Monday, October 02, 2006

100 Years of Satyagraha

The date September 11, 2001, is seared into the consciousness of Americans, a symbol of mindless, incomprehensible violence. But there is another September 11, whose meaning, quite different, still reverberates down the century.

September 11, 1906, marked the birth of Satyagraya – literally the path of truth – meaning nonviolent resistance to oppression. On that date an Indian barrister, named Mohandas Gandhi, chaired a meeting in the Empire Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The 3,000 or so people gathered there were protesting against the Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, which required them to carry internal passports and live and work under segregated conditions.

The people at the meeting resolved to refuse to observe the terms of the ordinance even to the extent of going to prison. Gandhi later said:

“I had to choose between allying myself to violence or finding out some other method of meeting the crisis and stopping the rot, and it came to me that we should refuse to obey the legislation that was degrading and let them put us in jail if they liked. Thus came into being the moral equivalent of war.”

The Empire Theater was torn down years ago, but Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence has survived down the decades, inspiring such leaders as Martin Luther King and Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Sui Kyi.

The centennial of Satyagraya has not been forgotten in the land of Gandhi’s birth, even if the memory of the man has receded over the years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to South Africa this week, timed to coincide with the anniversary.

He visited the Gandhi Prison Exhibition in Johannesburg and several other sites relevant to Gandhi’s work in South Africa.

For many younger Indians, obsessed with making money now and with India’s rise as an economic superpower, Gandhi is a distant and dour figure, someone they probably read about only in dusty textbooks at school.

But the Bollywood film, Raho Munna Bahia, a comedy in which the ghost of Gandhi appears to a smalltime crook, has been hugely popular and has made Gandhi cool again to younger people. Gandhi websites have sprung up, and young people wear his slogans on T-shirts.

The question that arises is: In the backdrop of rising terrorism and with non-states themselves becoming more oppressive, could Satyagraha still be used as a method to attain higher political goals?

In a world whose discourse now is dominated by such phrases as “war on terror”, “jihad’, “water boarding”, “improvised explosive devices”, “clash of civilizations”, Abu Griab”, “coercive interrogation,” is there still room for Satyagraha?

Would Gandhi’s methods work today against Osama bin Laden, or, for that matter, and from a different perspective, against America’s own brand of imperialism?

It is difficult to imagine how Gandhi’s principles would work successfully against the al-Qaeda leaders. After all, a hallmark of Gandhi and of his followers such as Martin Luther King, was face-to-face confrontation.

Al-qaeda operates from a distant, isolated and secret position making it impossible to counter his violent aims through Satyagraya.

But it is more intriguing to wonder what would have happened if Iraqis has applied the principles of non-violent resistance to the American occupation instead of triggering roadside bombs.

The situation, after all, is not so different from the one that Gandhi faced in India under the British. And even Gandhi acknowledged that he could not have succeeded if Britain had been a dictatorship.

If Satyagraha worked in India why couldn’t it work in Iraq?

Perhaps in a way it is. It may be that there is no Iraqi Gandhi, but more than the insurgency itself, it is the silent resistance of the ordinary Iraqi that is America’s biggest worry and challenge. It is this “struggle” that could ultimately lead America to “quit” Iraq.

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October 9, 2006 at 10:28 PM  

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