Mihir Shah

The use of the term Gandhigiri highlights the fact that in an unjust world, change necessitates the use of force. It also emphasises that Gandhiji stood for action in the face of oppression. Not passive contemplation or individual salvation.

NEWS REPORTS indicate that some of the descendants of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi have objected to the term Gandhigiri coined by the makers of the latest Bollywood film Lage Raho Munnabhai. Gandhiji belongs to all those who live and work in his spirit. The greatness of the Mahatma's legacy is that it privileges karma above kinship. So we need not give special attention to what his own kin think. But they have as much right as any of us to express their views and we should provide them a proper response if we disagree with them as I do.

As I see it, Gandhism is a much broader ideology, some aspects of which I would not rush to espouse. But Gandhigiri, as expounded by Munnabhai, touches the core of Gandhism. It sends my blood racing. Let me try and explain why. The term Gandhigiri derives from its opposite number "dadagiri." Dadagiri means the use of brutal, physical force to assert one's point of view or to get what one wants done. In one sense Gandhigiri does the same. It is also about the use of force to assert a point of view. But it is the opposite of dadagiri in the sense that the force it uses is a moral force. I seek to prevail upon the other through the use of moral force, so that the other is convinced about my point of view and agrees to change his course of action. The use of the term Gandhigiri highlights the fact that in an unjust world, change necessitates the use of force. It also emphasises that Gandhiji stood for action in the face of oppression. Not passive contemplation or individual salvation. That is why Gandhigiri appeals to Munnabhai in the first place.

But Gandhigiri's use of force speaks of a completely new kind of politics for our time. It poses a radical challenge to the language and idiom of the many movements for social change, whether Marxist or Feminist or those fighting race, caste, ethnic, religious or imperialist oppression. Gandhigiri insists that in our fight we must not remain imprisoned in the "victim" mode. Those suffering injustice are not completely constituted by their affliction. Their identity is beyond that constructed for them by their oppressor. But the dehumanising experience of pain and the utter obduracy of their persecutor appear to push them, with an apparent historical inevitability, into the language of the tormentor. This creates the danger of an infinite regress of violence and counter-violence. As evidenced in so many parts of the world today, such as the Middle East. Gandhigiri affirms that those suffering have an existence that transcends their victimisation. If they are to genuinely work for liberation, they need to espouse a truly transformational language. This is very difficult as Gandhiji repeatedly says in the film. It requires incredible internal strength that is not easy to muster or demand. But Gandhigiri consists in speaking to the other not in the language of contemptuous anger and hate but of forgiveness, compassion, and humility.

Most ideologies of the oppressed contain the danger that they will only end up reinforcing the divisions they sought to fight against. History is replete with such examples.

So much work in the name of the oppressed has only ended up reinforcing divisiveness. Gandhigiri says we must oppose the oppressors. But it adds that if we want real change that unites rather than divides, we need to find a new way to oppose those we must. We need to spell out a common basis for those who are on opposite sides today to ultimately agree to work upon. That way outlined again and again by the many prophets and messengers (who were all social revolutionaries of their own era) has to be founded on an understanding of the possibility that we may even be wrong, that we need to keep learning, that we must keep trying to reach out to the other with openness and love. The path is, therefore, one of ceaseless creativity and imagination, continuous self-critical re-examination.

Always admitting the possibility that one may not be the final and exclusive repository of "the Truth" means that Gandhigiri is also about the capacity to laugh at oneself, a corrective to what Jean Paul Sartre once called the "spirit of seriousness" that afflicts most of us social activists. It makes for an altogether lighter footprint on this earth. That is the abiding image Munnabhai leaves us with of the fakiri of Kabir.

In this way Gandhigiri sets completely new standards of accountability. The gaze has to be first turned inwards. The highest standards have to be set for our own selves. The one who seeks to change the world must begin the process with herself. The fight has to be truly internal, to exterminate the hate within. A lot of prior preparation is required. It takes time, it takes a lot of sabr (fortitude), in the face of the most violent, relentless provocation. For those of us who work for change at the grass roots, in the remote hinterlands of this country, the path is an intensely difficult one. Every day we fail. But every day we rededicate ourselves to it. We have no choice really. Anything else would be destructive, suicidal.

A natural question could be does Gandhigiri work in the context of terrorism? It would be useful here to remember that ultimately all acts of terror (whether state-sponsored or of sundry groups) derive their legitimacy from a moral basis in perceived injustice. The battle is fundamentally an ethical one. Once the moral force is established, once the wounds heal, the power of the gun will gradually diminish. This should not be seen as appeasement, for it is a path we must be committed to quite irrespective of the terrorist.

Being against division does not mean an obliteration of differences. It means precisely the opposite, in fact. We celebrate difference. As Gandhiji did in his multi-faith prayer meetings. As Swami Vivekananda did when he proclaimed that the book of God is ever being written. Our path must speak of a mutual respect for all beings and paths. But the respect has to be mutual. The way Munnabhai advises Lucky Singh's daughter to see her father in the dramatic climax of the film, is a powerful evocation of the common message of all spiritual traditions in the words of the veteran Gandhian Satish Kumar "you are, therefore, I am." An affirmation of the inextricable interconnectedness of all beings that the Buddha so powerfully explains. Recognition of this interconnectedness necessitates a giving up of the vocabulary and grammar of non-negotiable opposition. The Lithuanian Talmudic Emmanuel Levinas (whose centennial is being celebrated this year) would go as far as to say that an ethics of transcendence must affirm the primacy of the other.

Right from childhood, when we begin to grapple with the world's challenges, there is a Gandhi hidden in all of us that seeks to undertake satyagraha at the very first opportunity. Slowly, the ideologies of self-centred individualism and the harsh realities of a cut-throat world, of go-getting consumerism and competition subdue the child's moral sensibilities. It is to be hoped that Lage Raho Munnabhai, set in the idiom of today's youth, will motivate them to deepen and accelerate the search for the Gandhi within before it is too late, for them and for all of us.

(The writer is a social activist who lives and works among the Adivasis of the Narmada valley in Madhya Pradesh.)