I recently finished reading Ramachandra Guha’s excellent book “Gandhi Before India.” Guha is one of my favourite writers on India, and along with John Keay and William Dalrymple has provided detailed insights into the many historical influences upon the development of that complex country. In this, Guha’s most recent book, he demonstrates how Gandhi’s experiences whilst training for the law in England, but more especially during his time in South Africa, were critical in shaping his social and political theories, and even more so his confidence as a leader and social reformer. In his early days in Natal, Gandhi was far from the confident and astute leader of men and spiritual guide that he became in the second half of his life. In “Gandhi Before India,” Guha discusses how Gandhi’s association with supportive Europeans and local Indian and Chinese leaders in South Africa and his reading of Tolstoy and Ruskin alongside the works of great Indian thinkers such as Raychandbhai, helped him to develop as an astute politician and community activist.
I have been reading Gandhi’s own writings alongside much of what has been written about him for the past forty years, and have come to admire him not as a saintly figure, as he is commonly described in some of the more hagiographic works, but certainly as a great social and political reformer and a man of outstanding principle and humanity. Whilst he was undoubtedly flawed, particularly in relationships with his family and in some of his denials of the values of certain aspects of modern science, such as the efficacy of modern medicine, he did provide an example of how we might live for the greater benefit of society, and in support of those who are the most vulnerable members of our communities.
I suspect that many people if asked to describe Gandhi’s greatest achievements would identify his leadership in the campaign for Indian independence. Furthermore, they are likely to say that he committed himself to achieving this through the use of nonviolent means and paved the way for other leaders who followed him in various struggles for freedom. Significant world figures such as Dr Martin Luther King junior, and Aung San Suu Kyi have cited Gandhi as influencing their work and the ways in which they have approach their struggles for justice. But it is also true to say that many less influential people have learned much about how they may conduct themselves in order to overcome oppression or injustice through his example. Gandhi gave us satyagraha (roughly translated as “soul force”) as a non-violent means of protest. This is often (wrongly in my opinion) interpreted as passive resistance, a term I don’t like, because the word passive implies that the use of satyagraha requires little action on the part of the protester. This form of protest or demonstration proved highly successful in Gandhi’s campaigns in South Africa and India and remains a potentially potent means of effecting social and political change.
I was reminded of the importance of protest this morning when catching up with news through various Indian media outlets. My attention was drawn to a picture in the Hindu newspaper (June 5th) of two fathers seated cross legged at the door of the office of the Education Department in Puducherry along with their two children, a girl and a boy. The newspaper article reports that the two men, described as a hawker and a tailor were both protesting that a school, located near their homes was refusing access to their children, despite the requirements of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (2009). One of the fathers is quoted as saying:-
“This protest is not only for our children’s admission, we want the State government to implement the RTE Act in letter and in spirit.”
It is reported that the police eventually removed the protesters who were then allowed to return home.
A search across Indian media indicates that such protests are becoming increasingly common in various parts of India. Scores of parents from Pollachi, Mettupalyam and other parts of the Coimbatore district staged a sit-in protest at the offices of the Chief Educational Officer in the city on Saturday. These parents claim that schools are refusing to admit students under the requirements of the RTE that expects the reservation of a quota to enable students from poorer families, scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, or those with disabilities to gain access to school. Some of the protesters claim that private schools were admitting children from “affluent families” stating that they were legitimate candidates under the requirements of the Act.
Similar reports of protests can be found from many parts of India and it is clear that an Act that was well intentioned and gave a commitment to improve the educational opportunities of previously marginalised groups, has run into difficulties.
At present the protests appear to be small scale and ill-coordinated and as such their impact is somewhat muted. However, in a democratic nation the right to protest is recognised and the voices of individuals and groups who feel that they are aggrieved can be heard. The spirit of non-violent protest is clearly alive and well in India and is being used in support of children and their right to receive a better education. I am sure that Gandhi would have approved of these potential new satyagrahis, though I also suspect that he would be raising his eyes at the fact that there appears to be little co-ordinated national response, towards those who are failing to ensure the fair implementation of an Act intended to change the face of Indian education.