Thoughts on economics and liberty

Gandhism redux? Wanna be Gandhis and the original Gandhi [Barun Mitra]

This is by my good friend Barun Mitra. The original version was published here.

Saturday, August 20, 2011
Many of today’s anti-corruption protestors believe that they are participating in the second freedom struggle from misrule. Ambedkar had warned against extra-constitutional means of protests. But today, in the name of Gandhi, many believe that constitutional processes are expendable. It is good that Gandhi is back in the public memory. If this provides an opportunity to try and understand him, it will be even better. While the tumultuous protests we are witnessing today seem to cluster under the umbrella of Gandhism, but how Gandhian is the Anna Hazare led movement, asks Barun Mitra.
What we see: social activist Anna Hazare forever poised on the lip of a threat, that of a prolonged fast. What we know: Hazare is demanding that the Parliament of India adopt the Jan Lok Pal bill, as drafted by his team, promising to create a new, independent and anti-corruption agency.
What with the fasting and a leader wearing a white cotton cap of a certain kind, it seems that Gandhi and Gandhism, is back in vogue again. Gandhi led one of the greatest political movements the world had ever witnessed – India’s non-violent march towards independence from colonial rule. Many of today’s protestors believe that they are participating in the second freedom struggle from misrule.
And so, they don the Gandhi cap as they join street protests against corruption and mis-governance in India. Cap=Gandhi, fasting=Gandhism? Equally, while exercising the freedom to protest, there is a danger of undermining the very constitutional processes that have protected these freedoms.
Gandhi led the Indian struggle for Independence but he did not fast against British rule as such. Occasionally, he did protest against specific actions or policies of the British by fasting, such as better facilities in prisons.
Actually, the contrast could not be starker between the original Gandhi and his self-proclaimed heirs of today. Gandhi did not fast to fan anger and didn’t seek to bring pressure on the government. His political fasts always had a very specific message for his followers. He did not need to fast on a public platform, nor did he need to appear on 24/7 news channels. Yet his political fasts carried the message, strongly, succinctly, and widely, inspiring millions. Gandhi’s self-denial was an occasion for introspection, and bringing the spotlight on the issue at hand. This is why almost on every occasion he was willing and able to compromise and carry his critics along.
There is no doubt about the angst in society today. A large section of the populace has been both victim as well as participant in the prevailing corrupt environment, governance failure and economic mismanagement. The lack of credible political leadership at the moment has created a vacuum, and it is this space that civil society activists like Anna Hazare has filled. However, good intentions are not sufficient to cure all ills. It is much easier to join a popular campaign, rather than doing the requisite hard work to understand the underlying causes.
As for the coverage in the mass media, the 24/7 news media have their own interests in stoking the fire in pursuit of the drama, and hardly have the time and space necessary for a dispassionate discourse on any issue.
Mass movement
Gandhi taught the world the power of satyagraha, peaceful civil disobedience, as he led India’s struggle against British rule. Today, however, the Congress party, which he once led, is seen to be muzzling the peaceful protest led by Anna Hazare in Delhi.
Gandhi had transformed Indian politics by converting the Congress from a select club to a mass movement. Today, the same party seems confused as it confronts a few thousand people on the street.
Gandhi gave a completely new meaning to the concept of fasting, by turning the traditional Indian ritual into a powerful political tool. The fasting symbolised Gandhi’s own conviction and reflected his confidence in his followers. Gandhi was a leader who expected his friends and followers to rise to the high standards that he set. Today, political leadership primarily consists of pandering to the lowest common denominator.
Gandhi initiated fasts on a number of occasions throughout his long public life. However, he was anything but inflexible. On February 4, 1922, police fired on a procession of protestors near Gorakhpur. A rampaging mob then set fire to the police station in Chauri Chaura, killing more than 20 policemen. Gandhi called off the agitation despite objection from his colleagues in the Congress Party. He felt that his followers had not yet grasped the essence of non-violence and therefore, were not ready to undertake satyagraha. This capacity to lead from the front, established Gandhi as the true leader of the masses.
 Highlights from a few of Gandhi’s fasts
  • In South Africa, Gandhi went on a fast as a penance for some moral lapse on the part of two inmates of his ashram. He also undertook a fast when some members objected to the admission of a few Harijans to the ashram.
  • In 1919, Gandhi went on a 72- hour fast to protest the massacre of civilians by British troops in Jalianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab, and also in opposition to the public disturbances that followed in other parts of the country.
  • In November 1921, Gandhi vowed to fast on every Monday till India gained swaraj or self-rule.
  • In February 1922, Gandhi went on a fast to introspect and underscore the significance of peaceful civil disobedience among his followers, following the deaths of policemen in Chauri Chaura.
  • In 1933, Gandhi undertook a fast for his own self-purification and that of his colleagues.
  • In 1939, while on a three- day fast to protest some decisions of the ruler of Rajkot, Gandhi issued a statement, appealing to Congressmen “to make supreme efforts to clean the Congress house of proved corruption and impurities.”
Fast essentials
In 1932, Gandhi started his politically most controversial fast while in jail, in Pune. The British government had accepted a proposal for separate electorate for lower caste sections of the population, following a demand from Dr B. R. Ambedkar. Gandhi went on a fast against this proposal. He was not fasting against the British government but wanted Ambedkar to withdraw his demand, and not divide the Indian Hindu population on caste lines. After days of negotiations, a compromise was reached, and it was agreed that rather than a separate electorate, a certain number of seats in the assembly would be reserved for the lower caste sections, in order to facilitate their political participation.
Ambedkar was not very happy with the Poona Pact but he accepted the compromise because he felt that if something were to happen to Gandhi, he and the lower caste population would be blamed, and that would put at risk whatever little progress was being made in the matter.
In 1947, India was partitioned, and Pakistan was carved out, at the time of Independence. Millions of people were uprooted from their homes. Hindus sought to move to India, and Muslims to Pakistan. Emotions ran high and communal riots engulfed Bengal in the east, Punjab in the west.
The government of India struggled to keep peace in the west, as refugees poured into Delhi. Gandhi and a handful of followers went on a march through rural Bengal, comforting victims and seeking an end to the senseless violence.
Then Gandhi performed his biggest miracle in September 1947. He went on a fast in Calcutta, in an ordinary house in a Muslim locality in the city. He said he did not want to see the destruction of the ideals he had tried to strive for all his life. Gandhi declared that unless the violence ended, he would prefer to die. As the word of his fast spread, citizens and leaders began to come out, calling for peace. In three days, the 78- year- old Gandhi was able to calm the religious frenzy and the mob violence ebbed.
Today, the protestors claim to believe in constitutional democracy but do not seem to believe in the legitimacy of the elected Members of Parliament. They claim to represent the angst of the masses against corruption but feel that the same masses are gullible and would never elect ‘honest’ people to office. They claim to be followers of Gandhian ideals… yet one of the most talked about Anna Hazare legends is of him tying up village drunkards to a tree and whipping them with a belt!
Gandhi spoke of village republics. Anna has been stressing that in a democracy sovereignty lies with the people, and it is the gram sabhas that is the foundation of democracy. Yet, Anna has no hesitation in acknowledging that if he were to contest an election, he is likely to lose his deposit, because the people are ignorant. It is this kind of disdain, which gives rise to the sense of arrogance that only Anna has the light, and that those who disagree are either living in the dark or must be corrupt.
Changing course
For those who want to uphold Gandhian values and fight corruption, it would be worthwhile to ponder if their target should be the elected government of the day, or if, like Gandhi, they could inspire people to eschew the giving and taking of bribes.
The anti-corruption campaigners want to create a strong and independent institution of Lok Pal, combining the roles of policing, investigation and prosecution, all in one. They may be looking for a Superman who could easily turn into Monster Man.
Caught in the middle of the anti-corruption battle, today’s crusaders seems to have forgotten that corruption is not merely a consequence of moral frailty but an outcome of policies that sanction state patronage, bestow favours, and distort the normal economic functions.
Institutions matter. But in their zeal to end corruption, the campaigners are attempting to de-legitimise the only institution which the people are able to hold accountable – the Legislature. Most other segments of society, be it family, industry, non-profit organisations, or religious orders, do not have such a regular and periodic turnover of leadership, as is the case with the elected representatives. For good or bad, less than half of the sitting legislators have a reasonable prospect of getting re-elected.
In the current turbulent times, it would be useful to remember what Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Committee which drafted the Constitution, said in the Constituent Assembly, in 1949:
If we wish to maintain democracy not merely in form, but also in fact, what must we do? The first thing in my judgment we must do is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives. It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution. It means that we must abandon the method of civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha. When there was no way left for constitutional methods for achieving economic and social objectives, there was a great deal of justification for unconstitutional methods. But where constitutional methods are open, there can be no justification for these unconstitutional methods. These methods are nothing but the Grammar of Anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us.
In the name of Gandhi, one should not throw his values and constitutional methods out of the window. Actually, it is good that Gandhi is back in the public memory. If this provides an opportunity to try and understand him, it will be even better.
Author : Mr Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute, an independent public policy think tank in New Delhi. 
This article was published in the Liberty Institute on Saturday, August 20, 2011.

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6 thoughts on “Gandhism redux? Wanna be Gandhis and the original Gandhi [Barun Mitra]
  1. Siddhartha

    This is an all-or-nothing argument and is not acceptable. This is being bandied about quite a lot to discredit Anna Hazare. The points of dissension are as follows:
    The author put it forth as if it is the constitution against the people…and that the whole process undermines the constitution…
    this entire protest matrix shows that the constitutional processes have not delivered and there does not seem to be any panacea emerging out of the parliament to ameliorate the stream of corruption…this is the genesis.
    Of course Sanjeev Sabhlok speaks of a system for removal of corruption by contesting elections and changing the structure from within…but then have we to suffer the depredations of the powers-that-be for five years necessarily without recourse? …does that mean Mr. Ambedkar and co. had drafted a fundamentally flawed document which does not admit any recourse for five years and installs a black box called the parliament, inscrutable, unimpeachable (if in absolute majority and cabalistic otherwise)? It may be right to say that this LP will also become corrupt as Mr. Sanjeev predicts (here I disagree with Sanjeev's astrological pronouncements, when he says it with "certainty" because facts are always stranger than fiction thus what one surmises often is at complete variance with what transpires: remember you had to eat your words when you said Baba is a coward having fled the scene and Anna's movement would only succeed in rabble-rousing which would become uncontrollable).
    What this movement has achieved is stupendous and must be given strength.
    First it has been non-violent
    Second it has shown the true colours of our countrymen: of communal harmony, of mutual cooperation, of nationalism…this is the Indianness we ought to be celebrating instead of extolling the virtues of a parliamentary democracy which has probably outlived its usefulness. A much more robust and foolproof system is required (this ought to be left to experts like Sanjeev Sabhlok to devise) 
    Thirdly it has given a voice to the public…a specious argument is being put forth that everyone is corrupt, because we give bribes others take bribes…but what about the rampant dereliction of duty that is observable in the system…and so far the response of the people has been like sheep…we accept everything: the potholes, the closed ticket window in rail stations, the ramshackle trains, the recalcitrant clerk, the irascible officer…et al…
    It is not the corruption alone…It is the incompetence and negligence that we put up with…and money is not the only carrot that can make the system work…it is a sense of morality…and a pressure that the people will protest. These two points need to be examined further
    Sense of Morality: India is basically a country steeped in our ancient traditions, consisting of people who are tolerant, adjusting, loving, accepting, non-xenophobic, creative, resourceful in adversity…there are a lot of positives which I dont find any "analyst" talking about. Include a spiritual mien, a charitable disposition, a non-materialistic nature. All this found a resonance in Anna who is a frugal man of no material possessions. This has to be given strength so that the moral fibre of the country is emphasized. 
    Protests: this trait, of protesting against injustice, IS MISSING among Indians. We do not protest…Mughals came and went: we did not protest…British came and went: we protested at the end that too in a non-violent way. Dont you think there is a lesson here. We are a nation introspecting on our virtues…remember that with so many depredations and marauders trampling the nation for hundreds of years… we have not lost touch with our Ramayana and Mahabharata, Vedas and Upanishads, Gita and Gayatri Mantra… even Sufi Saints have prospered and have left deep impressions on our collective psyche. 
    We are imperishable. We Indians, our culture. We need to rediscover ourselves vocally, perceptibly and design our governance from this background. I request Mr. Sanjeev Sabhlok to introspect and assimilate this concept of Indianness into the detailed structure that he has enunciated in BFN. 
    We assimilate and do not protest and take things philosophically. But as a polity, this attitude fails… because it engenders incompetence also because you know there is no one to call the bluff. Since we do not protest, the incompetent and the venal have taken hold…and the rest decided to join the "flow" of corruption: this is a reaction to the inability to make any dent in the system following the dictum "when you cant oppose them, it is better to join them" but that is only an expeditious solution and not a substantive one. So, our polity survives on a diet of expeditiousness and not any substantive base. And doubtless who else can we blame but our parliamentary democracy, that is the only thing we have !!! If you point the finger towards the countrymen, "we, the people" point the finger towards "parliamentary democracy". Where does it end…is it not that the Lokpal would be a bridge between the two, however ramshackle to start with, if you will. 
    So, to say this movement undermines "parliamentary democracy" does not do justice to the ground realities. It is but a shibboleth. Nothing is inviolable, nothing is indispensable…the system Mr Sanjeev Sabhlok is espousing could also, hypothetically speaking, become corrupt or ineffective after n number of years…what then…would we continue with that…and not evolve ?
    What I mean to say is that India is a strong country and Indians are people with strong "core" character traits and as hundreds of years of foreign rule has not maligned our character, only built up a resilience, this movement of Anna is not a "threat" and only a resurgence of the proclivity to "protest" albeit non-violently, true to our true nature, which has hitherto been hidden. 
    In the above article, in stating the different reasons for Gandhiji's fast, it cannot be argued that there cannot be more reasons for using the instrument of fast for reasonable purposes and EVEN IF it can be proved that Anna's use of fast as an instrument was not the way Gandhi would have used it, does not in any way prove that he is not a Gandhian because by Gandhian I would mean a purity of purpose, a simplicity of mien and an interest in and resourceful endeavour for the larger issues of mankind. 

  2. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Dear Siddharth. Thanks for the extensive analysis.

    A few points:

    a) There’s a HUGE difference between analytical predictions and factual errors based on misinformation.
    – Ramdev being a coward (which I later retracted) was based on misinformation supplied by the press. Naturally, when an error is detected, the truth-seeker changes his earlier opinion. Would you not change your mind when the reported FACTS have changed?
    – Anna’s “rabble rousing”. I referred to the almost certain inflow of lumpen elements, and indeed at least one came in and burnt himself to death (or almost – what’s happened to that person)? And it is now clear to me that Anna is not a man of non-violence – the flogging of Dalits in his village shows that.
    – my prediction about the corruption/incompetence of LP is based on analytical facts. It can’t go wrong. That’s what I specialise in: policy thinking. By the same token, the system I talk of in BFN is almost incorruptible. That is based both on analysis AND empirical evidence.

    b) I’m NOT against protests. I’ve clarified in BFN, and in DOF extensively. Indeed I have ASKED for protests against corruption in BFN.

    c) I did NOT call the protests undemocratic UNTIL Anna started putting ultimatums on the parliament. Street democracy I called this. I’m against street democracy.

    d) I have reviewed my earlier (pre-2011) position re: fasts unto death this year and no longer support it for use in the form being currently used.

    e) It is true that my writings have not resonated with the highly emotional and traditional Indian public. I’m afraid I’m not into such resonance. That would not be me. It would be someone else. I’m not into populism or power. I’m into GOOD governance and reform. If Indians want a nautanki or drama from me (like Advani/Ramdev/Hazare – or even Kiran Bedi, as I now find), I’m afraid I won’t come up to that expectation. No doubt I can act (indeed won a gold medal for acting in inter-university competition in my college days), but I don’t think I ought to act and mislead India for the sake of their support. Truth I speak. If you don’t like it, so be it.


  3. Aparnita Dutta Gupta

    I am very, very proud to be an Indian. (please excuse me for the dramatic start. If you check it is nothing compared to the drama being unfolded at the national stage now). When I look around my neighbouring states who have had more military regimes than democratically elected ones or I look further at what is happening at Egypt and Libya, my heart lets out a small ‘Thank You’ to our nation-builders for giving us so strong democratic credentials. If today we have become cynical about what stands in the name of supremacy of the parliament, then who is to be blamed?

    Reading the replies to your blog it is confirmed that India today is not ready to take the blame. As one gentleman rightly said that he had other aspirations to follow and that is why he had entrusted the responsibility to run the government to the elected representatives. There are still others who say that running elections is not always the feasible solution (as if the next best thing is to criticize the MPs). Each to his own. It is like appointing a governess to raise your children because you had a different dream to pursue and then dreams fullfilled you return home to find your children gone astray. You abuse the governess of cheating you (like you are abusing the MPs today) and you sack her. But do you disown your children? Nobody asks you to give up on your dream to raise good children but then neither is it sound advice to be not a part of your children’s growth story at all especially when you find them indisciplined. For that even President Obama needs to spend quality time with his daugthers. Or do you sit on a dharna outside your house and continue to criticise the governess for having played havoc with the values you stand for?

    Coming back to the so called ‘different aspirations’ of today’s India, Anna Hazare fits the bill to a T. The crowd that followed him is a good 100 years away from the ground work that went into the gaining of India’s Independence. The philosophies of the Mahatma is lost to the present generation busy in pursuing other aspirations. ‘Gandhism’ has been conveniently replaced by ‘Gandhigiri’ thanks to Lage raho Munnabhai, a huge Bollywood hit by the same name. The difference between ‘ism’ and ‘giri’ is not a subtle difference in connotation but a huge chasm of different though process. It seems the whole work of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has been caught by the collar and turned upside down.

    The media was full of stories how young boys and girls found instant gratification in serving free food and water to the crowd gathered there at Ramlila Grounds. One even went to the extent of saying that he always wanted to do some social service and he is very happy that Anna gave him that opportunity. As if our country has any dearth of voluntary opportunities for serving the people who actually needs your help! And here lies the dichotomy. We want a strong nation devoid of any social ills yet our personal aspirations stand different, we want to serve but we do not want to soil our hands, we want a strong parliamentary system but we  have hundred reasons not to vote, we are too busy to stand for elections and fight from within but we will jeer at our elected representatives, we will bask under the fundamanetal rights given to us by our constitution builders but given half-a chance we will threaten to tear the very basis of it.

    Gandhi and Ambedkar happened a long, long time ago. They are now relegated to two dates marked in red on our calendar , a well deserved break from the race to fullfill that ‘different aspiration.’ People do not connect to them anymore. Anna came in handy for a generation looking for their own Mahatma. A qick fix solution to their feeling of guilt for not doing much ‘social service’,  legitimizing their impatience – ‘my way or no way’, their apathy towards active politics, a way to show their savviness in bringing in a revolution via facebook and twitter a la the Jasmine revolution,  and a much, much easier way to become a patriot now having fought their own ‘freedom struggle.’ (And how the government helped Anna to become a mass leader is yet another sad story).

    Anna did cash in this situation but to the detriment of the nation. He played into the same yearning for instant gratification without having tapped into the potential of the youth to give a long term solution. Instead of broadening their horizon or enlightening them on means to constitutional ways to repair what has gone wrong, instead of teaching them first to say a ‘Thank you’ Anna has unleashed a demon which has been caught by the tail. Is Anna a Gandhian?

    Does he call himself a Gandhian? Just like having ‘The Communist Manifesto’ on your library shelf does not qualify you as a communist, similarly wearing a Gandhi topi or indulging in fast-unto-death does not make you a Gandhian. Apart from copying his sartorial style or copying his ways to end a fast, I have not heard Anna speak a line on Gandhi’s philosophy of life or his global vision. I don’t blame Anna for this. It is the misfortune of the nation that we distribute the term so loosely these days.

    Or maybe Anna and his followers are right. And following the Pied Piper in a trance we may one day reach the Utopia where there is no social evil. A land where there is no corruption but where the dictat of one MAN rules. A man who does not believe in the legitimate methods of election, a man who has no patience for constitutional methods, a man who is your moral police, a man who rules not governs.

    As I have said earlier I am too proud of my democratic credentials to take umbrage upon differences of opinion with those who are following Anna. Wish them all the success in their endeavor to find the ultimate peace. As for me I still refuse to accept him as my leader.


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