At a time when the world is taking to the streets for one thing or another — to overthrow repressive regimes in the Arab world or loot television sets in the UK — India is not to be left behind.
Over the last few days, a number of adjectives have been used to describe the outpouring of public frustration that has filled the streets of urban India. The protests against corruption have been called ‘historic’, ‘a watershed’, ‘a revolution’ and, occasionally, ‘a circus’. All these epithets apply, but there is something else that this week marks. And that is the arrival of the neo-Gandhian.
At the centre of all this is the diminutive Anna Hazare, with the correct attire and headdress, who is asserting his right to peaceful protest via an old method perfected to peak potency by Mahatma Gandhi: the fast unto death.
Gandhi had undertaken a number of fasts during his lifetime. Not all of them were on issues that affected an entire nation. He had, at various times, refused food for reasons as different as self-purification; the ‘detection of untruth’ among ashram-ites, and later for unacceptable sexual behaviour by boys and girls in ashrams; the seduction of his son by a married woman, who he wished to shame; pay raises for workers in Ahmedabad’s textile mills (whose owners were his friends), and so on.
Of course, fasting was a key weapon in his many battles over much larger issues, and not necessarily against an oppressive establishment. His fasts for communal harmony were directed against his own people. But he left the British bemused in 1932 by undertaking a fast against the proposed separate electorate for Harijans. The proposal actually gave Harijans two votes, a general category vote and another in their own electorate, but Gandhi saw this as a religious issue, a codification of separateness, something he would give his life to prevent (though Nehru thought it a sideshow).
The reasons for Gandhi’s success lay not just in his saintly stature or the moral force of his argument. It owed just as much to his belief in arbitration, conciliation and his ability to calibrate escalation.
Of the Ahmedabad workers’ strike, Louis Fischer writes in her biography of Gandhi: “He probably would have fasted against the workers had they opposed arbitration. The principle of arbitration is essential to Gandhi’s philosophy… It teaches people tolerance and conciliation”.
A less sympathetic view illustrating the same point can be found in a Time Magazine piece on Gandhi’s fast unto death against the ruler of Rajkot in 1939. Gandhi was in poor health as he commenced his fast, and neither the ruler of Rajkot nor the British government wanted a dead Mahatma on their hands. But “if Britain gave in… and forced the Thakore sahib to reform his government, a bad precedent would be set”. It appeared to be one of those immovable object meets irresistible force situations. Time’s March 13, 1939 story went on to say: “The Bombay stock exchange closed, there were dire predictions of a great mass uprising in India if the beloved Mahatma died. Then this week the Marquess of Linlithgow, India’s viceroy, sent a message to him. Immediately thereafter news came that the sick saint had broken his fast. His apparent inducement: an emergency meeting of the British Cabinet called that night at No. 10 Downing Street to appease Mahatma Gandhi”.
The vital difference between the Gandhian and the neo-Gandhian is that one is able to calibrate, compromise and reconcile, and the other is not. Anna Hazare and ‘team Anna’, as they are referred to, seem to believe that only their draft of a bill against corruption is valid. End of discussion.
Currently, however, the neo-Gandhians enjoy one huge advantage. Their immediate adversaries seem to be incredibly stupid. The state machinery in India moved first to prevent Anna’s fast by arresting him, denying him bail — and putting him in the same prison now occupied by some of India’s most corrupt politicians. Hours later, when the irony dawned on them, they were begging him to leave jail. Meanwhile, rivers of people flowed through cities across India howling injustice and courting arrest.
The neo-Gandhians had arrived.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2011.