Ahimsa –Global Peace What would Gandhi Do Today?

Gandhi’s Amhisa: A Multi-dimensional Application

Pravin Sheth
The world in the 21st century is vastly different from the one which preceded it. It witnesses the global triumph of market economics, unprecedented level of wealth, and an unbridled spate of consumerism. It also sees a planet torn apart by staggering inequalities, and by simmering conflict — centred often round religious identity — within and between nations. For finding clues to—if not solution—of these problems, if one leader instantly comes to mind, it’s Gandhi. Gandhi’s relevance is perhaps even greater to this century than to the ones in which he lived.

Gandhi and Amhisa intertwined—uttered in the same breathe. The task of making Human mind a healthy space is the hardest of all. Peaces as well violence are seeded in our mind. Gandhi conceptualized and applied ‘non-violence’ to create, widen and deepen the scope of non-violence. Non-violence is the weapon of the bravest of the brave as a brave as such a Satyagrahi drew his.strength and substance from within and steeled by inner conviction about the moral basics of his/her goal—be it against a colonial power, or against terror, or social injustice or communal violence.

His non-violence was not that of a weak or a timid against the strong. His non-violence educated and empowered indentured settlers against the mighty British Empire in South Africa; of Indian masses against the Empire. Unconstrained by the time and space, non-violence is applicable in today’s age of insanity and insecurity at so many levels.

As David Barash states, “Gandhi’s non-violence is not limited to tactics for overcoming an oppressive system, but it seeks to overthrow all relationship based on violence, oppression and unfair domination of some by evil forces, the state, and non-state forces charged by religious fundamentalism, ethnic-communal intolerance, greed nurtured by consumerism life-style and indiscriminate use of technology that result in violence against man and nature.

Peace can and must include the absence of war (“negative peace”) but establishment of life=affirming and life-enhancing values and structures (“positive peace”…Once human beings) understand the situation and their interests, they can behave rationally, and with compassion.”

There have been respectable spokes –people for non-violence. It was, however of non-violence Gandhi who most closely linked its theory to practice and gave praxis of non-violence as a coherent approach to lead to a peaceful change—peace itself. Gandhi was not the first great figure to advocate and work for non-violence. But he was first person—certainly, he was the most effective and influential—to extend non-violence from a principle of individual behavior to a concerted strategy grounded in search for social justice. Its efficacy can be tested in the midst of and in spite of oppression and conditions of terrorist action. Such an ideal seemed almost impossible to act upon—much less to attain. Gandhi, by his numerous examples, demonstrated its potentiality. The history of its success is marked by white and dark shades—and manly, it has large grey area of performance. Some illustrations may illustrate its applicability.

At Pietermaritzburg in 1893, when Barrister Gandhi was flung out from a first class compartment, unfazed, he rose a revolutionary man.”In the alchemy that was uniquely his own, it turned something totally different. Something that changed shock, humiliation and fury into a transformational resolve….His sense of decency transformed itself into a passion for human justice. The person died within him and turned public.” (Dr. Gopal Krishna Gandhi). States Pamela Philipose, ”The application of his philosophy on a national scale was stroke of rare genius and a courageous—often bordering on foolhardy, act of self-belief. It was hard enough for any individual to maintain a non-violent stand in face of severe incitement and violence. But to demand that of an entire non-violent mass struggle was unthinkable for many. The virtue of a large-scale peaceful struggle in India triumphed and heralded the waves of decolonization that swept Asia and Africa.”(The Hindu, September 10, 2006).

Satyagrahis at Dharasana near Dandi (Gujarat)silently suffered bleeding when the British police broke their head with batons; women nursed the wounded wit bands and medicine ready in their hands. No counter attack on the police! Gandhi would undertake fast in a jail and riots outside will cool down, Arms were laid down before a fasting Bapu undertaking penance and shrill cries of revenge were quelled in Noakhali. Contradictions were sought to be resolved through dialogue. Though very active, he was at peace from within. Quotes Joana, “A drop of water in an ocean is quite placid. But the ocean itself is all the while alive. We should be active in carrying out responsibilities, but should feel a state of peace inside.”

At University of Virginia Conference, organized to carve out “the moral architecture of world peace and global future” eight Peace Laureates have recognized that they walk in the foot-steps Mahatma.(Ninth Peace Laureate, President Obama is also claims to be inspired by Gandhi). His thought were applied by great leaders in different regions of the world on issues as varied as on issues from transforming an Apartheid-afflicted state into a peace-keeping regime through Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which followed Gandhi’s preaching of bringing change of mind through non-violent process. To successful campaign to win international treaty banning landmines.(Jody Wiilliams & Bobby Muller). Costa Rica President Sanchez-inspired five-nation peace accord in Central America that challenge the citizens of the world’s rich to “recognize the gap between the their luxury spending and the amount needed to fund basic human services of millions of poor.”Winning the rights of the “expendable people”.

Less known Gandhian activists cannot be ignored either. Katherine Ingram has profiled twelve ‘Little Gandhians’ contribution in her work, “ In the Footsteps of Gandhi.”Brother Steindt of Austria showed that peace can be attained by conquering poverty and hunger. Gary Snider relied on Gandhi’s critique of violence against nature in the modern civilization. Diana Nasha educated people, saying, “Peace is not only absence of violence..It’s ‘Agaphic’(love and compassion) for humanity.” A rich Jew Richard Alport, turned into a neo-Gandhi as Ramdas and adopted simple life-style and exorted, ”Excess of food, sex, drugs and power make the man diseased. It accentuates violence within.” Sri Lankan role model of Sarvodaya, Ariyaratnene was “a fusion of Gandhi and Buddha.( a ‘kranti-murty’ and a ‘karuna-murty’, respectively).” Joana Messey educates people about Gandhian world-view of interconnected phenomena. “The fear of nuclear missile and green house effects all are inter-related, and they are detrimental to the interests of the poor.” Caesar Chavez, son of a farm labour saw the half-naked fakir in a newsreel, who inspired him to successfully struggle to stop the use of pesticides in overdose harms the farm labour working in grape vines.

Hundreds of youth celebrated the birthday of Nelson Mandela, once a bête noire of the British. They marched into London from Scotland and gave up their well-off life to join peace force in a distant unfamiliar land. Peace vigils against Prez Bush’s intended Iraq invasion was organized from New Zealand to New York, in 2,800 cities of 100 countries that covered Gandhi Ashram, Ahmedabad to ML King National Memorial, Atlanta in mid-March, 2003.

But Gandhi’s approach to non-violence and peace has not a uniform success. It’s limitations are revealed when some leaders sought to follow Gandhian methodology to bring about truce or reconciliation in crises or conflict situations. In his column in ‘The Guardian”(August 23,2004), Brian Whitaker wrote about a few hardly-known people in the Middle East who advocate “Islamic non-violence” or “Civil Jihad”. He asked why the techniques used by Gandhi against the British in India had not been widely used by Arabs and Muslims. He wonders what Gandhi would have done in Najad, the region of intense intra-Muslim violence in Iraq. He received an unusually large number of e-mails from the readers. Many of them suggested that “non-violent action in the Middle East was an idea whose time had come”. Others claimed that “Muslims are incapable of anything but violence”. Adds Whitaker, “My question about Gandhi and Najad was answered rather dramatically when Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani who had returned to Iraq from medical treatment accompanied by thousands of unarmed supporters.”(‘The Guardian, ‘August 31, 2004).
Al Sistani was so widely respected that he was ‘able to achieve by his presence and persuasive powers, what American and Iraqi government had failed to achieve by force of arms. It was Gandhi-like act we have seen in Iraq since the conflict began. Whitaker thinks that Sistani had urged Iraqis to engage in “Civil Jihad.”
Nor was Gandhi principle unknown to Palestinians. Says Palestinian educator Terry Bautala,” In the first ‘Intefada’(rising) against Israel, we did it all without shooting a single bullet and succeeded in putting Palestinian people on the map of world nations.” He called the fence a separation wall labeled its construction by Israel as a ‘violent action‘. He also mentions the non-violent resistance by the peasants and farmers against confiscation of their land by Israel authority.

The peaceful movement gathered some momentum I August 2004 when Arun Gandhi, Gandhi’s 70-year old grandson, a US citizen visited Israel and Palestine to persuade the later to adopt a non-violent struggle to convince Israel to allow elections to be held and organize mass protests against the 26-ft tall concrete barrier. During his visit of this troubled land, he held a protest meeting at Abu Dis, attended by 2,000 Palaestinians. Veteran Isreali peace activist and a columnist Uri Avnery commented,” This may indeed be what Mahatma Gandhi have advised in a situation like this…An open non-violent act of defiance shows the oppressor the futility of his measures.”

In Palestine, Arun Gandhi sought to provide a political alternative to people fighting the increasing territorial transgressions of Israel. Realising that little has been achieved through violence, a network of NGOs has launched the Gandhi Project to propagate the merits of non-violence and passive resistance in waging a struggle.

Mahatma Gandhi has a special appeal in Palestine. While he was sympathetic to the plight of Europen Jews persecuted by Adolf Hitler, he did not endorse the Zionist territorial designs in the Middle East and opposed the formation of Isreal. The Gandhi Project promotes his philosophy by hosting screening of Richard Attenborough’s film on “ Gandhi” dubbed in Arabic in cities, villages and refugee camps throughout Palestinian territory. There have also been hundreds of its screening in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, Nubulus and on separation wall at Kalandia check point.

Whitaker brings back the question of whether the Middle East really a fertile ground for activities on Gandhian lines. On this point, he quotes a Brussels-based Arab journalist Khaled Diab who wrote: I don’t think Arab culture is less equipped than any other culture to take on a Gandhi mantle. In my own native Egypt, you’ve seen peaceful resolution of conflict(with Israel)”.Giving then his own view, Whitaker states, “ One key difference between 1940s India and 21st century Arab is that no Gandhi-like has emerged here to galvanize popular support for such (peaceful) means. This is further complicated by the fact that an Arab Gandhi would not have to battle against an oppressive foreigner but home-grown variety would chop him down before he couls mature.” He, however, discerns that the common refrain among the Arabs is that “Force is not repelled except by force.” The Governor of Ramallah city Mustafa Liftawi openly disagreed with Arun Gandhi, saying, “We tried to apply non-violent techniques of resistance. But Israeli occupation has given us no choice but to use force.” (Outlookindia.com, September 5, 2004). Israel’s insistence not to remove Israeli settlements in the West Bank or stop its construction is a case in point. He thinks that ‘the need is charisma of Nasser in the mould of Gandhi to make the political and cultural case for peaceful resistance. ‘That being a pacifist does not mean that you have been pacified….Unfortunately, the only people who have so far made that case are some Arab intellectuals and outsiders.’

In the United States, the Gandhian praxis is reinterpreted though ‘a whole range of non-violent protests from letter writing, sit-ins, making phone calls, prayer vigils and the like’, observes Bill Dobbs of anti-war group called United for peace and Justice. But as elsewhere in most parts of the world, it’s a ripple in a surging sea of ignorance about or unconcern for peaceful resistance in a situation of ethnic/fundamentalist violence.

A life-long student of Gandhi, Kalle Lasn says, “ I think Gandhi would have found some ways to inspire billions(of people).We need a new Gandhi, an essential Gandhi –some one to mobilize that lousy feeling inside us and give the planet a new voice carrying the Gandhi message.” (Reported by Suleman Din in India Abroad, New York).

We learn from Gandhi’s triumphs, but also from his failures. We go back to him not because he was perfect. He did not succeed in his peaceful resistance in all the actions against violence. But because he said what he meant, and practiced what he preached. His life was his message.

Obviously not all his ideas in the original form. Not all his ideas can be taken as he articulated decades back. Significant developments have cumulatively shaped a context which requires us to re-interpret him, his ideas without compromising eighth the core content of the Essential Gandhi. But even though the Incidentals of Gandhi may need to be modified, the Essentials of Gandhi like ‘Ahimsa’ and his critique of modern civilization like materialism, technologism, consumerist life-style in an acquisitive society and approach to Nature and concern for the poor—can be gainfully adopted to address the environmental crisis and wide-spread poverty of billions.

Two more, equally major problems underlined in Gandhian world-view need to be briefly mentioned here.
Gandhi emphasized that ‘Poverty is the severest form of violence’. ‘As Rev Tutu recently stated, Exploitation and oppression of the poor are built-in in the people’s state of poverty. As lord-Prof Bhikhu Parekh observes, Gandhi argued that great economic inequalities were both the products and the causes of an exploitative economy. They produce anger and bitterness among the poor, the unprivileged, and provoke violence. He argued that the landless peasantry would be right to refuse to co-operate with their masters and fight for an equitable distribution of land. This might lead to violence by landlords, but it was bound to be limited. He called the poor as “Daridranarayan” (saw God in the poor).His concepts of ‘Harijans’, ‘and programmes of ‘Antyodaya,’ Sarvodaya’ resonate well with this view.

Another is his caution against violence to Nature. Respect for Nature and conservation of natural resources ware necessary to avoid environmental violence. His approach to health and sanitation took care of the environment, bestowed dignity of manual and menial labour and liberated the scavengers/Dalits at once from an invisible state of violence on a man’s self-image. Ecological movements in India from Chipko, anti-Cargill movement—from the Valley of Flowers in the North to the Silent Valley in the South carried on Gandhian principle of persuasion and dialogue succeeded and reinforced the applicability of his vision.
–Bringing change of mind and a confrontationist mindset is the most difficult issue on an agenda of peace and non-violence.
-A fusion of Buddha (Karuna), Mahavir (‘aparigraha’ and ‘Anekant’) and Gandhi (‘Amhinsa’) need to be cultivated –particularly, among the youth. Tolerance is the key-word in the Gandhian lexicon to bring about communal/ethnic/religious harmony.

–Concerns for the poor and ecological awareness will help reduce violence in different forms.- ——-Convincing the futility of Terrorism and the untold misery that the victims suffer.Violence multiplies violence.

In the process, cultivating readiness to examine ‘truth’ in all its dimensions. “Acts of violence creates bitterness and brutality in the destroyers…Satyagraha exalts both sides.”This is what Gandhi tested at 9/11(1906) in Johannesburg. Regrettably, rival camps have missed to approach and try this lofty vantage point over the conflict over a mosque near Ground Zero.

–Professor Parekh has attempted an imagined dialogue between Gandhi and bin Laden.When Laden refers to the futility of Gandhian way of elimination of violence, Gandhi responds.” Why do you measure yourself with the (doubtful) success of the Western civilization?” Regarding Laden claim of superiority of terrorist strategy, Gandhi retorts,” Pl show me a single neat case of the success of your violent strategy in bringing about the welfare and peace for your people.”
Terrorism has its graphic impact but no meaningful role for the welfare of the mankind.A tyrant dies, and his reign ends, A martyr dies and his reign begins.” Gandhi and King were such martyrs—with their message translated into action for justice, non-violence, peace with oneself within, and across nations.

Professor Pravin Sheth is the author of “Green plus Gandhi” and “The Return of Gandhi”

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