In Defence of Gandhigiri

Nitin Pai quotes Dr. Ambedkar  to rebut Raj Thackeray’s argument that there is nothing wrong with breaking the law while running political movements.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with Nitin, and also with Dr. Ambedkar.  Indira Gandhi tried to use the same argument against Jayaprakash Narayan during the emergency. She claimed that because India had adopted a legitimate and democratic constitution, there was no longer space or need for civil disobedience, the satyagraha or any of the various instruments that got us our independence. Narayan disagreed, and which is more, he had Gandhiji on his side. Gandhiji himself had stated that satyagraha was a weapon against oppressive governments everywhere, not just against foreign ones.

Now, I am no admirer of Gandhiji, but his idea of non-violent, civil resistence to unjust laws is one of the two aspects of his philosophy I see merit in. I do not believe in non-violence as a universal philosophy. I do not think that one should be peaceable in the face of Nazi or Stalinist tyranny. But when an otherwise liberal government (legitimate or not) does unconscionable things or forces you to obey laws that you cannot, in good conscience, obey, then the option of openly and non-violently disobeying the laws should be open to you.

The key terms are “open” and “non-violent”. The disobedience needs to be open, because the whole point is to change the law, not evade it. By publicly taking an action that you think is legitimate, but which your fellow citizens have made illegal (like, for example, drinking beer in Gujarat) you force them to choose between acknowledging your right to do it or using repressive measures to stop you from doing it. It needs to be non-violent, because your aim is to persuade others, not to force them to do it at gun-point. Open and non-violent also mean that you are willing to accept the consequences of your actions.

The argument that now that we have a constitution, the rules of the game have changed does not hold water. First, no constitution is perfect, and our constitution is very imperfect. Second, the political system, the difficulty of changing the constitution, and the undeniable possibility that your fellow citizens may have made, what is, in your eyes, a wrong choice, mean that the constitutional route to change the constitution will often be inadequate. We have a choice of using words to persuade our fellow citizens and our government to change the law or to amend the constitution. We also have a choice of leading a revolt to overthrow the constitution. We need one more choice between the two, and satyagraha provides it.
Now, this point still leaves many questions unanswered. Obviously, we will always have a constitution that is not completely to our liking. We will always find that some laws are not to our liking. This does not mean that we should offer satyagraha against every single one of them. Where we draw the line is a difficult question which we can answer only by looking at the law in question (and acknowledging grey areas) And here too, “open and non-violent” provide a useful guide. Is the violation of your right so severe that you are willing to go to jail to protest it? Is the law in question such a greivous wrong that when others see you being hauled off to jail for performing what (in your eyes) is a harmless and legitimate action, they might be persuaded to change their minds and change the law? If so, then go ahead and protest.

None of this lets Thackeray off the hook. His invocation of Gandhiji is as insincere as the rest of his movement is cynical. It is one thing to disobey a law (openly and non-violently – I must emphasise) that you disagree with. It is quite another to use violence to enforce a law that you happen to think ought to be passed by the government. If he really thinks that North Indians are a blight on Maharashtrian society, then he does need to ask for government action and he does not need to beat up North Indians. He just needs to ask his fellow Maharashtrians to enforce a social boycott against North Indians. If he is right in his view of North Indians, then he ought to have no doubt in his mind that most of his fellow Maharashtrians would see his way and participate in the boycott.

Thackeray is invoking Gandhiji where it suits him (civil disobedience) and ignoring him where it does not (non-violence). But in a democratic society, non-violence and civil disobedience are a package deal. The whole point of civil disobedience is to persuade others, your fellow citizens and your government. Any small group can inflict violence on others. In a country like India, it can do so at very little cost to itself. The violence says nothing about the depth or breadth of support for the cause, much less about the legitimacy of the cause.

9 thoughts on “In Defence of Gandhigiri

  1. I agree. Invoking Gandhi has become part of politicians’ rhetoric, even if they and their supporters don’t stand for anything Gandhi did.

    I wish we could all file suits or write to our local MP to try and change laws we don’t agree with. But neither method is going to be effective in India today. Perhaps if our legal system moved a bit faster, people would see less need for strikes, bandhs and hartals.

  2. I guess Raj Thackeray’s point implicitly assumes that, to be ‘open’ in modern India, one needs to be outlandish — which may include limited or unlimited violence. You may disagree, but his strategy is merely a comment on how the openness aspect has come to a stage where it cannot coexist with non-violent means. And hence, how Gandhi can be invoked partially. Raj’s assumptions may be and possibly are wrong — but it seems obvious to a bystander that a reasonable person following the Gandhian idea will soon come to a point where one has to attract attention for the openness part to work. How that will be achieved without violent or crude tactics is something that will interest the bystander.

  3. “Now, I am no admirer of Gandhiji, but his idea of non-violent, civil resistance to unjust laws is one of the two aspects of his philosophy I see merit in.”

    What is the other aspect?

  4. Dear paramabhakta,

    Ironically, I’m generally an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, though I disagree with many of his specific prescriptions.

    In this case, I think the key sentence in your post is

    Where we draw the line is a difficult question which we can answer only by looking at the law in question?

    It is reasonable to argue that we ought to use our discretion, in say drinking Scotch in Ahmedabad (okay) and defacing a Hindi signboard in Tamil Nadu (not okay).

    The question is whose discretion? Even in an ideal theoretical case, we can’t expect two people to agree on the same red line. In India’s case, where Mr Thackeray can openly ask whether political parties need to be law abiding, we’re talking about a grammar for anarchy. There is too much subjectivity in your criteria, and there are too many vested interests who feel too strongly about literally everything.

    So as a practical policy matter giving people the right to choose when they can disobey the law is recipe for anarchy. (It makes more sense to prosecute every law breaker, and let him convince the judge of the merits of the case in mitigation)

    The Indira Gandhi argument tests us under boundary conditions. Was the Emergency justified? Was the suspension of the Constitution a means of seizing unquestionable political power? To the extent the answer is yes, I will admit there is justification in using Gandhigiri. With hindsight, the answer is clear: the Emergency was only about Indira Gandhi’s politics. So we can agree on the appropriateness of satyagraha then.

  5. “If he is right in his view of North Indians, then he ought to have no doubt in his mind that most of his fellow Maharashtrians would see his way and participate in the boycott.”

    This, obviously is not the case. But I am surprised that the usually outspoken Mumbaikars, especially the stundents, have stayed mum on the issue.

  6. Nitin and Ravikiran are not in disagreement, they refer to two different aspects of the situation.

    Nitin points out, correctly, that people cannot be “allowed”—in legal terms—to disobey the law. Written in such simple terms, it is clearly a tautology.

    Ravikiran points out, correctly, that in specific circumstances, a non-violent public disawoval of the law is a good “political strategy” to change the law.
    The very power of this strategy comes from the fact that it does something which is not “allowed” by law.

    The argument is to appeal to common law and common justice of the peoples to repeal the “law”. An appeal to the Supreme court of the common people.

    Violence and non-violence are pertinent only to the strategy; and to the possible eventual pardon of the peoples. So even Thackeray was correct in refer to Gandhi.

    The caveat is that if you lose in this court of common peoples, you should have to pay a hefty price to the full extent of the “law”— you have to suffer the penalties of all the laws you have broken; including those for public disturbance.

  7. I agree with 7*6.

    Who dares wins. But if you lose, you lose big. That’s all that matters.

    Furthermore, no social, economic or political policy can be successfully implemented without the broad approval of the people. This is true even in local dictatorships. The only situation where the people don’t matter is when they are under total occupation.

    That brings up a question. Is dissent legitimate only as long as it is non-violent?

  8. Dear reders,
    I am Bhojappa.K.Kallihala. I am studying Law in Karnataka.I want say regarding GANDHIGIRI.that is the ptinciple of Mahathma Gandi. Ahinsa parmo dharma and Upavas satyagrah which are those principles the most valuable in the world.therefore we have to agree to follw the Gandhigiri.

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