The dream of freedom that had spawned liberal democracies is frittering away almost in its infancy. Instead of ensuring freedom to their citizens to realise their existential potential, democracies in the contemporary world are consciously trying to turn citizens into servile and conformist beings who have lost the ability, desire and will to question and dissent. As totalitarianism enters democracies through the backdoor, threatening to usurp its foundations, Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo in his new book, The Disobedient Indian: Towards a Gandhian Philosophy of Dissent, makes a powerful moral and philosophical argument for disobedience as a mandatory duty of every citizen.
Jahanbegloo charts the historical development of the idea through philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle, Kant, Thoreau and Sartre, and then focuses on Mahatma Gandhi, who led perhaps the most influential anti-colonial struggle on the plank of disobedience.
Gandhi’s disobedience rests upon the premises that every citizen is responsible for every act of the state, and the ultimate allegiance of a citizen is towards swa-rajya or self-government. Gandhi respects the state, but places the citizen on a constant vigil upon those who wield power and have a tendency to slip into authoritarianism. The vigil is achieved through disobeying the unjust.
Yet, Gandhi was aware that disobedience may not always be an indicator of moral resistance, and demanded specific eligibilities of a Satyagrahi. He argued for a spirit of questioning to ensure that the resistance never becomes “an act of excessive passion”. His disobedience was always checked and resisted by an ethical awareness that never ceased to question the implications of one’s choices. Precisely therefore, Gandhi was not an anarchist, but a dissenter, whose spirit of questioning posed the first question to the questioner herself.
Gandhi’s touchstone for disobedience was his inner voice, the guiding light that rests in one’s soul, an enlightened conscience that has found an expression across cultures, from aatm-bodha (self-realisation) of Vedic philosophy to the “inner voice” of Socrates.
If man is a political animal, as Aristotle noted, the political lies in making free choices. Making an insightful distinction between the political and politics, Jahanbegloo notes that “the political is the space of autonomous action of human beings in a historical context, while politics is the space of competition and contestation for the very basis of power and authority.” A political citizen does not necessarily aspire for politics; rather she only tries to secure the autonomy of the community space from political dominance. The above model finds its relevance in every institution—be it a state, bureaucracy or university—the institutions that are plagued by mediocrity and docility.
Democracies are expected to nourish the political, but Jahanbegloo accurately observes that its space is fast receding in contemporary liberal politics. Dissent is imputed with ulterior motives, even termed anti-national. The political choice of disobedience, thus, becomes a strategy to contest autocracy, and also a moral duty of a citizen to ensure the well-being of her nation-state.
Gandhi is often derided for his life choices, like charkha and celibacy, whose significance perhaps not many can easily grasp. Jahanbegloo reminds that “Gandhi had the simplicity of a great soul, but he also had the radicality of a heretic mind” that inspired a range of leaders from the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr. Over the last 70 years, many battles for freedom across the globe have been fought “in the name of heretic Gandhi” on the plank of disobedience.
The saint Gandhi was also among the most political citizens, acutely conscious of his rights and duties. In him, one finds a bridge between politics and ethics, as the former becomes a space to examine the truth, which is not given but is always sought, and is thus marked by revisions and reformulations. In this sense, notes Jahanbegloo, freedom not only remains a mere political act, but becomes “an ethical enterprise”.
In his essay on Gandhi, Jahanbegloo brings in a lot of philosophers and thinkers, almost all of them western. One wishes that the author had also taken note of the long and unceasing stream of disobedience and dissenters in India, from Vedic sages to Buddha and Kabir, a few of the many conscience-keepers of Indian civilisation. On Gandhi’s shelf, after all, the Gita—which preaches the path of righteous action—was firmly placed along with Thoreau and Ruskin.
It’s not an unreasonable expectation from a work that is an urgent reminder to democracies about the germs they are carrying within. A reminder that autocracy is often caused by a docile and obedient mind, and it takes very little for a democracy to slip into the totalitarian mode. In true Gandhian spirit, Jahanbegloo’s book is a contemplative essay but it also calls upon citizens to display an immediate and thoughtful disobedience.
A fiction writer and journalist, the author is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla