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03 February, 2008

On violence—actual and potential, visible and invisible

Once again I am taking the liberty of placing here views I expressed in the course of an Internet group discussion

I fully share the strong abhorrence of violence which has found expression in this group. At the same time I feel we must realistically acknowledge the role of violence, actual and potential, visible and invisible, in social and political life.

Violence has attended most social and political changes. I don’t want to drag in the French, American, Russian and Chinese and other revolutions, but let us ask ourselves how correct we are in claiming that under Gandhiji’s leadership we defeated the biggest empire in a non-violent struggle. The last and biggest of Gandhiji’s campaigns was the 1942 movement. It was not quite non-violent. Acts of sabotage were resorted to widely. Unlike during the early phase of his leadership of the Congress, Gandhi did not denounce these violent acts. (One possible explanation is that he was in prison.) It is another matter that the 1942 movement did not gather sufficient strength at any stage to pose a serious threat to Britain’s war effort. In fact, the number of people who volunteered for military service during the period exceeded the number of people who courted arrest by participating in the Quit India movement.

An ex-army general was the Viceroy when World War II ended. His letters to London, which are now public documents, show that he kept pressing the Attlee government to take steps for orderly transfer of power to avoid having to pull out in a hurry. What worried him was not the possibility of another non-violent Congress campaign, but the possibility of about two million soldiers, who had seen active service and were about to be demobilized, joining any new agitation. He also warned his masters that public opinion in war-weary Britain would not support massive use of force against agitators in India.

Partition became inevitable because there was no non-violent answer for Jinnah’s civil war threat. Gandhiji redeemed his personal honour with the bold peace mission in Bengal, but there being no non-violent way to fight a civil war, he abandoned the “over my dead body” position.

Isn’t the social exclusion and deprivation to which millions are subjected not a form of violence? Was not the caste system imposed and maintained through use of brute force? Or must we believe that the vast majority of the people of the land willingly embraced slavery? There were many physical fights in Kerala in the last century as the disadvantaged sections of society asserted the right to use public places. Even today in many parts of the country, caste supremacists resort to violence when the Dalits try to exercise their constitutional right to equality.

Violence has been an important and indispensable element of the “Hindu” tradition. The purpose of every Avatar was to kill. Some ancient passages bear evidence of an attempt to incorporate the Buddha in the Hindu pantheon as an avatar. One scholar has suggested that the reason why that attempt failed was that the Buddha had not killed anyone.

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