Non-violence: A romantic relic?
Even the Gandhian idea of non-violence imbibed tolerance of injustice and had inherent traits of violence which could be countered by application of force
India has been a country of diverse identities — perceived at times as a mystic country, at times as highly developed with a glorious past and sometimes as a country full of corruption. She is, however, always recognised as a country with abundant talent and immense potential. This was a country with enormous riches which attracted repeated invasions from the outside and finally ended up being colonised by a country much poorer and only a fraction of her size. From India's perspective this was perhaps the most humiliating and shameful period of her existence. It took over 200 years to achieve liberation from a foreign occupation which left the country in a bloody, miserable and violent state. India was divided and the states which bore the brunt of violence did not have the mental frame to celebrate independence; many took to streets with the slogan, Yeh azadi jhuti hai — meaning this independence is fake! Even though it is widely perceived that India got her independence through the nonviolence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi, the present generation needs to examine what relevance nonviolence really holds in the country's context as we look back over the past and travel towards the future.
The great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, describes how, in the wake of the great war of Kurukshetra, Arjuna lays down his arms, unwilling to fight and kill his own relatives and elders. The conversation that ensues between Lord Krishna — his charioteer — and Arjuna is narrated in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most sacred of Hindu texts. Lord Krishna eventually convinces Arjuna to take up arms and engage in the epic war as the righteous course to take. Lord Krishna offers his own actions as an example; he himself takes on incarnations to descend to the material world when needed to counter evil. The Mahabharata and the Battle of Kurukshetra have captivated generations of Indians. Gandhi referred often to the Bhagavad Gita, but he ignored certain aspects of its teachings like the use of violence and force when necessary to protect the innocent and restore peace for a greater cause. Similarly, Gandhi continued to believe and advocate for nonviolence but, on many occasions, accepted extreme violence perpetrated against his own people – the very people whom he wanted to serve.
Much has been said recently about the Bengal Famine of 1943, now widely understood to have been manmade. At the time, the British Empire was engaged in the Second World War, and in yet another example of startling dissonance, Indian politicians actively helped in the recruitment of volunteers with a large contingent of the Indian army supporting Britain's war efforts. Gandhi, amongst others, thus supported one of the most violent of wars, while preaching nonviolence to gain independence from an occupying force, all the while accepting the genocide that was taking place in Bengal with millions starving to death.
Nonviolence was of course not new to India. In the 4th century BC, Buddha attained Nirvana during his quest to avoid misery and suffering from the material world. With the establishment of Buddhism, nonviolence became the societal norm. Great empires grew and dynasties ruled the country in relative peace for a few centuries. However, the eventual fragmentation of large kingdoms coupled with slow demilitarisation led to the conditions that subsequently allowed easy invasion from outside forces. In the 7th century AD, the first Muslim invasion of India was followed by successive Islamic attacks, until in the 16th century the Great Mughal Empire established itself as the principal ruler across the majority of undivided India. Under Islamic rule, there were some large-scale religious conversions from Hinduism to Islam, but besides a few, most of these Muslim conquerors came to India and settled down here. This meant exchange of culture, knowledge, arts, literature etc. and there was enrichment of the country in most areas. The British, on the other hand, like other Europeans — the Portuguese, Dutch and French — came for trade. Bengal was a principal exporter of textiles to those countries and arguably was one of the richest lands in the world. It was by chance that Robert Clive found, accumulated among the ordinary people of Bengal, grievance against the misrule of the reigning Nawab. He took the opportunity of that discontent to claim the huge and prosperous territory practically without resistance. That was the entry point, more perhaps by accident, rather than intent, which led to subsequent British occupation of the entire country now known as modern India. Unlike the enrichment and investment in the country seen under the Mughal Emperors, for whom India was home, under British rule most of India's riches were taken away to Britain, thus making the country impoverished and morally bankrupt. Divisions were created and fueled between communities who had lived peacefully for generations, eventually leading to division of the country and the brutal end to millions of lives. There had been no parallel to such widespread dislodgement of human dwellings and mass cruelty in contemporary history anywhere in the world.
Lots of people gave their lives participating in Gandhi's nonviolence movement, but it was an uneven battle against oppressive and violent rulers. The American historian Will Durant in 1930 was astonished by the scale of brutality being perpetrated in a country which was not only helping the meteoric economic rise of the occupying country, but also providing a substantial military presence in the British army. In return, India was humiliated and tortured. Before India was colonised by Britain, she had maintained a healthy trading relationship on equal social terms with many European countries for centuries, but after colonial rule was established, there was a striking inequality in societal behaviour. Despite proving their intellectual and academic excellence, Indians were treated as inferior and with much contempt. The mindless killing of unarmed, innocent nonviolent civilians in Jallianwala Bagh has still not received a word of apology!
As India is slowly recovering from all the atrocities committed against her by successive groups of invaders, the real history of India's colonial past and her independence struggle is being rewritten. We are learning how spirited individuals from various walks of life laid down their lives to gain freedom and release the country from the shackles of invaders. Since the end of the Second World War, we have lived through a period of relative peace but, of late, we are seeing the resurgence of war. Afghanistan and the entire Middle East have been the victims of violence. The most recent act of war by Russia against Ukraine has seen further violence. The rise of right-wing forces around the world is palpable now. Complex and usually lucrative trade and political interests lurk behind democracy, liberty and free speech as pretexts for the involvement of advanced wealthy countries.
Violence is not necessary to live in harmony with others and it is easy to be tolerant of the environment and all other species around us. However, humans are the only species in the animal kingdom that have killed simply for pleasure or greed, and when it was unnecessary. So, when violence is tolerated, it endangers the existence of those who remain passive observers. As one of the great philosophers and writers of our time, Tagore, said, both the perpetrators of crime and those who tolerate those, are equally to be blamed. Like many things, it is important to strike a balance in life. As we learn from the war epic Mahabharata, violence has got to be resisted, when necessary, by application of force, and injustice should not be tolerated. For doing that one does not need to be a perpetrator of violence. At the same time, just simply preaching nonviolence can only be a romantic concept in a violent world.
The writer is the Managing Director, Peerless Hospital, Kolkata. Views expressed are personal
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