Living in an angry world: Why Gandhian principles matter more now

We live in troubled times. Look at the forms of violence that inform our daily life. We had a formidable list of bad guys like kulaks, terrorists and anti-nationals. Now we have added new ones. It could be lawyers beating up anyone they disliked in court premises and getting away with it. It could be suspected cow smugglers, love jihadists, North-easterners, child-lifters, urban Naxals or a simple pickpocket — the list is endless.
With some significant exceptions, the older governments looked for constitutional sanctions to stem the tide of violence. When governments mobilised forces against militant movements in Nagaland, Kashmir, Punjab or Bengal, there was a veneer of rule of law. The scale of violence might have been terrible but it seemed remote and there was a silent acceptance. This narrative got punctured when some elements of government became party to communal riots. The anti-Sikh riots in 1984 or the Gujarat riots of 2002 are cases in point.
Intolerance everywhere

Our public sphere is increasingly coloured by intolerance. The mass media today project a picture of war of each one against everyone. Participants in TV programmes fill the air with lisping curses. Each spokesperson seems to lead a brigade of the just. It is a perverse celebration of ‘truth and rectitude’. No individual or party ever concedes that they or their organisation could be in the wrong. In a mediatised world strategic offences by excessively shrewd panelists are read as signals of violence by some viewers.
The difficult part of the story is that while the ‘dangerous other’ was located in distant margins away from the day-to-day lives of visible urbanites, now the narrative of othering has reached the Centre. So everyone is a potential ‘other’ and as such a target of ‘just’ violence. Those who chuckle at the plight of victims today might find themselves at the wrong end of the spectrum tomorrow.
Ours is a fractured society. We have seen violence in the name of ‘forward caste- backward caste’, Sikh-non-Sikh, Dalit-non-Dalit, Dravida-non-Dravida, Kannadiga-Tamil, Assamese-non-Assamese, Meitei-Naga , Bihari-Maratha, Jat-non-Jat — the list could be endless. Given the volatile world of shifting alliances and constellations that continuously create new boundaries, each one of us risks becoming the ‘hated other’ and a target for abuse and killing.
The need to look inward
Discourses of hatred that reduce humans to a despicable speck at the wrong end of the gun are all very well, as long as one is at the right end. It is in this context that we need to remember Mahatma Gandhi. He is justly remembered for his struggles against the British. What we have forgotten is that he struggled against his family, followers and people of our country even more.
Most of his Satyagraha fasts were not against the British, they were against unjust wages for workers by Indian capitalists, violence by Indians against British, communalism and issues related to Dalits. He identified so intensely with the Indian people that when he saw something unethical or unjust happen, he felt that there was something wrong in his own self. So he would fast to purge himself and his people of wrong doing. Gandhi’s ability to introspect and publicly admit mistakes and hold fasts as penance is something we have completely forgotten.
For Gandhi, ‘Truth’ excluded violence because humans were not capable of knowing absolute truth and therefore not competent to punish. Gandhi was imprisoned by the British many times, he lost his wife while in jail and yet if we read his speeches against the British there is a singular lack of bitterness. He never exaggerated the defects of his opponents. Right till the end he extended courtesy to the agents of the British government.
For Gandhi, non-violence meant respecting the truth in his opponent. For all of us have a truth… for all of us love and live, hope and dream. Our beauty is as real as our ugliness. So when he launched Satyagraha he would bless the person against whom he protested. He could talk about means as ends in the making. Addressing the better self of the opponent and not exaggerating their defects was central to Gandhi’s struggle. When he won his opponent also won because the opponent had been purged of the bad part of his persona.
We must remember that the public sphere is an area of responsibility. The new age of media has given us technologies not only to point fingers but to introspect and face ourselves. Fanatical fear and hate are pulling us into descending spirals of misery. Rather than hypocritical moralism we need to create a platform of sharing. Indian democracy has survived despite all its defects because of contributions of people and parties Left, Right and Centre. It is important for us to remember Gandhi’s truth for our own survival as a civilised community.

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