by Parvez Alam
India is losing the great tradition of ‘spirit of inquiry and dissent’ which we cherished in the past as the progressive history of cultural tolerance and harmony. In today’s India, the political parties in power and opposition are eyeing human individuals as potential voters and trying to woo them by spreading untruths and rumors. Indian society by and large needs introspection and learn from an icon of 20th century who shown us the path of wisdom, non-violence and peace. Gandhi cherished the heterodoxy and learned from the great tradition of dissent.
“In yet another instance of alleged cow vigilantism, a 28-year-old Muslim man was beaten to death in Rajasthan’s (one of the states of India) Alwar district”, reported a national daily, The Hindu in July, 2018. India is now not only the land of Gandhi but it is also the place of mob killers and cow vigilantes.
The regime in power is fueling these mobs by justifying untruth and spreading prejudices and stereotype about minorities. The culture of harmony, tolerance and peace which India has been preaching to the world is succumbing to the contrarian conceptions such as lynching, intolerance and rumor mongering. The traditions of critical inquiry, doubt and argumentation is degrading from the map of India’s cultural history.
India celebrated birth anniversary of her father of nation, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on 2nd October this year. Gandhi, a revered leader, led the mass struggle for Independence from the British Raj and dominated the political life of the nation for more than three decades in 1920s to late 1950s and also inspired the generations of leaders all over the world including Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
A graduate of law from London and vaishya by caste from Kathiawad (now in the Indian state of Gujarat) had the massive influence of religious ideals of love, peace and harmony available in the ancient Vedas to the Bible, the Quran and other mystic tradition. Gandhi didn’t believe in the rigidity of cultures and traditions and always preached the confluence of ideas as well as generating fresh and new progressive cultures of non-violence and peace.
Gandhi was shot dead by one of the Hindu radicals in 1948. His name was Nathuram Godse. The organization which celebrated the death of Gandhi and distributed sweets openly in the Indian streets, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a cultural organization established in 1925 was banned immediately on the recommendations of the then Home Minister, Sardar Patel, also a Gujarati like Gandhi and is being revered now by the same outfit. Godse, a member of Hindu Mahasabha and many other organisation shared the idea of militant Hinduism (Hindutva), which Vinayak Damodar Savarkar espoused in the beginning of 1920s.
In 2014, Narendra Modi, the leader of Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to become a national leader by winning majority of the seats in general election and becoming a prime minister. His involvement in the genocidal riots in Gujarat against religious minorities (Muslims) led United States and other European states to ban Modi’s visit in their respective countries.
Paradoxes of Indian Politics
The irony of our times is that, those who muzzle the dissent are celebrating the birth anniversary of one of the greatest dissenters of all time. Modi’s arrival on national scene has given free hand to the mobs and foot soldiers of his party and affiliate organisation to target violently minorities, Dalits (outcaste/untouchables) and tribals everywhere. From beef ban to the temple politics, it is the rule of mob which has been given shelter by the so called liberally graduated leaders within BJP to polarise votes as a compulsion to win election in one of the diverse country. Once cherished ideals of unity and diversity and the history of composite culture has eroded and society has become more fascistic and authoritarian.
To fight (non-violently) is to dissent. To agree is to conform to the existing ideologies, norms, cultures and traditions. Agreeing on nonsensical or irrational things leads towards insanity. The entire history of freedom struggle in the Indian subcontinent is the history of dissent. The non-cooperation was not only dissent in terms of thought but it was call for truth and dissent-in-action.
Gandhi to whom we know as preacher of non-violence (ahimsa) and call for truth (satyagraha) was one of the greatest subversive actor in the world. His shaming of British Raj by wearing loin cloth in the peak of British winter during Round Table Conference (1931) is epitome of subversive action. After the meeting with British Emperor a reporter asked Gandhi if he didn’t feel ashamed to stand in front of the Emperor in his simple dress. ‘Why should I feel ashamed? The Emperor was wearing enough clothes for both of us.’ said Gandhi.
Gandhi’s training since childhood as a religious and ascetic person didn’t halt his critical outlook and curiosity to know different cultures and traditions. One of the basic principles of any dissenting opinion is openness of thought process. One should not restrict oneself in knowing things which is not subscribed by the co-religious or fellow community member.
Restricting any kind of flow of information/knowledge/thought also restricts the persons becoming of an autonomous being. This makes Gandhi an anarchist because customary rules, norms and state-made-laws prohibits him to transcend his boundaries of thinking and his action. He would rather utilize the availability of maximum freedom to cross the boundaries to do creative things for social change. The subversiveness leads towards progressiveness.
In one of the response to a reader in Hind Swaraj (1909), Gandhi says, “I do not expect my views to be accepted all of a sudden”. By this what he meant was, every viewpoint need to go through critical questioning. In Gandhian understanding of swaraj (self-rule) is inherent the conception of individual freedom and free thinking.
Remember Gandhi breaking one of the draconian Salt Laws to realize purna swaraj (complete rule) in March of 1930. With him marched satyagrahis, old and young, men and women hand in hand together. Gandhi’s bold defiance of the salt law encouraged other Indians to break the law as well. Was Gandhi not disobeying the existing system of laws which were punitive and draconian? Certainly he did. But it was also dissent-in-action which propelled him to transgress the inhumane conditions, where human beings were deprived of their basic needs such as salt.
Should I also not ask critical questions if deprived of my basic needs? Not doing that will amount to erasure of our history of protests, dissents and oppositions. But as reality faced by the civil society members and activists in contemporary times indicate that ‘asking tough and difficult question’ may put me behind bars and I can be branded as anti-party, anti-government, anti-national, anti-state (though all are different things) or clubbing together under an umbrella term called ‘urban naxals’.
By 1909 in Hind Swaraj, Gandhi evaluating the Mazzini-Garibaldi question in regards to Italy’s freedom, is of the view that the Mazzini’s dream of every man in Italy ruling himself has not been materialized even though Italy is independent fore than five decades. For Gandhi who stressed more on means than end is critical of Garibaldi taking up arms and encouraging all Italians to join him in pushing Austria out of their territory.
The gain out of arms struggle (means) is nominal and hence the replacement of Austrian rule is nothing but the tyranny of government (end). Gandhi had argument with Aruna Asaf Ali over means and end question during ‘Quit India’ movement, 1942. Aruna Asaf Ali was in support of milder violence. She justified hiding of revolutionaries to escape arrest. Gandhi on the other hand was firm in his belief that the end of these activities wouldn’t last long, we may achieve our goals. After 110 years of Hind Swaraj and his reflection on Mazzini-Garibaldi debate, India is congruently similar if we reflect the contemporary times within Gandhian credo. Gandhi’s vision of true freedom has not been materialized though India is independent state for more than seven decades.
We didn’t have many more anarchist and supporters of dissent in post-independent India, what Gandhi would have supported these ideals, if alive for 125 years (his wish to live long, was stopped with Godse’s bullets.). For him brutal industrialization and marketization is similar to violent action which uproots the flora and fauna and dehumanizes the working class, which needs to be condemned (dissent-in-words).
Without balancing with nature and environment, development do not have any meaning. For Gandhi means is more important than end. The running after GDP in terms of becoming trillion dollar economy and widening gap between rich and poor is nothing but a colonial mindset of loot, control and exploitation.
It would not have been possible for Gandhi to preach passive resistance by breaking the shackles of castiest control and practice of untouchability. The three aims of his life were to get rid of alien rule, abolition of untouchability and discarding the discord between Hindu-Muslim.
The latter two were possibly an annoyance to the majority who have been practicing the differential treatment of the fellow members to maintain hierarchy in the society. Gandhi by making his mission to get rid of these ‘things’ redefined the existing understanding of ethics and public morality. For him constitutional framework of equality and freedom is the last resort to create egalitarian society.
A call for truth (satyagraha), non-violence (ahimsa), self-rule (swaraj), good governance (ramrajya), progress of all (sarvodaya) and his own experiment with truth cannot have been possible until and unless he wouldn’t have asked difficult questions. Gandhi was not for conformity. He stood for dissent and disagreement for constructive purposes. Unfortunately, the fate of those mirrors of our society who are imitating Gandhi’s ideals are dubbed as urban naxals. For me they are the true Gandhians, in spirit and action. On his birth anniversary we all should stand with Gandhi.