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Non-violence - Neither a beginning nor an end

- By V. S. Thyagarajan

September 11 precedes October 2 only by three weeks but, as dates that symbolise events, they have nothing in common. The first is known for the unprecedented terror and violence unleashed on thousands of innocent people, while the other is a date etched in history by the apostle of peace-the Mahatma.

As the years go by and generations change, doubts begin to creep in is October 2 still relevant and does non-violence still have meaning in a world deeply divided by conflicting ideologies and religious fundamentalism? Since Mahatma Gandhi's name and philosophy of non-violence are inseparable, there is an attempt to reduce the scope of the tenets of non-violence to the period in which Gandhiji live and context in which he fought for the freedom of the country.

But September 11 has brought back into sharp focus the relevance of non-violence to a world in which the United States, the only "super power", found itself vulnerable for the first time in its history.  Before 1947, for many freedom fighters in India, Gandhiji's tenets of non-violence was a tool, a powerful instrument pressed into use to fight the forces of British imperialism to gain independence.  It was not a faith, not a philosophical discourse and it was certainly not a commitment an independent India could not afford.

The questions that troubled the minds of freedom fighters were: how can a modern nation-state function without building an effective coercive apparatus? To maintain law and order within its borders and to meet any challenge of external aggression, will it not be the duty of a state to construct, strengthen and constantly nurture its police, paramilitary and military forces?

While Gandhiji did agree that yielding to external threats would be tantamount to compromising with cowardice, his commitment to non-violence was not a mere policy formulation for a country that struggled to free itself from the British yoke. His idea of non-violence was a comprehensive philosophy that would serve the purpose of all countries, all men and women, under all circumstances. In the last five decades, he has been proven right, in different parts of the world under different circumstances.

Gandhiji's disciple, Martin Luther King Jr., did not carry any weapon. His shield for the emancipation of the Black people was moulded in non-violence, and with that shield he dared to dream. His dream seems to have been fulfilled in a substantial measure in the decades since the turbulent 1960s.

September 11 was yet another occasion when it became clear that violence would never be justified under any circumstance, either in the name of an ideology or a religion.  If terrorism marks one end of the spectrum, at the other end lies the U.S. Administration's obsession with objectives that are in stark contrast to Gandhiji's obsession with the means.  Gandhiji believed that if the means were right, the end would take care of itself. Gandhiji could never bring himself to experimenting with short-term policies to serve short-term interests.

September 11 could perhaps have been different if the U.S. had cared a little more for the means as well as the ends in the 1980s and refrained from funding and arming terrorist forces that were led by men like Osama bin Laden.  With the assistance of bin Laden and the forces of extremism, terrorism and religious fundamentalism, the U.S. succeeded in getting Soviet troops, out of Afghanistan in 1989, but such short-sighted policy had begun to haunt Washington a decade later.

Gandhiji or no Gandhiji, it is unfortunately true today that a call for jehad, a "holy war" for 1,000 years, motivates thousands of young men to carry deadly arms and have suicidal impulses, but a call for non-violence is not exactly fashionable.

Non-violence as a philosophical concept looks as dull and uninspiring as a United Nations' conference on disarmament or sustainable development. Yet, if we examine Gandhiji's visualisation of non-violence dispassionately, we will find that, like the Buddha's sermons, it has neither a beginning nor an end. It transcends time, nations and peoples.  Since the atrocities committed in New York and Washington in September 2001, scholars have made attempts to find meaning of September 11.

It appears that they have succeeded only partly. If they care to view the phenomenon of terrorism through the prism of non-violence and aim at marrying the ends with the means, the meaning of September 11 may become clearer.  And the meaning of October 2, the day Gandhiji was born 133 years ago, would be still valid.

Source : The Hindu, Sunday, September 29, 2002


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