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Not in the Mahatma’s name

Why the protests by Hazare and Ramdev may not be Satyagraha as Gandhi saw it?

Written by Tridip Suhrud | June 9, 2011 2:27:57 am

A day before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre,Tagore warned Gandhi and through him the nation: “Power in all its forms is irrational.” He was obviously aware of the great power of coercion and destruction that the modern state was and continues to remain capable of. But his warning was not about the repressive power of the state alone. He was more concerned with the supposedly moral power of the people. He knew that people were equally capable of resorting to violence and,more dangerously for him,capable also of claiming such violence to be just and desirable as an expression of widely felt moral indignation at the conduct of the ruler. His warning was against Satyagraha,which he regarded as not necessarily moral in itself.

If there was anyone in the country who was aware and alive to the deep moral significance of Gandhi’s presence,it was Tagore,and despite this he remained suspicious and ambivalent towards the practice of mass politics. He,like Gandhi,was aware that Satyagraha was not and can never be a mere technique,an instrumentality. Both regarded instrumentality in politics and public life as amoral if not inherently immoral. Satyagraha as an exercise of Truth force was in essence soul-force as also force of love and pity. They were for Gandhi imbued with the Christian idea of love and the Buddhist notion of Karuna. Love and Karuna not only for the depressed and suppressed people with and for whom the Satyagraha was effected,but more importantly also for those against whom the struggle was waged. Satyagraha as a mode of dialogue about Truth was rooted in this idea and practice,in absence of which the struggling people were in danger of committing the same crime — that of denying humanity of others — against which they had waged their struggle. It is only when one recognises the humanity of others that a dialogue about Truth and virtue could take place,because it requires that both parties ought to be capable of recognition of the moral. It is only by affirming the humanity of the other that the struggle for self-affirmation could become possible. If one were to argue that truth inheres in one party and the other is not only devoid of all truth but also incapable of recognition of truth no conversation about truth and the moral can ever take place. Satyagraha has no place for the unmitigated evil,evil so complete that it has no imagination of the moral. Because,Satyagraha is an act of redemption,of freedom from oppression and tyranny of falsehood but also from the need to oppress the other. Tagore summed it up only as he could: “Our mission is to revive the dead with the fire of the soul.” Hence,both Gandhi and Tagore saw India’s struggle for Swaraj as a movement for double freedom,freedom for India but also for Europe from the machinery of the Empire.

Satyagraha for Gandhi was part of a much wider notion of transformative politics and search for a just society for all. It rested on the transformative self-practices which were experimented upon in the solitude of his ashrams and in conversation with the co-workers. It was this inward gaze which made the act of cleansing the self possible before one attempted to cleanse the society of its structural and institutional injustices and inequities of power. Satyagraha acquired legitimacy for the people and the rulers alike not only because of the personal conduct of the satyagrahis but also because of the wider moral ecology that it was a part of. Satyagraha devoid of constructive work,transparent lives of the ashram community and quest for equality could only be an instrumentality.

Fast as a practice was for Gandhi an essentially personal,spiritual practice of self-purification. It was not mortification of the body. It was the purifying nature of fasting that Gandhi wished to access. It is by cleansing oneself that one cleanses those around one. He was aware of the coercive nature of a “public fast” and constantly endeavoured to make his acts of fasting non-coercive. He knew that he came closest to the purest fast only in May 1933 when he fasted for self-purification for 21 days. It would not be idle moral speculation to suggest that the need for this self-purification occurred not only because of the conduct of the ashram community but his own conduct during the fast against the communal award where he was constantly reminded of his coercive power by Dr Ambedkar.

This is not to deny the legitimacy of the present protests by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev,but to suggest that they may not be Satyagraha as Gandhi envisioned and practised them. They need not mirror Gandhi,it is not their burden to do so. It is necessary and legitimate to go beyond Gandhi in our relationship with those who govern us and in modes of reclaiming the public moral space because the nature of the state and the political realm has undergone large transformations in our times. But,the crucial question is that do they innovate upon the method and practice of public protest; do they add to the moral universe,do they help us reclaim the notion of virtue in public life? We must reflect on the fact that as a people so engaged with the political in our lives,we have shown remarkable lack of moral innovativeness. The responsibility to be moral and righteous does not rest only upon the rulers but the people in equal measure. Corruption,despite its corrosive nature is only one aspect of moral conduct,what we require is a wider idea good conduct. The movement has in some significant ways reclaimed the societal space in political life,which had become frayed. The country would be truly beholden to the leaders of the present movement if they could through their practice enlarge the space for the moral in our political life; because that would create possibilities of inclusive society and just politics of the people.

The writer is an Ahmedabad-based social scientist

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