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Revolutions Begin With 'No'. And This Journey Starts With Asking Questions

It has never been easy to ask questions in human history. Those who have questioned have been persecuted, hounded, punished and even killed. Science has progressed because of the courage people had to say no. Philosophical movements and religions, too, began with questioning.

سادہ لوحوں کی سمجھ میں یہ حساب آتا نہیں

کہ دل نہیں پھرتے تو ہرگز انقلاب اتا نہیں

Saadah lawhon ki samajh men yeh hisaab aata nahin

Ke dil nahin phirte to hargiz inqilab aata nahin

सादा लौहों की समझ में ये हिसाब आता नहीं

के दिल नहीं फ़िरते तो हरगिज़ इनक़िलाब आता नहीं

Simpletons don’t seem to understand this truth:

Until hearts do not turn, revolutions remain impossible

The word for revolution in this couplet is inquilab, a word many of you are familiar with. A word perhaps misused, often misunderstood, sometimes overused and nearly always something that could get you into trouble.

The word inquilab is from the Arabic word qalb which means heart and can sometimes mean the intellect. The heart, and not the brain, as the seat of intellect opens up a sea of possibilities in and of itself but let me not digress. The conjugated form of qalb, to derive the word inquilab, also means to return or to restore. Any change must begin in the heart: the heart, that illusive seat of love in most spiritual traditions. But this love, while lying at our core, remains hidden, waiting for us to approach it, to nourish it, to let it guide us. We must not forget, as Brother Cornel West says, that justice is what love looks like in public.

However, most of us remain guided by our baser senses, for no fault of our own. From a young age, we are taught saying “no” is inconvenient, unacceptable and sometimes downright dangerous. Young parents are often most frustrated when their toddler discovers the word no. This no is the beginning of the development of self-awareness and autonomy. It is an unconscious test of the authority of the parents and eventually, it transforms into trust and cooperation. In most healthy relationships, the child realises, often unconsciously, that the parent’s concerns come out of love.

Sadly, however, most societies are not formed on the basis of mutual love and trust but self-interest. Therefore, all structures in societies need to be viewed through a critical lens. The self-interest of feudals around the world in the 12th century is more obvious to some than the self-interest of economic elites today, veiled by dreams of progress, hidden behind illusions of hope and obscured by the mirage of merit.

Self-interest is inevitably accompanied by and preserved through violence. If you read the origin stories of the world, you will realise the origins of religions, politics and history have always been tethered to violent fratricide, or ‘crime’ as Hannah Arendt says. Whether Cain and Abel or the Kauravas and the Pandavas, the beginning of the origin stories we tell future generations is often marked by bloodshed, not of distant others but of relatives and kinsmen. Even in Karbala, on one side there was the Prophet’s grandson Hussain, on the other side was not some distant other or some foreigner but kinsmen.

The beginning of our country’s history too is soaked in the blood of neighbours and brothers and sisters and not in the blood of the British who were being thrown out! This intimate enmity is what the powerful and the wealthy have always taken advantage of. The easiest way to control people is to make them afraid of themselves and for themselves. When we hate others, we are afraid of the darkness within ourselves, so we project it onto others. For what is hate? Nothing but our own sense of helplessness, powerlessness, inadequacy and shame for which we compensate by dehumanising someone else. Fundamentally humans haven’t changed much. Our conditions have changed and we have become better at obfuscating and obscuring the raw and brutal reality of power. These obfuscations operate at the social level, but also at the individual level.

Today more than ever before these distortions and distractions are made easier by virtual reality and technology which cloud our sense of self, make us less wary, less alert and more self-centred. In a sense, social media also reduces our ability to say no, albeit to ourselves. However, the challenges human beings faced millennia ago are not so different from the challenges we face today. Greed, hate, lust, anger, arrogance and envy are some of the things which the saints and prophets of ancient times warned us about. Their voices still echo among us today.

Today we see precisely these emotions are amplified to make the attention economy what it is. In a sense, the challenge put forward by Krishna Ji in the Gita in chapter 6 shlok 5 could not be more relevant. He asks us to elevate our mind and therefore elevate our self — the mind and the self, both referred to as aatma in the shlok, can be both friend and foe.

उद्धरेदात्मनात्मानं नात्मानमवसादयेत् । आत्मैव ह्यात्मनो बन्धुरात्मैव रिपुरात्मनः ॥

The true Yogi or Yogini is she who can feel the suffering and the happiness of others in equal measure and treats all living things, and I repeat all living things, with equity and compassion.

आत्मौपम्येन सर्वत्र समं पश्यति योऽर्जुन | सुखं वा यदि वा दु:खं स योगी परमो मत: ॥

Sadly those who style themselves as Yogis have perhaps not read this in chapter 6 verse 32 of the Gita. So, the real inquilab then is the transformation of the heart. That is the real revolution.

مت سہل ہمیں جانو پھرتا ہے فلک برسوں

تب خاک کے پردے سے انسان نکلتے ہیں

Mat sahal humen jaano, phirta hai falak barson

Phir khaak ke purde se, insaan nikalta hai

मत सहल हमें जानो फिरता है फ़लक बरसों

तब ख़ाक के पर्दे से इंसान निकलते हैं

Don’t think it easy, for the skies revolve for an eternity

Then, from the curtain of dust, does a human eventually emerge

To be an insaan is perhaps the most difficult task of all. Perhaps it would be too much to claim Mir Taqi Mir was onto evolution in 18th century Delhi, but he certainly was aware it takes years, literally many revolutions of the earth, for us to wipe away the dust that prevents us from being fully realised human beings.

In English and Hindi, the word revolution also alludes to celestial motion, the same revolving Mir alluded to in the couplet I just read, The English word ‘revolution’ comes from the Latin root revolvo which means ‘to return’, among other things. The Hindi word kranti has roots in Sanskrit connoting proceeding, surpassing and even overcoming. The Chinese equivalent, gémìng, means, among other things, ‘the removal of heaven’s mandate’. The fact remains: the modern definition of revolution as an event or series of events connoting complete or radical change is only one way to study revolutions.

No doubt, during your journey in Ashoka, you will come across the Glorious Revolution in England, The American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the French Revolution, the 1848 revolutions, the Republican Revolution of 1911 in China, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Bolivian Revolution of 1952, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, not to mention the various colour revolutions as well as the revolutions we talk of in agriculture, science, industry or technology. Many of these political revolutions, despite their promises, end in tyranny and yet people continue to hope and imagine a better world!

Regardless of the nature of all of these revolutions and regardless of whether we understand them to be successful or not, there is one thing that connects all of them – they began with no. They began with a small number of people, or often even just individuals, who refused to accept the status quo, refused to accept the existing order of things. And of course, this journey of saying ‘NO!’ began with asking questions. It has never been easy to ask questions in human history. Those who have questioned have been persecuted, hounded, punished and even killed. Science has progressed because of the courage and strength people had to say no. Philosophical movements and religions too, in their original maverick forms and not the organised institutions people moulded them into, began with questioning, challenging and rejecting prevalent norms. Socrates, Mother Lu, Buddha, Rabbi Akiva, Jesus, Mohammad, Hussain, Thomas Beckett, Galileo, Guru Arjun Dev, Sojourner Truth, Emily Davison, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, Kanaklata Barua, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Martin Luther King and other such men and women, some remembered by history and others less so, all stood up and said no.

These people, these “martyrs,” all put their principles above their own lives; martyr in ancient Greek, as in Arabic, means both witness and also ‘she who lays down her life for a higher principle’. In Hebrew, the word for martyr, kaddosh, means ‘that which is separated and becomes consecrated or holy’. By quite literally dissolving their sense of self into the higher principle through martyrdom, the martyr becomes consecrated and bears witness to that truth.

We cannot all be martyrs but we can all be witnesses. Witnesses to the injustice and suffering in the world. Witnesses to the manner in which power and wealth create systems to perpetuate themselves. What you do, if anything at all, about that which you bear witness to will be your individual choice. The university can play a role as a place that teaches you to recognise the patterns of injustice, the deceptions of power and the frailties of the human condition. More than anything, a university holds up the mirror to us, its inhabitants, and also to society. It is no wonder then that universities often end up playing a crucial role in political changes, in revolutions; a good university is as close as we can come to a utopia. Of course, universities themselves are the products of circumstances but we, the people who inhabit these ivory towers, can and should be sentinels against encroachments into our minds and our classrooms, regardless of whether these threats are posed from within or from outside.

Also read: In Central Universities, the Future Will Now Be Built on the Ruins of Excellence

In a world where it is easier to say yes, saying no requires courage and it also requires clarity. It requires clarity about defining and identifying justice and injustice, clarity about trying to alleviate pain and suffering, clarity about fighting oppression and persecution, and clarity in the final analysis about who we are, what we want and what we hold dear. A good education should help us to gain this clarity. It should not tell us or preach to us but should give us the tools of how to think, never telling us what to think. It should help us to ask the right questions not because we want the approval of others but because we want to improve ourselves! As Master Kong-zi, or Confucius – his Latinised name, says, we must sit still and meditate on the names of things. We must then name things with their corresponding reality. Most of the time we use language to cover up, hide, manipulate and deceive. What is collateral damage but an inane phrase to describe the murder of civilians? How many other words are there which hide reality from us in the name of some totem? How many such words do we use to mask our own selves? So a part of a good education is to provide you the tools to unmask such deceit!

Another part of education is developing an ethical capaciousness, to somehow be inclusive even towards those who are ostensibly excluded. Someone once asked Maulana Hasrat Mohani, who incidentally coined the phrase Inquilab Zindabad, how he, being a devout Muslim, could be a founder member of the godless, atheist Communist Party. Mohani answered and said why do you worry about them? They are at the maqaam of the place of “La” and eventually they will find their way! His allusion was of course to the Muslim declaration of faith – La Ilaaha IlalAllah, Mohammandun RasoolAllah, which begins with the word La, which means no! Negation before affirmation.

Shankaracharya’s Advait, not two! Of course, the Maulana made light of a serious matter, but if we were to take his retort seriously, we see he demonstrates an ethical capaciousness. What was important at that moment was how to resolve an ostensible contradiction, even conflict. It is so easy to damn each other but much harder to build bridges. The Maulana had 3 holy M’s which he held dear: Mecca, as a Muslim, Mathura as a devotee of Krishna Ji and Moscow which for him represented a political model of equality. Today, Mohani, who said ‘No!’ to signing the draft of the constitution when it was being written as it didn’t protect the rights of the disenfranchised, the marginalised and the oppressed, would equally frustrate the “bhakt” – in the political sense and not the real sense, and the “left-liberal sickulars”!

Maulana Hasrat Mohani (L) with Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Maulana Hasrat Mohani (L) with Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

No university can produce a Hasrat Mohani. Neither should it seek to produce Bhagat Singhs, Umar Khalids, or for that matter Savarkars and Tejaswi Suryas. However, there should be space for all of them on a university campus. To want to “produce” – a rather vulgar word in my opinion – such people would be arrogant on the part of us teachers and would deny the autonomy and agency of the individuals whom we teach.

I believe it is not my job to define for you what is right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust but rather it is my duty to equip you with tools to search for the answers to these questions yourself. It is my job to walk with you a little before you head out into the world and are inundated by social and familial pressures, financial challenges and political maelstroms among the myriad other things that often force us to forget a better world is possible. The only thing I can perhaps teach you, then, is how important it is to say no!

Also read: Textbook Authoritarianism Is Playing Out in India

We must realise that logic alone can never help us reach answers or even ask the right questions; logic is inevitably determined by the limits or capacities of our minds. Logic creates, and then inhabits, its own frameworks. But as we know, kranti begins in the heart, not necessarily in “Mind and Behaviour” – putting principles above one’s own life ultimately requires love, not logic. Logic only provides signposts for wayfarers on the path of truth. Love provides the light. Without love, logic only shackles the mind. Logic demands to know which law has been broken. Love asks who has been hurt?

So remember, your answers must come from within you. If they don’t, they will remain ideas that have not germinated in your mind but rather thoughts that were implanted there. Today’s implanted beliefs and ideas are easily supplanted tomorrow. Our duty as teachers is to plant the seeds of critical self-reflexivity. It is then up to you to decide whether you want to water that seed and nourish the sapling so it can become a tree that gives shade to you and others. We must remain humble enough to acknowledge that not everyone can develop into such trees, but we all do need their shade.

The question then, my friends, is this: are we ready to bear witness? Even against ourselves? That is the true revolution. It is so easy to point the finger at others, mock them and say they are silent, but every time we do so, we would do well to remember Imam Ali’s saying that when you point a finger at others, remember three fingers are pointing back to you. Ultimately, an overwhelming number of issues need our urgent attention in the world. A good education will perhaps help you unlock some of the things you want to do to bring about change for the better. Let us face it: we cannot all be equally vocal about all issues. Rather than pointing the finger at others, let us first demand critical thought and action from ourselves.

Also read: Approaching Gridlock: Free Speech and Failing Democracy

In Bertolt Brecht’s play, when Galileo is condemned for heresy, and he recants his beliefs in heliocentricity, his student Andrea says ‘Unhappy the land that has no heroes.’ Galileo replies and says ‘No, unhappy is the land that needs heroes.’

In the final analysis, we can inherit many things from our parents, our teachers or even from previous ages, but we cannot inherit their spirit. So, as Kierkegaard says, ‘each generation must begin anew.’ Even various holy books, seemingly drawing such fierce, even fiery, lines between believers and disbelievers, much like we draw lines between citizens and others, caution against merely copying what our predecessors did without thinking for ourselves.

So for some time, as we sojourn here together, let us dare to ask the most uncomfortable questions, not just of others but of ourselves. Let us revel in complexity and contradiction and leave behind false notions of authenticity and certainty. Let us illuminate our minds and open our hearts. When we leave, we will remember utopia is not just a physical place we yearn for. No! It is a state of mind, it is the heart unveiled so that the light within can give us hope as we weather the storms that will inevitably engulf us.

Ali Khan Mahmudabad, associate professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, delivered this speech on September 18, 2023 as part of a series of interdisciplinary teach-ins on academic freedom. The published text was written as a speech and not an article. Minor modifications have been made to the original. The author’s opinions are his own.

This article was originally published on The Edict, an independent student newspaper covering Ashoka University since 2014.