by Rajni Bakshi
In New Delhi, 74-year-old Anna Hazare began a fast on April 5, launching a nationwide anti-corruption movement in the tradition of Gandhi’s satyagraha (soul force) nonviolent resistance. In August for almost two weeks, Hazare went on another hunger strike, creating massive public pressure for the immediate enactment of a Lokpal bill, which would create a powerful independent body (a lokpal) to investigate corrupt officials. As Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption agitation in India continues to gather momentum, many have asked, “How Gandhian is this movement?”
Hazare’s methods may match Gandhi’s, but to really answer the question one needs to look behind the actions associated with the historical Gandhi. The most fundamental creative idea with which Gandhi experimented was self-critical introspection—the faculty for constantly re-examining one’s own motives and methods. Then the opponent need not be encountered or experienced as an offensive “other” but as someone who, just like oneself, has the potential for critical self-reflection and thus can evolve to higher levels of consciousness and action. Hazare’s movement has not met this Gandhian standard yet.
Satyagraha, Gandhi’s philosophy of civil resistance, is fundamentally an inward challenge. Physical non-violence is only its bare minimum component. Its objective is not the ascendancy of any one formula or solution but empowerment of the search for multi-shaded truths. It is this search for truth that is to be made “irresistible”—not the force of a demand backed by large numbers. This endeavor is, above all, an antidote to intolerance. Even if the injustice being resisted is an area of deep darkness, those responsible for it need not be condemned as evil. It is a moral action against the sin, not the sinner.
Hazare’s agitation, however, triggered intolerance towards other approaches of solving the problem of corruption. Those who questioned Hazare’s solution have been denounced as traitors in banners at protest locations across the country. Some, like Aruna Roy, an architect of the Right to Information law who has been critical of the Hazare draft of the Lokpal Bill, have been bombarded with vicious hate-mail.
The immediate passage of a law creating the institution of a Lokpal may or may not help us wipe out corruption—but intolerance of opposing views will undermine India’s democratic culture. For it depends on open engagement with multiple perspectives and a willingness to be critiqued.
It is dangerous to assume that if big-ticket corruption of elected representatives and government functionaries is tackled, the rest of society will somehow fall in line because the source of the problem is at the top. Rapidly identifying and punishing offenders—at any level of government or in any profession—is necessary but far from sufficient. Yes, modern parliamentary democracy needs to rely heavily on effective implementation of rule of law. Indeed there is urgent need to press for this and normalize the functioning of institutions in India. But deterrent punishment cannot be the foundation of a society worth living in.
The limitations of deterrent punishment as a means of changing erroneous behavior can be seen in the laws making sex-selection abortions a criminal offence. Enacted almost two decades ago, government policies favoring the girl child are aplenty. But as the census of 2010 showed, the gender ratio is still skewed—940 women for every 1000 men. In the zero to six age group the ratio is much worse—914 girls to every 1000 boys. Clearly the proportion of females in the population is not going to be secured as much through laws as it could be by social renewal. It might be the same with corruption.
Introspection and a willingness to take full responsibility for your immediate domain of action is the core value for a truly democratic culture. This way you seek to change the top by revitalizing the grassroots. You strengthen the struggle against corruption at the top by first bringing change in your own professional and social life. Tolerance and respecting the dignity of all, particularly of those who disagree with us, tends to follow from this commitment to being the change you want to see.
We are not required to ‘follow’ Gandhi—either literally or metaphorically. But his vision of a true democracy depending on a sustained evolution of social energies can be a light on the path ahead. Gandhi himself evolved to the extent of forgiving and embracing murders.
Yes, lives are partly improved by winning on specific demands for laws that compel the powerful to be more accountable. That is vital. But the evolution of democracy may depend on devising ways of converting outrage into well-directed purpose and brashness into a courage that is respectful of different ways of reaching the same goal.
Rajni Bakshi is a Mumbai-based writer. Her most recent book, Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom (Penguin Books India) profiled economists, entrepreneurs, and social activists who challenge free-market orthodoxy.
[Photo courtesy of akshaydavis]