Thursday, July 08, 2010


Asghar Ali Engineer

The extreme violence the world isexperiencing in 21st century is of bit different type – what world nowcalls it terrorist violence in the post-9/11 situation. In a way violenceis violence by whatever name we call it. Wars until twentieth century wererepresentative of aggressive invasions by some countries against theother, or some nations against other nations. However, terrorist violencehas two characteristics: one, it is not frontal war (but not guerilla wareither) and two, it is more of a reactive violence. Recent terroristicattacks by Naxalites or Maoists, whatever we choose to call them, are ofthe intensity which have disturbed the whole country. Also, the brutalitywith which jihadis in Pakistan are killing are highly disturbing as well.The attack last Friday i.e. on 28th May on Ahmedi Mosques in Lahorekilling 70 persons who were prayinginside the two mosques shook the conscience of humanity.

India producedapostle of non-violence in the person of Gandhi in the last century andhe liberated India from clutches of British colonialism throughnon-violent means. Many people begin to raise question in the face ofsuch terroristic attacks on innocent civilians as to the relevance ofGandhiji’s non-violence in our era. Has Gandhi become irrelevant? Is hefit only for paying rich tributes on his birth day or day of martyrdom,and nothing else? It is for Gandhian philosophers to answer thesequestions. Are those who proclaim themselves to be Gandhians, take Gandhiand his philosophy seriously? Or Gandhism has also become a sort ofreligion with certain rituals and priesthood with certain ashrams andproperties thrown in? Where are active Gandhians?

Gandhi was not merephilosopher of non-violence but an active practitioner who made it a wayof life. When I was visiting Gujarat duringeighties when frequent caste and communal violence was taking place I didnot find a single Gandhian in Ahmedabad (which has Sabarmati Ashram) whocould dare communalists or even undertake an indefinite fast (as mostpowerful tool Gandhi employed to fight communal violence) to stopcommunal frenzy. In fact during 2002 those in charge of Sabarmati Ashramdid not allow a peace meeting to be held on their premises by peaceactivists like Medha Patkar and others fearing state government may stoptheir grant. How such Gandhians who care for state grant can everpractice ideals of Gandhian philosophy based on the concept of humanbehavior purged of all vested interests.

Let us first understand crucialelements of Gandhian philosophy of non-violence. Gandhiji always spokeof Satyagraha and Ahimsa i.e. insistence on truth and non-violence.Both concepts are integral to each other. No non-violence is possiblewithout truth and no truth is possible withoutnon-violence either. Also, we often say God is truth but Gandhijireversed this and said Truth is God. Why truth and non-violence areintegral to each other is because truth has to be non-coercive and basedon deeper conviction. An element of coercion would contaminate truth.Violence, on the other hand, is highest degree of coercion and is used tomake people believe what they do not want to believe and accept what theydo not want to accept. Thus violence and truth are totally opposed toeach other. Non-violence, on the other hand, guarantees freedom ofconscience and people are free to base their behavior on their deeperconviction. Self interests would also contaminate truth and lead tounauthentic behavior and hence violence. Thus a non-violent behaviorshould have following attributes: 1) It must be based on genuineconviction; 2) it should be truthful and 3) it should be based on freedomof conscience. Any behavior lacking these attributes islikely to lead to violence. It is also important to understand that byviolence we should not only mean physical violence. Violence can besubdivided into three categories: 1) physical violence leading to injuryor death; 2) violence by words and 3) violence of ethical norms andfundamental values. Physical violence could be either individual or ofnations and communities; similarly violence by words also can implyindividual or group or entire nation and of course violation of normscould be cultural norms of a civilizational group or those of anindividual. Another important dimension is that behavior such as this ispossible only if an individual or a collectivity (a group, nation orreligious or cultural community) is possible only when one is constantcommunication with ones inner self and is very well conscious ofonesownethical norms and civilizational values. Such a communication is sin quanon of authentic behavior. Interestingly anAmerican Jesuit and a Gandhian John Merton describes such a communicationas ‘encounter with solitude’. One can deeply reflect and have encounterwith ones self only when one communicates with oneself in completesolitude unaffected by what goes on out there and totally concentrates onwhat is inside ones own authentic self. That is why all Rishis, saintsand prophets never neglected this deep reflection and communication withones own self and thus discovered truth. Of course this authenticcommunication with self can be sub-divided into two categories: 1) onewho does itfor self knowledge and does or does not want to communicatewith the world outside him or her and 2) one who not onlywants tocommunicate with the world at large but also wants to transform theworld. Many prophets and Gandhi himself in our own time falls into secondcategory. Gandhi was primarily an activist and was not only in search oftruth but also wanted to see truth inaction. For such people justice and freedom not only of the self but ofthe entire people or nation become central.Such people not onlytransform themselves but know that individual transformation would meannothing without transforming the world around them. This is what Gandhijiset about to do both in South Africa and in India when he returned to hisown country. Thus from above discussion we can conclude that for anon-violent world following conditions must be fulfilled: 1) the worldorder has to be based on truthfulness and justice and 2) non-coercive andgenuine convictions and freedom of self or of nations and communities.Since today our world lacks all this violence has become all pervasivearound us either aggressive violence of one country or nation againstanother country or nation or reactive violence of resistance groups,freedom fighters or even of terrorists.

I would also like to say herethat those who follow founder of suchmovements often fail to rise up to the ethical standards of its foundersand soon the movement develops vested interests and becomes a powerfulestablishment, the very anti-thesis of the original movement. Gandhianmovement could not escape this irony. Not only after Gandhiji’s deathbut in his life itself Gandhi began to become irrelevant with dawn offreedom. Gandhi was no more needed as freedom was there and now power wasthe goal. Gandhi’s advice was no more needed as it could deliver values,not power. And then Gandhian movement was soon transformed into anestablishment with allotments of lands, formation of trusts, control overproperties and so on. Even worse, it lost its dynamic spirit and becameorthodoxy with its symbol of spinning wheel and khadi without muchrelevance to new economic realities. Thus Gandhians, devoid ofcreativethinkingbecame ritualistic. Now coming to all pervasive violence in thecontemporary world how relevantis Gandhism? Its relevance depends of course on truth, justice andfreedom form coercion. Since these attributes are lacking how can we havea violence-free world? These attributes are sin qua non and despiteeveryone talking of Gandhian non-violence, violence remains allpervasive. Can we then say violence-free world is just a dream? In asense yes but not quite so. One must dream a dream but one also needs anactivist like Gandhi with creative thinking and practical application.The concept of non-violence has been there for centuries as all spiritualthinkers, Prophets, Rishi and Munis have emphasized it but it was Gandhiin twentieth century who practically and creatively applied for freedomof the country. The problem of violence has become much more complexwith highly destructive weapons based on latest technology and henceresults in loss of heavy life, less of actual combatants but mostly ofnon-combatants.

It is, therefore, highly necessarythat violence in our world which is highly unjust, highlyunevenlydevelopedand promotes greed among few, ignoring needs of vast majorityof people and is heavily biased infavor of few rich nations, tocreatively apply non-violent methods of resistance to savehumanity. Should we wait for another Gandhi? It will be our weakness towait for one. We need collective value-based thinking. We must transformour education system and make it accessible to poorest of poor againthrough creative methods, an education system which is cooperative, notcompetitive. Gandhian concept of economy has to be just and need basedand our education system has to promote thisconcept of economy withcreative use of modern technology.

We can then hope to contain violenceat least on locallevels.----------------------------------------- Centrefor Study of Society and Secularism Mumbai.


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