Wednesday, October 7, 2015

War and Peace Lecture: Who gets respect?

For several years, Opinions 24x7 has honored the memory of Mahatma Gandhi through the Gandhi Peace Lecture series on his birth anniversary. This year too, we fully intend to do the same - however, with the passage of time, it has become clear that while Gandhi's principles of ahimsa and satyagraha remain relevant, they cannot be seen in isolation. Many of the moral issues that face us today, from terrorism to religious violence, cannot be fully addressed without examining the larger context in which non-violence exists. Therefore, 2015 onward, we have decided to rename the series as the War and Peace lecture.

This has an additional significance - October 2, the International Day of Non-Violence, is also the birth anniversary of India's second Prime Minister and victor of the 1965 War with Pakistan, Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastri was no warmonger of course, he was after all a follower of Gandhi himself. But when faced with an impossible choice from Pakistan, and forced to expand the theater of fighting, marking the first time since Partition when Indian troops were at Lahore, he did not hesitate. It is then fitting that we rename the series to the War and Peace blog.

Any Difference?
But really, has anything changed? Does peace have any value unless it is backed by the promise of unacceptable war? What would have happened had the British ignored Gandhi and allowed him to die in one of his hunger strikes? The fear was certainly of massively violent resistance to the centuries old occupation of India, violence that would have been impossible for the occupiers to quell.

Not that there was no violence. The occupiers had hanged several revolutionary fighters, and the Indian National Army had conquered Burma as well as the British-Indian Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Britain was squeezed to defend not only itself in Europe but also its most prized colony. Seen in this historical context, the Quit India Movement was not just a moral fight against the British but one that threatened to push the entire Empire into total collapse before the Axis powers.

Subtle Difference
If war is the only way a mighty empire could be brought to its knees, was Gandhi's non-violent philosophy of any value? It seems that it does not, for its power only lies in the promise of war. But there is a difference, and that difference lies in the answer to the question as to who earns respect. Respect is not automatic between countries or people. Outside sophisticated social systems as in Asia (which are fast breaking up), respect can only be earned by an individual. Similarly, peace too must earn its respect. A peace that is achieved through the sledgehammer of total warfare does not earn respect.

And this is the key. An enemy, when faced with an adversary that they do not respect, will have no fear in fighting back with vengeance. That is why the British hanged the violent revolutionaries, or tried to hang officers of the INA after World War 2 at the Red Fort trials. For to them, there was nothing to respect in violence. Gandhi offered one thing that, in its most naked form, commanded respect - truth. The truth, as embodied in the American Declaration of Independence, that all men are born equal and free. No amount of violent suppression or indeed, any human activity, can change this truth. Only by grasping truth could Gandhi's peace win his war.

Truth earns respect. War and peace are but mere stages. 

No comments: