Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Ahimsa Heritage

A number of different things coming together here, so I will try to pull them together as best I can.

(1) Just finished reading Lajja by Taslima Nasreen, in the Hindi translation.

The story here is really that of Muslim violence on Hindus in Bangla Desh, in all its historical manifestations from Partition in 1947 to 1992, when the Babri Masjid incident set off a series of communal clashes in India. This also gave Bangladeshi Muslims yet another opportunity to engage in a round of ethnic cleansing in their country.

The book is about a Hindu family that both loves their country and considers themselves non-religious, even atheistic. Despite their identification as Bengalis first and nothing else, they are forced into a communal identity by circumstances. In the end, despite a long-held determination to stick it out, in the faith that this was their country, they make the decision to leave. There is no longer any place for them in their own country. That is their "shame" (lajjA), and also the shame of the author, who spares no historical data to make it clear that communalism has become a way of life in Bangla Desh and that Hindus are second-class citizens whose lives and possessions hang on a thread and for whom opportunities of every sort are withheld.

The distinction between the deaths in Indian riots and the Bangladesh situation is made clear: At least in India there are two sides fighting each other; in Bangladesh it is entirely onesided. The legal difference is also trenchant: whatever the situation on the ground, India has preserved constitutional secularism, whereas by declaring itself an Islamic Republic, Bangladesh has legally placed those of every other religion into an inferior status. The Hindus are too frightened to stand up and protest, and cannot even present themselves in demonstrations calling for communal peace for fear of reprisal!

Suranjan, the book's main character, reacts to the accumulating sense of powerlessness, which includes his own sister's being abducted and murdered, by raping a young Muslim prostitute. Hate begets hate.

The response to this book in Bangla Desh, and even India, where the specter of communalism is always looming, has been shameful in itself. Bangladeshi Muslim leaders responded to the telling of truth by releasing a fatwah approving of her assassination, more or less in the way that Salman Rushdie was for the Satanic Verses. The result is that Nasreen has been wandering the world for the past 20 years in search of a home. She now lives in Kolkata. Her voice against Islamic fundamentalism--its treatment of woman and minorities, etc.--has only become more strident as the years go by, and even the Marxist government of West Bengal banned one of her books to appease the sensitivities of the Muslim minority, who find her entirely blasphemous.

(2) Swami Veda has asked me to go on his behalf to a conference on "Interfaith Understanding and World Peace" at Punjabi University in Patiala on March 2-4. Swamiji's latest book is called What is Right with the World; A Plan for Peace, which I am reading in preparation.

What is right with the world? Basically, Swamiji says that despite the history of violence, especially where religions are concerned, there is hope, since all religions share certain common values that have worked in the past to maintain peace and harmony even in pluralistic societies. Since history focuses principally on developments of political and economic power, and religion primarily as an adjunct to those developments, the forces that have served to establishing peace, non-violence, unity and harmony are ignored. We can learn from our mistakes, but we must also look for the success stories. In this respect, Swamiji is categorical: It is not just the religions that have been economically and politically successful that can contribute to this sharing of experience. In fact, it is often their "lack of history" that qualifies them in making such contributions.
It might be stated that there exists a vast treasury of many millennia of experience in the area of unifying the religions, a theoretical framework established by philosophers, saints and sages, on a didactic basis as well as in a spiritually experiential mode. In daily life, too, experiments have been successfully conducted by the common people in a practical and pragmatic realm, often independent of theories and theologies. (22)
Gandhiji also says something similar. In response to a question about the "historical evidence as to the success" of his non-violent method, Gandhi answered:
The force of love is the same as the force of the soul or truth. We have evidence of it working at every step. The universe would disappear without the existence of that force. But you ask for historical evidence. It is therefore necessary to know what history means. The Gujarati equivalent means, "It so happened." If that is the meaning of history, it is possible to give copious evidence. But if it means the doings of kings and emperors, there can be no such evidence of soul-force or passive resistance in such history. You cannot expect silver ore in a tin mine.

History, as we know it, is the record of the wars in the world, and so there is a proverb amongst Englishmen that a nation which has no history, that is, no wars, is a happy nation... If the story of the universe had commenced with wars, not a man would have been found alive today.... The fact that there are so many men still alive in the world shows that it is based not on the force of arms but on the force of truth or love. Therefore, the greatest and most unimpeachable evidence of the success of this force is to be found in the fact that, in spite of the wars of the world, it still lives on.

Thousands, indeed tens of thousands, depend for their existence on a very active working of this force. Little quarrels of millions of families in their daily lives disappear before the exercise of this force. Hundreds of nations live in peace. History does not and cannot take note of this fact. History is really a record of every interruption of the even working of the force of love or of the soul... Soul force, being natural, is not noted in history. (Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, chap. XVII.)
Swami Veda does give historical examples, taken from the study of comparative religion, that show the common inspirations, borrowings, and so, but also from political history, where enlightened rulers like Ashok, Harshavardhana and Akbar supported mutual respect and exchanges between different religious and cultural streams, recognizing that such exchanges served the higher cause of humanity in ways that religious fundamentalism did not.

But even on a popular level, Swamiji gives many instances of Hindu and Muslim harmony or "conviviance" in India, such as that of the Dargah of a Sufi saint where simultaneous Hindu and Muslim rituals were being carried out.

All this does require some kind of intellectual framework, which may takes the form of complete atheism, a denial of all religious belief as negative. This obviously fails to take account of the positive contributions of religion. In chapter 6, Swamiji proposes the idea of "polymorphous monotheism" as an umbrella for all paths. He cites instances of multiple manifestations of God even in rigid monotheistic systems, such as the various different appearances of God as human, angel, pillar of light, etc., in the Jewish Bible, or the 99 names of Allah in the Quran, or the Trinity in Christianity.
There is hope that this kind of improved understanding of various doctrines will reduce the level of confrontation among religions. Tolerance would not be the right word for such an all-embracing view of life and belief systems. "Tolerating" someone does not always mean fully accepting that another's religion is as great as one's own. Even in interfaith gatherings, we do not often hear the followers of religions state, "Your religion is as great as mine." The followers of polymorphous monotheism, however, say "Your religion for you is as good as my religion is for me. Do continue to worship your divinity the way you have been taught to worship by your prophets and priests, and please accept that the way we worship has been taught by our incarnations and spiritual guides." This attitude would help solve many current problems of interreligious conflict. (p. 136)
Now, here we come head to head with the problem that has been demonstrated in part 1. It is this: You cannot make someone accept your point of view, and the problem here is that the so-called monotheistic or Abrahamic religions are the ones who will neither accept the Hindu argument about the equality of religions nor give up the sentiment that their revelation is exclusive and furthermore meant for everyone.

They all believe in a linear hierarchy of historical revelation and at least their fundamentalist factions have no respect for other points of view, which they take as being literally from the Devil. In terms of intellectual argument, there is little or nothing that can be done. So what is the solution?

Here, Swami Veda takes what is fundamentally the same position that Gandhi takes. The evolution of society begins with the spiritual evolution of the individual. Without the purification of the self in all dimensions, any attempts at collective progress are basically problematic.

And the second thing, I would say, is that you must take the long view. This is the hardest thing of all.

(3) In recent weeks, I have encountered on two occasions critiques of Gandhi which blame him for (a) the partition of India, and (b) the bloodbath that took place at the time of partition.

(a) The first of these is based on Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat Movement (1919-1924) as a gesture of fraternity with Indian Muslims, as well as to garner and mobilize their support for the independence movement. Even then, many Hindu religious and political leaders identified the Khilafat cause as Islamic fundamentalism based on a pan-Islamic agenda and that the Muslims were not acting in good faith.

For the Hindu nationalist, Indian nationalism was always primarily Hindu in nature and as soon as one identified as a true Muslim, they could no longer truly be Indian. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan, also apparently said at one time that India's partition began the day that the first Hindu converted to Islam.

From the Wikipedia page on the Khilafat Movement:
The Khilafat struggle evokes controversy and strong opinions. It is regarded as a political agitation based on a pan-Islamic, fundamentalist platform and being largely indifferent to the cause of Indian independence. Critics of the Khilafat see its alliance with the Congress as a marriage of convenience. Proponents of the Khilafat see it as a major milestone in improving Hindu-Muslim relations, while advocates of Pakistan and Muslim separatism see it as a major step towards establishing the separate Muslim state. The Ali brothers are regarded as founding-fathers of Pakistan, while Azad, Dr. Ansari and Hakim Ajmal Khan are widely celebrated as national heroes in India.
Whatever the consequences of the Khilafat Movement, I take it on faith that Gandhi was not seeking anything other than to follow what he considered to be the Truth at that time, and did not act purely out of political expediency. In one passage, Gandhi takes what I think would be universally condemned as an attitude today: what appears to be "compromising with terrorists."
My implicit faith in non-violence does mean yielding to minorities when they are really weak. The best way to weaken communalists is to yield to them. Resistance will only rouse their suspicion and strengthen their opposition. A Satyagrahi resists when there is threat of force behind obstruction. I know I do not carry the Congressmen in general with me in this what appears to me as a very sensible and practical point of view. But if we come to Swaraj through non-violent means, I know that this point of view will be accepted. (Young India, 2-7-31)
The ahimsa point of view, I think it may justifiably be argued, is the LONG view. You may not win the immediate battle or gain the results that you want in the short term, but the long term is that of true peace.

(b) The second was based on a Gandhi quote, “...every single Hindu should die at his post, but without retaliation” (Young India, 5 June 1924). Gandhi's idea was that, “The Mussulmans will then be shamed into doing the right thing in an incredibly short space of time... One has to dare to believe.” (The Essential Writings, Ed. Judith M. Brown, p. 206).

In general, there is a resistance amongst Hindu nationalism to the "effeminization" of Hinduism. I believe I may have talked about this before in relation to Bankim Chandra. There is a very deep sense amongst some Hindu nationalists that the lineage of Bankim, Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Chittaranjan Das, Subhash Chandra, etc., was one of recovering the heroic mood in Hindu culture. This was in particular, you could say, a Bengali problem. Sudipta Kaviraj talks about the appropriation of pan-Indian heroes--the Sikh gurus, the Maratha conquerors, etc.--to find representations of the masculine ideal that history failed to provide for the Bengali youth. Gandhi himself talked about the the conflicting models of the "Muslim bully" and the "Hindu coward."

Gandhi, very nobly, in my opinion, fought to establish the idea of the non-violent activist as a heroic model: the heroic model of the "soul-force" "truth-force" or "love-force" warrior, or karma-yogi. It may be criticized that Gandhi was trying to inflict an ideal of humanity on India and indeed the world that was far too elevated for its time. But that is precisely the point I am trying to make.

Because Gandhi is and always will be the father of the Indian nation, because his picture is printed on every denomination of Indian currency, his memory is, practically speaking, the greatest wealth that this nation possesses. What I mean is that his legacy is one of non-violence and not violence, a legacy of "love force" as an ideal, which means secularism, democracy, freedom, equality and all the ideals of progressive, multicultural nationhood will always have an uncompromising source of inspiration in Gandhi.

The counterexample is Pakistan. Now I am going to talk about the "bloodbath" and I wasn't there, and the historical account is split according to the versions of the two communities. This bloodbath began on one specific day, the National Day of Action, Aug. 16, 1946, declared by Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It was at this point that Jinnah made it clear that the Muslim League would not compromise with the Congress on the question of partition. Muslims simply could not live in a country that was majority Hindu. "If you want peace, we do not want war," he declared. "If you want war we accept your offer unhesitatingly. We will either have a divided India or a destroyed India."

Muslim revisionists say that Jinnah wanted to have peaceful demonstrations, but I personally think he made a calculated move, as the above quote shows, to undermine Gandhi's tenuously held non-violent movement. He was exercising "plausible deniability."

Reading the articles about this historical event is in itself is a plunge into the chthonic realm of unresolved resentments and hatreds. Finding a telling of this history that satisfies both the Muslim and Hindu nationalists will never happen.

Many Hindu nationalists believe that somehow things would have been better if Gandhi had been more violent. Jinnah knew that Gandhi's non-violence was tenuous, particularly in Bengal, where Subhash Chandra Bosu was the great nationalist hero and the violent model was being espoused more than anywhere else. He and his allies could not say it openly, and so current revisionists can pretend that he and the Bengali Muslim leader Suhrawardy were calling for peaceful protests. The fact remains that things finally settled things down only when Gandhi fasted and marched in Noakhali.

But today, when you read a book like Lajja, or when you look at the history of modern Pakistan, it is easy to become quickly convinced that the roots of the countries are producing different trees with different fruit. And that is all I am saying: What do you want for the future?

I agree with R. Jagannathan, who writes:
Partition prevented this deadlock from becoming the future of undivided India. It allowed Pakistan to experiment with its Muslim identity and India with its Hindu-dominated, but secular, ideology. Today it is more or less clear which approach is right. (Partition was Good)
You might well say that the Hindus of Bangladesh are victims of brutal oppression and discrimination. What has non-violence brought them? Does it not fill the heart with anger to see that there is a persistent ethnic cleansing (not even ethnic, but religious) going on there, as is so well documented in Lajja? Can anything be done?

It is admittedly an intractable situation. What has to be done is make clear its unacceptability, at the very least. And loud and consistent vocalization of such objections must be made.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is terrifying to think that a demonic religion like islam is amongst us. Though, Muslims are not as bad as Islam (Because of human nature), Islam promotes violence of the worst kind by providing Muslims with an excuse and actively encourages and even forces its adherents to engage in mindless violence against fellow human as well as non-human beings. It is really a Tamasic and worse than the demonic religion. It requires a birth by Allah himself to change Islam. In Islam, There is No Logic, There is No Compassion, There is No Integrity and there is No GOD