Saturday, October 01, 2011

Coming to terms with Gandhi's double legacy
-Countering the doublespeak of some contemporary Gandhians-

"Every parent leaves a double legacy", said Rabbi Susan Laemmle movingly in her nonagerian mother's presence, during her farewell speech at the University of Southern California's 'What matters to me and why' series. A lot of what we are thankful for is owed to our parents, but some of our regrets also seem traceable to their decisions, which in hindsight seem well-meaning but ill-advised. In the perpetually ongoing collective reappraisal of India's shared legacy, the Father of the Indian Nation, in the worldview of a restless generation without patience for long-winded hagiography, appears not as much a liberating figure to be emulated, but as a limiting figure to be transcended. The legacy of Gandhi, all too often, is caricatured in the popular discourse, either as an infallible commandment for all ages, by Gandhian revivalists; or as something to be casually condemned and discarded, by those with a more revolutionary temperament. In truth, the legacy comes with moral capital, the demand of its trusteeship and the need not just for earnestness but also of imagination to weigh its counsel against contemporary exigencies. 

Gandhi can be thought as a teacher of the ages who believed that example is better than precept and 'left as an exercise to the reader' from successive generations the full consequences of his moral demands. If we go by the criteria of good teaching offered by American novelist Gail Godwin who said, " Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths pure theater", then Gandhi was someone who spent almost a full half of his life in preparation by self-examination and spent the rest playing with earnestness and lifelikeness the role thrust upon him by history. Whether he played the role to perfection and whether he has paid his dues in advance for the adulation that is still offered to him, is a question that inspires apologetics and iconoclasm in equal measure. The contents of the following compilation of FAQs have been reproduced from no-holds-barred debates from Facebook and elsewhere, and are an attempt to retrieve Gandhi's legacy from its self-proclaimed Gandhian usurpers and come to terms with both its rewards and challenges.

Q: Has Satyagraha ever worked in history? Wasn't even Indian Independence an outcome of extraneous historical forces like the World Wars?

There are obvious pitfalls in attempting to establish the desirability or otherwise of Satyagraha as factual claims of some sort, because such attempts run the risk of either:

(i) founding themselves on the ‘moral authority’ of the originator, ‘civilizational roots’ of a society in which cases it reduces to an Argument from Authority, or,
(ii) citing historical instances as suggestive of inevitabilities and as guidelines for conduct in themselves, in which case it becomes a Naturalistic Fallacy.

If the Fallacy of the Single Cause applies when somebody solely credits Gandhi for the independence of India, it also applies in a way when armed insurrections elsewhere in the world are also treated as indispensable to later political dispensations in those places. The necessity of the principle of retributive justice (incidentally, also at the roots of the Judaeo-Christian ‘No atonement without blood’ idea) also seems not entirely defensible on purely historical grounds, especially when contemporary counter-examples can be found, like the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of South Africa. 

Pre-occupations with ‘Satyagraha’ should not be allowed to limit the imagination regarding other modes of non-violent protest. We must obviously avoid the ‘Satyagraha or guerrilla-warfare’ false dichotomy. Having said that, if a historical association of a method with Satyagraha is not automatically sanctifying, such a historical association is not automatically damning as well! Guilt by Association is as much a fallacy as an Argument from Authority.

Q: If history is not a reliable guide for evaluating Satyagraha, what is?


A society’s liberty to make non-violence a primal non-negotiable is neither necessitated nor precluded by an arguments of expediency or history. There is no reading of biography or history that can make the adoption of violence or non-violence objectively binding. A statement on the superiority of one over the other is not a factual claim, but quintessentially a value proposition. In Kantian terms, the recommended means of evaluation of such a statement is the categorical imperative. It is possible to construct an argument for non-violence based on the categorical imperative rather than any hypothetical imperative harking to its expediency or effectiveness (and it goes without saying that such arguments may even be constructible for stances that run counter to non-violence, as we had acknowledged the absence of objective binding here ).

The argument goes as follows. Kant stated the categorical imperative as ‘Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.’ An alternative statement he provided is ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.’ An evaluation of Satyagraha by these standards seems favourable in the main, though not conclusive. It seems desirable for the right to peaceful protest to be a universal rule rather than the right to bear firearms to be made universal and hence non-violence seems to score by the universalization requirement. As for treating humanity always as an end, Satyagraha makes the ‘reform of the oppressor’ as an end and even the apparent subsuming of the Satyagrahi’s self within a cause is entirely voluntary and hence not a violation of the categorical imperative.  

Q: Doesn't the very method of Satyagraha reek of a certain masochism and self-flagellation?

One may quite justifiably view the apparent masochism of a Satyagrahi with aesthetic distaste or even moral indignation. However, what we see as masochism occurs because people at a certain juncture of desperation will not balk at or stop short of seemingly self-destructive acts, even if there is no messianic demagogue orchestrating the self-flagellation as it were. The Satyagraha movement in India, egregious though the submissions to beatings in Dharasana may seem to you and others, nevertheless equipped a desperate people with an effective visual vocabulary, even though it may to contemporary eyes may seem an overly visceral vocabulary erring on the side of masochism. But in its absence there is no telling if people would have adopted an even more self-destructive vocabulary like Thich Quang Duc!

If readers will pardon the seemingly cynically calculative use of the expression, there is a tradeoff between shock-value and personal injury in methods of non-violent agitation meant to awaken consciences. While Satyagraha does not solve this tradeoff optimally by our standards it is conceivable why at a certain time and place this solution was found plausible. While Dharasana maybe an exaggerated application of the idea, the idea of ‘submission as protest’ i.e. willingly and visibly undergoing what the oppressors think as ‘inviting trouble’ is discernible even in modern protests. SlutWalks (Besharmi morchas) seemingly submit to the slurs spouted by the verbal oppressors and achieve a tradeoff between shock-value and personal injury (in terms of jeering and leering) in a manner that is more acceptable to contemporary sensibilities.

Q: Isn't the outcome of Satyagraha unjust if it spares wrong-doers their well-deserved punishment? Doesn't every lasting revolution involve a purge of some sort?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa are a success story which I repeatedly cite because they are neither blank-cheque acquittals nor staged pardons where the parties will never again meet each other. For their remarkable resolution of the tradeoff between reparation and national integration, these Commissions are deserving of admiration, since we know how wrong a pre-occupation with ‘commensurate’ reparation can go in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Nobody can deny the importance of Devil’s Advocates in a debate like this one. However it must be said that critics of Gandhi are not exactly a minority being shouted-out in today’s India. While this in no detracts from several valid criticisms, the preponderance of inveterate Gandhi-bashers in both the Indian Right and Left is hard to miss. A contemporary national trait which deserves being subjected to a Devil’s Advocate’s prosecution is the romanticization of radical overhaul with an increasing appetite for punishment which can be bloody if necessary. The perils of war-cry vocabulary are too insidious to not deserve tempering and hence the relevance of this position in the debate.

Action propelled simply by public outrage, and tacitly encouraging a worldview that public outrage itself is reason enough to demand certain legislation or punishment, and that enough outrage removes the onus of providing a convincing case, is obviously counterproductive. Turning to Egypt for a second, the trial of Mubarak is to be welcomed as long as it complies with the requirements of Egyptian law, but the atmospherics accompanying the trial are also worrying, given the rising din of war-cry vocabulary.  The possibility of an execution of the bed-ridden accused that does little to assuage world concerns that the Bastille-storming of Tahrir maybe followed by a quite real Reign of Terror, is a vitiation which young Egypt could do without, especially at a time when it needs world goodwill more than any other.

As can be seen, to what extent society must indulge and play to public outrage in exercising the law of the land itself is subject to judgments of prudence and expediency. If a Doctrine of Necessity of sorts can be cited in favour of exemplary punishment, a similar doctrine can in some occasions be cited in favour of commutation and clemency too according to very utilitarian considerations. In resolving the justice-compassion tradeoff, one can easily notice that neither the ‘retributionists’ nor the ‘reconcilers’ have a monopoly on pragmatism or idealism respectively. Arguments for clemency may well be guided by expediency too.

Q: Hasn't Gandhian naivete and atavism already been called out for what it is by the critiques of say, Dr. Ambedkar and Periyar? In an environment saturated with Gandhian hagiography and deification, isn't it these views that must receive more emphasis?

It is true that a debate on Gandhi's legacy and its contemporary relevance is a useful one to have. It is also true that such a debate will be more edifying if critics do not insist on stopping at nothing short of a complete disowning, disavowal and demeaning of Gandhi. Critiques of Gandhian methods such as the timely and still relevant ones by Dr. Ambedkar essentially emphasized caution against fetishizing disobedience and creating personality cults. One wishes that latter-day 'Gandhians' and 'Ambedkarites' had these arguments with the civility and mutual respect with which Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar themselves corresponded, and sedulously avoid both sanctimony and acrimony.

One reading which maybe useful in this context is George Orwell's essay on Gandhi, which avoids the near-irresistible urges of commentators for either hagiography or bashing. In typical Orwellian fashion (and in what will be music to the ears of critics), he begins "Saints should always be judged guilty till they are proved innocent.

The reservations expressed by critics mainly have to do with the risk of uncritically appraising Gandhian methods but all-too-often, knee-jerk iconoclasm is mistaken to be a substitute for unbiased appraisal of the likes of Gandhi. Even for Gandhi's most controversial 'experiment with truth' featuring female inmates from his ashram, an expression like 'sleeping with grand-daughters' seems ill-advised if used without clarification, because even though these 'experiments' were admittedly coercive and potentially traumatic to participants, they did NOT involve incest of the sort the said phrase seems to convey.

We can again turn to Orwell for his take on Gandhi's propensity to undertake such punishing (to himself and others) experiments. Orwell's word for the same is simply 'inhuman' as against the normal human condition which he describes as follows: "The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.

Therein may lie Gandhi's otherwordliness which may cause some unease, but does it detract from the relevance of his demonstrable contributions to human rights activism?

Q: Isn't Gandhi's almost pathological emphasis on self-denial with egregious experiments of celibacy obviously atavistic and counter-productive?

It is obvious that his pre-occupations with abstinence and fasts are major reasons why there are misgivings about the contemporary reception of Gandhian methods and why Gandhi is thought of as otherworldly or ‘out-of-touch’. But perhaps here too, Gandhi knew what he was doing.

Gandhi saw himself as an educator and a reformer and two of his goals where:(i) Encourage more participation of women in the political sphere (which is a very exploitation-prone environment now as it was then)(ii) Exhort the privileged classes to exercise greater social responsibility (which demanded methods to curb human tendencies for over-indulgence)

Gandhi, being the master communicator that he was, understood that in order to remove any intent of exploitation from the men in politics, a dramatic illustration of the seemingly unattainable ideal of total abstinence would make more of an impression than simple exhortations of right professional conduct. Likewise, the image of asceticism that fasting conveys seems harder to ignore than merely an editorial against ‘conspicuous consumption’. Whether intended or not, there was a method in this seeming hyperbolic madness, as these seemingly exaggerated symbols for communication exploit the Peak Shift Principle (explained by Dr. V S Ramachandran here ) and make allowance for the all-too-human tendencies to drift back into old behaviors without such dramatic motivation which may at first sight seem unrealistic (explained by Dr. Viktor Frankl here ).

The ‘purificatory’ value of fasting seems unconvincing in anything other than a metaphysical setting, but who can deny that repeated endurance tests can be very formative and that practice in exercising such resolve renders one likelier to honour commitments?

Q: Gandhi may have been well-meaning, but isn't the impact of Satyagraha overly glorified and exaggerated? How can we convince agitators in Kashmir or Palestine to give Satyagraha a chance?

The truism that 'Satyagraha sometimes works and often doesn't' has been belaboured often as an argument against Satyagraha. To say that Satyagraha sometimes works and sometimes doesn't is about as informative as saying that guerilla warfare sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. However, there is less harm in terms of bloodshed when Satyagraha is tried and failed than after a failed insurrection. The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet maybe excoriated by young Tibetans for failing to secure full-enough autonomy for his compatriots, but history may still exculpate him as he is almost single-handedly responsible for forestalling the bloodshed of a guerrilla war. 

As for the people of Kashmir and Palestine, intifadas and jihads have had their chance for several decades and a trial with Satyagraha doesn't seem out of place since its most popular alternatives have been exhausted, the people concerned are left with so little to lose and there seems least harm in trying this than any other option! 

Q: Would Satyagraha have worked against the Nazis?

Thinkers like Amartya Sen recognize that Gandhi’s choice of method depended in large part on his recognition that the ‘British would eventually be amenable to the force of argument’. When the scope and applicability of Satyagraha is thus clearly spelt out at the very outset and when no claim of miraculously reforming every genocidal maniac is made in the first place, one wonders why there is always a reflexive ‘It-would-not-have-worked-with-the-Nazis’ reaction in any conversation on Satyagraha.

An often ignored historical point is that the full horrors of the concentration camps were not known to or realized by the wider world until after the liberation of these camps by allied forces and the reports of journalists like the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby. Would history have taken a different turn if the world had been forced to notice of these horrors sooner by the actions of a Jewish Thich Quang Duc?

It is difficult to say in hindsight, but quoting this talk by Julia Bacha : “Violent resistance and non-violent resistance share one very important thing in common; they are both a form of theater seeking an audience for their cause. If violent actors are the only ones getting front-page covers and attracting international attention to the Palestinian cause, it becomes very hard for non-violent leaders to make the case to their communities that civil disobedience is a viable option in addressing their plight.” 

Would the history of twentieth-century Europe been different if the journalism of the time, besides war-reporting had devoted more resources to investigative undercover reporting from the concentration camps?

It is in the context of the above questions that Gandhi’s stance on this issue, which George Orwell in his essay quoted above, acknowledges as honest even if causing a reaction of disbelief in us, must be evaluated. Quoting from Orwell’s essay:
According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi’s view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way. When, in 1942, he urged non-violent resistance against a Japanese invasion, he was ready to admit that it might cost several million deaths.

Q: Can we disagree with Anna Hazare and the methods of 'India Against Corruption' and still be genuine Satyagrahis?

If one wishes to stay true to the meaning of Satyagraha as 'holding fast to Truth', one must begin with an acknowledgment of both our individual and collective limitations of apprehending truth in the first place. So many fundamental human weaknesses which obscure the true picture, namely 'hero worship' and 'herd instinct', are exacerbated in such heady times thanks to the frisson of overnight mobilization, and anybody seeking to 'hold fast to truth' must be wary of them. 

This is not about Anna, but about every one of his self-proclaimed supporters, many of whom may well be clinging obstinately to a chimera in the name of holding fast to an incompletely conceived 'truth', as it appears to their enraged and hence not fully reasonable selves. 

It is said often that a patriot must be willing to defend the nation against the government but is often missed that a patriot must also be willing to defend the nation against the mob. A Satyagrahi must hold fast to what is closest to truth according to their honest assessment, notwithstanding the pushing and shoving of an impatient mob. The honorific label of 'Satyagrahi' could well apply to an arch-Constitutionalist taking a principled stand of following due process no matter what. (Alas, there is no such towering figure now that we can look up to, but the point in bringing this up is to make the point that there can be very legitimate 'Satyagrahis' with a stance opposed to Anna's). India Against Corruption (IAC) has no monopoly on Satyagraha and no privileged position on 'truth'.

Any citizen in a democracy, before the ceding the right to pronounce upon truth to a sloganeering mob, must be willing to lend an ear to dissenting voices by well-meaning citizens holding fast to their convictions in their own way.

Q: How is Satyagraha relevant to me when I am neither a refugee nor an agitator nor someone who is directly oppressed in any way?

It is true that the chief case in favour of Satyagraha is that it empowers the weak to look the dominant force in the eye, and demand and get justice. Satyagraha education seems to have another benefit; it also sensitizes those among the strong to recognize injustices perpetrated by the establishment they are affiliated to, and abstain from such injustices even at the cost of some self-interest. A classic example is the support extended to the Civil Rights Movement in America by many conscientious individuals from across the racial divide, whom Dr. King magnanimously acknowledges and applauds in his I Have a Dream speech. The ‘conscientious objector’ is a sort of minority that can especially benefit from Satyagraha training. A contemporary case in point is the conscientious objection of personnel in the Israeli Defence Forces to the occupation of territories of the Palestinian people.