Sunday, 22 March 2009

Witness to a discussion

One of the most troublesome things in today's world is finding a echo of your thoughts somewhere else. Some ideas and thoughts come as inspirations to pipeline thinkers like me-- and then without finding a resonance in anyone else, those waves die down, choked by the whimsical ways of a materialistic and sensually-gratified pop culture. It is therefore an occasion of some relief and hope when one finds someone who mirrors his beliefs through actions.

My admiration of Gandhiji and his ways has been well-documented in the first few posts of this blog, and though that has endured throughout, the way I interpreted him has considerably changed. Possibly because I've read more of him (notably, Louis Fischer's minutely-detailed biography), and more probably because with passing time and much thought, one is anyway likely to reach a more balanced and revised outlook than before. However, it is most honest to concede that I've had my doubts if Gandhism can be applied to something beyond an immensely small personal (mostly, ethical) sphere: the world at large, and especially now. A debate on exactly this topic ("Is Gandhism relevant in today's blind world?") was held at a college fest recently, presided over by somewhat eminent personalities, whom I shall introduce now. The moderator was Parnab Mukherjee, quite a name in the college quizzing circuit (and let me add, with a fair share of criticism)-- one with an admittedly impressive command over the English language coupled with a more-or-less good memory and superfluous confidence (though as I've found out on three occasions myself: not always factually correct or consistent). For those who don't know, Mr. Mukherjee associates himself with theatre that has some strong social context, or so we've been told. I'll however not question his credentials here, and get on with the introduction. The speakers are Janardhan Ghosh (a theatre-person), and Nanak Ganguly, artist and art-historian. Completing the trio of speakers was Tenzin Tsundue: pro-Tibetan activist, and small-time writer.

I was unlucky to have missed the start of the discussion and caught on from somewhere midway. In due course, the talk ambled on to how we, the ordinary people, can apply Gandhism to our lives. The collective suggestion (from the speakers) was rather good and well-meant: enjoy your little comfortable lives, and you're not compelled to follow Gandhiji's strict discipline yourself, but sometimes devote yourself to something that redeems the ordinariness of your existence. A social effort, maybe-- like teaching poor children for free. Or perhaps, working with any NGO you deem suitable. A priceless proposal given the fact that it is easier to take the good (and considerably more difficult) path in small doses-- it is implied, of course, that one has a conscience that prods him/her considerably to go ahead. Efforts like these do not pay back in material terms, the only thing he/she gets in return is gratitude and personal satisfaction, that too on the rare occasion. One is more likely to face undue criticism from his/her social strata for being a freak. That, unfortunately, is the way of this world. Among other things, the discussion turned to fashionable social activism. There is surely an element of truth in what Parnab Mukherjee said-- it is certainly more rewarding to associate oneself with social crises that get sustained media attention. For example, Narmada Bachao is certainly more 'hep' than the problem in the North-Eastern states: innocent people there are regularly oppressed by the lawkeepers and still have no voice to speak for them. Nandigram gets its due exposure (though little respite) in the media, and yet no one asks of the tribals being routinely crushed by some states in our country. It is however certainly wrong to assume that anyone and everyone associated with a more 'fashionable' crisis is automatically merely seeking some name among the country's intelligentsia/who's-who: there are genuine workers everywhere. This said, those who have taken one initiative are far more admirable than those who have not at all (the latter criticise the most, too!). When there is not really much to differentiate between sufferer and sufferer, why should there be concentration of attention in certain pockets of unrest and complete lack of representation in other unfortunate areas?

Not unexpectedly, the most convincing speaker among the lot was Tenzin Tsundue-- there was a marked modesty and candidness in what he said; moreover unlike the others, he had walked the talk, so to speak. Born to refugee-parents working on road construction sites up in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, Tsundue knows what it is to be a man without a country. Without a place he can call home without hesitation. What draws me towards this young man is his choice: he wants Tibet to be freed from the tyrannic rule of the Chinese, and yet is unwilling to use anything but non-violent methods. As many recent socio-economic surveys have shown, the dream-rise of China is not as happy as it seems-- the people have had to pay great costs. Minorities have been sidelined, poor people forced to work tediously for threadbare wages (incidentally, that explains the cheap cost of Made-in-China products), and the communist regime shows no respite in gaining an upper hand over the free-thinking individual. Even achievements in the Olympics have been won at a great price by the athletes. Distribution of wealth is far from uniform. China is bogged down by corruption: it is almost as rampant as in India, and human rights have been violated throughout. It is hard to call the bluff off a country as powerful as that, especially so for a minority of people-- the marginalised Tibetans. And yet the Tibetans, possibly influenced by the principles of Buddhism, have avoided unnecessary bloodshed. It is heartening to see a group of people having a cherished dream and yet not adopting the easier way out. Nonetheless it is worth conceding that violent methods are sure to meet failure in this case: it is a cakewalk for the government if the peaceful community decide to meet the lawmakers on the battlefield (the latter have advantages both numerically and resource-wise). On the other hand: even if it were the other way round, there would be greater chances of the new independent nation inheriting the same set of problems that affected its parent. Peaceful methods of sustained non-cooperation may take a long time in yielding results, but they have a huge moral advantage that cannot be won over by power, money or the weight of numbers.

Questions were invited from the audience and several did crop up, but I think the one that clinched the spotlight was the last. A defiant bloke stood up and proclaimed that it was his belief that all said and done, nothing could ever be achieved without a firm iron hand. Gandhism, so he said, is certainly bound to fail in today's world: it lays far too much emphasis on intangible factors like personal ethics and beliefs to be politically or socially viable. It was not the question that surprised me, (illiterate young folks these days have a habit to shoot without really knowing what they are uttering) but the response. There was a variety in the replies that made it interesting from an academic point-of-view: and finally clarified who's really what. Mr. Mukherjee promptly replied that it's all so good to work on a theory that supposes a just iron-hand-- reality is that an iron-hand does not merely administer, it crushes too. And it hurts the most when someone is on the receiving end of the sting-- so unless we really know what it is to be rounded up for violating the stringent rules of a dictatorial state (and possibly punished without proper trial!), it is unwise to assume that a concentrated power-centre is the ultimate political solution. What I've not added to his statement was his way of putting it. Nanak Ganguly iterated much the same, in his fake assumed American accent (I've no idea why certain Bengali intellectuals find accent to be an indicator of either erudition or personality!). What was common in both the above speakers was a certain aggression which betrayed their opinions. One cannot be aggressively Gandhian-- it is impossible to force anyone to believe in any doctrine, Gandhism or otherwise; one thinks and finds a resonance of the idea in his/her heart, or just doesn't. It is ironic that Mr. Mukherjee had been talking of people who give regular lip-service to such lofty ideals but never believe a word of it-- while I most certainly agree with the content of his oration, the tone makes me wonder if he (and other person) are not prone to the same mistake! Janardhan Ghosh added something of his own (which I unfortunately don't quite remember now), but was firm and polite as usual. Tenzin replied with his characteristic strong and modest conviction that it all rolls down to an ultimate matter of belief. He believes in whatever he has said, he lives accordingly (his lifestyle is close to his mentor's simplistic ideal-- the blueprint for socially concsious politicians that Gandhiji conceived), and he still has faith that the basic nature of man is good (the response to a call for a free Tibet, so says he, has been quite strong from the non-political man at large: for all its moral patronising, even the Indian government has backed out on giving political support to the cause fearing a decline in diplomatic goodwill). It is only a matter of who chooses what that determines character. Tenzin believes that his dream of an independent Tibet won without violent means will be realised one day, and that his country, when born, will be as close to his peaceful ideal as possible. What matters is that he believes, and so do his countrymen. With that, he concluded.

On a personal note, he has renewed my belief. And I cannot thank him enough for that!

P.S.-- A correction: I had Mr. Nanak Ganguly's profession wrong. He is an art historian. And yes, if I sound a little critical about some speakers, it is based only on my initial impressions (hence not rigid enough to have formed a conviction).


Kaushik Chatterjee said...

Some random and desultory thoughts, Sudipto !

The question impinging on the applicability of the Gandhian principle of non-violence as the arbiter of very many socio-political issues of import facing us today, as it did emerge during the course of the discussion, largely and basically rests on the issue of practicality.

There’s an interesting dimension here. When Gandhiji, extolled on the virtue of the means justifying the ends, he basically wanted to ensure, as Prof Amlan Dutta, so pithily explained, that the two apparently disparate points of ‘preaching’ and ‘practice’ should be closest to each other and hence, joined by a straight line, which he metaphorically referred to as ‘honesty’. While Gandhiji, in order to ensure that there existed no mis-marriage/ambiguity between the goal of national independence, (embedded as it was within the enlightened principle of ‘swarajya’ /right of self-governance) and the vehicle employed for achieving it, always prescribed that the latter should be based on truth and non-violence. Indeed it remained one of the most potent moral/ethical platforms to relentlessly launch the crusade of ‘swarajya’, amidst hostilities, both within and without.

And yet, ironically, we find the Gandhian schema, ‘impractical’ not only now, in a vastly changed geo-political configuration, but, even then, during the time it was being put to shape through its ‘baptism by fire’. Surely, as any dispassionate raconteur of history would tell you, the ‘end’ of achieving India’s political ‘independence’(or more euphemistically speaking, ‘freedom from foreign yoke’) was expedited by the trigger-effects of other forms of aggressive/violent demonstrations, concurrently initiated by Pan-Indian extremist forces, not all of them rooted on very honest political principles.

But, perhaps, we, not the midnight’s children but born a few decades later and fortunate enough to have been spared the scalds that seared our ancestors leading to and in the aftermath of the laboured birth of a nation and its ‘tryst with destiny’, have the cool comfort of judging (well, almost re-actively, on hindsight) from the somewhat bitter lessons learnt in the realm of post-independent India-- if we, knowingly and expediently, had forsaken the imperatives of building a morally and ideologically strong nation-state, in our rush to secure the immediate crumbs of independence, ‘here’ and ‘now’.

The issue of the essence of the time factor (these days, in the fast age of instant gratification and consummation, we’ve put an ever-increasing premium on the time factor, remember – time, and not necessarily quality, is the essence of any contract and we always wax eloquent on the ‘time value’ of money ?) is brought to a very sharp relief here in this anecdotal reference.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad , at one point , prompted by a rhetorical question, “Given an option, would you prefer independence for your country, say, by tomorrow, but in the midst of a horridly fratricidal polity, divided on communal and caste lines, or wait indefinitely for it, albeit for the sake of a nation founded on sound , secular and ethically strong principles”, unblinkingly vouched for the latter. Of course, the desperate time servers waiting impatiently on the wings to run the nation on their own terms were ‘practical’ enough, not just prepared to give that wait!

On the other side of the hedge, I’m not sure if, even theoretically speaking, we could have honestly afforded this eternal and rather indefinite wait and here, I know, I’m contradicting myself !! Facetiously, taking Keynes’ line, why, we would’ve been all dead in the long run after this ‘eternal’ wait! On a serious vein, do we have honest instances of nations, politically and morally redeeming themselves, say after an endless wait of protracted trials and pursuing the policy of non-violence, coming up stronger and surer to reap the fruits of freedom ?

The long history of South Africa breaking itself off from the apartheid cast? As a very rough reckoner, the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of South Africa, in terms of The Transparency International 2007 Measure stands at 5.1 and is ranked 44th among 180 country-entries, way up compared to India’s position pecked at 74th with a CPI point of 3.5. An eye-opener?

Well, Tibet is a fascinating exemplar which may be followed up passionately and in case of her freedom fructifying under the spirited leadership of the Dalai in the not-too-distant future, it may be conceived as a possible first-hand, litmus-vindication of sorts, of Gandhian principle but then we would have to gauge how strong and secure the moral underpinnings emerge out of that fledgling nation state in the post-liberation era.

And there is a subtle string, you know, which can be conveniently tweaked either way to lend an ominous shade to the otherwise ‘above-board’ definition of the concept of nationalism. And this depends on which side of the fulcrum, the string-puller happens to be.

Well, the struggle of a nation with a well-marked geographical contour and an established territorial integrity, trying to break itself loose from the yoke of a foreign government is, in most reckonings, a patriotic and a nationalist one while the movement of a small part of a country agitating to rid itself of its ‘national parentage’ and seeking to establish itself as a sovereign dominion, irrespective of the character and soundness of its agitation, often is chided and labeled as a “secessionist” and all its rebellions routinely chaffed at!

India, of course, cannot formally sympathize with the Tibetan cause lest, at least arguing rather simplistically, Kashmir’s now-dormant-now-active demand for the ‘right of self-determination’ is also similarly seized upon by the international peace-advocates, even instituting the now dated UN-sponsored plebiscite in the process, placing her at a distinct political and diplomatic disadvantage, at a time when it has barely managed to exorcise the demon of ‘Khalisthan’.

Even in the post cold war scenario with emergence of democratized conventions and institutions, there has not been much uniformity or even a broad degree of agreement in the ideation of common principles /procedures towards the evolution of a more humane, responsible, democratic and a just system of world governance which, irrespective of individual political allegiances and hegemonistic stances , crass and wanton display of the nations’ monetary and military might, would aim at assuring the dignity and independence of human capital.
Under such circumstances, it would indeed be a tough call for Tibet to fit the Gandhian bill !

My Love and Regards to you,

Sudipto Basu said...

Dear Kaushik-da,
A few random rejoinders to your points.

The question of time is one which was persistently thrown at Tsundue in the course of the discussion, and it is not hard to guess which side he would be on if he were posed the same question that Azad had to face. His answer to the question was not quite definite (he said that would not even start predicting the day he might see a free Tibet, and it is quite possible that he'll not live long enough to witness such a grand spectacle), and it is not difficult to see why. Like I said, if they do indeed win independence by more quick-fix methods (which, in reality, is a distant possibility considering the military might of China), Tibet is sure to degenerate into a mirror of their oppressor sooner or later. In that case, she will only survive as a different political/geographical entity, but not quite different from the country which conquered her in the first place! The only advantage the Tibetans have over the Chinese is a moral one (and as Tsundue remarked, it has been earned after years of getting over genetic instinct-- they were originally a barbarian warring tribe!) and it is hard to dispossess one of an ethical conviction, certainly more than destroying a mere political belief. Even if they are to roll over into that Keynesian long-run in which they're all dead, won't it be better to hold on to a ethical stance that may not bear its fruit, rather than giving in to an immediate desire for a nation-state (and accepting whatever means are required to win her)? That is the question that clinches the core of the matter, if you ask me.

As for the dubious label of "secessionist", that cannot be applied in the case of Tibet-- not at least, by one who has a sprinkling of historical knowledge-- she was a free kingdom at one point of time and was attached, possibly to eradicate the problem of lebensraum, by China. Though that brings me to another confusing question (one that occurs to me only now, as I type this reply): India's erstwhile princely-states were independent kingdoms at one point of time too; but if one of them were to want a separate state for themselves now, they'd be certainly branded secessionists without much thought! The only point of distinction between the Tibetan and Indian cases is, it seems, the political agreement that every Indian prince signed in 1947 with greater or smaller persuasion.

There should be no doubt that it is difficult for Tibet to fit the Gandhian bill (there's no fooling around with the fact that Gandhi's ideals are difficult for anyone to follow!), but the reason why I see a little light of hope in her case is that she shows the signs of understanding the old man's conscience. Perhaps her people's close attachment to Buddhism and its inherent ideal of non-violence has given them an edge. For now, we can only wait and hope that their dream comes true. All said, I'd still prefer an ideologically-firm and oppressed Tibet to a anarchistic politically-free country. Freedom is as much political as it is an emancipation from the dark forces of blinding power, and that is a fact many overlook!

Love and regards.