Missing the Gandhian imprint

Neither the government nor the urban middle classes have felt a sense of unease over the farmers’ despair

Updated - February 05, 2021 01:05 am IST

Published - February 05, 2021 12:02 am IST

A farmer stands next to police barricades at Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghaziabad on February 2, 2021.

A farmer stands next to police barricades at Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghaziabad on February 2, 2021.

Gifted journalist Ved Mehta, who passed away last month, believed that Gandhi was hard to copy . Writing about Martin Luther King’s struggle against racism in the United States, Mehta wondered if Gandhi could be replicated in that country. Mehta found Gandhi’s standards of ethical conduct far too high for emulation by others. He also thought that Gandhi was lucky not to have been born in Leopold’s Congo or Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany. Under such regimes, ‘he would have met his death in a purge’, Mehta wrote.

A complex legacy

In the same article, Mehta recalls a dialogue between Gandhi and Nehru during the non-cooperation movement of the 1920s. On hearing about a violent incident in the Chauri Chaura village of Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi decided to withdraw the first all-India movement he had led. Jawaharlal Nehru asked him, ‘Must we train the 300 and odd millions of India in the theory and practice of non-violent action before we (can) move forward?”

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Gandhi’s reply was short and unequivocal: ‘Yes.’ Gandhi’s rigour did mellow with age and experience, but some of his tall contemporaries remained sceptical of his strategy of mass mobilisation. Tagore foresaw that Gandhi’s legacy might prove tough to follow in the absence of his leadership.

However, Gandhi’s legacy is complex and evokes some fundamental issues embedded in the theory of peaceful settlement of conflicts. It is useful to visit these issues today when we are in the middle of a mass movement focused on a subject of Gandhi’s deep concern: rural economy. Those in the forefront of this movement are farmers. The questions their protest brings into public attention go well beyond the validity of their apprehensions and doubts. Gandhi is highly relevant to these questions. His legacy for India, and the rest of the modern world, is not confined to the culture of protest. It also involves an interpretation of peace: its logic and the method of inquiry it demands. Can a conflict be peacefully resolved? A satisfactory answer to this question requires that we understand peace more precisely in the context surrounding the present mass protest.

Farmers’ agency

Several scholars, columnists and advisers have argued over the past few weeks that farmers need to be persuaded and their suspicion... about the new laws removed. This is also the state’s line of argument. As for the government, its initial position was that opposition to the new farm laws is based on misunderstanding. The government has maintained the view that the farmers who are agitating are misled and do not represent the farming community as a whole. Among experts, those who support the new farm laws have taken the stand that these laws are necessary for reforming the agricultural sector and such wider reform will eventually benefit farmers. Their protest has been attributed to insufficient dialogue.

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Thus, both the government and the supporters of the new laws view farmers as objects of persuasion or guidance. In this jointly held view, the farmers are believed to have no agency of their own. For the government and its expert advisers, an outreach effort is the answer to protests. This idea is similar to the persuasion approach. The term ‘outreach’ reveals its inherent approach: that of spreading the word across the boundary that divides decision-makers and targets of decisions.

Persuasion and inequality

If persuasion is what this conflict requires for resolution, let us examine its nature. Along with mediation, persuasion ranks high among the means of achieving a peaceful resolution in a conflict situation. However, there is a condition attached to the use of persuasion in this context. The condition is that both sides, i.e. the persuaders and the ones to be persuaded will be equal partners in the act. It is not enough to say that during the negotiation they will behave as if they are equal. For persuasion to work, the two sides must be equal to begin with. They must feel equal. If there are mediators, their job is to make each side realise that they are equal. This condition is clearly difficult to apply in the present conflict.

Inequality between farmers and the state has deep historical roots. It is reflected in the rural-urban gap. As a professional community, farmers suffer from the common stereotypes that the urban educated classes carry with regard to villagers. According to these stereotypes, farmers cannot be expected to know their own good — especially the benefits that are somewhat distant — on account of general ignorance and lack of education. The poor spread of education reinforces this stereotypical perception of the farming community as being simple-minded, and therefore prone to being misled.

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Education is, in fact, quite crucially responsible for widening the hierarchical divide between the rural and the urban, and for portraying the latter as the engine of change in the former. The view that farmers’ opposition to the new laws is merely a reflection of certain “doubts” which can be removed in the course of further discussion is reminiscent of the stereotype that the villagers are like children who do not understand the complex decisions made to benefit them in the long run. Teachers in India typically conclude their class lecture by asking “Any doubts?” The assumption is that children can only have doubts, but no real questions.

The kind of protest the farmers have launched — and have done their best to sustain — carries unmistakable traces of Gandhi. Indeed, the very idea that a mass protest must remain peaceful is a legacy of Gandhi. His faith in non-violence has an unstated, hidden view of the adversary. While the one who protests is expected to shun violence, the other side must also fulfil an expectation. In Gandhi’s frame, the protester endures great suffering, and thereby arouses the deeper human instincts in the adversary’s heart. To see this as a strange, romantic idea is to miss its moral vision and where it comes from.

Tradition to political use

Gandhi did not invent this vision; he spotted it in tradition and put it to a new, political use. The value system he used and modernised can still be witnessed in certain settings and contexts. For instance, when an irksome neighbour falls ill or meets with an accident, a few people do ask if the family needs help. A similar customary value covers hospitality. Teachers ask children not to take advantage of an injured member of the rival team. Internationally maintained modern norms for warring nations have their origins in similar old ethics sustained by tradition in several cultures. Gandhi used this old value system to develop his ethic of non-violence in oppositional politics. It was rooted in the belief that an adversary has human instincts which can be activated by demonstration of self-inflicted suffering. Gandhi saw the protester’s willingness to endure physical discomfort as a means of awakening the adversary’s saner instincts.

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The struggle versus values

The farmers’ struggle and suffering have failed to achieve this psychological goal. Neither the government nor the privileged urban middle classes seem to have felt a sense of unease over the physical suffering the farmers have endured in Delhi’s severe winter. Many among the protesters have lost their lives and their deaths have been ignored. Over the past few decades, a few lakh farmers have committed suicide. Their despair has not moved many in metropolitan centres and other cities. Apparently, India has gone through a sea change in values, both at personal and collective levels. The charade one routinely hears that education must inculcate moral values, overlooks the broader social context and direction of change. It is a romantic idea that education can compensate for psychological losses incurred in the pursuit of lopsided goals. It is hardly surprising that a farmers’ movement is reminding us of the legacy we inherited from Gandhi’s social experimentation.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training and the author of  Ed ucation, Conflict and Peace

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