The nation celebrates Gandhi Jayanti today, October 2, as it does every year. On this day Indians gratefully recall Gandhiji’s inspiring life and his tireless work for the country’s independence. They also recall his contributions to social reform and his burning desire for communal harmony. It is important to remember these, especially at this present time of intense ideological contestation, so that India does not drift away from the principles of the freedom movement whose ideals are the life breath of India’s constitution. This precious document commits the people, especially the political class, to work for equality and the preservation of other fundamental freedoms.
India’s constitutional quest is revolutionary; it seeks to completely throw out, through the democratic political process, a social order which continued for centuries on the basis of hierarchy and inequality. Gandhiji worked for a society based on the principle of equality which is the foundation of the country’s constitutional order. The constitution also incorporates the essential proposition that the state cannot discriminate between citizens on the basis of faith. But Gandhiji went beyond rejecting the idea of state based religious discrimination by demanding that there should also not be any social discrimination on religious grounds. He went further still by insisting on communal harmony. Indeed the Indian social reality is such that the nation can only achieve its full potential if Indian diversity, including on grounds of faith, is celebrated as a basic and essential characteristic of the country.
Gandhiji infused great vigour in the independence struggle by making it a mass movement. He took it from the Council Chambers to the people whom he imbued with a passion to rid the country of colonial rule. Most significantly, he asked the people to follow the path of non-violent non-cooperation. This was not a passive process but an effective and purposeful force which the world had never experienced before. It was the path of courage, discipline and resilience to break the shackles of colonialism. It is no wonder that India achieved independence following the path shown by Gandhiji. The Gandhian way also became an inspiration for freedom as well as social equality movements in many parts of the world in the 20th century. This included the epic struggle for social and economic equality waged by African-Americans under the leadership of Martin Luther King in the United States.
The international community recognised the validity of non-violence within and between states for the 21st century too. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in June 2007 declaring October 2 as the International Day of Non-Violence. It asked all member-states, UN organisations and people to observe the day and “disseminate the message of non-violence, including through education and public awareness”. In its preambular part the resolution recognised the “universal relevance of the principle of non-violence”. It also noted “non-violence, tolerance, full respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, democracy, development, mutual understanding and respect for diversity are interlinked and mutually reinforcing”. It is true that non-violence and these other social and political attributes reinforce each other.
It is equally true that coercion and violence breeds a culture of repression, denial of rights and authoritarianism. It is imperative to realise that scientific and technological advance is giving increasing destructive power to states. Now some states have the capacity to deliver destructive force over wide areas with the use of weapons of mass destruction. They also have weapon systems to target very small areas with pinpoint accuracy sometimes with very tragic consequences leading to the death of innocents including children. This makes it imperative that countries commit themselves to resolve disputes peacefully.
This principle also applies to protest groups against acts of indiscriminate or targeted violence. They in motion cycles and even spirals of violence which can last for decades. The right to protest is a basic right. Indeed, India’s freedom movement itself was a protest against British colonialism. The question is how should protests be undertaken. The temptation to resort to violence is always substantial. Many Indian freedom fighters took up arms in the cause of India’s independence. Gandhiji showed that both at principle as well as technique non violence succeeded in achieving the objectives of protest.
Among its many spiritual traditions India had those that followed the path of non-violence not only in respect of human beings but all sentient creatures. Mahavira and the Tirthankaras preached the pursuit of non-violence for personal purity and spiritual enlightenment. Buddha emphasised ahimsa as the righteous path. Gandhiji brought this spiritual tradition into the political domain as a means of protest and struggle. To non-violent protest he added the notion of non-cooperation. That made it a very powerful way of struggle against colonialism. But non-violent non cooperation as a path of protest is not confined to anti-colonial struggles only. It is way of protests in independent polities.
UN member states would gain from spreading the message of resolution declaring October 2 as the International Day on Non-Violence. The resolution itself prescribes that this message be spread through education and public awareness. Educational curricula should therefore focus on peace and non-violence. Creative ways should be found to instil this principle particularly in children. Paradoxically the essential principle of non-violence is applicable even to those state institutions which are a part of the coercive apparatus of state. For it will impart in them the habits of applying force in a manner which is minimum, lawful and just.