Home education As India drifts into autocracy, Gandhi is inspiring students' nonviolent resistance | Amartya Sen

As India drifts into autocracy, Gandhi is inspiring students' nonviolent resistance | Amartya Sen

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Nothing is as important, the philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed, as the “freedom to make public use of one’s reason on all matters”. Unfortunately, as Kant also noted, the opportunity to argue is often restrained by society – sometimes very severely. A disturbing fact about the world today is that authoritarian tendencies have been strikingly on the increase in many countries – in Asia, in Europe, in Latin America, in Africa and within the United States of America. I fear I have to include my own country, India, in that unfortunate basket.

After India secured independence from British colonial rule, it had for many decades a fine history of being a secular democracy with much personal liberty. People showed their commitment to freedom and their determination to remove authoritarian governance through decisive public action, for example in the general elections in 1977, in which the despotic regulations – dressed as “the emergency” – were firmly rejected by the people. The government obeyed promptly.

However, in recent years the priority of freedom seems to have lost some of its lustre for many people, and the current government gives striking evidence of the inclination to promote a different kind of society. There have also been strong attempts to stifle anti-government protests, which, strangely enough, have often been described by the government as “sedition”, providing grounds for arrest and for locking up opposition leaders. Aside from the despotic tendencies implicit in this approach, there is also a profound confusion of thought here, since a disagreement with the government need not be a rebellion to overthrow the state, or to subvert the nation (on which the diagnosis of “sedition” must depend).

When I was in school in British-ruled colonial India, many of my relations, who were nonviolently agitating for India’s independence (inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and other champions of freedom), were in British Indian jails under what was described as “preventive detention”, allegedly to stop them from doing anything violent. After India’s independence, preventive detention as a form of incarceration was halted; but then it was reintroduced, initially by the Congress government, in a relatively mild form. That was bad enough, but under the Hindutva-oriented BJP government now in office, preventive detention has acquired a hugely bigger role, allowing easy arrests and imprisonment of opposition politicians without trial.

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Indeed, from last year, under the provision of a freshly devised Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), the state can unilaterally declare someone to be a terrorist, which allows them to arrest this alleged terrorist and place them in incarceration without trial. A number of human rights activists have been designated as terrorists and are in jail already under this arrangement.

When someone is described as being “anti-national”, this can be seen as a big philosophical denunciation anywhere in the world, but in today’s India it may mean nothing more than the person has made some critical remarks about the government in office. The confusion between “anti-government” and “anti-national” is typical of autocratic governance. The courts have sometimes been able to stop such abusive practices, but given the slow movement of the Indian courts, and the differences of opinion within India’s large supreme court, this has not always been an effective remedy. One of the most prominent defenders of human rights in the world, Amnesty International, has been forced to leave India as a result of governmental intervention.

The pursuit of authoritarianism in general is sometimes combined with the persecution of a particular section of the nation – often linked, in India, with caste or religion. The low-caste former “untouchables”, now called Dalits, continue to get the benefits of affirmative action (in terms of employment and education) that were introduced at the time of India’s independence, but they are often very harshly treated. Cases of rape and murder of Dalits by upper-caste men, which have become shockingly common events, are frequently ignored or covered up by the government, unless pressed otherwise by public protests.

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The Indian authorities have been particularly severe on the rights of Muslims, even to the extent of restricting some of their citizenship rights. Despite centuries of peaceful co-existence between Hindus and Muslims, there have been striking attempts in recent years by politically extremist Hindu organisations to treat indigenous Muslims somewhat like foreigners and to accuse them of doing harm to the nation. This has been fed by cultivating disaffection and inter-religious animosity through the rapidly increased power of extremist Hindu politics. The fact that the celebrated poet Rabindranath Tagore had a Hindu background was not contradicted by his self-description in Oxford (when giving the Hibbert lectures) that he came from the confluence of three cultural streams, combining Hinduism and Islam, in addition to western influence.

Indian culture is a joint product of people of different religious faiths, and this can be seen in different fields – from music and literature to painting and architecture. Even the very first translation and propagation of Hindu philosophical texts – the Upanishads – for use outside India was done on the active initiative of a Mughal prince, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Mumtaz (in whose memory Dara’s father, Emperor Shah Jahan, built the Taj Mahal). Led by the government’s current ideological priorities, many school textbooks in India are being rewritten now to present a thoroughly revisionist history, reducing – or ignoring altogether – the contributions of Muslim people.

Despite the government’s power, armed with the UAPA, to call anyone a terrorist, those accused are typically committed to nonviolent protests in the way that Gandhi had advocated. This applies particularly to newly emerging secular resistance in India, led by student leaders. For instance, Umar Khalid, a Muslim scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University who has been arrested and imprisoned as an alleged “terrorist” through the use of the UAPA, has eloquently expressed this secular movement’s commitment to peaceful protest: “If they beat us with lathis [sticks], we will hold aloft the Tricolour [the Indian national flag]. If they fire bullets, then we will hold the constitution and raise our hands.”

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While the growth of authoritarianism in India demands determined resistance, the world is also facing a pandemic of autocracy at this time, which makes the Indian lapses look less abnormal than they in fact are. The justification for imposing tyranny varies from country to country, such as reducing drug trafficking in the case of the Philippines, curtailing the flow of immigrants in Hungary, suppressing gay lifestyles in Poland, and using the military to control allegedly corrupt behaviour in Brazil. The world needs as many different ways of defending freedom as there are attacks upon it.

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr noted in a letter written in 1963 from Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He also insisted that all resistance has to be nonviolent. So do the young student leaders of today’s India. If there is a commonality in the distinct manifestations of autocracy, there is also a shared reasoning in the resistance.



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