‘Voices of Dissent’ by Romila Thapar: An Excerpt

In Voices of Dissent, Romila Thapar looks at the articulation of dissent, focusing on nonviolent forms, that which is so essential to all societies, and relates it to various moments of time and in varying contexts as part of the Indian historical experience. Beginning with Vedic times, she takes us from the second to the first millennium BC, to the emergence of groups that were jointly called the Shramanas—the Jainas, Buddhists, and Ajivikas. Going forward in time she explores the views of some Bhakti sants and others of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries AD, and brings us to a major moment of dissent that helped to establish a free and democratic India: Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha.

Buy this title from our website.

Read an Excerpt: Romila Thapar on the Intellectual Sources of Gandhi's Satyagraha

Gandhi’s definition of the concept of satyagraha drew from the authors he read and wrote about and this has been much discussed: Tolstoy, Thoreau and Ruskin in particular. He had lengthy conversations with Raichandbhai on the Jaina religion, as he would also have done with his mother and others in Gujarat that was partial to Jainism. He read many texts of the Bhakti sants as well, especially those of the fifteenth-century Narsi Mehta in Gujarati. My attempt is to understand what it was that struck a public chord in this particular form of protest.

Gandhi’s reading of texts closely associated with Hinduism was of a different genre, for example, his careful reading of the Gita and the attraction of brahmacharya. Could the prevalence of alternative cultural patterns from the past have nudged him into seeking a practice that would be seen as the outcome of thoughts that flourished as part of a perceived tradition? The imprint may have been less apparent than we have realized, both on him and his audience. Did the form of and justification for satyagraha reach out to a stronger tradition of expressing dissent? Some have argued that it was the ideal of brahmacharya that he was emulating. But brahmacharya was not born out of protest and dissent. It was a way of life acceptable to orthodoxy and, like asceticism, was the self-expression of the single individual. It focused more on individual liberation from rebirth, rather than on social ethics. It denied women a place of significance. Satyagraha differed, as it was primarily a political statement. I am not suggesting that the Indian tradition was foremost in the making of Gandhi’s thoughts and actions, but, rather, that there were prevailing cultural patterns that may have subconsciously facilitated the internalization of his ideas. More than that, it gave to the person responding to Gandhi a sense of recognizing the continuity of a pattern in making manifest particular thoughts and actions.

Parallels with renouncers are more noticeable in the making of the practitioner, the satyagrahi. To be effective, a period of training was preferred, although there were some exceptions of a few persons that were exempt. There is some mention of taking vows or consenting to observe certain rules. Once accepted, the discipline of living in the ashrama was reasonably strict. This is also borne out in the memoirs of one young woman, Manuben. Satyagraha was not a monastic order. Nevertheless, it had its own rules, relationships and identity. One can perhaps see a subconscious attempt at adjusting the teaching into a slight semblance of discipline, to possibly taking it in the direction of an institution. This would prevent Civil Disobedience from becoming a runaway activity.

To assert a greater moral force, it was preferable that the satyagrahi be celibate, although this was not insisted upon. Protest included the non-violent swadeshi movement—observing the boycott of foreign goods, especially cloth that was not unconnected to industrialization in Britain. This was a part of Civil Disobedience that of course had much broader concerns. The wearing of khadi and objections to mill-made cloth was not intended as a Luddite movement but as registering another form of dissent and explaining why it was necessary.

Some symbols of renunciation also surface. Underlying satyagraha lay the force of moral authority—soul-force—of the person calling for civil disobedience and the response. This, in a sense, echoed what also gave authority to renouncers of various kinds, andin diverse ways. That Gandhi was named a mahatma, an honour that interestingly he did not reject, was partially recognition of his moral authority. Such authority required neither an office nor an official status. Its abstract power was its strength. Its force lay with those that accepted the leadership of the person who asserted it.

A fundamental requirement of satyagraha, as also in the Shramana religions, was to refrain from using violence. The use of violence or even the observable dependence on violence destroys moral authority. Ahimsa faced the opposition of the colonial power and its continued violence against anti-colonial nationalist protestors. Those that shouted slogans such as ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and ‘Azadi’ were lathi-charged, arrested and jailed under British rule. Violence and the exercise of power are interconnected at many levels and on many occasions. This brings violence into the realm of political activity. The use of violence when it is qualified, which can be called contingent or conditional violence—for instance in the Gita, where violence is permitted if it is destroying evil—frequently relates to the political sphere, from assassinations to battles. Kings, commanders and soldiers, even when they were Buddhists and Jainas, did not allow the vow of ahimsa to stop them from killing the enemy.

The commitment to nonviolence and truth underlined the idea of tolerance. The need for tolerance was a statement repeated by rulers over the centuries which suggests that neither could tolerance be taken for granted nor was it prevalent. It is frequently missing among those greedy for power. Had tolerance prevailed, there would not have been a need to evoke it repeatedly. Not entirely unrelated to the concept of ahimsa was the other that Gandhi often emphasized, namely, nishkama karma. The latter has been discussed as the idea of action that does not take into account personal gain. If this can be extended to include the ethics of ends and of means and the individual’s responsibility for his or her actions, then the link to ahimsa becomes more pertinent.

Most sects of renouncers were not concerned with overthrowing the existing system but with setting up an improved alternative, at least initially. They also had ideas about the kind of society they wanted and envisaged it by redefining the reality. They knew the present and had ideas about the future. They were people with a vision. The vision is often the cynosure of ideology. One is also reminded of the Bhakti sant Ravidas who envisioned a society where everyone was equal, and this for him would remove the central cause of sorrow.

All religions were to be equally respected. Presumably, this endorsed equal rights essential to satyagraha. The latter did not have its own singular religious identity, although one of the religions in its practice was perhaps more equal than others. However, there was a moral right to break the law if it caused widespread suffering. But who had the right to judge? Was Gandhi assuming this right strengthened by being called a mahatma? The dilemma becomes more acute if one accepts what one may call the contingent or the conditional ahimsa of the Gita, that violence is permitted if the fight is against prevailing evil. Yet the satyagrahi has to persuade the other to his view in nonviolent ways and through a system where the means and ends are not contradictory.

Violence does not persuade; it replaces persuasion by fear and terror. In the process, it sadly negates the quality of the human in those asserting authority and the fear of violence encourages those being subjugated to accept the negation. The negation often remains at the level of a substratum and is not spoken about. Yet it is crucial that it have a presence as an ethical necessity in all relationships involving the balancing of power. Its negation allows those with power to treat those being subjugated with contempt. Would Gandhi’s generation and his immediate successors have referred to those subjugated as ‘termites’?