Guest Writings
12/9/04 Gandhi, Guns 'n Gaza by Satya Sagar

    Gandhi or Guevara ? Violence or non-violence? The Mahatma or the Machine Gun ?

These are questions that have been around for long but still spook me completely every time I hear them. They turn my consciousness into tight knots – there is a catch somewhere in them that freaks out my brain.

For these are trick questions- like 'food or freedom', 'love or money', coffee, tea or me ? How about a little bit of everything or say one at a time pleaaaase !

And so I shake such queries off my mind by getting subversive and picturing Gandhi with an AK-47, Gandhi the armed guerrilla in boots, with a cap, a red star and long beautiful locks. I also try to imagine Che Guevara the vegetarian, non-violent agitator of the masses- 'Mahatma Guevara'. Nothing like some blasphemy to get back to sanity.

All these thoughts come up only because Arun Gandhi, one of the Mahatma's grandsons recently turned up in the Gaza to urge Palestinians to continue resisting Israeli occupation – but non-violently.

“We can only achieve peace through non-violence,” Arun Gandhi told a gathering of Palestinian and Israeli peace activists adding, “When we respond to the oppressor the way the oppressor has done – with the use of violence – then we lose our moral strength.”

Arun Gandhi is a bit late on the scene of course, around six decades overdue I reckon, but the fact is that he has guts to preach what he does and where he does. I also think that his visit to occupied Palestine is important for reasons that go beyond the debate about violence and non-violence sparked by the event.

That debate, in my opinion, is something of a distraction that will never really end as long as the human species exists for God only knows what the word violence really means. If as any standard dictionary defines it, as being the act of aggression resulting in injuries and destruction, then we know all that is entirely possible without the use of any known force of physics.

Do not the inequalities inherent in the market economy kill more people than all the wars put together through hunger, poverty and disease ? Does a starving child on the streets of any Third World city need to be shot at point blank range for me to be convinced violence has been done to him/her ? Is not the denial of essential medicines to the sick and dying anywhere due to intellectual property roadblocks an act of cold murder? And what about the 300,000 people who die every year on the roads of Asia crushed under automobiles – making the term 'car bomb' such an apt symbol of conflict in our times?

And for that matter I also don't think Gandhi's non-violent movement alone was what won India's independence from British colonial rule. It certainly provided momentum to the process but Indian freedom was clinched on faraway battlegrounds where the two World Wars- fought among European powers over their colonial spoils- ended with all of them losing all their colonies.

And was the Indian freedom movement entirely bloodless either? Not really, given the fact that a million people died in the sectarian rioting that followed the Partition of the Indian sub-continent. Which essentially meant that while we were extremely kind and polite to our colonial masters we failed to treat our own neighbors as even human beings.

I could go on but I will not because the idea is not to insult Gandhi on hindsight in any way. The man was undoubtedly a genius, a saint and statesman all rolled into one and there is so much to be learnt from him. (Red salute, grandpa!)

The point is that I think the entire issue of violence versus non-violence is a flawed one since the answer obviously depends on the context and neither strategy can be dogma on its own. Resisting the Nazis, fighting imperial invasion or in sheer self-defense while under attack- violent struggles do make sense. Would Batista have given up his dictatorship if Fidel and Che had done a protest fast in a Havana public square? He would have surely died of laughter but hey, that is no argument to bolster the case for non-violence in pre-revolutionary Cuba.

On the other hand in much of mass politics non-violence is the preferred strategy since it is far more participatory, transparent and bloodless. Needless to say as any good Gandhian can tell you non-violence is also not about passivity and non-action. At its best it is an aggressive upholding of principles and rights that does not result in physical harm to anyone, including the oppressors, but may subject them to political, social or economic damage.

There are other merits in the argument for non-violence also. Murder of one kind cannot necessarily be resolved through murders of another kind. An eye for eye and the entire world goes blind as the Mahatma put it. The concept of diminishing returns does apply to armed struggles of various kinds and it is important to recognize the turning point when it comes turning through any movement and its soul.

And that is precisely the stage we are at after more than half a century of the Palestinian struggle for independence from Israeli occupation. There is so much of hatred and venom on both sides now that neither can hope for any kind of 'victory' that will give their people peace and happiness or even true independence treading the current path of action.

Well this was the kind of debate aroused by Arun Gandhi's visit to Palestine . Of course, a week after he left the area, Hamas offered its 'opinion' on the subject with two of its suicide bombers killing 15 Israeli civilians in simultaneous bombings. The Sharonistas eagerly joined the 'intellectual exchange' by sending their aircraft to bomb civilians in the Gaza and West Bank.

So was that the end of the story? The Palestinians and Israelis back to the only means of dialogue they are used to – with gun, bullet and bayonet- accompanied by the wails of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire? And the Mahatma's grandson- was he just a overoptimistic idealist trying to gain attention for a lost cause?

I don't think so. Here is where the importance of Arun Gandhi's intervention lies:

  1. In his attempt to advocate the seemingly 'impossible' ie., solve the problem through peaceful means at a time when frankly Palestine is turning out to be a perpetual war machine- constantly demanding more and more human sacrifices to keep up its status of being the holiest place on Earth. Whether non-violence by itself can solve the Palestine/Israel problem is open to question but by promoting the principle Arun Gandhi is challenging all players to get out of the little cages they seem to be stuck in and think outside the box.

    There can be little doubt anyway that the problem seems insoluble within not just the geographical confines of Israel/West Bank/Gaza but also the rigid 19th Century notions of the nation-state, racial and religious identities. For eg., before we debate whether it going to be a one-state or two-state solution to the problem we need bolder and more radical ideas on what the 'state' could possibly mean in our age- before the old definition kills us all.

  2. In the way his invocation of the Mahatma in the Palestine-Israel scenario takes us back to the pre-Second World War period which is when the machinations of various colonial powers set in motion the establishment of Israel on Palestinian land. Reading the Mahatma's writings on Palestine from that time it is clear that in his view the Jews fighting Palestinians was essentially a case of two historical victims fighting each other. Jews, the victims of European racism, daggers drawn with Palestinians, the victims of European colonialism – all over a tiny but valuable piece of land.

    Such a historical perspective helps us to bring the central role of Europe back into the Palestine/Israel picture. A year ago when the Israeli Foreign Minister suggested that Israel might apply to join the EU he was met with stony silence from much of Europe horrified at the thought that the mess they created just over half a century ago may return to their own backyard. Offering both Israel and a newly independent Palestine unconditional membership of the EU, and making national borders meaningless, could be one possible way of solving the current situation in the middle-east. Not an easy task but one that would be in keeping with the needs of historical justice. Europe needs to be part of a solution that will demand sacrifices from its members but it is time they stood up and took more responsibility for the trespasses of their past.

  3. His reminding us of the Mahatma's fundamental belief in the possible goodness of even the apparently worst of people. That is where the principle of non-violence really flows from- the ability to always remember your own and your opponent's humanity (or at least its possibilities). This is a principle that even those engaged in violent struggles should take note for the simple reason that this is probably closest to the truth about all human beings anyway- they are never black and white but always shades of gray.

At a time when significant sections of both Israelis and Palestinians talk about wiping out each other like 'vermin' it is important for everybody involved to realize that there is no such thing as the inherently and eternally 'evil' enemy. What the Palestine-Israel conflict demands today is the insurrection of those willing to believe in the goodness of human beings against those with dark and desperate visions, capable of only bringing death and destruction all around them.

Satya Sagar is a journalist, writer, videomaker based in Thailand. He can be reached at

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