Is there a place for non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi’s most powerful weapon, in the age of terror? How can the humanist fight the terrorist? Can we bring empathy and forgiveness into the conversation on terror?
Let me start by saying that our “age of terror” is equally, if not more importantly, an age where prejudice against a whole category of people has become normal. While security lines at airports, railway stations and prestigious offices are a recent phenomenon, terror in one form or another was known to the world and to India long before 2008, when 26/11 happened, or 2001, the 9/11 year.
Blanket prejudice, however, was not globally acceptable during the 50-plus years between the end of World War II and 2001. Americans were welcome in the Arab world, Arabs in the US, Indians in Pakistan, and Pakistanis in India. Today, however, it is hard for an Arab (or a Turk, Iranian, Pakistani or an Indian Muslim) to get a US visa, and not easy for American, British or European citizens with Muslim names to get an Indian visa. Visas are only a symptom. Socially and politically, being a Muslim is a greater handicap in today’s India, and today’s America, than it was 10 or 20 years ago.
Which is why “age of terror” may be an inadequate term for our times. More than anything else, ours is an age of blanket prejudice. An age where dislike and its siblings — suspicion, contempt, hatred, and loathing — infiltrate police stations, courtrooms, newspaper offices and TV studios, and dance wildly on social media.
It is fair to see non-violence as Mahatma Gandhi’s “most powerful weapon”. But what was his non-violence? It certainly did not mean dropping your arms when attacked by terrorists. The foundation of Gandhi’s non-violence was a common sense understanding that with all their difficulties with one another, including over religion, human beings everywhere had to learn to live together. Hence these sentences in Hind Swaraj: “The Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their country are fellow-countrymen, and they will have to live in unity, if only for their own interest.” “In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India.” “Is the God of the Muslim different from the God of the Hindu? …There are deadly proverbs as between the followers of Siva and those of Vishnu, yet nobody suggests that these two do not belong to the same nation.”
Gandhi wrote these sentences as early as in 1909; he never went back on them. And he sought co-existence among equals, not between dominant and subordinate groups. Therefore, when in 1947, he reluctantly yielded to the Subcontinent’s preference for division, he insisted on religious freedom in both halves. He wrote on June 13, 1947: “I [ask] whether those calling God Rahim would have to leave [India] and whether in the part described as Pakistan Rama as the name of God would be forbidden. Would someone who called God Krishna be turned out of Pakistan?” (Collected Works 88: 144).
Five months earlier, when Gandhi was in Noakhali to support Hindu victims of communal violence, his companion and interpreter, the anthropology professor Nirmal Bose, recorded Gandhi’s sharp reaction to a maulvi’s remark that those willing to convert had at least saved their lives. The maulvi’s apparent comfort with forced conversion outraged Gandhi. “I am amazed,” he told the maulvi, “that God has allowed someone with your views to become a scholar of Islam.” (Bose, My Days with Gandhi, 149-150.)
If non-coercion was a component of Gandhi’s non-violence, so was the tough ingredient of forgiveness. On October 26, 1947, which happened to be Eid, Gandhi made this unusual request to a group of Delhi’s Muslim leaders: “Jesus Christ prayed to God from the Cross to forgive those who had crucified him. It is my constant prayer to God that He may give me the strength to intercede even for my assassin. And it should be your prayer too that your faithful servant may be given that strength to forgive” (CW 89: 411).
The Muslim leaders Gandhi was speaking to were reporting to him daily on how their community was faring in India’s capital city, which had not been spared the Subcontinent’s 1947 killings. Gandhi wished to involve them in a search for forgiveness, exactly as he wanted Hindus and Sikhs too to find the strength to forgive. In the frenzied climate of 1947, forgiveness seemed an absurd wish. Yet, it was essential that at least some Indians in that year focused on the future, not on the past, not even on the very recent past. Because some (or many) were willing to listen to him, Gandhi provided a steadying hand.
He did more. Gandhi’s interventions at critical meetings of the Congress Working Committee and the All-India Congress Committee ensured that free India would be launched, politically and constitutionally, as a nation for everyone and with equal protection for all.
In the last quarter of 1947, Pakistan, formed as “a Muslim homeland”, was echoing with demands to be declared an Islamic state. Many in India responded with cries for a Hindu counterpart. Delhi teemed with lakhs of Sikh and Hindu refugees from western Punjab.
Newly-free India could quite easily have been launched as a Hindu state. That did not happen. Gandhi’s focused effort in 1947-48, backed by Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, laid the foundation for a secular India with room in it for people of any or no faith.
From today’s vantage point, this feat appears to be every bit as remarkable as independence from alien rule. Soon it was entrenched in the Constitution that Ambedkar would become the architect of.
Crucially, Gandhi enlisted large sections of the Indian people in his bid. No constitutional provision of equal rights could have worked in India without millions of Indians admitting in their hearts the truth of Ishwar Allah Tere Naam. No thought was simpler, or so aligned to common sense, and yet so radical, as Ishwar Allah Tere Naam. Despite the poisonous wind of 1947, the people of India chose the path of sanity and common sense.
It is by tapping such soundness in the popular mind that today’s humanist stands up to the terrorist and the extremist. Whether or not she is religious, the humanist empathises with every human longing, but never with coercion or murder or torture. She is willing to forgive an individual but not his cruel deed. And she never thinks, not for a moment, that “those people” are less human and less deserving of dignity because of their genes, or their sacred book, or any such obstacle.
If a horrific incident tempts her to blame a whole people, then, as Gandhi used to do long ago, she retires for a while to her personal cave and reflects on her own human imperfections, and on the humanity even of “those people”. Our personal caves are never far. “I carry my Himalayas with me,” Gandhi used to say.
On January 12, 1948, when, after another visit to his cave, Gandhi announced his last fast, he spoke of his anxiety about “India’s dwindling prestige” and of his “belief that the loss of her soul by India will mean the loss of the hope of the aching, storm-tossed and hungry world”.
Seventy years later, many in India are assailed by similar anxieties. In 1948, India turned the corner. Will we enable India to do so again? At stake are the longings of a world that seems to have lost its way.
This article first appeared in the Indian Express