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India Today

Voices of Non-Violence in a Wilderness of Violence

Saturday 16 November 2019, by Sumanta Banerjee

Attempts are being made by well-meaning civil society activists to examine and explore potentialities of the tactics of non-violent protests against the current BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) regime - on the lines of Mahatma Gandhi’s `satyagraha’ during our national movement. Recently, one such move was initiated by Deshdeep Dhankar in January this year in the form of an appeal to citizens to commemorate the date of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948. It is entitled `India Unites for Non-Violence and Harmony.’ It has already been endorsed by more than 200 signatories, ranging from common citizens to eminent personalities from the civil society movement, like filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, social activist Aruna Roy, the veteran retired civil servant Harsh Mander, political commentator Ram Puniyani, and organizations like the All India Kisan Sabha and the historical Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) among others. As I agree with the spirit of his appeal, I have also added my name to the list of signatories.

But I have a problem with one sentence in the appeal: “Taking a pledge for non-violence and harmony.” I have to make two points in this connection - first, can we work in `harmony’ with the Hindutva brigade led by the (Rashtra Swayamsevak Sangh) RSS, Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad VHP) and others of their ilk, who indulge in lynching of Dalits and Muslims, laud the murderer of Gandhi as their hero ? Secondly, will the BJP ruling party consisting of these constituents, respond sympathetically to demonstrations of non-violent protest? I have doubts about whether the appeal will have the desired impact on either the Indian government or the Indian public mind, and also whether it can be operative - given the present social and political scenario. Let us look at the ground reality through clear lens.

Indian public psyche

To be frank, the Indian majoritarian public psyche has already been distorted and brutalized by the zealots of Hindutva who have whipped it up to a murderous frenzy against Muslims, Dalits, rationalists, liberal intellectuals among others. How can we otherwise explain the participation of villagers in the public lynching of Muslim cattle traders and Dalit beef-eaters in the rural countryside? How do we explain village panchayats ex-communicating couples who decide to get into inter-religious or inter-caste marriages? How do we explain the recruitment of urban educated middle class youth by Hindu terrorist groups in Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka among other places, to employ them for planned killings of rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and Gauri Lankesh? The killers enjoy immunity, thanks to protection by their patrons in the BJP-ruled Centre and state governments. But let us also not ignore the fact that these large sections of the Hindu public had always nurtured deep-rooted prejudices against Muslims and Dalits, superstitious beliefs in obscurantist practices, and resistance to attempts at reforms.

The most recent instance of such resistance to reforms was the mass frenzy among women devotees (led by male pilgrims) at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, who physically resisted the entry of other women (who had not yet reached menopause) to the temple - due to a dubious tradition of barring women devotees belonging to the age group of menstruation, who are considered to be polluting the seat of the deity. Imagine, this is happening in Kerala - a state known for its reputation of nourishing a society that had always prioritized social needs like education, health, housing and women’s rights over obscurantist religious beliefs and practices. Yet, how do we explain the orthodox behaviour of these Malayali women (most of them being beneficiaries of the social welfare and education measures of the Left Front government)? How could they be so easily persuaded by the BJP to join a demonstration that was intended to frustrate the rights of a section of their own community which was asserting their right to enter the temple?

It is these orthodox practices among the Hindu public - both rural and urban - that had been reinforced by the BJP-led government at the Centre, and its various political outfits like the armed gangsters of Bajrang Dal, RSS, VHP, which carry out the Sangh Parivar’s programme of implementing these divisive trends in social and political spheres - either through false propaganda or muscle power. It will take a long haul to change this majoritarian and prejudicial Hindu casteist and communal psyche which provides the Sangh Parivar with its breeding ground.

Meanwhile, how do members and organizations of civil society who are obliged to uphold the provisions of our Constitution and ensure their implementation, change the public psyche? How do they resist the increasing encroachment by the Parivar-led government on universities and academic institutions, its attempts to distort history by employing its semi-literate acolytes to re-write text books, and the egregious plan to usurp the prestigious Indian Science Congress congregation by imposing its agents to claim Hindu mythological monopoly over modern scientific achievements? Do we remain passive witnesses to the vandalization of exhibitions - killing of rationalists and journalists? Do we remain helpless spectators of the suicide of farmers, retrenchment of workers, rising unemployment? Or, do we revive the Gandhian civil disobedience and non-cooperation movement to voice our protest?

Gandhi’s non-violent movement in British India

However, when trying to revive Gandhi’s strategy and tactics in the present context of resistance against the Modi government’s communal politics and economic policies, we should remember that Gandhi was operating in a different sphere - a British administered state. The British administration in India despite its ruthless suppression of nationalist dissent, was accountable to some extent to its Parliament in London, and contemporary British public opinion. Pressures from its metropolitan centre often compelled the British administration in the Indian colony to modify its policies and compromise with the indigenous nationalist opposition. In contrast, in today’s India, an arrogant Narendra Modi-led government does not owe any accountability to a higher authority. Modi refuses to be accountable to Parliament and civil society, giving rise to deadlocks in negotiations with the Opposition on controversial issues. He has even refused to address a single press conference all these years, in order to escape the responsibility of answering challenging questions from journalists asking him to explain his policies and conduct.

To go back to British- ruled India, historically, one of the earliest instances of accountability was the attempt by British Parliament to impeach Warren Hastings, the Governor General of Bengal, who was accused of mismanagement and personal corruption. His trial on the floors of the House of Lords went on from 1788 till 1795, with Edmund Burke leading the prosecution. Although Hastings was finally acquitted, he was left discredited among his peers and a debt burden from which he was relieved to some extent when the East India Company compensated him. Described as Britain’s longest political trial, it opened up a debate in Britain questioning the policies of the British administration in India.

Nearly two hundred years later, the British administration faced a similar dilemma after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. In order to establish its accountability, under orders issued by the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montague, the British government in India was compelled to form a commission of inquiry into the case, under the chairmanship of William Hunter. The commission blamed both Dyer and the administration in Punjab for the massacre. Following this, Dyer was punished by being relieved of his command and prohibited from further employment in India. Can we expect the present dispensation in India to punish those guilty of the massacre of Muslims in Godhra in 2002 ? Most of them are out on bail, or have been acquitted by a subservient judiciary.

Much earlier, in 1905 when the British government decided to partition Bengal into two separate provinces, there were widespread mass protests which took the organized form of the Swadeshi Movement, marked by both non- violent actions like the boycott of imported British goods, setting up of alternative national educational institutes, as well as armed assaults by militant revolutionaries on British officers and their Indian agents. Faced with such continuing resistance, the British government relented by rescinding the partition in 1911. Can we expect the present Indian government to reconsider its decision to split up Kashmir into three union territories, in the face of the continuing non-cooperation with the government by the protesting Kashmiri people? Is it capable of understanding the popular will, and learn from its British predecessor the lesson of choosing the right moment to concede?

Take for instance another case in British India. The colonial rulers passed the infamous Rowlatt Act in March 1919 which empowered the administration to imprison people for an indefinite period without trial. Gandhi launched the anti-Rowlatt Act `satyagraha’ leading to his arrest. The movement assumed immense proportions, compelling the British government to set up the Repressive Laws Committee. Following its recommendations, the government repealed the Rowlatt Act, the Press Act, and similar other laws, in March, 1922. Can we expect the present government to repeal draconian laws like the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act ), and the outdated laws relating to sedition and official secrets, which are a legacy from the British colonial era - and have been scrapped in Britain itself? There is no accountability of the government with regard to the misuse of such laws against political dissidents (as happened with the arrest of Bhima Koregaon activists under UAPA).

All through the history of the Civil Disobedience movement and Non-Cooperation movement, the British government followed a policy of carrot and stick, combining repressive measures with offering of opportunities for negotiated settlements - like the Round Table Conference of 1931 which Gandhi attended, and the Gandhi-Irwin Pact signed that year under which the British government agreed to release prisoners arrested during the Civil Disobedience movement. Although the Pact fell far short of the nationalist demands (like stopping of Bhagat Singh’s hanging), Irwin’s conciliatory gesture offered a breathing space to the nationalist opposition for a while at least.

Modi government’s `stick’, without the `carrot’

Today, the Modi government is more inclined to use the `stick’ , but the `carrot’ is missing. The revocation of Article 370, the continued detention of important political leaders in Kashmir under draconian laws like the PSA (Public Safety Act) and the virtual siege of the Valley by security forces, recall the British colonial tradition of imposing curfew, raiding houses, indiscriminate arrests, that marked the behaviour of the British police authorities during the `Satyagraha’ movement.

In the Kashmir Valley, the longer the `stick’ is allowed to prevail, and the `carrot’ kept in abeyance, the more the likelihood of non-violent protests. The present expression of popular protest follows the Gandhian model of non-cooperation with the rulers - shutting down shops, refusing to send their children to schools, boycotting elections to the Block Development bodies - which manifests a sullen mood. It bodes a disturbing future, where the restless Kashmiri youth impatient with the ineffectiveness of such Gandhian tactics of non-violent non-cooperation, may join the armed militants who are fighting for `azadi’ - a Kashmir, independent of both Indian and Pakistani occupation.

Under the Modi dispensation, the space for non-violent dialogue and negotiation is fast being squeezed out by the imposition of a violent majoritarian Hindu supremacist code of behaviour which is directed against minorities, Dalits and opponents in civil society like human rights activists, rationalists, and academics and students in the universities. It is a situation where the government does not owe any accountability to parliament, or even the apex court, and enjoy full impunity against violation of human rights, and the privacy of the citizens. The recent exposure of the WhatsApp hack on Indians through the Pegasus devise of the Israel-based NSO group , raises the suspicion that it was bought by the Indian government to snoop on its critics both in civil society and the Opposition parties. There is no accountability on the part of the government for unauthorized and illegal leakage of information gathered through such methods.

Efficacy of Gandhian `satyagraha’ in Modi-ruled India

As evident from the historical past, the Gandhi-led non-violent movement against the British rulers was effective to some extent , due to pressures from within the metropolitan centre in Britain, where the Labour Party and other pro-Indian British politicians prevailed upon their government to give concessions. In India today one is sceptical about the efficacy of Gandhian methods of protest against the Modi regime. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has no accountability to any superior governmental authority. His accountability is only to his mentors in the RSS, and he is carrying out their dictates.

We have reached a situation today which reminds us of the dilemma that Gandhi faced in the 1940s before giving the call for `Quit India.’ Observing the intransigence of the British government in the face of his hitherto-followed tactics of passive resistance, he re-examined his earlier absolutist faith in non-violence, and preferred anarchy to passive submission to the British. In utter despair, he called on Britain to “leave India in God’s hands, but in modern parlance to anarchy, and that anarchy may lead to internecine warfare for a time or to unrestrained dacoities. ” He added, hoping that “From these a true India will rise in the place of the false one we see.” (Interview given to News Chronicle in May, 1942. Quoted in Ramchandra Guha’s `GANDHI: the years that changed the world 1914-1948’). He became more outspoken a few months later, when railway station hawkers set up self-defence squads to resist depredations by British and US soldiers posted in India during the Second World War. Coming out in their support, Gandhi said: “People must everywhere learn to defend themselves against misbehaving individuals, no matter who they are. The question of non-violence and violence does not arise. No doubt the non-violent is always the best, but where that does not come naturally, the violent way is both necessary and honourable. Inaction here is rank cowardice and unmanly. It must be shunned at all cost.” (Gandhi’s statement in Sevagram, June 22, 1942, published in Harijan, 28/6/1942. Collected Works, Vol. 1, LXXVI)

That message of Gandhi’s is relevant for us Indians today. Modi government’s successive anti-people measures ranging from demonetisation and GST, to arrests of civil society activists, and turning Kashmir into a military-occupied zone following the abrogation of Article 370, should awake the Opposition parties, human rights organizations and social activists to the need for the revival of a new form of ‘Satyagraha.’ They can examine the situation in the Kashmir Valley, which offers a site where non-violent forms of non-cooperation co-exist with violent forms of resistance. Here , the people are already resorting to acts of non-cooperation with the administration. Civil disobedience has taken violent forms like stone pelting against the security forces, the latter retaliating by shooting pellets which have left blind a generation of Kashmiri youth. It recalls Gandhi’s words: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

Before Modi makes us all blind - politically, mentally and physically as well - there is a need for the revival of the movement that Gandhi launched in 1942. The time has come to give the call - `Modi, Quit India!’