Updated: November 4, 2021 8:26:32 am
The demise of Salem Nanjudaiah Subba Rao last week, at the age of 92, could easily be mourned as the passing of one of the last few staunch and tireless Gandhian workers. Or his life and work can be honoured by acknowledging and celebrating the qualities he manifested and asking what that means for our future.
Bhaiji, as he was fondly known, entered politics at the age of 13 when he was arrested for joining protests on Quit India day in 1942. He went on to join the Seva Dal and imbibed the “Congress values” of discipline and nonviolence. Later in life he would make a sharp distinction between the Congress Party and Congress values, which he lamented had faded from public life.
He is mostly widely known for, and will be remembered for, the hundreds of youth camps he organised in every state of India and in many countries across the world. These camps attracted thousands of youths because they were not about listening to lectures on nonviolence. Instead, the camps offered opportunities for young people to learn about themselves and others by doing manual work together.
In an interview in end August this year, he spoke with a sense of timeless wonder about the creative processes that unfurl when people do manual work and sweat together. He put equal faith in the power of multi-faith prayers and “the music of silence”.
It was a frequent practice for Subba Rao to take hundreds of young volunteers to an area that had faced communal disturbances or some other distress. The volunteers helped in reconstruction and they also practised the “music of silence”, which he said brought about a wonderful change in the charged atmosphere.
What then are the key qualities in the legacy of Subba Rao that can empower us now in a time of ever sharper polarisation and hatred?
One is that he fully acknowledged the proliferation of violence but did not feel defeated by this. Instead, he focused on how intensely most people are disgusted by violence — whether it is random acts of hate crimes or violence within the family. Facing these realities is an important first step to defiance and resistance that does not return violence with more violence.
Two, he emphasised that most violence requires organisation and depends on material resources whereas nonviolence is driven by inner energy. For instance, he said, armies measure people by height and weight but Gandhi’s requirements were will you speak the truth, will you be true to ahimsa.
Three, this in turn can cultivate fearlessness — the foundational quality on which nonviolence depends.
Subba Rao’s confidence in these qualities was honed over half a century ago, when he went amidst pitiless dacoits and won their confidence with love. To the end he enjoyed telling the story of how local police in the Chambal Valley were embarrassed when Vinoba Bhave succeeded where they had failed after expensive armed campaigns to outsmart the dacoits.
To the end he maintained that love and faith can replace guns.
Above all, he admired physical strength and advocated cultivating it. He was living proof of the absurdity of the accusation that nonviolence is for cowards. He was a sprightly senior citizen who could still issue these rallying slogans with passion: “Jaati paati ke bandhan todo, Bharat jodo, Bharat Jodo” (Give up differences of caste and class, unite India, unite India). “Sab dharmon ko ho sammana, manav manav ek samaan” (May all religions be equally respected, may we respect and honour each other as humans.) When we spoke just two months ago he said: “I sent these slogans to Prime Minister and also this one — ‘Hindu Muslim Sikh Isai, apase mein hum behen bhai’ (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians — we are all brothers and sisters.)
Fearlessness must be an energising and rejuvenating quality because Subba Rao remained indefatigable to the end. He was gearing up for a new wave of camps to counter the atmosphere of fear and violence in India today. He leaves behind a vast array of people in diverse fields whose life was shaped by participating in his camps and by sharing his music of silence. The energy of such people may not make headline news but it is among us.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 3, 2021 under the title ‘Ahimsa as action’. Bakshi is the founder of the online platform, Ahimsa Conversations