March 5, 2021 10:16:22 pm
Written By Ishaan Rajabali
It was in my middle-school history class that we learnt about how India achieved independence through a largely non-violent struggle. Shouts of “Miss but how?!” and “I don’t believe it” echoed through the classroom, but one particular question remained unanswered: “What is ahimsa?”
No one in the class could think of a proper answer. That may be why, despite all the praise and awe this concept garnered in that classroom, three fistfights broke out minutes later in the lunch break. Now, five years later, I still cannot think of an answer to this question because ahimsa is a concept with a hundred different interpretations.
Today, we find ourselves living in a conflict-ridden world, where differing viewpoints clash in a raging fire stoked by hate and polarisation. The situation is so dire that we seem to have abandoned the search for a middle ground that allows for peaceful discussion, and those who dare to dream of a space for meaningful dialogue are told: “That’s just the way it is”. We have become accustomed to violence being the norm, believing that it is innate to human nature.
Given this, why does the idea of non-violence persist? Is it possible that violence isn’t the dominant instinct, as we are led to believe?
The power of non-violence has been asserted repeatedly over the last 74 years across the world. Much of this has been inspired by the historic role of non-violence in freeing India from colonial rule. Let’s look back at 2020, a year characterised by dissent, which has provided us with thought-provoking images of non-violent political objection.
The most enduring symbol of the anti-CAA protests remains the Shaheen Bagh sit-in, where hundreds of people, led by the brave women of Delhi, protested peacefully for 101 days; where art, creativity and ahimsa were the languages of opposition. Bilkis Dadi, one of the most prominent protesters present there, has since become an icon of defiance and was included in Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 list.
On the other side of the world, pictures of candlelit Black Lives Matter protests became a powerful symbol of resistance in the face of abject brutality, and many American cities now house BLM murals. These movements have established that peaceful demonstrations have a considerable impact on society and have become a form of political expression, being able to succeed in ways violence never can.
But what is ahimsa? Many might plainly say “not being violent”. Others may argue it is “Respecting all living beings”. Some may take it to the next level, where you’ll hear “Being truthful to oneself and not causing harm to anyone”. Every time you ask the question, you will receive a different and more developed answer, because the most significant aspect of ahimsa is that it is an evolving discipline.
With the exploration of ahimsa expanding, new interpretations are coming to light and adding to the myriad of opinions that make it such a unique, multifaceted concept. This is how Ahimsa Conversations was born. The idea of journalist and author Rajni Bakshi, this YouTube platform provides viewers with a window into the thoughts of an extensive range of figures who have delved into the varied aspects of ahimsa. They share their rich experiences, poignant stories and insights on ahimsa as a concept they have incorporated into their lives. Their reflections draw attention to the importance of diplomatic dialogue in a world where we tend to leap at our opponents’ throats without trying to understand where he or she is coming from and help to answer the larger question of how to overcome toxic polarisation, which is now a global phenomenon.
For instance, Radha Bhatt’s episode provides viewers with a truly inspiring story about how ahimsa motivated her and the women of her village to become front runners of the Chipko movement. Silicon Valley-based activist Nipun Mehta speaks about the ideals behind his over 5,00,000 volunteer-based network, Service Space. Says Mehta: “I feel, instead of saying ‘Who’s the next Gandhi?’ the more pertinent question is ‘How do we build the field in which a Gandhi can arise?’”.
In yet another episode, Lia Diskin, an Argentinian philanthropist and recipient of the Padma Shri, describes how the experience of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the age of 13 gave her an understanding of the effect violence has, especially on the youth. Diskin went on to become a student of history, and examined the violent precedents that have been set by figures of the past. Her explorations of how non-violence helps to resolve conflicts in diverse circumstances led to the founding of the Palas Athena Association, a Sao Paolo based organization that advocates non-violence through community projects. This is just a microcosm of the medley of 50 speakers interviewed by Ahimsa Conversations.
So, eight months and one internship later, I find myself developing answers to the questions left unanswered in that buzzing classroom. Undertaking a promising journey with not just Ahimsa Conversations, but ahimsa itself, has helped me to fully gauge how this concept plays a critical role in our understanding of politics, power and dissent.
(Rajabali is a Junior College Student in Mumbai and an intern of the online platform ‘Ahimsa Conversations’)