Politicians of all hues, are celebrating the birth anniversary of Gandhi this month. A leader of one political party has recalled his legacy, by rightly emphasizing the `Gandhian agenda’ of “more openness, freedom and a life of dignity and respect.” (Ram Madhav: `Gandhi’s True Legacy.’ Indian Express, October 2, 2020). Ironically, it is his own party that is in power today, which has systematically destroyed this `Gandhian agenda’ during its rule over the past years.
On this occasion, it should be befitting to recall how Gandhi put into practice his agenda. In fact, he set the terms of the agenda in his own words, right from the early years of his political career, when in 1919, he denounced the two notorious bills (which came to constitute the Rowlatt Act) enacted by the British government to suppress political protests. On the eve of launching the Satyagraha movement against the bills, he made a statement which resonates around us today – living as we are under threats from the present laws. Gandhi said: “Being conscientiously of the opinion that the Bills ….are unjust, subversive of the principle of liberty and justice, and destructive of the elementary rights of the individuals on which the safety of the community as a whole, and the State itself is based, we solemnly affirm that , in the event of the Bills becoming law and until they are withdrawn, we shall refuse civilly to obey these laws….”
It is a pity that I have to borrow today these words from Gandhi’s anti-colonial testament made one hundred years ago, to describe the laws being implemented by the present government of an Independent India – the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, the National Security Act , and many such laws enacted by state governments – under which hundreds of dissident intellectuals, university professors , human rights activists, young student protestors have been put behind bars. What is even more shameful, we continue to be at the receiving end of the past colonial sedition law – under which Gandhi was hauled up – and which is still being used by the present government against dissenters. Section 124 A remains “the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code,” to quote Gandhi’s famous utterance during his trial, “designed to suppress the liberty of the citizens.”
We should remember that Gandhi’s struggle for Independence was premised on a core precept – all laws are not necessarily legitimate, and it is one’s duty not to cooperate with illegitimate laws. It was this that led Gandhi to launch the Salt Satyagraha march. The satyagraha was not to remain a march, confined to the locaI issue of salt tax, but was to be galvanized by Gandhi into a wider anti-colonial movement challenging other oppressive taxes and draconian laws all over India – which came to be known as the civil disobedience movement in 1930.
Exactly 90 years ago in 1930, on January 26 that year, a pledge for independence was taken at Congress sponsored meetings all over the country, denouncing the British rulers for having `ruined India economically, politically, culturally and spiritually.’ Asserting that it was a `crime against man and God’ to submit any longer to such a rule, the pledge called for rebelling against it by `civil disobedience’ of colonial laws.
It is sad that after seven decades of Independence, I have to use those same words that were once employed to accuse a foreign colonial regime, to describe today the policies of the present regime . It has for all practical purposes, destroyed our economy (through measures like demonetization, GST, lockdown), our politics (by clamping down on protests through draconian laws and imprisoning dissenters), our culture (by filling the educational and cultural institutions with heads who are associated with the RSS, and toe the line of the ruling party’s propaganda of Hindu religious superstitious beliefs and practices ), and our spirituality (by disrupting our tradition of religious co-existence, through the practice of lynching of Muslims by the musclemen of the ruling politicians). These are ominous echoes from the past British colonial order – the same authoritarian and hateful voices that we hear today in the newly formulated rhetoric of the present BJP rulers.
In fact, the present scenario resembles the economic and political situation that prevailed in India on the eve of Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement. The world-wide Depression of 1929 had its impact on Indian economy, and led to a sharp fall in prices of agricultural commodities that affected farmers, who agitated demanding reduction of revenue and rent burdens, and return of alienated land, among other things. Similar farmers’ agitations are breaking out today in protest against the BJP government’s new farm laws , which are being perceived by them as disadvantageous , and they are coming out in public demonstrations, blocking roads and railway tracks. Again, to go back to the 1929 Depression, Indian industrialists trying to cope with it at that time, resorted to lay-offs and wage cuts, which provoked labour unrest and strikes. That same pattern has been followed by Indian industrialists in the post-COVID situation (before which, Indian economy had already begun sagging). A similar working class response is in the offing today, with all the central trade unions preparing for an agitation in November, against the new labour laws enacted by the government, which are taking away the rights of workers, while empowering their employers with impunity against any punishment for violating trade union rights.
Popular rumblings against unjust laws , police high handedness, upper caste atrocities, are nurturing a rebellious embryo within the womb of Indian polity. When will the child be delivered ? Can the Congress and the Left , civil society groups like National Alliance for People’s Movement, Citizens for Justice, and human rights organizations like PUDR and PUCL, come together to galvanize these demonstrations of protest into a nation-wide civil disobedience movement – a la Gandhi ?
Sumanta Banerjee is a political commentator and writer, is the author of In The Wake of Naxalbari’ (1980 and 2008); The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta (1989) and ‘Memoirs of Roads: Calcutta from Colonial Urbanization to Global Modernization.’ (2016).