Gandhi, the dissident

Gandhian dissidence is crucial at a time when the projects of critical thinking and democratic questioning have retreated

Updated - January 30, 2020 01:40 am IST

Published - January 30, 2020 12:15 am IST

The rare and unique pose of Mahatma Gandhi was taken on February 02, 1946 at Trichy Junction, on his way to Madurai and Palani. He was standing on a special dais beneath a temple umbrella.

The rare and unique pose of Mahatma Gandhi was taken on February 02, 1946 at Trichy Junction, on his way to Madurai and Palani. He was standing on a special dais beneath a temple umbrella.

Future generations will remember 2019 as a Gandhian year. From Hong Kong and Algeria to Catalonia and Iran, citizens across the world took to the streets in 2019 to express their discontent and push for change. While in Chile, people protested against the rising cost of everyday amenities, in Lebanon demonstrators held regular protests against the government’s plan to impose a new set of austerity measures. The year 2019 was also marked by unprecedented action to combat climate change, especially by the young. We often forget that Mahatma Gandhi’s writings were full of thoughts on the environment, especially when he affirmed that “the earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

Revaluation of values

An unflinching truth-seeker, Gandhi changed the face of non-violent protest around the world. His tactics of non-violence are still heralded by those who seek to inspire change without inciting violence. Gandhi appears to many as a spiritual man who tried to find a harmonious balance between a contemplative life and a life of action, but actually both as a thinker and as a practitioner he had a dissident mind. When we talk about Gandhi as a dissident mind, we refer to him as a non-conformist person who lived and thought in a way that was different from other individuals. As a non-conformist, Gandhi was someone who had the desire to excel. In other words, as a dissident mind he had the quality of excellence. For the ancient Greeks, excellence was considered as a moral virtue. For Socrates, dissidence was an exemplary act of excellence. What differentiates Gandhi from other political leaders is this Socratic sign of dissidence based on a public act of questioning. In a Socratic manner, but in his own way, Gandhi had an examined life. His examined life was an end in itself, but it was also a way to put into question the truths and beliefs that were at the foundation of modern life. Therefore, as a dissident mind, Gandhi brought about a revaluation of the values of his time.

There is, in sum, a general agreement between Gandhi’s commitment to the idea of truth and his clear commitment to fight injustice. Gandhi refused categorically to violate his philosophical principles. Over decades, this Gandhian moment of dissidence has been endorsed by all those who have maintained that unjust laws of a state or a community are contrary to the higher law of moral conscience. It is by referring to this higher law that Gandhi put truth and non-violence above the power of empires and masses. Gandhi was, therefore, the unrivalled master of civic philosophy and the master thinker of revolution against conformism and complacency in modern times. For this, he was more than a simple “engaged Mahatma”. As a citizen-dissident, Gandhi was a committed gadfly who was available to others and engaged in a dialogue with them. Therefore, what Gandhi continues to teach non-violent protesters is that citizens should be present in the public space where dialogue and dissent can defeat fanaticism and violence. Thanks to the Gandhian legacy of dissent, critical questioning continues to remain the only urgent action needed by humanity today. Gandhi also continues to teach us the role of moral conscience in resistance against injustice. For him, the voice of conscience transcends that of the state. Therefore, he presents us with a comprehensive vision of moral conscience as a pathway to self-rule, self-transformation and compatibility between freedom and righteousness.

Contribution to the world

Here again, we can evaluate the broader contribution of Gandhi to disobedient movements around the world. Gandhi has been an inspiration to several generations of non-violent freedom fighters. From Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama to the young activists of the Tahrir Square in Egypt and Otpor in Serbia, and for all those fighting against all forms of injustice, Gandhi has been the most celebrated political thinker of the 20th century. Since his death, Gandhi has been considered as a great figure of dissent, whenever and wherever there has been a question of transition from authoritarianism to democracy or simply the process of democratisation of democracy.

Gandhi remains our contemporary, mainly because his dissident act of questioning continues to be different from our habitual practices of asking questions. Actually, Gandhian dissidence is a moment of political crisis, which helps us to create moments of rethinking the political. Gandhian dissidence is, therefore, crucial at a time when the projects of critical thinking and democratic questioning have retreated. It is time once again for a dissident thinker and practitioner to make us uncomfortable about our everyday beliefs and certitudes.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is Professor, Vice Dean and Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies, Jindal Global Law School, Jindal Global Universit y

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