The first Mahatma Gandhis protest movement was in support of indigo growers in Champaran, Bihar in 1917, then in Kheda in Gujarat in 1918. For the first time in India, he applied his non-violent method and Satyagraha, a method peace sharpened during his years in South Africa, against oppressive laws in these two countries. He went to Champaran where indigo growers were forced to grow indigo and pay surplus income. He joined the farmers’ protests and was imprisoned by British authorities. The protests ended after an agreement was signed, according to which compensation was given to farmers. Poor farmers were also given control over agriculture in the region. The deal also led to the suspension of revenue collection until the end of the famine.
Encouraged by the success of his nonviolent protest movement in Champaran, Gandhi launched his nonviolent protest in Kheda in Gujarat the following year, where people protested against taxes due to hunger. The government of that time did not listen to the demands of the people. Instead, she threatened to confiscate the property of those who did not pay taxes. The non-violent protest movement led by Gandhi won. The government suspended the tax and the confiscated properties were returned.
The brief survey here of these two early 20th century protest movements has a purpose. Ongoing farmers’ protests can learn from Gandhian techniques of non-violence and Satyagraha and apply them to expand the mass base. But Gandhi does not seem to inspire farmer leaders. With the exception of some leaders like Rakesh Tikait, no farmer leader calls Gandhi in their speeches and press releases. The call for Gandhi, whom Martin Luther King, Jr. famously called the apostle of non-violence, could have expanded the mass base of the protest movement.
If one looks at the locations of the farmers protest movements, we come across images of Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad and Subhas Chandra Bose, the great freedom fighters in India. They all fought bravely against the oppressive British regime and sacrificed their lives for the freedom of India. There is no question that for them the supreme cause was India’s independence. But there was a difference between them and Gandhi. For all of them, the end justifies the means, and if the purpose is noble, and in this case the freedom of the motherland from the foreign yoke, any means including violent means are welcome. But for Gandhi, the means justify the intentions. He declared, there are many causes for which I would die. There is no single cause for which I would kill. If farmers want an icon of peace and peaceful protest, perhaps there is no better icon than Gandhi. But no one encounters images of Gandhi at the farmers’ protest sites.
Even Gandhi could have given an answer to the violence in the Red Castle on Republic Day. When the Non-Cooperation Movement was at its peak, Gandhi withdrew it without a second thought, and without hearing the prayers of his colleagues, after the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922. Protesters had clashed with police and set fire to a police station killing the invaders. Farmers leaders who distanced themselves from the violence at Red Fort could have used the Gandhian logic that sometimes protesters, not well trained in the non-violence method, go into defeat.
In the current sociopolitical lexicon, the word Gandhi is less used. And perhaps this provides the justification for the paradox in the ongoing farmers’ protests. Gandhi, known worldwide as an icon of peace and not violence, inspiring nonviolent movements around the world, seems to be a hero forgotten in recent times. Martin Luther King, Jr. declares, If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inevitable. We can ignore him at our own risk. Nelson Mandela points out, The enemies that Gandhi fought in ignorance, disease, unemployment, poverty and violence are common today Now more than ever is the time to pay attention to Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings.
The famous Gandhis talisman reads, whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, try the following goal: Remember the face of the poorest and most helpless man you may have seen and wonder if it opened you contemplation will benefit him. Will he be able to gain anything through it? Will it put him back in control of his life and destiny? What better talisman could farmers and their leaders find besides this Gandhian talisman while articulating their concerns? But Gandhi’s absence from the main articulation of the current protest movement seems paradoxical: farmers embrace Gandhian methods but avoid Gandhi. And, farmers avoid the methods of Indian revolutionary leaders, but embrace them. Leaders of protesting farmers need to reflect on this paradox and review the philosophical foundation of the protest movement.
The views expressed above are those of the author.
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