Saturday, February 19, 2011

Gandhi and Civilization

I am always impressed at the reach of Gandhi's civil disobedience movement. More than 60 years after Indian independence, the Egyptian people used it to uproot a despotic ruler. Of course the army is still in charge and that is always a bad sign, but let us be optimistic.

Gandhi (along with Nehru) have been my heroes for long, as people who read this blog will know. However, before we get all misty eyed about Gandhi's methods, it's important to realise that they have serious limitations. Gandhi's suggestion that the Jews commit mass suicide to make Hitler see reason was received with derision then and would be received with derision now. The opposition needs to play by the rules (that is, the norms of civilised behaviour, hence the title of this post) for non violent movements to succeed. In that sense, British rule in India, despite its exploitative nature and the General Dyers, was overall marked by a certain respect for the rule of law. If the opponent has no principles, it's not possible for Gandhi's ideas of satyagraha to succeed.

This is now becoming clearer and clearer. The Chinese Government brutally put down the Tiananmen square demonstrations by the simple expedient of firing real live bullets at unarmed protesters. A metal bullet is no match for satyagraha. Today we see a repeat of this phenomenon -- a group of uncivilised countries (I use the adjective in the sense described above) have firmly and ruthlessly put down peaceful protests in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen (and earlier in Iran). The Israeli Army does the same with Palestinians. The US President has wrung his hands and expressed 'deep concern' but it has predictably had little effect.

So what does one do in such cases? Does one meet violence with violence? In the movie 'Gandhi' the Mahatma makes the observation 'an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind' . I have not been able to find this quote in any of Gandhiji's writings, but it's the kind of statement he could well have made. How many human lives must be sacrificed before the faint glimmerings of the conscience of a despot finally take over his actions? (Many many millions in the case of Hitler and Stalin and there is no evidence that they ever regretted anything). So clearly this is not a viable alternative. The only option is intervention by a foreign power which carries grave risks as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and many such places. (The Balkan intervention could presumably be called a success).

To my mind, such an intervention has been successful once in recent history (I am obviously not going as far back as World War II) and that was India's intervention in East Pakistan/Bangladesh. Forced by the millions of refugees pouring in, and the genocide happening under its nose, it was the Indian Government's finest moment. We intervened firmly, helped the democratically elected Bangladeshi Government to take over power, and then, most importantly, withdrew completely. So much so, that we even watched helplessly as successive Bangladeshi Governments turned against their saviour and became distinctly anti-Indian and pro Pakistani. (This trend has now been reversed). But it proved that the Indian Government helped the birth of a new country and then allowed it to grow unhindered and uninfluenced by its large presence to the West. This is a rarity.

Moreover, this is not an event that can be replicated elsewhere. No only can it not be done in a large and powerful country like China, no country including the US is going to intervene in Bahrain, Libya or Yemen except through a couple of phone calls. This means the hapless populace will be left to their own devices to settle their problems with their medieval rulers the best way they can or, as seems clear now, put up and shut up. A depressing scenario, that should give us pause to admire our own set up, no matter how imperfect.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

The US will, of course, claim that they did a Bangladesh-style intervention in Afghanistan. They will claim that they already withdrew, even if it took them a little longer.

However, there is a not-so-minor difference between Bangladesh and Bahrain -- the former was effectively occupied by another country, with which India had already been to war recently with unsatisfactory results. I have no doubt that the humanitarian crisis and the refugee crisis in India were factors in Indira's thinking, but the opportunity to poke Pakistan in the eye was surely too good to miss. Of course, she deserves credit for withdrawing after victory -- but she was smart enough to know that India could never "keep" Bangladesh.

As for our independence struggle -- Gandhi was hugely important as a national uniter, but for well over three decades he failed to actually overthrow the British. I am convinced that we achieved independence mainly thanks to the British exhausting themselves (financially and energetically) in the war, plus Churchill losing the election. The British may not have shot down too many unarmed civilians post-Jallianwalabagh, but they were responsible for millions of deaths in other ways -- I'm thinking of the Bengal famine in particular. I'm no admirer of their rule.

L said...

"The opposition needs to play by the rules (that is, the norms of civilised behaviour, hence the title of this post) for non violent movements to succeed."
I had begun to believe no one sees this point.
In fact, Egypt is very surprising.

Rahul Basu said...

Rahul: I am not an admirer of British rule either. But my point in the post is that the opposition needs to play by the rules for Gandhi style satyagraha to succeed. At least it is a necessary condition, if not sufficient.

gaddeswarup said...

It seems that Ramachandra Guha is going through Gandhi's writings
He is up to volume 12 and may be able to tell whether the quote is Gandhi's. It is often arrtributed to him.
Coming to violence war etc, did not Gandhi support the war efforts of the allies during the second world war?

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Correction -- in my first comment (which I typed in an airport on a flaky connection) I meant Iraq, not Afghanistan -- the US doesn't claim to have withdrawn from Afghanistan, I think.

Regarding your point about the opposition "playing by the rules" -- from what I can tell, it was not Mubarak who played by the rules, but the army who refused to fire on Egyptians. This was good to see, of course. Mubarak did unleash his thugs but they did limited damage.

But I thought your point was more about how unique India's freedom struggle and India's intervention in Bangladesh were... About the former, my point was that the British probably left not because of Gandhi but because of WW II.

Swarup -- about Gandhi/the Congress party's position on the war: it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, Gandhi/Nehru certainly (and rightly) disapproved of Bose's cosying up to the Germans and Japanese. I can't find references, but I think they both said the Germans and Japanese were a bigger threat than the British. On the other hand, they launched the "Quit India" movement at the direst moment in the war, which the British regarded as treasonous. (Rajaji, on the other hand, supported the British war effort and opposed the Quit India movement.)

It seems to me that, on the one hand, we in India tend to whitewash the most unsavoury aspects of British rule, because they gave us railways and cricket; and, on the other hand, we don't appreciate just how grave a situation the second world war was, and end up celebrating as a hero a man who tried to collaborate with the Nazis and tried to help the Japanese to invade India.

N. Sukumar said...

"How many human lives must be sacrificed before the faint glimmerings of the conscience of a despot finally take over his actions?" I think we can never set our faith upon the conscience of the despot, but upon those who enable him/her, be it soldiers like Tantawi or Rommel or businessmen investing in South Africa or an informed public.

It does not follow that "The only option is intervention by a foreign power." Specifically in the case of China, the regime will fall whenever they are unable to keep providing continued economic growth and they realize this very well. For this very reason, they have been on a trajectory of growth at all costs for the past few decades; at some point this will no longer be sustainable and at that time, no guns or bullets will suffice against a billion plus people. A similar revolution will likely happen in the US when the middle class have no more to give to the looters on Wall Street and Washington.

Rahul Siddharthan rightly points out the role of World War II in diminishing the British. It used to be said that "The sun never sets on the British Empire. But when the end did come, it took just 18 days: the time it took for the Japanese to march from Singapore all the way to Rangoon and to the very gates of the Jewel of the Raj!