Revisiting Old Thoughts: Part III

I have decided to share with you what I wrote more than 5 years back! This post is the final part of a 3-part series.

Back in 2011, while I was still in the second year of my undergraduate college, I had the audacity to write a monograph. I named it ‘Tryst With Destiny’. In the last chapter titled ‘Another World Is Possible’, I aimed to show that the present world of violence, unfreedom, injustice, unhealthy competition and mass xenophobia is not inevitable[1] and that another world is possible.  For that purpose, I used no new concept. Instead I revisited very briefly some well-known ideas like identity, freedom, justice, democracy, non-violence and Satyagraha, and tried to re-think our 21st century problems through the prism of those concepts. 

Most of what I wrote cannot be published here without sacrificing my intellectual repute (if any is still left after these stupid blog-posts). But my writings on Freedom, Identity and Non-violence seem to me not altogether useless. That’s why I am going to share those with you.

I will exactly reproduce what I wrote back in 2011 without any editing. So there might be some references to events (particularly Indian ones) which were burning issues in 2011. And last but not the least, forgive my naivety.

Non-violence and Satyagraha

Men over the ages have acquired the art of hating so well that it requires prophets and gurus to make them understand that the force of love will always hold its sway over that of hatred. In the words of “a half-naked Indian fakir” in the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the iconic champion of non-violence, “the fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love…. all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.” Non-violence is not something that needs to be understood in rigorous terms, unlike Satyagraha, which is replete with fine nuances. Non-violence can be summarized as the least possible coercion (physical or mental) on anything around us – be it our fellow human beings or some creatures or in general, the natural environment. Some degree of violence is definitely required for sheer existence, like killing plants and animals for food, hurting other animals while protecting one’s life, etc. but violence, beyond the survival requirements, is prohibited under the strict Gandhian non-violence regime. We have already seen that violence emanates from extremely differential attention towards multiple identities of people (see Identity). The Gandhian concept of non-violence essentially cures this malady of exclusive concentration on a particular aspect of an individual’s identity, by harping on the universal coherence of humanity. Gandhi knew that the delicate logic of identity-based non-violence would not appeal to the masses and so he devised the excellent instrument of inculcating the sense of goodwill so that the identity-specific disparities among people are not underlined during social interactions. Nevertheless, some academicians have streamlined Gandhi’s non-violence to merely a way of fighting against the British. Certainly, Gandhi was non-violent in his protest techniques, but to say that non-violence was his weapon would be deeply mistaken. His actual weapon was Satyagraha, to which we now turn our attention. I shall also try to explore how non-violence and Satyagraha are interrelated.

Mani Bhaumik (the man credited for the discovery of the Excimer laser technology that is now used in LASIK refractive eye surgery) in his book “Code Name God” defined Satyagraha as “the vindication of truth not by the infliction of suffering on one’s opponent, but on one’s self. In other words, if one wills himself to endure even worse than what his enemy can dish out, there can be no victory over him. To post-modern Western sensibilities, this may seem a kind of collective masochism.” I have a problem with a particular phrase of this definition — “…what his enemy can dish out”. I would have rather preferred to replace that phrase by “…what is possible and available”. This is because, I believe, as per the original Gandhian interpretation, Satyagraha is essentially a matter of dealing with one’s own soul and not with others in the outside world. In other words, Satyagraha is never a binary affair, with oneself and the person or institution against whom that person is agitating or trying to wrest concessions from. Gandhi’s political expression for Satyagraha was two-fold: one using fasts-unto-death as a strategy and the other was that of organizing mass movements. However, he dissociates himself from seeking concessions from the British colonial government through the instrument of fasts with a remarkable consistency. Instead, he uses the mass movements repeatedly to see that his demands were met by the government. On the other hand, he fasted only to unite people, not against any particular adversary, but for some betterment of those very people, e.g., the 1932 Yerveda jail fast to protest against the proposition of a separate electorate for the ‘depressed classes’. Gandhi’s 17 fasts-unto-death were not of the sort of “concede-our-demands-or-else-there-will-be-violence”, that is, not of the coercive sort.

These days, entire India seems to be on the move regarding the issue of corruption against which social activists like Anna Hazare have become the face of the crusade. This has led many to call Hazare the “modern Indian Gandhi”, only to over-simplify Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence and Satyagraha. These activists have gone on to fast many a time, but each time their attitude was such that if their demands were not met then violence will ensue. Thus, the apparently non-violent way of fasting has an implicit threat of violence. Such coercion was completely absent in Gandhi’s fasts. He mounted pressure on the government through mass movements to gain concessions from it and took resort to fasting only to ‘purify’ his own soul or make his countrymen ready and eligible for or worthy of the concession. Thus, Satyagraha (or the relentless quest for Truth) was related to non-violence in the original Gandhian conceptualization, but the two are now wrongly dissociated. To Gandhi, I suppose, Satyagraha was a realm of existence while non-violence was a way of life. To the so-called neo-Gandhians, Satyagraha is nothing more than wresting more and more concessions from the State and non-violence is just a disguised way of attaining that end. Gandhi spent 2089 days in Indian prisons, on top of the 249 days he had previously logged in South African jails. All these periods as well as his long periods of fasting were his periods of self-introspection through penance; he purified his soul through his experiments with Truth. No political personality, after Gandhi, possessed such a strong will to self-absolve of all the weaknesses of one’s own character. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to find any resemblance between Gandhi and the modern agitators like Anna Hazare.

The main problem with the so-called ‘neo-Gandhian’ mass movements is that even if the group in power (against whom the agitation is demonstrated) meets the demands of the agitators, it does not ensure that the desired social end will be served. This is because in most of the cases the trickle down effect of the change at the top does not reach the masses at the bottom rungs of the society, without accompanying mass purification of the self. For instance, in the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement led by Anna Hazare, the principal focus is to get the Lokpal Bill passed in terms of the civil society, which Hazare claims to represent. However, even if the Central Government had acceded to all their demands, the social malady of corruption may not be significantly reduced because of the Lokpal legislation. The Lokpal may end up being a further burden on the already cumbersome administration of the country. Without a significant change in the mindset of the millions of Indians, it is impossible to root out corruption. I believe if the Anna movement had focused on creating mass awareness against corruption, instead of targeting some particular corrupt people then it would have served India better. We need social activists like Anna Hazare to make the public more conscientious and not to hold the government in ransom for getting a legislation passed in the parliament for the masses, who continue to be morally unfit for the practice of the legislation.

Though I have discussed here the pitfalls of following the principle of Satyagraha and non-violence, the duo, carefully practiced, is the only way forward in making our voices heard in a world of widely disparate powers.

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