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Thursday, August 18, 2022

Private compact or political act?

Let us accept Modi’s sadbhavana is genuine — but that requires moral action and responsibility on his part.

In May 1933,Gandhi commenced a fast for 21 days,an act that he considered as his “purest” fast; a fast for self-purification. This act was so private and internal to him that he could not even explain the reasons for it. He told Sardar Patel,his fellow prisoner: “After all,does one express,can one express,all one’s thoughts to others?” Before this fast,Gandhi had undertaken 16 “public fasts” and innumerable private fasts.

Gandhi believed that he had,through years of sadhana,acquired a unique capacity to hear his inner voice and submit to it. In this instance also he had submitted to a voice speaking from within. There were voices of dissent,dismay that questioned Gandhi. But no one questioned Gandhi’s right to undertake a fast for self-purification.

That challenge came from the poet Tagore. Tagore had,just some months earlier — in September 1932 — spoken evocatively of Gandhi’s fast against the “Communal Award” and said that it was worth making the highest sacrifice that humanity was capable of — that of Gandhi’s life. But the same Tagore was unmoved by Gandhi’s intention to purify himself through a public act of fasting. Gandhi had claimed that it was his unique duty and responsibility to fast for self-purification in answer to a call from within. Tagore challenged the very essence of Gandhi’s self-practice. “You have no right to say that this process of penance can only be efficacious through your own individual endeavour and for others has no meaning.” He was willing to accept a fast as a purely and intensely private act,but not as a public act. “If that were true,you ought to have performed it in absolute secrecy as a special mystic rite which only claims its one sacrifice beginning and ending in yourself.” Gandhi,Tagore claimed had a right to sadhana but if that sadhana had no universality,it was without any philosophical justification.

It is in light of this conversation that I would like to understand Narendra Modi’s proposed fast from September 17 to 19.

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In his public letter,he has spoken of fast as “upvas”. Upvas means to dwell closer to God. In the sense of upvas,a fast is different from “anshan”,hunger-strike,or bodily mortification. Upvas is primarily a spiritual act,a personal act of communion with one’s personal god. Gandhi as one of the most subtle exponents of this form of communion reminded us that anshan or langhan can be directed towards others,may seek to produce an event or effect,and hence tends to be necessarily coercive. Upvas is a mode of prayer. There can be no fast without a prayer — and a prayer can produce no effect,except on the person offering it. Modi’s upvas is not against anyone,not even those who are charged with “fashionably” defaming him and the state of Gujarat,all those “who could not tolerate any positive development of Gujarat have not left any stone unturned to defame Gujarat.” It is intended as a private resolve of a public person to commit himself to ‘further strengthen Gujarat’s environment of peace,unity and harmony.’ It is the first step in what he has called his “sadbhavna mission”.

Two questions arise. Should one view this fast as the master-stroke of a fine political strategist,as a warning to his party colleagues that he is ready to for a national role,or see this as a charade,as a diversionary tactic,a move to take public attention away from the real issues,including the questions of justice and reconciliation? Or should one see this as an upvas,as a rite of dwelling closer to god?

It is inevitable that some of his colleagues,his political opponents and critics would view his intention with suspicion. This inevitability arises out of the very grammar of politics. Simply put,all acts of a political person are political acts. As a political act,it becomes an instrumental act,an act that is false in the sense that it seeks to achieve something other than what is declared to be the purpose. As an instrumentality,the only ground of judging it would be in the future.


In this mode of argument there is a latent,unstated assumption. The assumption is that Narendra Modi is incapable of performing a spiritual act such as upvas. But this is an untenable and somewhat dangerous proposition. Any person,however vile,is capable of an interior life,a life that is known only to that person. To deny the very possibility of this interior life is to deny the humanity of that person. To deny Modi his interiority is to demonise him. It is not possible to open any moral or ethical dialogue with a person who is so demonised.

A more sustainable response would be to accept that Modi is undertaking this upvas for the purpose that he stated,and take that as a starting point to engage with him in a moral and ethical dialogue of what constitutes sadbhavana in a state like Gujarat.

This also places twin responsibilities on Shri Modi: one immediate,and the other in the future. A mark of a spiritual person is being aaptvachana,a person whose strives to be true both in word and deed. If he wants his spiritual life to be taken with sincerity,the first necessity is that his actions — all actions — must be in accordance with the idea of sadbhavana. Justice and atonement are integral to sadbhavana in a society that retains deep fissures and remains wounded. This we shall be able to judge only in the future.


There is an immediate responsibility. This is the responsibility that Tagore alerted Gandhi to. As a spiritual act,his upvas must remain a private act,a rite that begins and ends with him. It should remain outside the media gaze,devoid of any performative aspects of politics. Otherwise,he would prove the sceptics and the cynics right and this the act would be seen as an instrumental,political and hence a false act.

The writer is an Ahmedabad-based social scientist

First published on: 15-09-2011 at 03:17:16 am
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