The violence that is endemic in the contemporary world makes the commitment to non-violence particularly challenging and difficult, reckons Amartya Sen.
What is the relevance of Gandhian values in the world today? The aspect of Gandhian values that tend to receive most attention, not surprisingly, is the practice of non-violence. The violence that is endemic in the contemporary world makes the commitment to non-violence particularly challenging and difficult, but it also makes that priority especially important and urgent.
However, in this context it is extremely important to appreciate that non-violence is promoted not only by rejecting and spurning violent courses of action, but also by trying to build societies in which violence would not be cultivated and nurtured. Gandhiji was concerned with the morality of personal behaviour, but not just with that, and we would undervalue the wide reach of his political thinking if we try to see non-violence simply as a code of behaviour.
Consider the problem of terrorism in the world today. In fighting terrorism, the Gandhian response cannot be seen as taking primarily the form of pleading with the would-be terrorists to desist from doing dastardly things. Gandhiji’s ideas about preventing violence went far beyond that, and involved social institutions and public priorities, as well as individual beliefs and commitments. Bearing this in mind, and pursuing the general theme of the relevance of Gandhian values outside India, I ask the question: Is there something that America and Britain in particular can profitably learn today from Gandhiji’s political analysis?
Some of the lessons of a Gandhian approach to violence and terrorism in the world are clear enough. Perhaps the simplest — is the importance of education in cultivating peace rather than discord. The implications include the need to discourage, and if possible to eliminate altogether, schools in which hatred of other communities, or other groups of people in general, is encouraged and noursished. There is more to be done on this in India. But happily the country seems to have stepped back from what seemed at one stage to be a relentless departure from secular toleration and non-sectarian respect, which were so important to Gandhiji.
It might be thought that Gandhiji’s lessons are widely understood in Britain and America, and at one level they certainly are. For example, many centres of hateful preaching and teaching are being restrained, or closed in contemporary Britain. But the full force of Gandhiji’s understanding of this subject has not yet been seized in British public policy. One of the great messages of Gandhiji is that you cannot defeat nastiness, including violent nastiness, unless you yourself shun similar nastiness altogether. This has much immediate relevance today.
There are many holders of high American positions who approve of, and actively support, the proceodure of what is called “extraordinary rendition”. The point that emerges from Gandhiji’s arguments is not only that this is a thoroughly unethical practice, but also that this is no way of winning a war against terrorism and nastiness.
I cannot fail to have considerable misgivings about the official move in the United Kingdom towards extension of state-supported, faith-based schools. The move in Britain reflects, in fact, a more general — and deeply problematic — vision of Britain as “a federation of communities”, rather than a collectivity of human beings resident in Britain, with their diverse differences, of which religious and community-based distinctions constitute only one part.
Much has been written on the fact that India, with more Muslim people than almost every Muslim-majority country in the world, has produced extremely few home-grown terrorists acting in the name of Islam, and almost none linked with the Al Qaeda. There are many casual influences here. But some credit must also go to the nature of Indian democratic politics, and to the wide acceptance in India of the idea, championed by Mahatma Gandhi, that there are many identities other than religious ethnicity that are also relevant for a person’s self-understanding and for the relations between citizens of diverse background within the country.
The disastrous consequences of defining people by their religious ethnicity, and giving priority to the community-based perspective, which Gandhiji thought was receiving support from India’s British rulers, may well have come, alas, to haunt the country of the rulers themselves. At the Round-table Conference in 1931, Gandhiji did not get his way, and his dissenting opinions were only briefly recorded.
In a gentle complaint addressed to the British prime minister, Gandhiji said at the meeting, “in most of these reports you will find that there is a dissenting opinion, and in most of the cases that dissent unfortunately happens to belong to me.” Those statements certainly did belong only to him, but the wisdom behind Gandhiji’s far-sighted refusal to see a nation as a federation of religions and communities belongs, I must assert, to the entire world.
It is fitting that Gandhiji’s dissenting views from the 1931 meetings are preserved in the records located exactly in London. I fear London has need for them now. One does not have to be an Indian chauvinist to make that claim. For Gandhiji and his ideas belonged to the world, not just to us in this country.
Excerpts from a speech by the Nobel laureate made at Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, Mumbai.