Gandhi’s long shadow

The Guardian: A Father Betrayed

This article appeared in the Guardian as part of a “special” in their G2 supplement on Tuesday. You can read other articles here under “The New India”, including an article on the status of women’s rights in India and how it seems to mean the right to bare as much flesh as possible rather than things like the right to an education and to be free of sexual harassment, as it allegedly means in the west, and one by William Dalrymple about Pakistan.

The Gandhi article explains how not only is he hated at the extremes of Indian politics, such as among the Naxalite communists and the Hindu far right, but his message has been ignored by mainstream Indian politicians, who he says favour the rich over the poor and the townspeople over the people in the countryside. Today, many of them use their position to enrich themselves and their families.

The most telling paragraph, for me, is this one:

What remains of Gandhi and Gandhism in India today? Before answering this question, let me note that, like the Buddha, Gandhi was born in India but does not belong to this land alone. Just as the Buddha found his most devoted adherents elsewhere, the legacy of Gandhi has been admirably taken over by Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi. It is a matter of shame that Gandhi was never awarded the Nobel peace prize; the shame is also felt by those who decide on the prize in Oslo, who have since made amends by awarding it to the four Gandhians mentioned above.

What this shows for me is the long shadow Gandhi’s movement has cast over people’s attitudes to resistance: a lot of people seem to believe that non-violent resistance is the best form, or even the only valid form, of resistance. A couple of years ago, after the July 2005 bombings in London, Charles Moore, in an article in the Daily Telegraph packed with the ignorant assertions you might expect (see my rebuttal), wrote this:

When a nation, a race, a political movement, a group of workers, the followers of a religion have legitimate grievances, there generally arises amongst them a champion who can command respect for his advocacy of peace, his willingness to fight without weapons and to win by moral authority. There may be many such grievances for Muslims in Britain, and in the West, but we are still waiting for the Gandhi or the Martin Luther King to give them the right voice.

My reply to this was that the British Muslim community did not really have the grievances to sustain a mass non-violent resistance movement; Gandhi was operating at a time when there was a groundswell of opposition to British rule in India, and Martin Luther King at a time of segregation and oppression in the United States, and their moral authority partly derived from the fact that the populations they represented had contributed greatly to their oppressors’ or colonisers’ wars (to their salvation, in the case of the British). The terrorists who struck in London in July 2005 have a much smaller support base than King or Gandhi did. (Incidentally, the era which produced Gandhi actually did produce a non-violent Muslim figure, named Badshah Khan.)

Charles Moore is one of many who call for pacifism among those they really do not care about. Michael Moore made a similar suggestion to the Palestinians in his book Stupid White Men. His suggestion, which he said “involves no armies, no money, and no UN resolutions”, is “dirt cheap” and “HAS NEVER FAILED”, was “mass nonviolent civil disobedience”, basically involving the Palestinians peacefully sitting down in the roads in the West Bank and Gaza and refusing to do the Israelis’ “shitwork”. The latter has been proven ineffective, because the Israelis can easily get other workers in - from Bulgaria, for example - to do dirty work that neither Israelis nor Palestinians can or will do. However, one can gauge Moore’s real attitude towards Palestinians in this article by Shmuley Boteach, who met him at the 2004 Republican National Convention, in which he is quoted as calling the Jews “the most oppressed people on Earth”, something that may have had some truth to it up until the 1940s, but these days it’s arrant nonsense.

So, people try to dump Gandhi on those they don’t want to see succeed. However, two of the “Gandhians” mentioned in Ramachandra Guha’s article in the Guardian linked above are not even people who have succeeded. They are the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi - one of the people I most despise in the world right now.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of a general, who negotiated Burma’s independence from Britain in 1947 and was subsequently assassinated by his rivals (so note: she is a pacifist, but her fame comes from being the daughter of a military general). She spent most of her youth and adult life in India, the UK and USA, returning to Burma to look after her mother in 1988. After General Ne Win stepped down, she formed a political party and won an election in 1990, but the results were disregarded by the military, who remain in power. She has spent much of the intervening years either under house arrest or in one way or another restricted in her movements. She declined to leave the country even in the late 1990s when her husband was dying of cancer; her children have been without their mother for all this time as well. She has, for reasons best known to herself, chosen to remain in the country in a pointless show of defiance long after she would have left office had her mandate been honoured by the military, who remain in power. She is the toast of white liberals in the west, largely, I suspect, because she is a woman, because she is westernised and somewhat photogenic, and because she has kept her hands “clean” by not actually fighting the country’s brutal military government or gaining rulership - in which case she would have come to be in charge of the country’s armed forces. Besides, most, if not all, of the region’s “political women” are daughters or widows of past male rulers or other heroes, and Aung San Suu Kyi is no exception.

Her stance has been a textbook example of why the moral authority conferred by “non-violent resistance” is not what brings about results on the ground. It did not bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa, nor the end of segregation in the USA. The fact that South Africans were sick of being international pariahs who were barred from visiting many countries had a lot to do with the former, and the threat of violence, of a possible appeal of communism to Blacks and the dying off of the last people who would have remembered the South’s loss in the civil war may also have been factors in the latter. This is not to say that they played no part, but they did not win their battles on their own - and neither will Aung San Suu Kyi, and neither did Gandhi, and the hypocrisy of those who preach non-violence to those who are facing violence is one of the ugliest aspects of his legacy.

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