Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest achievement was in planting the ancient Indian idea of ahimsa at the very core of modern India’s social and political conception. It is the ahimsa in our national consciousness that has kept us steadfast in this long and arduous walk to freedom.
Ahimsa is far deeper than physical non-violence. It comes from the profound insight our ancestors possessed of the true nature of enslavement. Enslavement imprisons everyone involved. The suppressed are chained by their fear, deprivation and helplessness. The suppressors are shackled by needs, which never seem to end, and by their blinding lust for power. The society is poisoned by the endless cycle of anger, vengeance and violence that suppression generates. Ahimsa is the commitment to neither accept nor perpetrate domination, no matter what the circumstance. Ahimsa is the commitment to be constantly mindful of ones humanity and resist the chains of fear, desire, hate or indifference. Ahimsa is the path to swaraj, raj over the swa (self) – a liberation so complete that it doesn’t merely free the oppressed from the oppressor, it releases them both from the imprisoning cycle of oppression. The profound insight of every Indian philosophical tradition since time immemorial is that the freedom needed to seek our truth can only come when we embrace ahimsa.
Ahimsa has a humanising effect on politics. Ahimsa reshapes society’s self-conception so that it measures achievement by the power and voice enjoyed by its weakest. It creates the space needed to bring the interests of the powerless, the marginalised and the outnumbered to the very centre of political intent. It establishes a definition of political morality that enshrines the protection and inclusion of the vulnerable as a fundamental value to never be broken under any circumstance. In effect, ahimsa suffuses power with compassion and transforms it from a weapon with which we enslave each other to an instrument and shape our shared destiny. Our freedom struggle bequeathed us a generation deeply committed to ahimsa.
The choices that went into our constitution are perhaps the most powerful demonstration of the power of ahimsa. The constitution was written in a time of profound poverty and inequity. On one hand was a vast disempowered mass of illiterate, ailing and desperately poor people shackled by institutionalised discrimination and no experience of political participation. On the other hand was a relatively miniscule class of immensely powerful people in whose hands capital, land, education and prestige were concentrated. India had just emerged from the communal bloodbath of the partition that had taken a million lives.
The traditional logic of power suggests that the elite few should have exploited this situation to consolidate their monopoly over the nation. The powerful could have conceivably argued that our sole priority should be creating wealth and that we could not afford the inefficiencies of mass participation. They could have conceivably argued that if we were to compete and shine in the global order, we could not afford to have the national direction being set by the illiterate majority. They could have conceivably used the carnage of the partition to stoke fear and divisiveness and suggest that certain communities represented too much of a threat to ever deserve an equal voice. They could have conceivably invoked ancient texts that justify the marginalisation of the women and large sections of society.
And yet what happening was exactly the opposite. Rather than using their dominant position to advocate specious arguments and hoard power, they set India on a course towards equality. A course that transfers a massive amount of economic, social and political power from the privileged few to the voiceless multitudes. The result was a constitution that provides the vision and legal foundation for the most ambitious attempt at emancipation and peaceful social revolutions in human history. Every major provision of the constitution – universal franchise, one person one vote one value, equality of status and opportunity, positive discrimination for the marginalised, the rejection of a single state religion, the acknowledgment of the special status of indigenous people, and the advocacy of rationalism and scientific temper – was revolutionary in its implications and constituted a direct attack on the structures that perpetuated inequity.
There are many factors to explain the enlightened choices but the primary among them must be that the constitution was written within a national political consciousness that was suffused with ahimsa. Ahimsa ensured that despite the overwhelming challenges and temptations that would have subdued lesser mortals, the nation and the leaders who represented it had the wisdom, humanity and the sheer audacity to imagine an India that would embrace the dreams of each of its 330 million newly free souls. In doing so, they not only set their country on the path to freedom but also showed a new, more compassionate way to a world rising from the ashes of fascism, colonialism and war at continental scales. It was, without doubt, a generation that fulfilled its tryst with destiny. A generation that demonstrated that towering leadership comes not from bombast, aggression and vitriol, but instead from the compassion, generosity and humbleness with which we exercise power.
Our current relationship with power offers a sad contrast. Electoral majorities have endorsed the complete exclusion of Muslims from democratic spaces in several states. Many industrialists are comfortable with crushing the voice of farmers for their land. Some courts are convinced that they have the right to intervene in the life of an adult woman who changes her religion. State governments evict tribals from their lands with no compensation, let alone a voice in the decision to strip-mine the land of their ancestors. Social leaders of all stripes are comfortable endorsing a program that coerces the poorest into building toilets with threats of denying them food. The army has decided that parading an Indian citizen tied to a vehicle is an act of valor. The list can go on. These people do not speak for everybody, however there is little doubt that these are ominous times for ahimsa. How have we come to this pass?
Ahimsa has always posed a challenge to places where power is concentrated and past governments have strayed often from the path of ahimsa. However, the current dispensation is the first to work towards systematically draining Ahimsa from our consciousness. Their instrument in this project is the morally righteousness crusade.
The crusade is packaged as a cause that cannot be denied. “Should we end open defecation? Should we end terrorism? Should we punish the corrupt? Should we protect the cow? Shouldn’t our daughters be safe?” The chorus of support these questions attracts is directed at a target. The target is deemed to be ‘flawed’ beyond our capacity for compassion and therefore must be ‘fixed’ and put into place for society to progress. Black money hoarders, open defecators, tax-evading traders, cow transporters, beef-eaters, Hindi non-speakers, Vande Mataram non-chanters, Kashmiri stone throwers, student free-thinkers, journalist truth-seekers and girls who defy ‘Indian culture’; the list is long, diverse and capable of catering to every form of vanity, prejudice and fear.
Each of these groups is made the target of a profoundly violent and seductive crusade. The target is presented as the very definition of immorality so as to ease the burden of reflecting upon ones own sin or walking a mile in another’s shoes before passing judgment. The crusade is presented as the final battle against the final problem, thus allowing the comfort that for so vital an end any means will do. Joining a crusade even earns one the right to certify oneself as a patriot. Joining the crusade requires no action on ones part. All that is needed is to embrace the hate, to internalise the contempt, to silently cheer and cast a mental stone at the convict presented before us. In short, joining a crusade requires only that we reject ahimsa, even if only for a moment. The ahimsa that Gandhi lived and died for is draining out of our consciousness, one small act of crusading at a time.
Gandhi tapped the ancient wisdom of our land to show us a unique Indian path to forge a nation; a path that aspires to give every individual the freedom to pursue their truth on their own terms. This path is today under attack by those who believe that India belongs only to a few. They seek to shrink us into insecure, miserly and fearful midgets imprisoned by our own ego while they appropriate India for themselves. On his birthday, the greatest tribute we can pay to Gandhi is to preserve the Mahatma within us. That requires us to forego our ego, embrace our humanity and accept everyone, including the heirs of Godse, with love, compassion and generosity. Only then can we ensure that hate does not do to Gandhi’s ideals what Nathuram’s bullets did to his being.
Sachin Rao is with Ahimsa Ke Raste ([email protected]), an organisation that conducts conversations about ahimsa, the nation and the constitution with interested groups anywhere in the country.