Gandhi in the land of a million mutinies

Written by  //  October 2, 2010  //  National Politics  //  3 Comments

Celebrating Gandhi Jayanti, 2nd October 2010

Since his resurrection in Lage Raho Munnabhai, Mahatma Gandhi seems once again to have receded from public consciousness in India. In fact, the last I saw of him was on Andrew Marr’s brilliant series on BBC – The Making of Modern Britain. The episode showed footage of Gandhi on his visit to Britain. Gandhi, self assured and smiling, met the public – kissing babies, chatting with little old ladies and charming all who met him. This was also the visit that led to the famous Gandhian quip on his meeting with King George V.  Gandhi, when asked why he had refused to change out of his loincloth for the visit to Buckingham Palace, replied: “The King had enough on for both of us!”

A prominent feature of Gandhi’s brilliance was his ability to tap into the immense appeal of the underdog.  Between David and Goliath, Pandavas and Kauravas, Hobbits and Orcs, tortoise and hare, Amir Khan’s eleven and Captain Russell’s team, we all know which side the overwhelming majority would be rooting for. With his single witticism, Gandhi brought home to the British public the vast and unjust disparity between the rulers and the ruled.

I think the Indian state does Gandhi’s legacy great disservice by putting him on a pedestal, to be worshipped but never honestly studied or analyzed.   Indeed, there is a lot that the government in this land of a million mutinies can learn from Gandhi’s statecraft. Admittedly, Gandhi’s methods lend themselves more easily to struggles against the state than to the establishment, but even so, the state could take away many lessons from him on what makes a resistance movement tick.

Separatist movements or indeed any other resistance movements seldom succeed without public support. Take the recent momentum gained by the Kashmiri struggle for independence (or secession if you prefer). Till the time that the face of the struggle was a militant, armed to the teeth through funding received from generous foreign benefactors, the international community showed little sympathy for the cause. But the tragic appeal of schoolboys armed with stones, pitted against the might of the Indian armed forces has been much more difficult to resist.

The experience with the Naxal movement in Bihar and Chhattisgarh has been similar, although the events have taken place in the reverse. When the Maoists were depicted as bow-and-arrow wielding tribal youths set against the nexus between greedy companies and state governments, the voices opposed to Operation Greenhunt were loud and confident. However, ever since the military and strategic power of the Naxals has come to light, the poor, ill-equipped CRPF foot soldier, marching bravely to his death has been the potentially game changing poster boy for the public.

If the Indian state is to prevail over these mutinies, policies need to be designed to make the fight seem more even. Thus for instance, the AFSPA in Kashmir must be withdrawn or diluted, not only because of its vast potential for misuse, but also because it provides ammunition to the struggle in the form of broad based sympathy. If the leaders of the movement find that they are losing public support, willingness to engage with the state will follow. Gandhi’s successful mobilization of support from the Indian masses and the international public alike showed clearly that while it is important to do what is right, it is far more important to be seen to do what is right.  Satya and Ahimsa were preached not only for their own sake, but also for the huge traction that the idea carried across national boundaries.

Therefore, if there is one lesson that the Mahatma can teach the nation that he fathered, it is of the irresistible appeal of the idea that the meek shall inherit the earth.

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A completely unrelated Gandhi story – the most memorable part of my visit to the Sabarmati Ashram a few years ago was a letter from Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler. The letter began – “My dear idiot, …”

3 Comments on "Gandhi in the land of a million mutinies"

  1. Jayant Hingare October 2, 2010 at 8:17 am ·

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post. I confess I find it a little hard to follow your reasoning.

    You argue anecdotally that public opinion has historically favoured the underdog in popular movements and/or uprisings. You then say, <blockquote cite="…if the Indian state is to prevail over these mutinies, policies need to be designed to make the fight seem more even”>.

    Using your preferred example of the Kashmir protests regarding the AF(SP) Act, if the central government shares your view that this is a “mutiny” or an otherwise illegitimate set of protests, surely the best course would be to use the media to portray the protesters as politically-motivated troublemakers, to make the fight “seem” more even? Following this line of reasoning, the government should first undermine the mass support for the protesters through a concerted media operation to smear them, and then redouble its military efforts to stamp out the protests and incarcerate its leaders.

    Since Gandhi-style protests are inevitably directed against state power, you are right to say

    That lesson is appropriate for the “nation”, i.e. the citizenry, not for the state. The counter-lesson that the “state”, i.e. the governmental apparatus should learn, is that the appeal of such imagery can be countered by cynical media manipulation to discredit and trivialise what may be legitimate protest movements (as you seem to unwittingly do by dubbing the Kashmir protests a “mutiny”).

    The fact that the government has not adopted the strategy outlined above surely indicates that it believes that there is a genuine problem to be resolved regarding AF(SP)A. A unilateral withdrawal of the special powers by the central government will only strengthen the hand of the opposition and separatist politicians in the Valley, as it will be perceived as a victory engineered by them (the underdog strikes a mighty blow, as it were). Nevertheless, the central government is trying to hammer out a deal which can retain future flexibility for defence forces while giving the Kashmiris more autonomy. That to me seems like a government that has moved on from a cynical approach to a pragmatic one.

    It seems to me that citizens will always use the David v. Goliath imagery as a pressure tactic in any protest or action to change government policy. So the true lesson for the state is probably to rise above what the nation can learn from Gandhi, and to engage in evidence-based policymaking.

  2. Sakshi October 3, 2010 at 7:14 am ·

    Jayant – thank you for for your excellent critique of the post.

    I appreciate that the issues that you highlight will arise if symbolism becomes the sole, or even the main strategy of the state in engaging with resistance movements.

    The post is based on the premise that it would be in the interest of the state to counter movements that challenge its existence or unity. An essential part of strategy formation by the state is the need to understand the reasons why a movement wins the backing of the wider citizenry (a larger group than those actually involved in the protest). Gandhi recognised the importance of mass emotional appeal decades ahead of our era of media dominance, and used it to strengthen his movement. The Indian state, on the other hand, has been slower to appreciate this. Understanding the emotive appeal of the weaker side in these (at times seemingly) unequal contests would help the state nuance its response better. While it is easy to accept that resistance movements often begin with the need to voice some very real grievances against the state, it is also equally true that movements (particularly violent movements) at times end up losing sight of their initial goal and take on a life of their own. The use of strong arm tactics by the state at such points, often ends up giving the movement a legitiimacy based on the David v. Goliath nature of the contest, rather than on the basis of the issues represented by the movement. If the state keeps this in mind while deciding on its counter strategy, this will perhaps lead to more humane responses by the state, and a greater scope for evidence based, rather than emotive responses by the citizenry.

    As an aside, ‘land of a million mutinies’ in the title is a reference to Naipaul’s “India: A Million Mutinies Now”, and not an attempt to characterise the nature of the Kashmiri struggle. This would also be clear from the fact that no position has been taken on whether to term it a struggle for independence or a seccession movement.

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