Gandhi in the Time of AFSPA
The symbolism of MK Gandhi in India is peppered with significance as evident from a title like the father of the nation that is attributed to him. However, how significant is he or his image when the very nation is a symbol of violence and intimidation?
Was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi alive in 1942? Yes, he was assassinated after the Indian independence, or in 1948 to be precise. A glance into high school history textbook reveals that it was in the same year he made the slogan of Do or Die in the wake of the Quit India Movement. This civil disobedience movement was again a consequence of the Cripps Mission out of which the British wanted to secure the support of the Indians in the then ongoing World War II.
Gandhi, as the ringmaster and a future father of the nation, demanded political independence in return for the support—albeit he did support the British in the World War I. The British considered it was not worth considering and instead responded with the enactment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance, 1942 in August of the same year (see scanned copies below).
Several protestors were killed in the following days when Lord Linlithgow was the then viceroy of British India. Those were also the days of nightmare for the British who had to confront the advancing Axis powers from the Burmese side in its eastern frontier. (Around two years later, the Battles of Imphal and Kohima changed the fate of the war.)
On the other hand, Gandhi had escaped the fate of thousands of people who were killed in their protest for ‘independence’ that is sometimes referred to as the Indian August Revolution. We will come back to him later. (Read the unrelated Correspondence between Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Linlithgow, Viceroy of India)
There are reports available in public forums that describe the earliest days of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958. It was a legal sanction to maintain the Indian internal security in the early post-independence period. For instance, the Committee to Review the AFSPA of 1958, constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India attributed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1948 as the foundation of this draconian act though it was repealed nine years later and gave birth to the revised version of 1958.
The new act further replaced four ordinances: [i] the Disturbed Areas (Special Powers of Armed Forces) Ordinance; [ii] the Assam Disturbed Areas (Special Powers of Armed Forces) Ordinance; [iii] the East Bengal Disturbed Areas (Special Powers of Armed Forces) Ordinance; and [iv] the United Provinces Disturbed Areas (Special Powers of Armed Forces) Ordinance.
The Committee also mentioned that the constitutional validity of the act by referring to Article 355 that the union government must ‘protect every state against internal disturbance’ and that ‘it is considered desirable that the government should also have power to declare areas as “disturbed”, to enable its armed forces to exercise the special powers’.
However, the actual origin can be traced back to the Armed Forces Special Powers Ordinance of August 1942. Perhaps the severity of the AFSPA explains why 1948 is taken as the base year. In the original ordinance, for instance, only an officer above the rank of a captain had the power to arrest or shoot a suspect. In the case of AFSPA 1958, even a non-commissioned soldier has that kind of power; and thus, 1948. The 1958 version also authorises the personnel to enter and search any house without warrant, which was another provision that was not included in the 1942 Ordinance.
We can make a few conclusions from these developments. India lost no time in transforming itself from being oppressed to the role of an oppressor. It also lost no time in transforming itself from a slave nation to that of an imperialist. Then till today, India is using a colonial weapon to suppress political movements albeit with no intended results. The concept of impunity that it successfully developed is now inherited proudly by its federal states today, for the most part by those in the security establishment. The double standard never ceases as India has been sponsoring state terrorism in its own backyard and endorsing military rule while showing-off Gandhi’s principle of non-violent resistance and showcasing the ideals of democracy in front of the whole world.
These conclusions remind us of the wisdom that you cannot fool all the people all the time but so far it is going good. In this context, how does the so-called father of the nation fit into the state of affairs?
I advocate training in arms for those who believe in the method of violence. I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour.
—MK Gandhi, The Doctrine of the Sword (1920)
To put the quote into its original context, Gandhi mentioned that he suggested for violence when given ‘a choice between cowardice and violence’ and that ‘nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence’.
For starters, Gandhi has nothing to save the self-declared honour by imposing AFSPA in a place like Manipur, where peace and justice are more desirable than ‘honour’ that is overdone with annoying self-righteousness. Besides he has little to do with the Indian-nation building process, because he was already dead.
However, we have been compelled to call him the father of the nation, when the very nation is a symbol of violence and intimidation. The nation is an antithesis to our peaceful existence. Gandhi, while he was alive, might not have wanted to be called the father of a violent nation. Anyway, we know there is no constitutional provision that allows such a title of ‘father’ and that there is no such official recognition yet nothing is more concrete than the reality.
And the reality? We have been force-fed with ‘national’ icons and symbols that can be at best described as junk, but nevertheless forced on us, though popular narratives of the Indian freedom struggle and propaganda by inserting half-truth and plain rubbish in social science textbooks; or in overt legal ways, in using his image in every currency notes. Such imposition is as lame as Gandhi’s threat for hunger strike every time the British masters rapped his knuckles for disobedience and his obsession to be a ringmaster. Now who can tell the difference between India and the erstwhile British Raj?
This is not to deny the fact that Gandhi played a major role in the freedom movement. Let’s not even call him a charlatan like others have been criticising him. Let’s agree that he played a godly or saintly or angelic role in the movement. Still, history has obliged us to defy it because the Indian independence means little to so many people, who reside within the present political map of the country. In just two years, as noted above, India reincarnated as another imperialist nation that people in the subcontinent had been fighting against for two centuries. Incidentally Gandhi was no more by then.
He is also relevant here on the virtue of the sheer number of his followers and the holy position he occupies in the national politics till today. An act like AFSPA is in direct contrast to his Tolstoy- and Thoreau-inspired ideals of nonviolence and civil resistance. On another level, the union rejects those people who protest using his principles like a useless piece of crap.
Either India should do away with him to move forward with practical approach such as that of using the Kautilyan statecraft or if not, offer some reasons for putting him on a pedestal. But don’t use guns as well as organise police training programmes under his name and philosophy of non-violence. Preaching two contradictory things simultaneously is hardly convincing.
Once Gandhi stated: ‘I have conceded that even in a nonviolent state a police force may be necessary’ and added, ‘Of course, I can and do envisage a state where the police would be unnecessary but whether we shall succeed in realising it, the future alone will show*.’ Apparently he was too idealistic and didn’t have an imagination of the future, especially with reference to the ever-growing inclination of the Indian state towards employing violence as a means to its national ends. In a way it is futile to even talk about human rights in this context. (* Source: Selected Works of Mahatma Gandhi)
It is claimed that he did have a hint about the days to come, which was evident from his desire to dissolve the Congress party. This party monopolised the national politics for nearly three decades without a break. The period as well coincided with the annexation of Manipur, the rise of armed movements across the Northeast and the union’s decision to utilise coercive measures including the imposition of AFSPA to deal with the issues.
Yet we can be sure that it could as well be any other political party and for a hint we have the incumbent right-wing BJP at the centre. This statement is not a wild guess but an inference from the arrogance and ignorance of the union that have shaped the politics of the day. To make it clear, the critique is far different from those perspectives put forward by both the mainland right- and left-wing organisations that always have a hard-on for Gandhi.
If we talk about those Quit India days, there were lack of coordination and several other reasons—ranging from opposition by the Muslims and ‘Indian’ army to the indifference of traders and bureaucrats—that made the movement unsuccessful; apart from becoming just an additional, undesirable paragraph on history textbooks or possibly a creative prompt for a Bollywood filmmaker; remember 1942: A Love Story.
Our lived experience has become that sort of unsuccessful and additional, undesirable part in the Indian nation-building project. Our mistake was that we were situated near an Indian frontier that was not even its own creation. India, no doubt, was created by the British Raj and the Mughals, named by the Greeks and Persians and appropriated by the Hindus in contemporary history.
Now we have come to such a pass that we are no more interested in its history. Call it prejudice or foolhardy but we cannot keep on reading an alien and misleading narration of the past while suffering for hopeless abstract ideas like that of a nation and its father. (We have had it enough from the onslaught of Hinduism that has created havoc on the indigenous cultures). To add insult to the injury, there is AFSPA, which is a blot on the Indian democracy.
MK Gandhi is dead; so is his idea of non-violence. What survives now is the long arm of the Indian establishment that keeps poking us at our holes.
PS: India has the father in MK Gandhi while its people (read mainland Indians) worship Bharat Mata or Mother India, though the country is not much different from the land of Talibans when it comes to gender issues. With the saintly father and the divine mother, is this country surviving on incest?