May 25, 2020
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Ahimsa For Our Modern Dharma

Why Orissa chief minister Navin Patnaik’s idea to include ahimsa in the preamble to the Constitution of India needs to be taken very seriously

Ahimsa For Our Modern Dharma
Illustration by Sajith Kumar
Ahimsa For Our Modern Dharma

The wonderful suggestion by Navin Patnaik, the chief minister of Orissa, to include ahimsa in the preamble to the Constitution of India, will do Indians a lot of good. In the absence of a constant reminder about the need to follow the path of ahimsa, Indians have of late become comprehensively hinsak, violent. The widespread predatory behaviour in every sphere of life—much of it criminal in nature—that we see around us may just need the leavening of ahimsa to nudge people in the direction of greater civility and make them mindful of others.

Patnaik’s suggestion may be able to complete the project that Mahatma Gandhi began almost a century ago—of creating a fiction of the ahimsak Indian, an Indian who believed in non-violence and was mindful of others. Gandhi created this fiction about ahimsa, made a fetish of it, and INS­isted on adherence to non-violence in the most difficult of situations. He even claimed that ahimsa was rooted in the very nature of Hinduism. That was his way of reaching out to people in a country where 80 per cent of the population was listed as Hindu. For him, if the people of India were to properly follow their rel­igion, then they needed to follow ahimsa.

Just after India had been rocked by large-scale communal violence in 1927, Gandhi wrote that Hinduism “was the most tolerant of all religions. Its freedom from dogma gave the votary the largest scope for self-expression. Not being an exclusive religion, it enabled the followers not merely to respect all the other religions, but to admire and assimilate whatever may be good in the other faiths.” This was not a one-off statement, but something Gandhi had said many times before and would repeat later. With complete certitude, he would go on to claim that “ahimsa is common to all religions, but it has found the highest expression and application in Hinduism”.

Acknowledging ahimsa as the basic teaching of all religions, he interpreted the Gita as giving a lesson in ahimsa and extracted a similar lesson from the Bible and the Koran, notwithstanding their insistence on being the final word of God, the only correct version.

Gandhi’s insistence on ahimsa was translated into the political strategy of satyagraha—non-violent struggle—but he was not the pioneer of non-violent struggles. The Quakers, a Christian sect from Britain with whom Gandhi had been intimate, had followed the principles of non-violence since the mid-17th century. The Jains of India, a perpetual minority, did too. But Gandhi was the one who laced non-violent struggles with a heavy dose of morality and managed to publicise his struggles like nobody else. It made him famous as the apostle of peace, and the guiding light for other votaries of non-violent struggle such as Martin Luther King in the US and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. And in pre-Partition India, Bacha Khan, the leader of the Pashtuns of the North West Frontier, came to be known as Frontier Gandhi for his advocacy of non-violence.

Non-violence as a means of political struggle is sensible. Comparing hundreds of political struggles of the 20th century, Erica Chenoweth has shown that non-violent struggles stand an over 70 per cent chance of success. Violent struggles succeed only a quarter of the time. Struggles based on terrorism have a measly five per cent success rate.

But why include ahimsa in the Constitution? Because the Constitution of India has emerged as the most powerful guiding dharma for Indians since Partition. It is around the principles laid down in the Constitution that Indians are judged. Their disputes are resolved on the basis of the principles inherent in the Constitution. It is a document made by Indians of modern times to transform India into a modern country where everyone is equal and cares for those who are weak.

The time has come to ­realise that ahimsa has nothing to do with Hindus or Hinduism. However, it is a moral imperative.

The Constitution was the result of public discussions that had gone on for over two decades. The last stage of these discussions took place in the Constituent Assembly. Great care was taken to ensure that every section of society was represented. Within the Constituent Assembly, being mindful of others was the most important principle. Jawaharlal Nehru warned his colleagues in the Constituent Assembly as they discussed the preamble: “We shall have to be careful that we do nothing which may cause uneasiness in others or goes against any principle.” By the end of these deliberations, Indians solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, democratic republic, to guide which they gave to themselves the Constitution, in which they enjoined upon India to secure for all its citizens justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.

The idea of fraternity was included ignoring the fact that the country was partitioned even as the Constitution was being debated. Many Indian Muslims left to form Pakistan, a nation based on religion, amidst considerable acrimony and bloodshed. Many more Indian Muslims refused to be seduced by the idea of a separate nation for Muslims and chose to continue to live in a ­multi-cultural, multi-layered India that always spoke in multiple voices.

With so many layers of identity, all attempting to settle down in one comfort zone, a re-invention of tradition was in order. What Gandhi did was to ascribe ideas to our forefathers, yet try to carve out a new reality that was more peaceful. After all, there is nothing sacrosanct about eit­her history or memories. Both change with time and inclination.

Some of this we notice in the re-invention of the Ashoka legend. A young Indian historian of those days, Romila Thapar, writing for a British journal, noticed that the cult of Ashoka had increased considerably in the 1950s. She was amazed at this widespread adulation of Ashoka, a king who had come to public knowledge only a few decades earlier. “Not only have Ashokan symbols been adopted by the government of India,” Thapar wrote, “but much of modern Indian political thinking is being related to Ashokan ideas.”

The two ideas of Ashoka that seemed to have the greatest impact were dharma and ahimsa. The Constitution enshrined the dharma of modern India. Its gist was spelt out in the preamble. The idea of ahimsa, though, was allowed to fizzle away. Could that be because Gandhi had infused it with too much Hinduism?

Over the years, the combative political processes of India have succeeded in providing substantive equality to all citizens. However, the delivery of justice has remained iffy. In the absence of a robust system of justice, the law of the fishes—big fish eat the small ones—seemed to take hold over India. The idea of fraternity was weakened. Primordial loyalties to family, caste and religion were able to considerably diminish the authority of India’s feeble, but vicious, state machinery. The constant spread of injustices of various sorts encouraged many to take the law into their own hands.

There came a time when violence began to be appreciated to such an extent that non-violence ceased to matter even as an instrument of political struggle. Perhaps the time has come to realise that ahimsa has nothing to do with Hindus or Hinduism. Indians of the past, irrespective of their religion, were as violent as any other human beings. However, ahimsa is a moral imperative. Ahimsa is the only way forward for India and Indians. Patnaik’s idea to include ahimsa in the preamble needs to be taken very seriously.

(The writer is a professor of history at Panjab University, Chandigarh)

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