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24 Jun, 2007

Gandhi’s Pursuit of Non-Violence In Reality Was a Pursuit of Justice

Originally Published: 24 June 2007

The June 15 decision by the UN General Assembly to observe the International Day of Non-Violence each year on 2 October – the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi — is intended to promote public awareness of, and deeper reflections on, the life and times of a revolutionary leader whose policies and strategies are of critical importance to the future global economic and political order.

I have often written about Gandhi, an inspiring leader known to every Indian just as well as Thais know His Majesty the King. While Thailand has been fortunate under His Majesty’s reign to stave off colonialism and foreign occupation, the Mahatma faced a far more perilous task in having to shake off the same terrible twins largely without bloodshed, as has been the case in Thailand.

Anand Sharma, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, was quoted as saying by the UN News Service that the idea of promoting the International Day of Non-Violence originated from the Declaration adopted at the “International Conference on Peace, Non-Violence and Empowerment -– Gandhian Philosophy in the 21st Century”.

Gandhi’s “novel mode of mass mobilization and non-violent action” brought down colonialism, strengthened the roots of popular sovereignty, of civil, political and economic rights, and greatly influenced many a freedom struggle and inspired leaders like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Sharma stated.

The UN draft resolution said that promoting non-violence by observing such a day would significantly contribute to the realization of the goals set out in the 1999 United Nations Declaration and Programme of Action on a Culture of Peace.

“Bearing in mind that non-violence, tolerance, full respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, democracy, development, mutual understanding and respect of diversity, are interlinked and mutually reinforcing, the Assembly invited all U.N. Member States, U.N. organizations, regional and non-governmental organizations and individuals to commemorate the International Day in an appropriate manner and to disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness,” the UN statement said.

The resolution “requested the Secretary-General to recommend ways and means by which the UN system and the Secretariat could, within existing resources, assist Member States in organising activities to commemorate the Day.”

Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh hailed the decision as “a tribute by the world community to the Father of our Nation. The universal relevance of Gandhiji’s message of non-violence is more important today than ever before since nations across the world continue to grapple with the threat of conflict, violence and terrorism.

“This is also an occasion for all of us, the people of India, to re-dedicate ourselves to the ideals and values of Mahatma Gandhi, which shall continue to be our guiding light.”

As the first of those days is barely a few months away, this column may help generate some public awareness.

The Mahatma’s role in the Indian independence movement against British occupation and colonisation has much to contribute towards better understanding and addressing the root causes of many of today’s global problems.

Perhaps the most notable fact is that Gandhian revolution was driven not by nationalism but a fierce and unshakeable pursuit of justice triggered by a personal experience on a public transport system in South Africa, then under the yoke of that revolting system of apartheid.

In India, a different kind of economic and political apartheid was in place under the British. Although the British gave India its political, educational and judicial institutions, they extracted a price — political and economic control. And leaders like Gandhi decided that paying homage to the Queen of England was too high a price.

A second important lesson, especially in this age of “globalisation”, is that political and economic independence are intertwined — one cannot be attained without the other.

Indeed, the Indian pursuit of independence in the 20th century has many parallels with the 18th century US war of Independence. Both were against British rule, and both involved making an economic statement in order to prove a political point — the Boston Tea Party in the US and Gandhi’s Salt March in India.

Today, India proudly abides by the democratic principles the US once preached but seldom practises. A country whose formerly firebrand media once brought down lying presidents but now promotes them, questioned unjust wars but now applauds them, is hardly worthy of being labelled a “democracy.”

Neither can a study of Gandhian nonviolence be disconnected from the philosophy of cause and effect, as espoused by Buddhism.  Violence is in reality the effect, or the consequence, or a far deeper cause, but Gandhi, upon reflecting that a populous country like India can ill-afford a violent revolution, wisely decided that there has to be a better way.

Gandhi also showed that morally strong leadership can be a more potent force than firepower.  In violent revolutions, the only people who really benefit regardless of which side wins are the arms dealers. In non-violent revolutions, the people are truly the winners.

An equally significant lesson in this age of globalisation, also known as an era of neo-colonialism, is that all empires ultimately fall. Inspite of being such a globalised force, stretching from Johor to Jamaica via Jodhpur, the British empire ultimately collapsed, leaving behind a number of partitioned states that continued to breed conflict years after the British exit.

The West has little interest in promoting Gandhian policies because its current crop of leaders risk being exposed as proponents of violence. They will be able to better understand why the decades-long Middle East conflict remains so intractable. If the West cannot differentiate between the occupier and the occupied, the victimizer and victimized, the colonizer and the colonized, there is no hope of it being able to broker a lasting peace.

On the economic front, the first shots in the battle against neo-colonialism are being fired right here in Thailand itself. The generation of today does not want to wake up one fine morning 10 years from now to find that large and very critical sectors of its infrastructure like water, transport, telecommunications, are owned/operated/managed by Temasek and various other foreign companies for whom a country is nothing more than a profit-making dot on a large map.

Finally, perhaps the most important lesson lies not in the way Gandhi lived but in the way he died, at the hands of a terrorist — mercifully, not a Muslim one, I should add. For a man of peace and non-violence to become the victim of a violent assassination by one of his own kin is the ultimate tragedy.

Unfortunately, there are still many such fundamentalist fanatic killers around today, of all castes, colours and creeds. They are the real threats to the creation of a global culture of non-violence.