Non-violence as an art of resistance

Mahatma Gandhi using a spinning wheel to make cloth.

Mahatma Gandhi using a spinning wheel to make cloth.   | Photo Credit: Universal History Archive

A non-violent imagination ought to see beyond militaristic nationalism and religious fundamentalism

As I write this piece, I know that my longing for non-violence would be regarded as ridiculous or an impossible proposition by many. It is not surprising. Living in contemporary India — a society characterised by toxic nationalism, triumphant majoritarianism, heightened socioeconomic inequality, and simultaneous ethical-political impoverishment — is like breathing violence everywhere. From brute/physical violence to psychic/symbolic aggression, the psychology of sadomasochism seems to have invaded our consciousness. What is really frightening is that we have almost normalised the everydayness of violence — the recurrence of rape and absolute objectification of women; the celebration of police encounters and the militarisation of the consciousness; the toxic/inflammatory speeches by Ministers and the invasion of university spaces by sponsored goons; and above all, the castigation of all dissenters and its vulgar celebration by noisy television channels.

Yet, at the finest moment of contemplation, some of us realise that our sociopolitical and psychic salvation lies in non-violence. However, in this dystopian age, a cynic might say that it is not possible to be convinced of non-violence and activate its therapeutic power.

The appeal of violence

Before we find an authentic answer to this question, it is important to acknowledge that despite the illuminating presence of the likes of Buddha and Mahavira, Nanak and Kabir, or Gandhi and Tagore in the civilisational landscape, the instinct of violence continues to have tremendous appeal to the average person’s consciousness. First, it tempts us because it activates and nurtures our egos; in fact, the devastating wars that have taken place in the name of the ‘glory’ of the nation reveal our collective and cumulative egos. Moreover, this egotistic pride is often celebrated as a hyper-masculine attribute of bravery. From militarism to aggressive/hyper-competitive sports carnivals, we see the sanctification of this sort of violence.

Second, it excites the surface personality; it stimulates brute instincts, and leads to some sort of catharsis or immediate instinctual gratification. In recent times, we are seeing this sort of violence in the form of mob lynching or communal frenzy.

Third, it is appealing because it does not demand the honest labour of self-reflection. Instead, we are led to believe that the problem lies necessarily always outside, and hence the annihilation of the ‘enemy’ out there is seen to be the only way to our redemption. In fact, the prevalent majoritarian nationalism sustains itself through this negative logic of the ‘enemy’, be it Pakistan or a bunch of ‘urban Naxals’. The stimulation of war is what explains its mass appeal. Fourth, it satisfies the urge to find quick ‘solutions’. This sort of ‘surgical’ orientation is seen in the nihilistic play of ‘suicide bombers’, or even in the supposedly ‘revolutionary’ guerilla warfare. And fifth, it encourages one’s sadistic thrill of being seen as ‘superior’ to others. This violence in the name of hierarchy or asymmetrical distribution of cultural/economic capital is seen in the cycle of caste war, racial discrimination and class conflict.

Yes, violence surrounds us, and we do not seem to be very kind to those who plead for non-violence. Jesus was crucified; Gandhi was assassinated; and John Lennon was killed. Moreover, we should not forget that the discourse of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ modern societies cherish is inherently violent. While techno-science, with its reckless urge to manipulate and conquer nature, causes environmental violence and promotes instrumental reasoning, the self-seeking consumer striving for a mythical notion of ‘good living’ is reducing life into a war zone — a site of neurotic social Darwinism. In other words, we are caught into the very logic of structural violence.

Hearing the existential call

However, there are moments when we hear the existential call: to live is to rebel; and to rebel is to love and heal the wound. The fate of non-violence as an art of resistance, a mode of living, or a politico-spiritual pursuit would depend on our willingness to understand the meaning of this existential quest. Yes, even amid the all-pervading darkness, we see the traces of light. For instance, when the violence of ‘development’ is seen as ‘desirable’, Medha Patkar’s jal satyagraha appears as the light of illumination. Or when the ruling regime remains intoxicated with power, Shaheen Bagh begins to look like a zone of possibilities — women filled with qualities like endurance, moral strength and non-violence, are revealing the immorality of the mighty state. And even when young students evolve the new aesthetics of resistance, and reveal the elasticity of consciousness by engaging with Marx as well as Gandhi, or Ambedkar as well as Bhagat Singh, we see the spark of non-violence.

The question is whether this potential can be unfolded further, and we can move towards non-violence as a mode of living, politics, culture, economy and education. To begin with, it has to be realised that to move towards non-violence is to move towards the spirit of non-possessiveness. Because it is the urge to accumulate wealth and power that intensifies one’s ego, and causes a broken relationship with others. Likewise, to practice non-violence is to sharpen the power of empathy, and cultivate the art of listening. The spirit of dialogue or the ethics of care emanates from non-violence; it is the only answer to a totalitarian/fascist mindset. Moreover, non-violence demands the fundamental faith in the potential of what Gandhi would have regarded as ‘soul force’, even though we are more used to ‘brute force’. In other words, non-violence is a quest, a journey, a process of awakening.

In fact, non-violence as a state of being, and a non-violent society as a structure of relationships, reinforce each other. A non-violent society, needless to add, cannot be based on the logic of techno-capitalism, its exploitative urge, or the violence it inflicts on nature through the logic of ceaseless ‘development’ and consumerism. Gandhiji was absolutely clear about it. A non-violent societal imagination ought to inherit the spirit of universalism; it has to see beyond militaristic nationalism, parochialism and religious fundamentalism. Rabindranath Tagore, I believe, captured this spirit quite well. Furthermore, a non-violent society has to be a casteless society; possibly, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s inclination to the Buddhist ethics indicated this quest. Finally, a non-violent society seeks to overcome the Cartesian fragmentation and division; instead, it unites science and ethics, politics and spirituality, education and meditation, economy and ecology, and masculine and feminine.

We are passing through terribly difficult times. With the rise of right wing nationalism in different parts of the world, the culture of violence has acquired a new dimension. And in our own country, the non-dialogic ruling regime with its propaganda machinery is turning everything into its opposite: vice into virtue, hatred into patriotism, and hyper-masculine aggression into religion. Yet, as I see the pockets of resistance, I begin to believe that the quest for non-violence cannot be finished. Possibly, at this crucial juncture, we are passing through some sort of inner churning.

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 11:51:23 PM |

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