On the long, illustrious history of protest in India, and the moral duty of standing against injustice

  • Protest in India has a long and illustrious history.

  • The country gained freedom, and its people went from being imperial subjects to free citizens, because of a long series of protests.

  • When democracy in India was threatened during the Emergency, people of all political persuasions protested against the misuse of power.

  • The idea of serving universal and eternal moral laws rather than individuals is an important part of dharma in the Hindu worldview.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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States and cities across India have risen in protest against the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and related anxieties over the coming National Register of Citizens, to which it is indirectly related. The Citizenship Amendment Act and the NRC, between them, have managed to do something that all the previous anxieties so far – of falling economy and failing banks, rising vegetable prices, insecurity due to rapes and heinous crimes, tensions due to daily hate propaganda by alleged journalists on TV – had failed to do. They have pushed citizens fed up with the state of affairs to hit the streets.

Protest in India has a long and illustrious history. Until 72 years ago India was a colony ruled by Britain. The country gained freedom, and its people went from being imperial subjects to free citizens, because of a long series of protests. Mahatma Gandhi, who is still considered the father of the Indian nation, taught the people of this country the power of peaceful protest. Those lessons were not forgotten after Independence.

 On the long, illustrious history of protest in India, and the moral duty of standing against injustice

Representational image. Reuters

When democracy in India was threatened during the Emergency, people of all political persuasions protested against the misuse of power. For instance, during the Emergency, Arun Jaitley, who was then an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad student leader in Delhi, gathered a crowd and burnt an effigy of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for which he was arrested. Other BJP leaders including AB Vajpayee, LK Advani, and Narendra Modi also participated in the protests against the Emergency. So too did Left leaders associated with the CPI(M) including Sitaram Yechury and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan as well as followers of Jayaprakash Narayan such as Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Many of these leaders were student leaders at the time, and subsequently rose to high offices.

The right to peaceful protest is granted to citizens of India by our Constitution. It is part of the freedom of speech and expression, which is a fundamental right. However, there is more to it. Protesting against injustice is also a moral duty.

This was the argument made, most influentially in the past 200 years, by the American writer Henry David Thoreau in his celebrated essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience published in 1849. Thoreau argued that “The mass of men serve the State thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies… there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense… They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the State chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.”

Thoreau was disgusted with the American government of his day, which was led by a president named James Polk, who in today’s terms was what we would call a Right-wing populist reminiscent of Donald Trump. He declared war on Mexico over a border dispute, and was a slavery enthusiast and plantation owner who owned slaves and strengthened the laws against runaway slaves. The government of the time, its bureaucrats, and the majority who had elected Polk, supported all of this. However, the moral worth of those actions did not increase from the fact that Polk had been elected by a majority. Even the political wisdom, in the slightly longer term, was missing, because the pendulum of opinion swung the other way and the United States saw civil war barely 12 years after he demitted office.

Thoreau’s ideas of civil disobedience came eventually to influence Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among others. The fundamental basis of their civil disobedience lay in the belief that individual conscience is a higher authority than the government of the day. They were probably correct in this belief, because while many who faithfully served Polk’s government and slavery, or Hitler’s government and Nazism a hundred years later, or the apartheid governments in South Africa until as late as 1994, were only following orders and carrying out duties, they have subsequently come to be seen as evil people serving in evil causes. It would be extremely hard to find anyone today who says with pride, “My grandfather was a Nazi”.

The idea of serving universal and eternal moral laws rather than individuals is an important part of dharma in the Hindu worldview. Dharma is not the same as panth; it is not religion and not sect. In the Upanishadic tradition, dharma is said to be synonymous with satya, meaning truth. Therefore, that which supports an immoral order based on lies cannot be in consonance with dharma.

In the great Hindu epic called the Mahabharata, we see the government of the day led by a powerful king named Duryodhan. We also see dharma, represented by Lord Krishna, in opposition to the unjust king. From then to now, in religious and in secular tradition, there is continuity in the idea that truth and justice are higher ideals than loyalty to the ruler of the day.

Kings and governments come and go.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2019 11:22:59 IST