The war in Iraq
has gone terribly wrong. Before the war began in March 2003, moderate
voices called for more time for hot heads to cool off. If ever we reverse
course and attain again a degree of sanity, surely we must recall March
18, 1922, when Mahatma Gandhi addressed a courtroom in Ahmedabad, India,
about the non-violent way to resolving conflicts and upheld the virtue
of idealism. NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN remembers Gandhi's words.
ever we reverse course and attain to a degree of sanity (an expectation
unwarranted by recent history), March 18 will surely be celebrated
as one of the most important anniversaries in our calendar.
March 18, 1922, Mahatma Gandhi addressed the courtroom of the District
and Sessions Judge, Ahmedabad, India. He was being charged with
"bringing or attempting to excite disaffection towards His Majesty's
Government established by law in British India," the offences being
in three articles published in Young India (Gandhi's journal).
after the charges were read out, Judge CN Broomfield asked Mahatma
Gandhi how he would plead, he replied, "I plead guilty to all the
prosecuting counsel, JT Strangman, insisted that the judge take
into account "the occurrences in Bombay, Malabar and Chauri Chaura,
leading to rioting and murder. Mr Strangman stated that "in (Gandhi's)
articles you find that non-violence is insisted upon as an item
of the campaign and of the creed." "But", he added, "of what value
is it to insist on non-violence, if incessantly you preach disaffection
towards the Government and hold it up as a treacherous Government,
and if you openly and deliberately seek to instigate others to overthrow
statement in reply (after having pleaded guilty) is a timeless classic,
ranked by many as equal in tone, wisdom and eloquence to Socrates'
statement before his accusers over two thousand years before.
we study Gandhi's answer, however, it is instructive and necessary
to survey the events leading up to the trial.
Gandhi was neither an Arafat nor a Sharon. He genuinely believed
that a freedom won by bad means would be a bad freedom. He
has been proved right by every other country freed from colonialism
by adopting any means possible (Indonesia, Kenya, Algeria,
to name a few).
Gandhi's Satyagraha (non-violent, non-cooperation) movement was
in full swing in 1921-22, a group of non-violent protesters was
beaten up by some policemen in the small town of Chauri Chaura in
Northern India. Such beatings were scarcely uncommon, but the instructions
to the satyagrahis (protesters) was very clear they would
take the beatings but not respond in kind.
whatever reason, in this instance the protesters were provoked enough
to chase the policemen who, finding they were outnumbered, locked
themselves in their police station. The crowd then set fire to the
police station, killing 22 policemen.
without even consulting with the Congress Working Committee, called
off the national civil disobedience movement. He took personal responsibility
for the atrocity. In doing so he earned the criticism (and the wrath,
in some cases) of many of his associates, who believed this was
a small blot on an otherwise peaceful movement. Besides, many felt
that the momentum was so much in favor of the freedom fighters that
but for Gandhi's precipitate action, freedom would have been theirs
by year end.
Gandhi was neither an Arafat nor a Sharon. He genuinely believed
that a freedom won by bad means would be a bad freedom. He has been
proved right by every other country freed from colonialism by adopting
any means possible (Indonesia, Kenya, Algeria, to name a few). "The
guns that are used against the British," Gandhi once said, referring
to those Indian freedom fighters who saw assassination of British
officials as a reasonable retort to British oppression, "will tomorrow
be turned against Indians."
The need to build a polity where the discourse of ideas, not the
discharge of weapons, would win the day, was evident to Gandhi,
though not to impatient but shortsighted hotheads across the country.
Gandhi wrote, "God has been abundantly kind to me. He had warned
me that there is not yet in India that truthful and non-violent
atmosphere which can justify mass disobedience which can be described
as civil, which means gentle, truthful, humble, knowing, wilful
yet loving, never criminal and hateful. God spoke clearly through
experience of political cases in India leads me to the conclusion,
in nine out of every ten, the condemned men were totally innocent.
Their crime consisted in the love of their country."
- Gandhi, in court in 1922
After he had withdrawn the movement, the British Government ordered
his arrest. That was what the trial was about. Now to Gandhi's statement,
portions excerpted below:
have no desire whatsoever to conceal from this court the fact that
to preach disaffection towards the existing system of Government
has become almost a passion with me."
wish to endorse all the blame that the learned Advocate-General
has thrown on my shoulders in connection with the Bombay occurrences,
Madras occurrences and the Chauri Chuara occurrences. Thinking over
these things deeply and sleeping over them night after night, it
is impossible for me to dissociate myself from the diabolical crimes
of Chauri Chaura or the mad outrages of Bombay. He is quite right
when he says, that as a man of responsibility, a man having received
a fair share of education, having had a fair share of experience
of this world, I should have known the consequences of every one
of my acts. I know them. I knew that I was playing with fire. I
ran the risk and if I was set free I would still do the same. I
have felt it this morning that I would have failed in my duty, if
I did not say what I said here just now."
wanted to avoid violence. Non-violence is the first article of my
faith. It is also the last article of my creed. But I had to make
my choice. I had either to submit to a system which I considered
had done an irreparable harm to my country, or incur the risk of
the mad fury of my people bursting forth when they understood the
truth from my lips. I know that my people have sometimes gone mad.
I am deeply sorry for it and I am, therefore, here to submit not
to a light penalty but to the highest penalty. I do not ask for
mercy. I do not plead any extenuating act. I am here, therefore,
to invite and cheerfully submit to the highest penalty that can
be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime, and
what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen. The only
course open to you, the Judge, is, as I am going to say in my statement,
either to resign your post, or inflict on me the severest penalty
if you believe that the system and law you are assisting to administer
are good for the people. I do not except that kind of conversion.
But by the time I have finished with my statement you will have
a glimpse of what is raging within my breast to run this maddest
risk which a sane man can run."
came reluctantly to the conclusion that the British connection had
made India more helpless than she ever was before, politically and
economically. A disarmed India has no power of resistance against
any aggressor if she wanted to engage, in an armed conflict with
him. So much is this the case that some of our best men consider
that India must take generations, before she can achieve Dominion
Status. She has become so poor that she has little power of resisting
famines. Before the British advent India spun and wove in her millions
of cottages, just the supplement she needed for adding to her meagre
agricultural resources. This cottage industry, so vital for India's
existence, has been ruined by incredibly heartless and inhuman processes
as described by English witnesses."
"Little do town dwellers know how the semi-starved masses of India
are slowly sinking to lifelessness. Little do they know that their
miserable comfort represents the brokerage they get for their work
they do for the foreign exploiter, that the profits and the brokerage
are sucked from the masses. Little do they realize that the Government
established by law in British India is carried on for this exploitation
of the masses."
my opinion, non-co-operation with evil is as much a duty as
is co-operation with good. But in the past, non-co-operation
has been deliberately expressed in violence to the evil-doer.
I am endeavoring to show to my countrymen that violent non-co-operation
only multiples evil..."
- Gandhi, in court in 1922
"...No sophistry, no jugglery in figures, can explain away the evidence
that the skeletons in many villages present to the naked eye. I
have no doubt whatsoever that both England and the town dweller
of India will have to answer, if there is a God above, for this
crime against humanity, which is perhaps unequalled in history.
The law itself in this country has been used to serve the foreign
exploiter. My unbiased examination of the Punjab Marital Law cases
has led me to believe that at least ninety-five per cent of convictions
were wholly bad. My experience of political cases in India leads
me to the conclusion, in nine out of every ten, the condemned men
were totally innocent. Their crime consisted in the love of their
country. In ninety-nine cases out of hundred, justice has been denied
to Indians as against Europeans in the courts of India. This is
not an exaggerated picture. It is the experience of almost every
Indian who has had anything to do with such cases. In my opinion,
the administration of the law is thus prostituted, consciously or
unconsciously, for the benefit of the exploiter.
fact, I believe that I have rendered a service to India and England
by showing in non-co-operation the way out of the unnatural state
in which both are living. In my opinion, non-co-operation with evil
is as much a duty as is co-operation with good. But in the past,
non-co-operation has been deliberately expressed in violence to
the evil-doer. I am endeavoring to show to my countrymen that violent
non-co-operation only multiples evil, and that as evil can only
be sustained by violence, withdrawal of support of evil requires
complete abstention from violence. Non-violence implies voluntary
submission to the penalty for non-co-operation with evil."
am here, therefore, to invite and submit cheerfully to the highest
penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is deliberate
crime, and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.
The only course open to you, the Judge and the assessors, is either
to resign your posts and thus dissociate yourselves from evil, if
you feel that the law you are called upon to administer is an evil,
and that in reality I am innocent, or to inflict on me the severest
penalty, if you believe that the system and the law you are assisting
to administer are good for the people of this country, and that
my activity is, therefore, injurious to the common weal."
the atrocity at Chauri Chaura happened despite Gandhi's efforts
to keep the movement peaceful, that such misfirings were rare in
a huge national movement involving hundreds of thousands, made no
difference to Gandhi. He took total responsibility as the leader
of the movement, and staked his entire career upon it. Much as he
believed in non-violence, his action here, I believe, was as much
about orienting the movement's sights in a highly visible manner.
of the main tasks of leadership is to set standards. Every act of
a leader does so, consciously or otherwise. Every act of compromise,
hidden under some convenient excuse, in the end must lower the standards
for all. The fact that not one single statesman today seeks to set
standards shows why a Gandhi is rare. But it goes beyond that
far from setting standards, no politician or leader today is even
embarrassed by shirking responsibility. And we are so used to this
that we hardly notice it any more. So it is Bush continues to defend
the attack on Iraq. On the other side, does anyone expect Kerry
to say, "Yes, I voted for the Iraq resolution, because I was afraid
of Bush's popularity. I should have sided with Sens. Robert Byrd
and Paul Sarbanes to postpone the vote till after the 2002 election.
But I lacked the courage then." Get real. Nor is this an affliction
of American politicians alone. India's Vajpayee will never take
responsibility for the Gujarat Carnage, just as Pakistan's Musharraf
will not for the nuclear bazaar run from his (country's) basement.
King Fahd will not accept the blame for 15 of his people causing
the world to turn upside down. Nor will Putin for the daily killings
of the main tasks of leadership is to set standards. Every
act of a leader does so, consciously or otherwise. Every act
of compromise, hidden under some convenient excuse, in the
end must lower the standards for all.
Stopping the non-cooperation movement following Chauri Chaura was
one of Gandhi's most significant acts a cleansing of the
body politic, in effect. Years later, despite several heapings of
criticism, from being called a confused man to being called a British
lackey, he did not waver on the correctness of the decision. Writing
in 1928, he said, "[to] this date I have felt that I have served
the country by calling off the non-co-operation movement. I am confident
that history will look upon it as a form of perfect satyagraha and
not as an act of cowardice."
years later, after innumerable instances of idealism degenerating
into senseless violence, Gandhi's good sense (and sense of good)
Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast of the
United States. His writings can be found on http://www.indogram.com.
He can be reached at [email protected] The above article is also
available at http://www.counterpunch.org/ramakrishnan03202004.html.
more... email [email protected]
with the message, "Put me on your mailing list."