Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Modern-day Gandhis

It has been more than 100 years since Mohandas Gandhi proclaimed the principles of Satyagrahya, literally the path to truth, or what the rest of the world chooses to call non-violent resistance. It has been more than 60 years since Gandhi’s death by an assassin, but his principles of civil disobedience are still relevant, and pertinent.

This is nowhere truer than in Gandhi’s own country, which has been convulsed for weeks by a mild-mannered but steely-eyed modern-day Gandhi known as Anna Hazare, who last week began a fast at a public open space in the middle of New Delhi, his second this year, to force the Indian parliament to pass an anti-corruption bill with teeth in it.

But Hazare isn’t the only latter-day Gandhi causing headaches for entrenched leaders in Asia. In Malaysia a 54-year-old woman lawyer named Ambiga Sreenevason, is the leader of a popular movement to force the government to reform the electoral process. Called Bersih, meaning “clean” in Malay, it defied a government ban on holding a mass protest in Kuala Lumpur last month and faced down police using water cannon; more than a thousand were arrested.

With the deadly riots in London still fresh in everyone’s memory, it is worth remembering that non-violent resistance still has a place in the modern world, just as it did back on September 11, 1906, when a proper British 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.

India’s current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, paid an official visit to South Africa in 2006 to observe the 100th anniversary of Satyagraha and visited many placed associated with Gandhi’s early life. But with the shoe on the other foot, Singh recently complained that Hazare’s hunger strike was “misconceived.” He maintains that the difference between what Hazare wants and what the government proposes are not so far apart and should not be decided through fasting.

Hazare looks a lot like the Mahatma. A short, bespectacled pensioner of 74, he appears in public wearing a white pointed cap and a simple, white cotton gown similar to the one Gandhi wore. Ambiga, a former chairman of the Malaysian Bar Council, looks more like the barrister of Gandhi’s South African days.

Some have likened the Hazare-inspired and the Bersih protests to the “Arab Spring” that swept through the Middle East this year toppling several dictators. However, neither of these two latter-day Gandhi’s is seeking regime change. Indeed, their demands are relatively modest.

Hazare and his followers are demanding that the government adopt their version of legislation to create a national anti-corruption ombudsman and do so by the end of August. To drive their point home, Hazare began to fast “to the death” last week. Bersih seeks what appear to be some fairly minor changes to the election laws.

Some have criticized Hazare as being essentially undemocratic and that his fasting is a kind of moral blackmailing of a popularly elected government. But then just because India is a democracy doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be deaf to popular feelings or beholden to special interests.

After all, an ombudsman bill such as the one Hazare wants to see passed was first introduced into parliament in 1968 and has been re-introduced and defeated nine times since then. The changes that Bersih demands for the Malaysian electoral system would weaken the political machine that has run Malaysia since independence in 1957.

Not everyone in India appreciates Hazare’s assuming the mantel of a saint. Aruna Roy, a famed social activist in her own right, heaps scorn on his anti-corruption legislative proposal, calling it naive and tending to concentrate too much power and oversight in one giant government bureaucracy

Gandhi, of course, is remembered or his non-violent resistance to British rule in India, but the principles of nonviolent opposition are not limited to overthrowing colonial regimes or dictatorships. Indeed the very first applications in South Africa were aimed at overcoming oppressive laws and local conditions. For that matter, so too was civil disobedience in the Civil rights movement in the United States.

Both movements got an enormous boost from ham-fisted reactions by leaders of both countries. When Hazare threatened a second fast in April, the government threw him in jail, which, of course, only turned hat had begun as a relatively modest protest movement into a national crusade.

Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, was hugely embarrassed both by the government’s over reaction to the July protests and later by a ham-fisted public relations campaign meant to discredit Bersih. He recently announced formation of a “non-partisan” commission to study electoral reforms

For many younger Indians, obsessed with making money and with India’s rise as an economic superpower, Gandhi has been a distant and dour figure, someone they probably read about only in dusty textbooks at school but not relevant to their life in the 21st century.

Hazare seems to have awakened an important though dormant part of India’s heritage while at the same time tapping into a seething anger over endemic corruption in India and a growing gap between the rising middle class and the millions who are left behind.


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