Mahatma Gandhi’s first protest movement was in support of the indigo cultivators in Champaran, Bihar in 1917, then in Kheda in Gujarat in 1918. For the first time in India, he applied his method of nonviolence and Satyagraha, a peaceful method sharpened during his years in South Africa, against the repressive laws in these two places. He went to Champaran where the indigo cultivators were forced to grow indigo and pay excess revenue. He joined the farmers’ protests and was imprisoned by the British authorities. The protests ended after an agreement was signed, under which compensation was given to the farmers. The poor farmers were also given control over farming in the region. The agreement also led to the suspension of collection of revenue till the end of the famine.
Emboldened 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 tax due to the famine. The government of the day did not listen to the people’s demands. Rather it threatened to confiscate property of those who did not pay tax. The nonviolent protest movement led by Gandhi won. The government suspended the tax, and confiscated properties were returned.
The brief survey here of these two protest movements of the early 20th century has a purpose. The ongoing farmers’ protests could learn from the Gandhian techniques of nonviolence and Satyagraha and apply them to widen the mass base. But it appears Gandhi does not inspire the leaders of the farmers. Except a few leaders like Rakesh Tikait, no farmer leaders invoke Gandhi in their speeches and press statements. Invocation to Gandhi, whom Martin Luther King, Jr. famously called ‘apostle of nonviolence’ could have widened the mass base of the protest movement.
If one looks at the sites of the farmers’ protest movements one comes across the images of Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, and Subhas Chandra Bose, the great freedom fighters of India. They all fought valiantly against the oppressive British regime and sacrificed their lives for the freedom of India. There is no dispute that for them the supreme cause was the independence of India. But there was a difference between them and Gandhi. For all of them, end justifies means, and if the end is noble, and in this case freedom of the motherland from the foreign yoke, any means including violent means are welcome. But for Gandhi, means justifies ends. He proclaimed, “there are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for.” If the farmers want an icon of peace and peaceful protest, perhaps there is no better icon than Gandhi. But one does not come across Gandhi images in the protest sites of the farmers.
Even Gandhi could have provided an answer to the violence at the Red Fort on the Republic Day. When the Non-Cooperation Movement was at its peak, Gandhi withdrew it without a second thought, and without hearing to the pleas of his colleagues, after the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922. The protestors had clashed with policemen and set ablaze a police station killing the occupants. The farmers’ leaders who distanced from the violence in Red Fort could have used the Gandhian logic that sometimes protestors, not well trained in the method of nonviolence, go astray.
In the current sociopolitical lexicon, the word Gandhi is least used. And perhaps that provides rationale to the paradox in the ongoing farmers’ protests. Gandhi, known worldwide as an icon of peace and nonviolence, inspiring nonviolent movements across the world, appears to be a forgotten hero in recent times. Martin Luther King, Jr. declares, “If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable…We may ignore him at our own risk.” Nelson Mandela emphasizes, “The enemies that Gandhi fought – ignorance, disease, unemployment, poverty and violence are today commonplace… Now more than ever is the time when we have to pay heed to the lessons of Mahatma Gandhi.”
Gandhi’s famous talisman reads, “whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, try the following expedient: Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?” What better talisman the farmers and their leaders could find other than this Gandhian talisman while articulating their concerns? But Gandhi’s absence from the mainstream articulation of the current protest movement appears paradoxical: farmers embrace Gandhian methods but shun Gandhi. And, farmers shun the methods of revolutionary Indian leaders, but embrace them. The protesting farmers’ leaders need to reflect on this paradox and reexamine the philosophical foundation of the protest movement.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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