By Jamuna Rangachari
Now that Gandhigiri has been proven to be a viable concept, here’s a deeper look at Gandhian principles and how we can apply them to our lives
A few years back, when I was a reader of Life Positive, many comments were passed on the Gandhi special issue of Life Positive Plus that was on my office desk. The most common ones were: “Gandhian ideas are too impractical in today’s world”, “a Gandhi special! Is this a government publication?”, “don’t tell me you actually believe Gandhi’s ideas are still relevant?” As is often the way of the world, most people did not actually pick it up to go through the contents before passing such judgments, but were pretty certain they were right.
Though not indicative of the entire country, many people, particularly Indian citizens, considered Gandhian thought to be at best, irrelevant, and at worst, damaging. Gandhian principles were relegated to coffee-table discussions and, at a more serious level, academic seminars and organized debate.
It is in this context that we need to celebrate the film, Lage Raho Munnabhai. In one fell stroke, it rescued the Mahatma from the stuffy pages of history books into which he had been interred, gave him a fresh and irreverent persona, and, above all, applied his principles to contemporary situations. Munnabhai, as Gandhi’s apostle, caused a hard-headed builder to relent, brought a father and son together and saved a young girl’s marriage. Yes, the methods were not exactly kosher (can you imagine Gandhiji sending flowers? He hated to have them plucked), but importantly, the spirit prevailed. The spirit of non-violence, of amity, of unity. The overwhelming response to the film and the unashamed tears we shed in watching it, is one of the most heartening testimonies that in Gandhi’s land, the great man’s values are still capable of melting hearts and firing souls.
It would be nice to think that we in India are finally ready for Gandhian thought. For there is no question that Gandhi is eternally relevant, in just the same way as truth or love are relevant – it is we who swerved away from their relevance by the enticement of the consumerist and sense-based culture.
But of course, there is more to Gandhian values and principles than the film could quite contain. His prescription for living and for resolving issues have never seemed more saner than in our present conflict-ridden times. So let us move on then and see Gandhi at work through the actions and ideologies of his votaries.
Winning Over Hearts
“Satyagraha’s goal is winning over people’s hearts, and this can be achieved only with tremendous patience,” says Mr Arvind Kejriwal, recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award for Emergent Leadership, 2006.
He should know.
A mechanical engineer from IIT and officer with the Indian Revenue Service, he now works with his team members in Parivartan, an organization that began in 2000 with a mission to eradicate corruption and enable transparency in governance. The first activity they undertook was to provide relief to taxpayers from extortionist corruption in the Income Tax Department. Similarly, grievances with the Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB) were resolved with Parivartan workers sitting at the entrance of three DVB offices everyday during public dealing hours and telling every consumer going in not to pay bribes and assuring them of help in sorting out the issues faced. Though these were effective, Parivartan recognized that this approach could not be taken to every issue faced by the citizens.
Hence, when the Delhi Right to Information act became effective in 2001, Parivartan shifted its focus to implementing and educating the public on this Act to achieve true empowerment to the people and less dependency on any organization, including Parivartan itself. This too was done primarily through satyagraha. For instance, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi that had not implemented it for months, finally did so after a peaceful, determined satyagraha put up by the volunteers of Parivartan. Notably, this step was taken after many attempts at approaching and convincing the officers in charge. As Mr Rajiv Kumar Sharma, one of the co-founders, says, “One of the core tenets of satyagraha is trying all justified means before protesting, for otherwise, it would become a mockery of the whole concept.”
With their experiences, both Mr Kejriwal and Mr Sharma are absolutely certain that any challenge can be surmounted with this potent tool.
Not all protests, however, are satyagrahas. Indeed, though many great leaders and crusaders all over the world, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung Lung Syu, Anna Hazare, Medha Patkar, to name a few, have applied and continue to apply its principles, paradoxically, it is also the area which is most often misunderstood and therefore, applied incorrectly.
Quite often, a union strike, a student dharna and even pure noncompliance by a mob, are casually touted as ‘satyagraha’, without realizing that true satyagraha is a tough call.
Wanton disregard for the law is definitely against the principles of satyagraha. Gandhi himself had deep respect for the law. In fact, he was often misunderstood for this stance as in the case of his differences with Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose and yet, never compromised on this principle.
Unfair laws, were of course, challenged but this was always through lawful means and with the courage to face the consequences that followed.
The recent Delhi traders strike against the government edict banning commercial activity in residential zones, is often quoted as an example of Gandhigiri or satyagraha, but it is not so. Firstly, the traders were in the wrong side of the law. If they felt the law was unreasonable, they could have registered their protests peacefully, presenting the full facts and making a distinction between various kinds of trading activities. The protest did, of course, also degenerate into violence, further eroding its moral stand. As Mr Kejriwal says, “An approach that would have been correct in principle and also far more effective would have been for the traders to involve the residents in the protest, to convince the government that small shops were providing an essential service to the community and in this manner, a distinction could have been made between nuisance and service.”
Satyagraha, then, is really not a short cut or easy option. Before one embarks on a satyagraha, at a personal level, cultivation of patience and control of anger is essential so that peace is never compromised, either in speech or action. Further, clarity in thinking is absolutely essential as the demand should be very specific and not just a release of frustration or angst. Last, but not the least, one must explore all amicable methods of resolving the issue before resorting to peaceful non-cooperation to register the protest.
A two-digit growth figure is not really a cause for celebration if it is not combined with social equity and justice. One cannot have a country with multinationals, malls and ostentatious consumption at one level, and farmers’ suicides and extreme poverty at another.
The Naxalite movement, for instance, is really due to the destitution, deprivation and alienation faced by the weaker sections of society. The only way this can be stemmed is with conscious, determined efforts made at the societal level to reduce disparities between different sections of the society. Equitable distribution of land, provision of education, basic heath care and employment opportunities to all are absolutely essential if we truly wish to grow as a civilized nation.
Gandhi’s talisman of seeing whether an action/policy benefits the poorest of the poor still needs to percolate at all levels so that we achieve true freedom for all or purna swaraj. This, to Gandhi, was not an idle dream. He suggested methods that could make such a thing possible – sarvodaya (projects that benefit all), gram swaraj (village self-governance) and swadeshi (local production), being some of them. Though India is now independent, the challenges in these areas remain glaringly unresolved.
Whether we get into a cycle of violence and retributions or work actively towards purna swaraj, entirely depends on us.
With crowded cities gasping for breath and droves of villages not having any means of sustenance, we are seeing a skewed developmental model that needs to be tackled urgently.
The Panchayat Act and Panchayati Raj were definitely important steps in this direction but it is only good leadership at that level that can ultimately drive developmental efforts to the village. Rangasamy Elango in Kuthambakkam, Tamil Nadu, is one such leader. Elango, a Dalit, did face discrimination in his village but was clear that retribution as a way of ensuring justice only led to agony and anguish and returned to his village, giving up a secure job in the city that he had obtained after acquiring higher education. Now the Panchayat chief, he has ensured that community-integrated housing, indigenous industry and other ideals of local government are all in place there.
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