Gandhian Way: Peace, Non-violence and Empowerment

Gandhian Way: Peace, Non-violence and Empowerment
Celebrating Hundred Years of Satyagraha (1906-2006)
Indian National Congress
Published by Academic Foundation 2007
ISBN 978 81 7188 648 7 HB pp320 £34.50

This large and splendid looking book emerged from a conference held in New Delhi in January 2007. It was attended by more than 300 delegates from 91 countries. It included many politicians but also Gandhi scholars and activists in human rights, peace, economic development, and multi-culturalism.

The text consists of many of the speeches delivered at the conference. Some of the attendees are well known figures such as Desmond Tutu, Lech Walesa and Kenneth Kaunda as well as the Indian PM Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

Many of the speeches are short and inevitably there is a good deal of overlap but they do serve to show the wide interest in Gandhi around the world. One would have hoped for a greater proportion of women in attendance as it appears to be only around 20%.

Two of the longer papers were of particular interest to me: that of American Gene Sharp and our own Bhikhu Parekh. Gene Sharp has spent a lifetime studying and developing pragmatic applications of nonviolent action. Gandhi was his starting point but he has gone beyond him and has left behind Gandhi’s particular cultural background so that nonviolent struggle can be used as a pragmatic substitute for violent action, including war, in many different settings.

An important aspect of this is that it involves an empowerment of the users. He cites many diverse historical cases and indicates that much nonviolent action theory has still to be refined in the future.

Bhikhu Parekh, in this particular paper, considers Gandhi as an advocate of economic equality. Gandhi is criticised for expecting too much from the wealthy entrepreneurs who, he believed, should become trustees of their wealth using most of it for the welfare of those less fortunate. However Parekh points out that Gandhi did in his mature years advocate a more assertive attitude by those who had
little, recognising that this might involve satyagraha. He also came round to envisaging a role for the state in moving towards a more equal society. Parekh also revives Gandhi’s idea of a national nongovernmental organisation which would represent the views of the poorer sections of society and challenge the established political system.

There is a subtle defence of India’s nuclear weapons by Mani Shanker Aiyar, a Government Minister. He does so indirectly by criticising the Non-Proliferation Treaty as being asymmetrical in that the original nuclear powers do not show signs of renouncing their weapons. This is the voice of the conventional politician rather than Gandhi, but he does point out that Rajiv Gandhi put forward 20 years ago a plan for general nuclear disarmament and certainly that is what the world’s people need as a starting point towards a nonviolent world.

The final Declaration has of course many worthy aims but neither there nor in the Conference in general is there much mention of the environmental problems facing humankind and the planet. In Gandhi’s time these issues were much less important but his ideas of simplicity of lifestyle, local production and consumption, and respect for all life are highly relevant to it.

The book is well illustrated with photographs of delegates, individually and in groups, but also many fascinating pictures of Gandhi and others from the pre-Independence period.

George Paxton

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Categories: Reviews & Arts

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