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Peace, war and Hinduism

In a day and an age where peace benefits people and wars are a blessing for rulers, what role does non-violence play? Whether it is West Asia or South Asia, India or Pakistan, the post-September 11 world seems to confirm Mahatma Gandhi's sagacity, writes RAJMOHAN GANDHI.


Thousands marched to London's Trafalgar Square early this month, waving flags and banners reading "Yes to peace, no to terror" and "Suicide bombers kill people and peace."

THIS piece uses some Hindu concepts to look at current issues. We can start with wisdom. Where Christian and Judaic teachers taught that the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom, our Indian ancestors said that gyan or wisdom would end fear.

What would be a wise response to the post-September 11 anger surge? A global phenomenon in the truest sense, the anger wave has altered emotional landscapes in the U.S., the Middle East, in Europe and on the subcontinent. Rhetoric has become shriller everywhere, positions harder, and patience thinner. In New Delhi as in Tel Aviv and Washington, but also in ghettos in Gaza, Nablus, Ahmedabad and Karachi, the word revenge seems to leave on the tongue a nicer taste than before.

Embracing the anger wave, some think it understandable that desperate individuals should turn themselves into bombs, or their aircraft into missiles, while others itch for taking out men labelled evil or for a once-and-for-all solution. Resentment at double standards joins righteous anger, and Indian and Israeli voices ask for American-style responses.

Our Prime Minister's recent hesitation in choosing between revenge, retaliation and a fitting response may suggest that the reflecting poet inside him remains alive, but we have always seen the poet yield to the politician, or is it the stern statesman, that also inhabits the Vajpayee soul. His Hiroshima verses did not return to trouble Mr.Vajpayee when he ordered Pokharan in 1998; and the faces of Lahore-ites touched by Mr.Vajpayee's 1999 remarks do not disturb his cogitation regarding a strike at Pakistan.

There may be something impressive in this, but is it the wisdom that India's sages prescribed? No warning in the Gita is as solemn as that against anger, and human beings everywhere have reason to be worried about a retreat from international law and conflict resolution to a celebration of physical force and might-is-right. Another Hindu concept, one that Buddhists and Jains also prize, is ahimsa. Rendered as non-violence or non-injury, ahimsa seemed a passive quality until Gandhi infused into it the ingredients of active love and struggle, but we should also recognise that for Gandhi (and most Hindus) ahimsa could co-exist with some carefully understood acquiescence in the use of force. (To give only one example, Gandhi's Quit India resolution of 1942 stated that Allied troops fighting Nazi Germany and Militarist Japan could use India's soil if the country was freed.)

If some Hindus claimed that their ancient epic, the Mahabharata, sanctioned and indeed glorified war, Gandhi pointed to the empty stage with which the epic ends — to the noble or ignoble killing of almost everyone of its vast cast of characters — as ultimate proof of the folly of revenge and violence. And to those who spoke, as many do today, of the naturalness of war, Gandhi's reply, first expressed in 1909, was that war brutalises men of naturally gentle character and that its path of glory is red with the blood of murder.

Gandhi agreed with the 19th Century war reporter William Howard Russell who wrote: Conduct war on the most chivalrous principles, there must be a touch of murder about it, and the assassin will lurk under fine phrases. The most civilised troops will commit excesses and cruelties. Believing that most actual wars and the Mahabharata epic corroborated such a judgment, Gandhi also insisted on non-violence from his followers if he was wanted as the leader of India's Independence struggle. The post-September 11 world, where violence in the name of justice has invited overwhelming force, seems to confirm Gandhi's sagacity in, for instance, calling off the 1922 campaign when Indian demonstrators shouting independence slogans charred about two dozen policemen to death. Whereas in the 1857 Revolt, the killing of British women and children triggered rage and a steely resolve in the British and proved a major factor in the Indian defeat, Gandhi's readiness to suspend his campaigns if innocent lives were lost on the British side won decisive goodwill in the international community, including in Britain. Perhaps there is a case for Palestinian and Kashmiri fighters considering ahimsa in the style of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. There is, thirdly, the law of karma or of consequences, and an interesting thing about this almost physical (and inexorable) law. Most of us think that a stroke of luck, or some cosmic oversight, will enable us to elude the consequences of our deeds.

The hate sown in Muslim madrassas in Pakistan and in Hindu madrassas in Gujarat and elsewhere in India will have consequences complex and unpredictable but costly. The notion that men and women may not aspire to equal rights if they are Hindus in Pakistan and Bangladesh, or Muslims in India, will exact its full price. The same is true of the events of September 11 and of the attacks on Afghanistan; of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli raids, settlements and occupations; of terrorist attacks on the Kashmir Assembly and the Indian Parliament; of promises not kept and lives not preserved in Kashmir; of the scorching of 58 trapped human beings in Godhra and of hundreds of other pleading human beings elsewhere in Gujarat; of the inferno of homes, bakeries, and businesses in Gujarat; of the plucking out of historic tombs and mosques; of Chief Minister Narendra Modi's failure to protect innocent lives and Gujarat's good name; of guns opened on defenceless wives and children of Indian armymen in J & K.

And any war that occurs between India and Pakistan will also have consequences. Those saddened by the remoteness of peace in South Asia or the Middle East may be helped by a fourth Hindu concept, that of action without a focus on its fruits. All know that what a people need may diverge from what political rulers require that while peace benefits people, wars may be a blessing for rulers. This truth is bound to hurt and depress a worker for peace. But wait. There is no depression or hurt for a worker who in the spirit of the Gita seeks no fruits but does what he must. If called to work for a historic reconciliation between India and Pakistan, such a worker will no doubt strive to reach politicians, the media and opinion-makers in both countries. But if the Gita has gone home, satisfaction will be found in the mere attempt. Breakdowns and wars will not shock, though they will certainly produce suffering, which the worker will toil to reduce.

But the peace workers' eyes will be on the task at hand, not on immediate results. They will also rest on common Indians and Pakistanis, more on them than on leaders. Despite the unceasing output, in both lands, of hate wrapped in bright and patriotic colours, common Indians and Pakistanis know that their lives are interlinked, and that cooperation with one another may lead to long-denied comfort and prosperity. They also know while a war may produce a nominal victory for India, an Indian occupation of Pakistan is an impossibility for any length of time.

If the inevitable end of an Indo-Pak war is co-existence, why not try co-existence before a war, especially a war linked to the nuclear hazard? Finally, there is the Hindu concept of an individual's distinct worth and identity. The Arjuna that Krishna addresses and cares for in the Gita is not man in general; he is specially dear to god. Relating to Arjuna, every individual may feel this special concern and a special identity.

It is this individuality which was destroyed in Gujarat. The flat unrecognisable charred lumps that hours earlier were lively humans answered well to what the killers believed, which was that those on the other side were only they, Muslims or Hindus. They were not individuals each with a name, face and features of a particular kind, or with unique plans and dreams.

Though generally claiming to retrieve individual heroes and villains, a war also divides the bulk of its characters into two flat assembly lines, patriots on one side and enemies on the other. A Hindu (or non-Hindu) who cherishes the individuality of a loved one and sees each individual as a separate Arjuna will want a lot of persuasion before accepting a war.

The writer is a journalist, biographer and historian.

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