Notes for a Gandhian peace movement

Columnist  | Shiv Visvanathan

Opinion, Op Ed

The challenge we have to propose for ourselves is how do we reinvent a peace movement for our time.

Mahatma Gandhi

The 150th anniversary of Gandhi has been a moment of official correctness and academic pity. Between the two institutions academia and government, we have created a cosmetic Gandhi, a coffee table character, who looks a tame version of the original. In fact, the “time pass” Gandhi we have created suits the neo liberal regime where Gandhi is more a topic of a pop quizzes than a heuristic for liberation. The playfulness, the experimental nature of Gandhi is lost when truth becomes a cosmetic rather than an ethically subversive reality. We recite Gandhi happily as a collection of quotable quotes but there is no attempt to create a new experiment or even summon the ashrams of the Indian mind to ask how one reinvents Gandhi in this age of obsolescence and genocide, where violence is one of the most inventive phenomena of the time.

The challenge we have to propose for ourselves is how do we reinvent a peace movement for our time. Which part of Gandhi do we employ and which parts do we invent? How do we use the Gandhian approach to build a critique of current ideas of security, nation state or borders? How do we reinvent Gandhi so we do not remain autistic when an Assam or Rohingya crisis confront us? 

Firstly and simply we begin with moments of prayer, contemplation and reflection, realising that the subject of critique is as much ourselves as the nation state. We have to remind ourselves of what Raimon Panikkar said that to write his book, he had to work on himself, exorcise himself ethically and philosophically. Prayer in that sense becomes a prelude to ethical invention.

As academics one begins with the book, confronting the state as text subjecting it to interrogation. The Satyagrahi’s face to face ethics confronts both the face of the creator, the face of the vulnerable other and the masks the regime wears. Conscience and security are never juxtaposed against each other. Security is a word that cocoons itself with the lesser ethics of patriotism, in beginning with prayer we realize every prayer is an invention and every invention a prayer in a move where morality and politics, technology and ethics combine to form a new grammar of liberation as the freedom to be responsible.

This brings us to a simple exercise of what happens if we confront the idea of security against Gandhi’s twin concepts of Swadeshi and Swaraj. They had different connotations. Swadeshi defined a sense of locality, neighborhood, dialect, a care for the environment around you. Swaraj moved from caring to a sense of self-rule which included trusteeship and responsibility. Between the two you owned up to the neighborhood and the planet because you owned up to a cosmos where a dew drop dovetailed into an ocean. Ethics for Gandhi was a set of oceanic circles which moved beyond safety, security or sustainability. 

An ethics of the commons was an ethics for the world where in a moral sense security and safety are puny concepts, which demand not self-respect and self-reliance but surveillance. Gandhi’s idea of sustainability ranges from accounting and accountability to responsibility and trusteeship. It goes beyond the official sustainability criteria to include language loss, obsolescence, to owning up to the defeated and the vulnerable. The conventional idea of security is confined to the borders of the nation state. It would have no idea of climate change. Swadeshi and Swaraj as twin concepts work across language, technology, nature seeking commons, going beyond the enclosure called the nation state, where ethics replaces the rituals of suspicion and surveillance.

Gandhi’s notion of peace and non-violence also cuts across the binaries, the dualisms of the western mind where one saved the head but not the heart. Peace was in that sense a search for the language of holism where dualisms like state/civil society, inner/outer, domestic/foreign policy were challenged by a new cartography of concepts. Gandhi wanted the ashram as a microcosm of his preferred world to create new ideas for the imagination. Here an organ of civil society ranged into foreign policy. 

Now NGOs cannot remain silent because foreign policy is out of bounds for civil society Satyagraha challenges the self-imposed enclosures of the mind, by asking ashrams to invent thought experiments, ethical moments where the refugee can be looked in a new way. One has to begin by questioning the exclusivity of the idea of citizenship, its increasing hollowness in an informal economy, a disaster economy and a war economy where the majority are less than citizens. The rituals of citizenship are too difficult a gauntlet to run. Political life almost becomes devoid off the claims of citizenship in the manner in which citizenship becomes confined to formal economies, sedentary groups, confining the refugee, the displaced, the migrant, the obsolescent to an Orwellian world where some are perpetually less than others. 

In a Gandhian sense, a peace movement is like all ethical acts, a craft which needs a sense of skilling. One needs a sense of reflection, exercises to sense the harmony one is looking for, an experiment in peace is an experiment one begins on oneself. One practices peace before one recommends it. One begins with the body before one moves to the body politic. The Ashrams which Gandhi used for his pedagogic experiments can begin with small forays into the no mans land we call borders. The model could be Badshash Khan’s Khuda Khitmatgar, who’s courage was indomitable. They struggled against the Partition and were treated as outcaste groups. They failed but they remained exemplars of a great peace movements, something we can model our current struggles around. One has to remember peace become a dissenting imagination in this age of jingoism and paranoia about security.

A Gandhian peace movement challenging the national security state and creating alternative possibilities would be a tribute to Gandhi. We can only honor him by reinventing him with the same style with which he challenged the Empire.