The Satyagraha Centenary celebrations and
the relevance of Gandhian philosphy to Sri Lanka

Current Affairs
by Kumar Rupesinghe

The conference on Peace, Non-Violence and Empowerment and Gandhian Philosophy in the 21st Century, held in Delhi from January 29 -30, 2007 was organised by the Indian National Congress and was the brainchild of Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress. The conference was attended by several Nobel Laureates, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lech Walesa of Poland, Professor Mohammed Yunus and numerous other peace activists from around the world. Some of the decisions that were taken at the conference were to build a global movement on non-violence based on the principles of Mahatma Gandhi that would be the ‘conscience ‘of the world. An International Secretariat would be opened soon.

Gandhi and the 21st century

The celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Satyagraha was to commemorate the beginning of the Satyagraha movement inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in the campaign against the registration of Indians in South Africa in 1896. The meeting was also to rethink and refashion Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking for the 21st Century. Is the philosophy of non violence – Satyagraha- still relevant to the 21st century, particularly after September 11th, when terrorism and suicide bombs became the order of the day? Can the concept of Satyagraha and its meaning be relevant to a world in which terror and violence dominates the landscape of power politics? How can the principles of Satyagraha be applied to situations of terrorism and counter terrorism which we now witness in Sri Lanka, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon and the Congo?

The Satyagraha Centenary celebrations come at a time when India has experienced spectacular growth and is poised to be a super power in two decades time. Its growth rates have been phenomenal and India has already become a super power in the field of information technology. India today has a large and expanding middle class and optimism about growth rates is clearly visible. India has also emerged as a nuclear power. Whilst India is emerging as an economic super power with significant growth rates, the divide between the rich and the poor is growing wider, although the middle class has grown significantly.

The influence of Gandhi

There is no question that Gandhi had a profound influence on the reshaping of world history. In India, Gandhi was the inspiration around whom the Indian National Congress converged. He was the spiritual leader of the country. His values of Satyagraha, Sarvodaya, and Self Rule had a profound influence on the struggle against British Imperialism and continues to have an enduring value in India. Gandhi not only propounded an ideology but lived it and focused on the inner self. Gandhi’s teaching and example inspired millions of people in India and gave pride to its local cultures and traditions. Through Gandhi, India has been able to find its own centre of gravity and values. To quote Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, "The ideas that Mahatma Gandhi is remembered for are based on universal ideals". Many "isms" battle in our minds, but few succeed in touching our hearts. Many political ideologies have come and gone over the past century, some with doubtful legacies and others with terrible consequences. The only political philosophy that I believe will remain relevant for as long as humankind seeks peace, peace in our societies, peace between nations and peace with nature, will be the ideas and values we associated with Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi no doubt also had a profound influence in the world. He influenced Nelson Mandela during the early phase of the African National Congress and it was only in the last phase, given the brutality of the Apartheid regime that the ANC resorted to limited forms of violence. It certainly influenced Archbishop Tutu and a host of others in South Africa and his philosophy of reconciliation determined the final outcome of the solution where Nelson Mandela and De Klerk were able to agree on a non violent transformation. Pragmatic politics avoided a bloodbath in South Africa. The influence of Gandhi was equally important for Martin Luther King, who through his non violent approach was able to steer the frustrations and anger of the black community into constructive engagement. Gandhi and his teachings were a primary inspiration in the so called velvet revolution in Eastern Europe against Soviet domination.

Will Gandhi however remain an icon to be adulated and honoured? Can his teachings and practice, spiritual and social guidance be adapted to the requirements of the 21st century? The Marxist doctrine which co-existed with Gandhian philosophy has ceased to be a practical reality in the world, as prophesied by Mahatma Gandhi. When Gandhi was confronted with the Bolshevik Revolution, he replied that the Revolution showed great promise in its struggle for equality but suggested that we have to wait 50 years to see the results. Today, the Soviet Union has collapsed and some of the leading figures in the anti Soviet movement were themselves Gandhians such as Lech Walesa of Poland and V`E1clav Havel of Czechoslovakia.

The question is whether the younger generation and the poor will embrace Gandhian methods in their struggle against oppression and inequity. Will Gandhi’s values provide a value framework for steering the destiny of our personal goals as well as the nation? In a recent survey conducted by The Economic Times in the centenary year of Gandhi’s Satyagraha in South Africa, Bill Gates got 37 percent of the votes while Gandhi was second with 30 percent votes. Mother Theresa secured the third position. Students of different institutions sponsored by industrial and commercial establishments across India responded to the questionnaire of the survey. The participants said that they thought that Gandhi was relevant today, but they did not have enough or no time at all, to give attention to him. Sixty one percent of the students said that, to them, Gandhi was "a man of the remote past". The challenge is how Gandhian values can inspire and motivate the youth towards social change.

Terrorism and Satyagraha

Another important challenge for the future is whether Gandhian teachings can compete with modern forms of terrorism and the suicide bomb. September 11th, 2001, created a fundamental change in global politics. The human missiles which crashed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon were lethal weapons which caused enormous havoc and destruction. The suicide bomber is sometimes called the poor man’s answer to the injustice that they see around themselves. Terrorism in its modern form is a potent and dangerous weapon which can easily polarise societies and instill fear into entire populations. Terrorists can strike anywhere and at will. The military presence of the USA in Iraq and the fierce and militant terror bombs seem to be responses to this occupation. Here there is no place for Satyagraha.

Mahatma Gandhi was certainly successful in defeating British Imperialism and proved that non violence if used effectively can be a potent tool to fight against injustice. But at the same time, Gandhi failed when it came to the Hindu Muslim divide. In 1947, as the battle he had waged for three decades approached its fruition, Gandhi was less than triumphant. True, India would soon be independent but, in the process, the country was to be divided; riots had broken out across Punjab, Delhi and Bengal and Gandhi was unable and helpless when confronted with large scale ethnic cleansing and hatred between the Hindus and the Muslims. His despair is best epitomised by his statement to the effect that "No one listens to me anymore. I am a small man. True there was a time when mine was a big voice. Then everyone obeyed what I said; now neither the Congress nor the Hindus nor the Muslims listen to me. I am crying in the wilderness" (Mahatma Gandhi, at a prayer meeting, 1942). Gandhi opposed the partition of India, but was not able to prevail and had little by way of an alternative to offer. During this period, Gandhi was attacked mercilessly by the Hindu extremist forces and he was eventually assassinated by them.

Gandhi and Sri Lanka

Now, it may be the time to reflect on the future of Sri Lanka, in the context of India and the Gandhian movement of Satyagraha. Sri Lanka received its independence from the British easily and our founding fathers were to a large extent from the westernised elite. Sri Lanka never had a Gandhi, although there were those who were influenced by him. Our primary source for social change came from the Marxist and Trotskyist Left movement which had its origins in the Bolshevik Revolution. Then the two major youth insurgencies in the South were also inspired by half baked Marxist theory coupled with populism and a creed of violence. True there were efforts at non violent protest campaigns and Satyagraha movements such as the early adoption of Satyagraha by the Tamil National Movement. I still remember the Satyagraha campaign launched in 1958 against the Sinhalese Only Bill. These nascent Satyagraha campaigns were brutally suppressed by the Government of the time. The non violent and democratic concerns expressed by the Tamil parties were also ignored by increasingly intolerant Sinhalese governments. In their efforts to redress the injustices committed against the Sinhalese by the British, the Tamils suffered the consequences and were marginalised. It was then the turn of the Tamil militant movement to take to arms and a creed of violence and intolerance became the hallmark of the militant movement. Eventually, Tamils started killing each other in a never ending fratricidal war and for the last two decades the country has been torn by violence and all forms of terrorism. .

Sri Lanka was also not influenced by the richness of Indian culture in all its manifestations. Today, peace is a dirty word for some and even an innocent demonstration or meeting is disrupted by saffron robed monks or all kinds of thugs. Still it is my view that there are many elements of Gandhi’s philosophy, which are of the highest relevance to Sri Lanka. Our younger generation in particular needs role models to emulate and surely Gandhi could be one of them. . In the North East, the LTTE and other war lords reign supreme and there is little space for non violence. Large numbers of young people have either fled or been inducted forcefully into the armed movements. Protests however sporadic do happen as when the mothers of the abducted demonstrate for the release of their children. In the South, the families of the disappeared are getting themselves organised. Trade Unions still have the right to strike. Press freedom however threatened with a spate of killings of journalists.

The war continues and is taking its toll. Over the past twenty years, there has been no respite. The war is currently popular in the South and Sinhalese nationalism is on the upsurge. This is largely a result of the fact that the LTTE has failed to convince the Sinhalese that they would not divide the country. The LTTE is intransigent in its demand for Tamil Eelam and the Sinhalese will never concede the division of the country.

It is only when the citizens in all parts of the country realise the futility of war and organise themselves that an alternative can be found. The problem in Sri Lanka is not only the war, for the war is only a manifestation of a deeper crisis. There is a crisis of confidence and no value frame which can unite the entire country. This requires an alternative vision for Sri Lanka whereby citizens are imbued with values of non violence and organise themselves. In Sri Lanka, we have voters who indicate their protest through the ballot, but thereafter become bystanders. What is required is a notion of citizenship where people decide that they wish to be an agency of social transformation. For such an initiative, Gandhi can provide the guidance and the example.


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