a child, helped to form the kind of person I am today–I believe he was wrong about one thing.

Known to his countrymen fondly as Gandhiji and to the rest of the world as The Mahatma (“Great Soul”), Gandhi lived what he preached. He lived the role of a man of peace and taught peaceful resistance to the dominating authority. With his methods he worked miracles. In the last days of British rule in India, he kept peace among a mob that was about to riot in Calcutta while the British sent 55,000 troops to the Punjab to control a potentially much easier situation that turned into chaos. He gained a huge following by urging his countryment to “Follow me.” And they did, peacefully.

While some criticize Gandhi for his personal practices (such as insisting on sleeping–platonically–with his niece companion after his wife died–to help him practise self-discipline) I have never read of him committing an immoral act. He made many people uncomfortable, but he was strictly a moral man.

He played the role model for his people. He lived the change he wanted to see in India.

India gained its freedom from the UK in 1947. Gandhi had achieved his dream of independence, in the process ensuring the end of what had been the world’s largest-ever empire (at one point the British controlled one-quarter of the land mass of the planet).

He did not, however, achieve peace. Some ten million people died as Muslims fled the new India for the new Pakistan while Hindus poured out of the new Pakistan heading for the new India. The British had encouraged communal hatred to control the masses (about 450 million at the time of separation) during their reign but had failed to give their South Asian subjects an outlet for their pentup emotion, which progressed into slaughter in many parts of the country.

Could the slaughter have been avoided? Possibly.

Mohandas Gandhi believed that people would learn if he showed them by example, as their role model. In general, that is what happened. Despite what we read in the newspapers about violence in India from time to time, for a country with well over one billion people it has a relatively low rate of violent crime. But not everyone learned.

Role models may be followed, believed and their philosophies of life embraced, but the lessons don’t really change a society unless and until they are taught to every child. When every child in a country or culture learns a particular lesson and that lesson is supported by the adults in the society and the judicial systems, the whole society becomes what it has practised.

Even if Gandhi had been successful at persuading 99 percent of Indians that peace was the way they should follow, the remaining one percent of violent people would have comprised four and a half million. That many people can wreak a great deal of havoc, as India learned. Just one percent of troublemakers could cause massive destruction.

The important lessons of life must be taught, and repeated in several grades, to every child. None of these important life lessons takes long to teach, they just need to be taught to every child.

The British had never planned to leave India, the Jewel in its Crown (empire). So it had not had peaceful transition taught in Indian schools before independence and separation.

We in industrialized and post-industrial countries can’t imagine ten million people being hacked or shot to death in many instances of slaughter, so we might be inclined to ignore the lesson that India failed to teach. However, we suffer from our own social ills. Not of the quick-kill kind as happens with guns or machetes. But the slow kind that results in slow and more painful death.

The larger cities of India and China, growing and glowing with their respective recent economic booms, have such air pollution that many people die (or will die) decades sooner than they would have if they had breathed clean air. The United States has dozens of coal-fired generation stations that chuff out carbon dioxide and other pollutants at a shameful rate.

Some kinds of cancers are on the rise with no slowing in sight. Diabetes, asthma and obesity, among many other diseases, are increasing exponentially and no one has cures to offer. Addictions are so common that we may believe they are inevitable. They aren’t.

To be sure, pharmaceutical companies are working fererishly to produce drugs that should keep us from dying after we have the diseases. Their power and influence over democratic governments is almost staggering today. But they won’t teach good health habits.

Good health habits, like peace, must be taught to every child for them to play a major role in the future of a society. The lessons that adults are taught in the workplace, on television, in movies, in newspapers and magazines is that excess is good.

Excess is only good for the manufacturers, but we never see that in their advertising. What we do see are the results when we stand on weight scales or observe the grim face on our doctor when he or she breaks the bad news to us. It happens a lot, more than we would like to believe.

The Mahatma was right about peace and about being a role model for his people. He didn’t take the lessons far enough and teach them to every child in school.

Today we have schools teaching all sorts of lessons that children may never use as adults (or after the test is passed), while we fail to teach them important lessons about life. About survival. About work skills and attitude. About coping. About relationships. About what to do when the going gets rough. Even about school being their best source of tools and skills they will use throughout their lives, so they should not mess around and waste time.

These aren’t hard lessons. They take almost no resources and most can be taught by teachers based largely on their own personal experiences with life (kids enjoy hearing about life experiences of their teachers). And they take very little time to teach, so they would not infringe on the present curriculum.

But they won’t teach themselves. Many parents assume–incorrectly–that their kids will learn these lessons along the way, somewhere. They may not teach the lessons–if they knew the lessons themselves, which is questionable–to their children because they believe that kids just get these things, somehow, somewhere, sometime.

They don’t give the where and how much thought. Some kids don’t get them.

I can live my life in such a way as to be a role model for many people. But I can’t reach everyone. Neither can you, but you and I can tell others. And we can encourage them to tell still others.

That’s our job. Let’s get out there and talk it up until our education systems change to include life lessons that every child needs. And that we want every child to have because we believe they are the right way to do things.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to know what life lessons to teach children, when, and how, so we eventually have fully developed and competent adults who will run our countries the way we would like them to take us into the future.
Learn more at


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