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Gandhi is not history

Violence and distrust have become normalised in societies and its time that we now reclaim Gandhi?s weapon to halt this downward spiral, writes Vinay Lal.

india Updated: Sep 08, 2006 03:09 IST

It is the 100th anniversary of one of the most significant events of recent history. In 1906, an India-born lawyer in South Africa, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, encountered the draft Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance proposed by the Transvaal Government in the August 22nd issue of the government gazette, and at once decided that this legislation would have to be opposed. He saw, Gandhi later wrote, nothing "except hatred of Indians" in the proposed legislation, which, if passed, "would spell absolute ruin for the Indians in South Africa".

The ordinance required all Indians, eight years and older, living in the Transvaal, to report to the Registrar of Asiatics and obtain, upon the submission of a complete set of fingerprints, a certificate that would then have to be produced upon demand. The ordinance proposed stiff penalties, including deportation, for Indians who failed to comply with its terms.

Fingerprints were then demanded only from criminals, and the subjection of women to such a requirement had no other objective but the humiliation of Indians. Gandhi understood that the ordinance effectively criminalised the entire community. He mobilised the Indians, who had first arrived in South Africa as indentured labourers in 1860, to put up resistance.

At a meeting in Johannesburg, 3,000 Indians took an oath not to submit to the legislation, and Gandhi spoke at length on the obligation to never repudiate a pledge. Thus was born satyagraha - non-violent resistance - and over the next four decades, in South Africa and in India, Gandhi endeavoured to perfect it, offering satyagraha not only to the British but to the world as a form of ethical politics and a consummate lifestyle.

Many in Gandhi’s own lifetime doubted its efficacy, and some claimed that satyagraha could only have succeeded against a purportedly gentlemanly opponent such as the British. Many more have since claimed that the unspeakable cruelties of the 20th century render non-violent resistance an effete, if noble, idea.

India’s resounding experiment with democracy, for all its shortcomings and the one major relapse of the mid-Seventies, when an internal Emergency was imposed and constitutional safeguards suspended, may owe much more to Gandhi than is commonly conceded.

However, South Africa, which Gandhi claimed as his second home and which he left for good in 1914, may present a more complex case of the assessment of his legacy. The most pressing charge is that he did little to improve the situation of Black Africans and did not draw them into the struggle against racism. By what right Gandhi could have spoken for Black and Coloured Africans is not adequately explained.

The Natal Indian Congress, in the founding of which in 1894 Gandhi had a hand, became the model for the African National Congress. Black South African nationalists have been forthright in crediting Gandhi with having exercised an incalculable influence on their thinking and on the moral tenor of the struggle against apartheid.

The word satyagraha is derived from satya (truth) and agraha  (firmness), and it is not implausible that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not only post-apartheid South Africa’s homage to Gandhi but a way of extending satyagraha into the 21st century.

If one of the first principles of Gandhian thinking is that a moral politics rests upon consideration of means rather than ends, then we are not even called upon to assess the efficacy of satyagraha. The advocates of non-violent resistance who are dismissed as woolly-headed idealists, should, on the contrary, ask the proponents of violence to demonstrate that violence can produce enduring good.

How far we have travelled in the last 100 years is evident from the ease with which fingerprinting, once demanded only of criminals, has been normalised in most societies as part of the surveillance regime of the Nation-State. There was some indignation when the US, shortly after 9/11, began to require fingerprints from every adult visitor. But this has now become a routine activity. One of the least appreciated aspects of Gandhi’s worldview is his construing of deception, secrecy and perpetration of falsehoods as forms of violence.

The advocate of satyagraha may no more resort to secrecy than to violence, and it is remarkable that, before undertaking his famous salt satyagraha of 1930, Gandhi addressed a letter to the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, informing him of his plans to resist an iniquitous piece of legislation and inviting Irwin to have him arrested.

Gandhi would have seen the common thread that runs through the surveillance of US residents, the US aggression in Iraq, and the brutal culture of violence amidst which we live, which also ties terrorists and their antagonists in nefarious secrecy and violence. On the 100th anniversary of satyagraha, a modicum of reflection on the debased state of our politics might help recover a place for non-violent resistance.

The writer is Associate Professor, UCLA Department of History, & Chair of South Asia Interdepartmental Program