Friday, November 19, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 9b

Propagation of non-violence was no novel or unprecedented act of Gandhi. As he himself has rightly said, "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could." To say that this is not the kind of world we live in  and fall victim to the paranoid panic that the power-hungry seek to promote would prove right Goebbels’ perverse prediction :“Even if we lose, we shall win, for our ideals will have penetrated the hearts of our enemies.”

Gandhi repudiated the idea that morality is simply an individual affair. Gandhi objected to violence because when it appears to do good, the good it does is temporary, the evil it does is more lasting. He was not interested in semantics to explain away violence. 'What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?' This is also why he adhered throughout to the view that a technology-centered socio-economic system could not but be exploitative and violence-prone. 

In Gandhi’s view, violence ‘oozed from every pore’ of modern society and had so much become a way of life that the modern man could not cope with his relations with himself or other men without translating them into the military language of conflict, struggle, mastery, subjugation, domination, victory and defeat. He asserted that the cruelties committed in the name of sectarian religion cannot compare with the endless victims destroyed in the fire of civilization.  As Lewis Mumford said, 'War is the supreme drama of a completely mechanized society.'

Arguably, ideology has been the greatest killer in mass violence in the 20th century. Religious war might have been so in earlier centuries, but the records of many secular ideologies like nationalism, Leninist and Maoist Marxism have been much worse in our times. The Nazis described themselves as the most masculine of movements and the result was unimaginable cruelty. Gandhi said in Hind Swaraj long before the bloodlust of secular ideologies became apparent, 'I am prepared to maintain that humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.' 

He realized that some of the worst crimes in history arise out of actions performed with good intentions. Everyone remembers that 9/11 is the date on which the towers in New York was brought down which prompted the US President to declare a 'war on terror'. 9/11 was also the date on which satyagraha or militant nonviolence was born at Johannesburg in 1906. Does this coincidence of dates and their vastly uneven occurrence in public me memory tell us something?

Albert Camus once said that “through a curious transposition peculiar to our times, it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself.” Despite the pretense in global diplomacy, it is non-violence not violence that has to be justified. In A Promised Land, Barrack Obama's account of the early years of his presidency, he describes the hunt for Osama bin Laden. There was a lot of focus and determination in the efforts to locate his whereabouts and an eruption of joy and patriotic fervor in the population when they got news of his death. Obama writes:

. . .Was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? The question nagged at me. For all the pride and satisfaction I took in the success of our mission in Abbottabad, the truth was that I hadn’t felt the same exuberance as I had on the night the healthcare bill passed. 

We have too many men of science, too few men of God,' General Omar N. Bradley, Chief of Staff, United States Army, said in Boston on November 10, 1948. 'We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount... The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.'

Gandhi held that non-killing was the least expression of ahimsa. Sometimes killing was the cleanest part of violence. The continuous harassment of an opponent can be worse than killing him outright. Gandhi opposed different standards of non-violence for saints and ordinary people. Ahimsa for Gandhi was not denial of power as influence, persuasion or pressure but only of power in its violent form. A votary of ahimsa must recognize that it is more difficult to live for non-violence than to die for it and must therefore strive to apply it in all conflicts and against all coercion. 

As Gandhi recognized, 'It has always been easier to destroy than to create". I was shocked by this report that there is brisk sales of Mein Kampf in Delhi with some management students seeing it as "a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it".  Young people seem to crave success (whatever it means) without bothering about the means employed to achieve it. Apparently in Russia, Hitler is more popular than Harry Potter. Hannah Arendt writes in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

It is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past. No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes. 

On the contrary, whatever the punishment, once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been. The particular reasons that speak for the possibility of a repetition of the crimes committed by the Nazis are even more plausible. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 9a

Arundhati Roy confuses between the ideal and the actual in Gandhi’s philosophy especially regarding his views on non-violence and his idea of the village. Not being an academic philosopher, he did not set this out in explicit terms but it can be gleaned from his writings and speeches. The failure to appreciate this has led his critics either to misrepresent him or to call him inconsistent and full of contradictions. It would be incorrect to say that Gandhi was blind about the gulf between moral ideals and social facts or that he was a dogmatic moralist who had a na├»ve understanding of the nature of social and political conflicts. 

As a social and political reformer, Gandhi spoke from different levels at different times. But three levels mainly dominate his writings: first, that of the perfect ideal (unrealizable); second, that of his own personal point of view (admitting himself to be far from perfect, yet sufficiently advanced to practice his ideals); third, that of the point of view of the Indian masses. Under certain circumstances, nonviolence may be only a matter of policy, as it was with the Indian National Congress. But this cannot be identified with the level of nonviolence which Gandhi personally was capable of. There is not a uniform pattern of application of nonviolence for all individuals and societies. 

He said that men like him ‘cling to their faith in human nature’ notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary.  For Gandhi, to profess nonviolence with sincerity or even to write a book about it was not adequate. He said, ‘I believe in what Max Muller said years ago, namely that truth needed to be repeated as long as there were men who disbelieved it.” As a discipline, a "code of conduct," true nonviolence demands endless vigilance over one's entire way of life because it includes words and thought as well as actions. "If one does not practice nonviolence in his personal relationships with others, he is vastly mistaken. Nonviolence, like charity, must begin at home." 

According to him, there must always be an unbridgeable gulf between the ideal and its practice. The practice of nonviolence is by no means a simple matter, and Gandhi never said that it was. Human life is a series  of compromises but these do not justify lowering the theoretical ideal of human development. 'Let us be sure of our ideal. We shall ever fail to realize it, but we shall never cease to strive for it.’ 

The ideal will cease to be one if it becomes possible to realize it. Striving after the ideal is the very essence of practicing Gandhi’s philosophy. To the extent we make this effort, to that extent we realize the ideal. Perfect nonviolence cannot be practiced by human beings. Being a part of society, man cannot but participate in some amount of “himsa” that is necessary for survival. He held that “taking life may be a duty.”  

We destroy plant life to sustain our bodies; in the interest of health we kill mosquitoes; and for the benefit of the species we destroy carnivorous beasts, yet we do not think we are being unethical. Gandhi would consider a person true to his faith if “there is an effort to avoid the violence that is inevitable in life”. In essence, it consists “in allowing others the maximum of convenience at the maximum inconvenience to us, even at the risk of life. Everyone has to determine for himself the amount of inconvenience he is capable of putting up with. No third party can determine it for him.” 

Having decided upon the rightness of a situation, Gandhi would not like one to be a passive spectator to evil. That would be participation in the evil itself. If one does not have sufficient nonviolence to die without killing, one should not shamefully flee from the danger in the name of nonviolence. Rather, Gandhi would advise killing and being killed. For himself he did not believe in the use of arms at all ("There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for".) 

But he would not hesitate to advise their use by those who had no faith in non-violence. “If there was a national government, whilst I should not take any direct part in any war, I can conceive occasions when it would be my duty to vote for the military training of those who wish to take it. For I know that all its members do not believe in nonviolence to the extent I do. It is not possible to make a person or a society nonviolent by compulsion.” 

According to Gandhi, violence has its roots in fear and suspicion. He feels that such people are fighting ‘an imagined enemy without’ and neglecting ‘the enemy within’. The violent person pretends to possess the truth about good and evil and who should be punished and who should be spared. This is contrary to Gandhi’s view that a person can have access to only partial truth. Also the violent person claims a dangerous omnipotence for himself in deciding the limits to violence regardless of its effect on others. In this way the violent person treats other human beings as means to an end. 'Pride is a monster that swallows' ahimsa because it fails to acknowledge the worth and dignity of other people.