Nitya Rajagopal’s article on Dr Suman Aggarwal’s efforts to promote nonviolence presents the possibility of putting Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology into practice
What is love in action? Is it a mother’s love for her child? A teacher’s dedication to their students? The unexpected kindness of a stranger? Telling the stories of people whose voices go unheard? The relentless dedication for the upliftment of society? Selfless service, even in the face of ingratitude? Caring for the welfare of somebody who opposes you?
True visionaries see the power of love where the rest of the world may only see opportunity for violence, hatred, and strife. Such people are undoubtedly the wealth of humanity. Their lives and words are eternal, for they continue to blaze as flames of inspiration in the hearts of those who heed the call towards a higher way of being. Such is the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, and such is the experience of Gandhian scholar Dr Suman Khanna Aggarwal, who has worked tirelessly to spread Gandhi’s timeless message for over 40 years.
A former professor of Philosophy at Delhi University, Dr Suman Khanna Aggarwal is also the founder of the Gandhian NGO Shanti Sahyog, which works to provide education, healthcare, and vocational training to underprivileged children, women, and youth from 17 South Delhi slums and Tughlakabad Village, New Delhi. She has lectured extensively and conducted numerous workshops on Gandhian philosophy, both in India and around the world, including countries like Israel, Japan, Scandinavia, Europe, Canada, and the United States. She has also taught graded courses on Gandhi in foreign Universities such as McMaster, Canada; and Al Quds, Palestine. In 2015, she set up the Shanti Sahyog Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution to promote Gandhi’s legacy of nonviolent conflict resolution and his vision for a world beyond war. She has authored two books and numerous articles on Gandhian principles and has received a number of awards for her service to society. Despite her achievements (spanning over four decades), Dr Aggarwal simply describes herself as a “very good Gandhian scholar, [and] a struggling Gandhian.”
For Dr Aggarwal, her study of Gandhi has not only been academically fulfilling but also a journey of personal transformation. She credits her guide and mentor, Dr S K Saxena, for this. Apart from teaching her to get into ‘Gandhi’s mind,’ he also ignited her faith in God. Until then, given what she had seen around her, she perceived religion as something impersonal and ritualistic, and felt a distaste for this mode of blind worship. However, the seeds of spirituality were already present in her, guiding her academic pursuits. “I wanted to do my PhD on the letter Om,” she says, but she was forced to change her topic as she had never learnt Sanskrit. As she was keen to conduct her research in an inherently Indian subject, she then chose to work on Gandhi.
Her early days as a researcher in Gandhian philosophy were challenging. “When I started, it put me off so badly,” she says. One of the first things she read was Gandhi’s quotation: “You may pluck out my eyes, but I will live. You may chop off my nose, but I will live. But take away my belief in God, and I will die.” For somebody who felt no personal relationship with God, these words were confounding. But she was keen to understand their inner meaning. The answer she sought came to her soon enough, buried once again in the course of her research.
As a Gandhian scholar, Dr Aggarwal felt it was essential for her to read The Bhagavad Gita. Inspired by Gandhi, who memorised one stanza of the Gita every day while brushing his teeth, she decided to read one chapter of Anasakti Yoga, Gandhi’s commentary on the Gita, every day before eating. One day, while reading the Gita in this way, she came across a line which struck her deeply. She recites from memory, “As for those who worship Me, thinking of Me alone and nothing else, ever attached to Me, I bear the burden of getting them what they need.” Suddenly, the same words that had baffled her earlier now seemed pregnant with meaning. The idea of unshakable faith took root in her mind, and she tested it constantly. She gives an example to illustrate this. One day, many years ago, she was expecting a guest for dinner and suddenly ran short of a gas cylinder. Although she had made a prior booking, the gas hadn’t been delivered. She didn’t know what to do. A few minutes later, a thought came to her mind: “You [God] keep saying you bear the burden of what I need. Can’t You see I need a gas cylinder?” Within four minutes, she heard a bell ringing downstairs. Sure enough, it was the gas delivery man. She couldn’t believe it. Such instances of grace, no matter how small or mundane, became a recurring feature in her life and bolstered her faith. “I used to keep challenging God. I would say, ‘Don’t You see I need this?’ ” And the unseen hand of providence would support her constantly. Even later, as her social work took on new dimensions and money was scarce, help and resources poured in from unexpected quarters.
The principle of nonviolence is synonymous with Gandhi and an essential area of interest for any Gandhian scholar. Dr Aggarwal is no different. As a young researcher, she repeatedly came across Gandhi’s words: “The law of nonviolence, which is the law of love, is the law of our species.” She found this sentence both profound and puzzling, and struggled to grasp its meaning. “It was very irritating to read,” she says. How were nonviolence and love synonymous? The question lingered in her mind until one day, while visiting an orphanage, she came across a woman who was constantly cradling an abandoned, one-day-old baby in her arms. Puzzled, Dr Aggarwal asked the woman why she wouldn’t put the baby down. The answer she received hit her hard. When a newborn is abandoned, she learnt, it can lose the desire to live because it feels unloved. This phenomenon, she was told, was referred to as ‘mother sickness’ and could manifest as soon as 24 to 36 hours of the child being abandoned. “What does a newborn know about love?” she wondered at first. But she soon realised that love is not just a cognitive experience. Love is fundamental to our existence. On further analysis, she realised that not only infants, but even couples married fifty years or more sometimes die within a month of their life partner passing away. We need love to live, she understood. Instantly, the significance of Gandhi’s words became clear to her.
In many ways, nonviolence is merely an expansion of love, a phenomenon we have all experienced. Trust forms the basis of both love and nonviolence. Love is tremendously empowering, as is nonviolence. Both are founded in a sense of belongingness and offer a certain dignity to the other, as well as respect for their point of view. Both inspire sacrifice, passion, an intense involvement, and a deep concern for the well-being of the other. Both love and nonviolence expand our sense of self, so another’s joy and pain become our own. When this happens, the consequences of our actions on those we love become incredibly important, because, in truth, there is no other. The ancient truth of Advaita becomes our living experience. We are all one at the spiritual level, and oneness reigns in love.
However, none of this is easy to practice. To love a person unconditionally is most difficult, as is the practice of nonviolence. But Dr Aggarwal points out that Gandhi envisioned nonviolence as a science which can be learnt and practised. Indeed, it requires great courage, dedication, patience, and persistence, as any endeavour for self-improvement does. But with a little effort in the right direction, not just individuals, but even society is sure to reap its rewards.
Dr Aggarwal speaks of the four C’s—connection, communication, compassion, and celebration. They are the bedrock of both love and nonviolence, and must be nurtured for both personal as well as societal and political relationships to thrive.
She explains that nonviolence is a celebration because everybody wins, and true greatness lies in expanding one’s circle of love.
Nonviolent conflict resolution
“We are constantly being astonished at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt-of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence.”—Mahatma Gandhi
Nature is gloriously variegated, and these differences provide much of the beauty of life. The wholeness of existence, in its multifaceted hues, holds within itself, both harmony and conflict, both violence and peace. Where there is variety, conflict is inevitable. One need not look beyond one’s own family to realise the truth of this statement! And where conflict is inescapable, skilful means for resolution become all the more urgent and necessary. People like Dr Aggarwal passionately call for a mode of conflict resolution which is rooted in love and trust rather than in negativity and suspicion. This is the essence of nonviolent conflict resolution.
As illustrated by Mahatma Gandhi himself, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and the combined force of the people who followed their lead, nonviolence is not passivity. Rather, it is a determined assertiveness, an effective way of communicating one’s message and achieving one’s goal through love, without inflicting violence on the opposing party. It is a deep, human caring for the other, a call to resolve differences and find solutions in a way that serves the greater good of humanity. Nonviolence requires great strength of character. It is a collective expansion of consciousness, an opening of the heart, a willingness to listen and to speak with courage. Nonviolent conflict resolution envisages peace as the collective goal, which must be preserved at all costs. It acknowledges that there is no victory in violence. Humanity, as a whole, suffers and bleeds in war.
Dr Aggarwal poses a poignant question, “If it is in the minds of men that war began, as the saying goes , why not end it in the minds of men?” Violence only breeds more violence. And while military defence undoubtedly has its place, it is not the answer for every conflict situation. Here, the immense potential of nonviolent tactics remains largely untapped. As Gandhi himself said, “In politics, the vast possibilities of nonviolence are yet unexplored. It may be long before the law of love is recognized in international affairs.”
Indeed, what if nonviolence could be an accepted and viable agent of national defence? What if power on the international stage was determined by a nation’s assertive commitment to peace instead of its military prowess? What if peace-loving citizens were at the forefront of international affairs? The questions are not new. In fact, Gandhi himself proposed a Nonviolent Defence Policy to Switzerland in 1931, to Abyssinia in 1935, to Czechoslovakia in 1938, to Britain in 1940, and to the Congress Party of India in 1939 and in 1940. “Maybe it is an idea whose time has come,” says Dr Aggarwal.
So far, explains Dr Aggarwal, violence is considered the norm because it has been legitimised. Nonviolent Defence calls for the political legitimisation of nonviolence as an instrument of conflict resolution, with the highest interest of promoting and preserving peace. It is a little-known fact that Nonviolent Defence is a well-researched field, with scholars like Gene Sharp and Robert Burrows dedicating much of their life’s work to this cause. Dr Aggarwal herself has been giving lectures on Nonviolent Defence since 1997 and has simultaneously spearheaded an international petition to create awareness and ignite change on this front. Initially, her ideas didn’t gain much traction. As a result, Dr Aggarwal set the campaign aside for nearly a decade and a half. But this year, she decided to relaunch this initiative to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and revive his legacy of nonviolent conflict resolution. In Gandhi’s view, engaging with politics is the only way to make any lasting, systemic change. “As a Gandhian, I can’t help but do this,” she says.
Dr Aggarwal has drafted an international petition, addressed to all national governments and the United Nations, for the following: First, the institution of Nonviolent Defence be globally incorporated in National Defence systems, in parallel with the present military defence mechanisms. Second, the legal option to undergo training in Nonviolent Defence rather than in armed combat. Third, governments offer taxpayers the option to divert their defence tax from military defence to Nonviolent Defence.
To support this, she envisages a host of larger institutional and structural changes. For administration and policymaking, Nonviolent Defence would require the Ministry of Defence to have two wings: one for military and armed combat, and the other to oversee nonviolent means. For education and training in nonviolent tactics, Nonviolent Defence Training colleges must be set up alongside military colleges. In addition, her plan envisions setting up Nonviolent Defence academies at the grassroots level to offer a two-week course in Nonviolent Conflict Resolution for every student finishing school. In addition to building awareness and sensitivity, this will empower students to use nonviolent action in their daily lives. “The blueprint of this curriculum is ready,” she says, “and includes 198 methods of nonviolent action and 24 case studies which demonstrate the successful history of nonviolent action. If there can be compulsory military training, it is only fair and just that there be a parallel compulsory training in nonviolent conflict resolution.”
Dr Aggarwal is not a lone voice in these respects. Her call for peace finds echoes around the world. However, she is aware of the potential criticism and counterarguments that her ideas attract. In the past, people have called her ideas too idealistic and utopian. “Maybe people find it too radical,” she says. But she hopes more people will join her cause this time, sign her petition, and raise their voices for change. Because one thing is clear. With peace as the goal, everybody wins. The strength of nonviolence lies in numbers, as Gandhi said. The more people raise their voices for peace, for nonviolence, for the well-being of humanity, the more difficult it will be for those in power to ignore the call. Change must start with the ordinary citizen, for it is the ordinary citizen who most acutely faces the ravages of violence. And if people unite and collectively call for change, what seems impossible becomes well within our reach.
(For more information about the petition and to sign, visit www.shantisahyog.org)
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