The popularity of violence is due to several reasons. Violence tempts us because it activates and nurtures our egos and an inflated ego is often celebrated as a hyper-masculine attribute of bravery. It does not demand the honest labour of self-reflection. Instead, we are led to believe that the problem lies necessarily always outside, and hence the annihilation of the ‘enemy’ out there is seen to be the only way to our redemption. Violence satisfies the urge to find quick ‘solutions’ and it encourages one’s sadistic thrill of being seen as ‘superior’ to others.
Gandhi recognized that good and evil cannot be neatly separated as was commonly assumed and that good turned into evil when pressed beyond a certain point. Mankind therefore could not be divided into two neat classes with one so privileged that it had a right to punish the rest. In his view almost every revolution so far had led to terror, devoured its children, and failed to create a better society. Once people resort to violence to settle a conflict, they keep trying to increase their power and reduce their opponent's power.
Gandhi thinks that once violence becomes institutionalized, it will be readily used against former friends and allies. It becomes an 'easy step from employing violence on foreign rulers to using it on our own people whom we consider obstructing the country's progress.' Violence soon becomes the normal way to settle conflicts and ensure compliance. Soon what were once morally objectionable actions become acceptable. He fears that 'once the custom of effecting reforms by force gets established, the people tend to become dull and lifeless.' Raghavan Iyer writes in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi:
Gandhi's view of the connection between satya and ahimsa was based upon the belief that truth and non-violence are both unifying forces, while error and violence are divisive factors, in human society. Truth needs no violence for its diffusion and is, in fact, obscured by violence.
Violence is not only a sign of insecurity and incomplete conviction but it also makes victory more important than truth, distorts the truth and renders its free acceptance more difficult.
It is assumed that in certain situations violence is the only possible solution but it is not always so. But what is required, as Gandhi recognized, is tremendous courage, far more than what is required for violence. For softening passions and producing an atmosphere in which compromise was possible, Gandhi insisted that the struggle it involves cannot be sustained in an atmosphere of violence and fear. The ethical contest Gandhi invites all sides to enter forbids the use of fear: Arousing it is as bad as becoming its victim. The victor must prove moral superiority to the satisfaction of the loser.
For Gandhi, ahimsa was much more than being merely civil to your opponents. Civility can arise out of a feeling of social obligation or a recognition of the cost of violence. Ahimsa, in addition, also has a positive faith that active non-violence can move the opponent towards seeing the justice of your resistance and in protecting the weak against the strong. Where reason fails, love might, but violence cannot, solve the problem. Gandhi is belittled because he had the guts to ignore Holderlin's maxim, 'If you have understanding and a heart, show only one. Both they will damn, if both you show together.'
At the root of all of Gandhi’s efforts was a focus on self-improvement. When riots broke out in Calcutta just before independence, Gandhi refused to write them off as simply a manifestation of goondaism. He asserted that all citizens of Calcutta were responsible for the violence; all must ‘turn the searchlight inwards’ and see that ‘wide open goondaism was a reflection of the subtle goondaism they were harboring within.’
How could they claim to enjoy their rights in a free India when they had failed in their responsibility to maintain civil peace and order? (He didn’t say this from the safety of a far-of place but in Calcutta during the riots.) When he proposed a fast to quell the riots, Rajaji asked him, ‘Can one fast against the goondas?’ Gandhi replied, ‘I want to touch the hearts of those who are behind the goondas.’ It was enough for him if society at large had no sympathy with the goondas.
For years Indians had blamed criminal elements in society for communal conflict as well as other urban violence. Gandhi replied: "Goondas do not drop from the sky, nor do they spring from the earth like evil spirits. They are the product of social disorganization, and society is therefore responsible for their existence. In other words, they should be looked upon as a symptom of corruption in our body politic." That was in 1940.
When in 1946 he was confronted with the Bihar riots, he again unequivocally placed the responsibility where it belonged by deploring "the habit of procuring a moral alibi for ourselves by blaming it all on the goondas. We always put the blame on the goondas. But it is we who are responsible for their creation as well as encouragement." The argument that goondas were distinct from ordinary law-abiding citizens had never appealed to Gandhi.
His non-violent methods of protest were based on the principle that “to kill for freedom will legitimize killing after freedom.” A Western style of parliamentary government he would accept as Swaraj for the time being only. While in the ideal society there is no room for the military and the police, yet in the actual State there is provision for it according to the moral level of its citizens. Whatever political institutions Gandhi accepted, he did so only as a transitional device, to be transcended by better ones. No institutional device is final. They must evolve with the evolution of individuals.
Gandhi was no philosopher in the dogmatic sense of the term. He did not cut himself adrift from the daily problems and struggles of the people and take refuge in a solitary physical and mental corner to formulate his philosophy of non-violence. His was the unique technique of taking active role in the process of the solution of the everyday problems of people. Though he had supreme confidence in the ideal of non-violence, Gandhi remained, to the end, a seeker — striving towards an ideal rather than claiming to have arrived at a goal.
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